Name: Nancy Mounir
Occupation: Composer, violinist
Nationality: Egyptian
Recent release: Nancy Mounir's Nozhet El Nofous is out June 3rd via Simsara.
Recommendation: “O Bôto” - Antonio Carlos Jobim”; "Vieille prière bouddhique” - Lili Boulanger

If you enjoyed this interview with Nancy Mounir and would like to find out more about her work, visit her on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.

When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

In primary school, I used to play the recorder in year three. I still have that recorder and in fact used it on Nozhet El Nofous. I’ve been collecting instruments all along ever since.

I was immersed in music from a young age, primarily in church. My parents were in the church choir, my father a tenor and my mother an alto. This instilled in my brother and me a soft spot for harmonies very early on.

As a teenager, I started seeing / hearing the parallels between the orchestration in a metal band (I was in one!) and a Vivaldi piece for example. I was also drawn to listening closely to the composition and microtones, and later on I developed a passion for anything to do with sound.

When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?

When I listen to music, it’s like leaving one room and entering another. An alternate reality is created, shapes and objects yes, and also threads and textures; a lot of textures. I can see structure and texture as contributing to creating this alternate auditory reality, whereas before the music is on, I am hearing the city’s noises and my bedroom’s AC for example, and then a decision is made to reconfigure this auditory reality.

Physically, I feel that I am actually disconnecting from bodily experience / sensation.

How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?

When I took part in a workshop with Kamilya Jubran, she made us listen to a recording by Abdel Latif El Banna, predating the 1932 Cairo Congress of Arab Music. I instantly felt I could relate to this sound so much more than the widely heard sound of Umm Kulthum and Abdel Wahab. Later on I came across one of Mounira El Mahdeya’s love songs and I remember this was the first time I ever loved an Arabic love song.

In addition to having such valuable access to Kamilya Jubran, I was fortunate to have other mentors such as Fathy Salama and Alaa El Kashef, and I can look back today and say that thanks to them, I’ve had an alternative and unconventional musical learning path, where such mentors helped me find my instinct, sound and my own path in experimentation.

Another key moment might be when I came to the realisation that I needed to understand sound engineering better. Once while arranging and producing a record for another artist, the recording and producing engineer couldn’t understand the duff sound I was after and he was not producing what I wanted at all. That's when I understood that I needed to learn and speak the language of sound.

Most recently as well, I had a performance with the Alexandria Opera Strings Orchestra. They played Nozhet El Nofous, and that has given me the urge to learn contemporary and classical notation methods and to compose and arrange for orchestras.

Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.

Identity is convoluted, cumulative, shapeshifting, impossible to pin down in a moment in time or in a set of words. It’s constantly changing, so I am resistant to trying to define it or articulate it in language or even think much about it.

My character is there and I suppose it connects all my work, and is in all my work. Others can hear it and might be able to articulate it in words but I couldn’t.

What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?

I would call it slow cooking. Layering and anchoring the layers onto each other. Working on structure and texture simultaneously, vertically and horizontally at the same time.

I avoid boring myself at all costs, so I keep my mind engaged in the details and the  evolving patterns.

How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?

In all cases, every artist has their musical fingerprint or DNA. We’re born original, but industry forces homogenise things.

Innovation is a difficult word I don’t like to approach. We are still debating if time is linear. We don’t fully understand yet how the pyramids were built centuries ago; that is future in the past.

I could say we are trying to create our own tradition based on previous traditions. I don’t see originality and innovation being opposites to perfection and timelessness in music.

Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?

I am self-taught and it has been a needs-based journey for the most part. When a song felt like it needed theremin, I learned to play the theremin. But I might be drawn to an instrument not for anything specific. Right now I am obsessed with acquiring a hurdy gurdy. I am learning to play it in my head already and watching a lot of musicians on it, until I manage to get hold of one.

Learning to use Pro-tools gave me the possibility to multiply myself, I can be different musicians at the same time. Going forward, I will be using it to compose and arrange for a large group of musicians instead of myself only on several instruments.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.

I usually wake up early around 6 or 7am. I make my way to my home studio to switch on the computer, put the kettle on, so by the time I’ve washed and made my coffee, my workstation is ready and usually I would dive right into listening to a session from the night before, to figure out if I was onto something or not.

Some mornings I cycle to a coffee shop, and make my to-do list for the day there. I am also part of a wonderful cycling club, with friends and fun inspiring people, and we take long cycle routes around Cairo, sometimes at dawn before the traffic sets in and changes the city.

The best way for me to fall asleep is to work on music until I can’t keep my eyes open, and next day I would listen to it with fresh ears to hear what sort of madness I was up to late at night.

Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?

On Nozhet El Nofous, with every song, it’s as if I could hear more music but out of focus. Then I would try to play with or around the song, and the layers would start revealing themselves. With a bit of improvisation, glimpses of a structure also appear to me.

Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?

This question reminds me of Music, the Brain and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination by Robert Jourdain, where he brings up the thought experiment - "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

Listening, when alone, I can react in a different, more open / free way, to what I am hearing, I can have it on repeat as many times as I would like, to grasp all the layers. With others I can feel some of their pleasure, especially if they are also musicians.

Because I play so many instruments, I enjoy playing alone. I have a big range, faster process, and no need for explanation, I enjoy it. There is no recourse to putting things into language.

The theremin is an instrument where you don’t use letters to identify its sounds. I can also play several instruments back to back and I don't need to find classical or theory based references to explain what I am doing or trying to do.

In a collaboration, especially in my recent orchestral experience, there was the adrenaline of having such a large number of musicians playing what I want, creating a space where I set the rules of the game to many other players. I enjoyed that.

Collaborating to co-create, I feel that it is about giving space. The game is reading the minds of others; an exercise in the sensitivity of others.

Am I always co-creating anyway? I always catch an idea, a seed, a ghost, the thing creates / reveals itself, I don’t feel I am creating on my own even when I am literally on my own.

How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?

A few days ago I attended an orchestra rehearsal. My dear friend and conductor Nader Abbasi invited me. There is something about this large number of musicians, human bodies, in harmony walking the same path; collective, convivial, harmless, for a change. I decided I wanted to attend more of such events, to be in this space. The act of stopping and listening to something, whether you like it musically or not, and convening over this act of listening and responding, thinking.

Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?

Making and listening to music for me is a divergence, from thoughts, events and the immediate reality. Music is also a ritual, an aid, like a substance, and when you listen to someone else’s interpretation of the same feeling you know then that you are not alone with that feeling. It offers companionship.

How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?  

Music is a science and a practice at once. It carries spirituality, ritual and history. Frequencies that together coalesce into sorcery almost.

It’s the same affinity that one might find between traditional healing knowledge and modern medicine, the same goal and they can converge.

Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?

Maybe it’s similar to cooking or tasting something and trying to discern what it’s made of or improvising a recipe. It’s the same brain work, but the sensory range is different; using different senses.

Music is vibration in the air, captured by our eardrums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it is able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?

After our eardrums capture the vibrations, our brain analyses. This analysis is relative and differs from musicianship to another, but it turns to emotion. In between, I think these vibrations also create an auditory world.

With our vision, it’s 180 degrees, but with sound and listening it’s 360 degrees, so it’s more engulfing, it’s a world that surrounds you and it’s more potent. It presents a different reality in the here and now. It’s a respite in that it suspends time.