Breaking The Sound Barrier – Meet Hasan Hujairi

Hasan, for those who do not know you, could you please tell us a little about yourself and your work? 

I am a sound artist and independent researcher from Bahrain. My activity involves performing some of my experimental sound art projