Name: Mazen Kerbaj
Occupation: Trumpet player, improviser
Current release: Mazen Kerbaj's Sampler / Sampled is out via Morphine. It features collaborations with artists like Bob Ostertag, Rrose, Marina Rosenfeld, DJ Sniff, Fari Bradley, and Dieb13.
If you enjoyed these thoughts by Mazen Kerbaj and would like to find out more about his work, visit his official website. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.
[Read our Marina Rosenfeld interview]
[Read our Fari Bradley interview]
Can you talk a bit about your interest in or fascination for sound? What were early experiences which sparked it?
My relationship to sound as a child was quite peculiar to say the least.
Having grown up in Beirut in the times of civil war (1975-1990), all my childhood was rocked by sounds of shells, bombs, rifles, tanks, helicopters, you name it. Of course, for the regular reader this sounds very dramatic, but for a child who was born and who lived until his 15th birthday in the war, all this was quite “normal”. It was the natural soundscape of our youth, together with disco music.
My relation to these sounds was also common to most kids from my generation: very early on, our ears were trained to recognize and distinguish the sound of a bomb being fired from one that landed and exploded. And when you could hear a long whistling, it meant that the shell was passing above you and that you were relatively safe. We could also recognize what calibre of shelling it was, and more or less where it was landing. We made competitions to identify a brand of rifle by its sound, and managed to understand how far were the shootings by the duration of its echoing in the city.
I remember understanding at a very young age that sound travels slower than light because when the bombs were falling by night, we would see the sky turn red and prepare ourselves to hear in a second or two the huge sound of the bomb that fell nearby. Another weird fact you get instinctively used to with time: if you can hear a bomb, even a very close one, it means you survived it. And in periods of heavy fighting, silence was the most frightening as it made you constantly asking yourself when and were will the first bomb fall.
All in all it was of course very scary, even though we wouldn’t admit it (you wouldn’t want your classmates to think you are scared), but it was also a sort of game that we invented to be able to cope with the “normality” of our situation. My interest in and my fascination for sound came way later though, and I could link them to my early harsh experience only after starting using sound in my work.
Until today I am not totally sure of the influence of my childhood’s soundscapes on my work, if any. What I know for sure is that I am not trying to convey or mimic or reproduce these sounds in my music. At least not intentionally. Sadly (and luckily) enough, I had the occasion to put this questioning in practice in the summer of 2006: during Israel’s 33 days war on Lebanon, I was on the one hand exposed again to the sounds of my childhood like a poisonous Proust Madeleine, but this time as an adult (and a father), and on the other hand confronted with these sounds as an artist and a musician.
I recorded over 12 hours of material this summer, of which only 6 minutes were made public: it is my most (in)famous piece to date, Starry Night, where I play the trumpet on my balcony while the Israeli airforce was dropping bombs on Beirut.
Which artists, approaches, albums or performances using sound in an unusual or remarkable way captured your imagination in the beginning?
The list is very long!
If I go to the beginning, I would say that it is the raw energy and harshness of the American free jazz of the 60s that brought my attention towards unusual ways of using sound. It was the first time that I’ve enjoyed music that sounded “ugly”, at least to my untrained ears back then. I then discovered European free improv, contemporary music, musique concrète, noise, field recording, etc. I am still very curious today and always looking for musicians and artists working with sound in a personal way.
To name a few musicians and albums that had considerable influence in the early stages of my musical journey (and not necessarily on my actual playing): Pharoah Sanders’ Karma, Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun, AMM (the early lineup), Evan Parker (especially the solos and the duos with Paul Lytton), Borbetomagus’ Music is a Beautiful Gift to Share, Steve Lacy’s Weal and Woe, Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and Lick my Decals Off Baby, Léo Ferré’s Le Chien, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Stockhausen’s Mikrophonie and Helikopter quartet, Toshinori Kondo’s use of electronic trumpet, Brigitte Fontaine’s early albums, Peter Kowald, Cecil Taylor …
[Read our Eddie Prévost of AMM interview]
[Read our John Tilbury of AMM interview]
The most interesting thing is that the discovery of so many different “concepts” of music making influenced in return the way I listened to the otherwise considered as regular music; it made me change my perception (positively and negatively) of so many things I thought I knew very well.
A trained ear could find residues of all these in my various projects, from the textural free jazz of “A” trio to the improbable blend of rock, free jazz and middle-eastern music of Karkhana, passing by the European improv of Sawt Out or the free-fall experimentations in my various solo works.
[Read our Sharif Sehnaoui of Karkhana interview]
What's your take on how your upbringing and cultural surroundings have influenced your sonic preferences?
The aforementioned experience of my youth definitely drove me to “aggressive” and “chaotic” music like free jazz. When I first saw the cover of Brötzmann’s Machine Gun I was immediately attracted to it.
But many other things have shaped my sonic preferences of course, and the first of them is … music! The music I used to listen to as a child was mostly cheesy pop songs (Arabic and Western), but also some fantastic Arabic music that my parents listened to and I used to hate (Oum Koulthoum, Asmahan, Sabah, Abdel Halim …) and also French singer songwriters that my mother loved (Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel, Barbara …). My dad also listened to a lot of classical music.
All this was pure torture for my ears back then, but it stayed somewhere in my brain until I rediscovered it at a later stage, and I guess that it influenced a lot my preferences and taste in music.
Working predominantly with field recordings and sound can be an incisive step / transition. Aside from musical considerations, there can also be personal motivations for looking for alternatives. Was this the case for you, and if so, in which way?
I do very rarely work with field recordings. But I definitely work with sound. I think that 99% of my work could be described as work with sound.
It is for me quite natural since I never studied any instruments until I was 18 years old; and then, I took up the trumpet to play free jazz, and didn’t want to learn how to properly play it. Little by little I got away from the loudness and business of free jazz for something more sound-driven.
How would you describe the shift of moving towards music which places the focus foremost on sound, both from your perspective as a listener and a creator?
The shift for me happened on two levels.
First I started listening to more textural music that developed with a different logic from free jazz. The problem with free jazz is that it hasn’t freed itself enough, and kept a very strong connection to rhythm. I loved listening to it (and still do), but felt that it wasn’t the right music for me. My playing started to shift towards soundscapes.
At the same period, my first wife was pregnant, and I had a day job at an advertising agency, so the only time I could practise the trumpet was late at night. This forced me to practise at a practically inaudible level for a full year. After this year, my whole playing and dealing with the instrument had changed, and when I came back to play louder sounds, it was completely different. It led me to territories I didn’t expect.
This transformation started to show in my first solo album “Brt Vrt Zrt Krt” recorded in 2004; the energy of the free jazz was somehow still there, but the sounds and strategies in use were completely different.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and working with sound? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage when it comes to your way of working with sound?
I think we all come from a certain lineage. Nobody invents anything of course.
But I do not consider myself as part of any tradition. This said, I do feel a sense of belonging to the international microcosm of free improvising musicians.
What are the sounds that you find yourself most drawn to? Are there sounds you reject – if so, for what reasons?
I always work in the same way: I imagine sounds or techniques to produce sounds in my head, then try them on the trumpet, and see from there if they are fitting or not. Many times they do not sound like I imagined, but they are still interesting enough to be explored. Once they are “adopted”, they get integrated in the overall vocabulary I’ve been developing over the years, and as such become in constant evolution until they eventually transform into something I didn’t even expect.
So to answer the question, there is not a certain type of sound I am drawn to; they rather impose themselves on me.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, from instruments via software tools and recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you personally starting from your first studio/first instruments and equipment? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
Well as I said before, I never played music until I was 18. This is when my long time friend and collaborator Sharif Sehnaoui gave me an old trumpet that was lying in his room. I started blowing it really hard to be the loudest possible, but when I found myself on this other path, I started looking for other ways to produce the sound on the trumpet.
I wouldn’t call the things I added to my arsenal “equipment”, since they are mostly junk objects found here and there, like a gardening hose, a whistling toy, a plastic salad bowl or a metal rod … But indeed those extensions allowed me to push the boundaries of my instrument and the way it could be played; in a way I was jealous of guitarists and pianists who could so easily “prepare” their instruments, and ended up finding ways to prepare the usually “unpreparable” trumpet.
Lately, I started working also with electronic devices, not to transform my sounds (those sound already electronic enough!) but rather to change the approach to the sound production. My second trumpet solo is the perfect example of the relation between my acoustic and manipulated approach of playing music. It was released in 2018 in two volumes under the titles “No Cuts, No Overdubbing, No Use of Electronics” and “Cuts, Overdubbing, Use of Electronics”
Where do you find the sounds you're working with? How do you collect and organise them?
They come from one exclusive place: my brain. And this is the place where they get collected and organised for future use.
From the point of view of your creative process, how do you work with sounds? Can you take me through your process on the basis of a project or album that's particularly dear to you?
It is rare that I work on sounds for a particular project. Be it with my trumpet or with my more recent electronic instruments, I always work in the same fashion: I put the instrument(s) and the various objects on a table and start playing relentlessly. It is both my way of practising and of researching. So at worst, when I find nothing new (which is often of course), I would have practised and perfected the old techniques and sounds I work with.
Another very important part of my practice and research is playing live concerts; being an improvising musician, I have more often than not to invent new ways of doing things in gigs, especially when playing with other people. The difficult part in this case is to remember after the gigs to work again on the new sound or technique in order for it to become an integral part of the vocabulary. When you tour with the same group, this last step becomes easier since you remember on the second gig that you did it the night before!
The possibilities of modern production tools have allowed artists to realise ever more refined or extreme sounds. Is there a sound you would personally like to create but haven't been able to yet?
Not really, in the sense that I do not look for specific sounds. I rather follow and try to tame those that come to me.
The idea of acoustic ecology has drawn a lot of attention to the question of how much we are affected by the sound surrounding us. What's your take on this and on acoustic ecology as a movement in general?
I never heard this term before, but I consider sound pollution as the worst nuisance that human beings have to cope with.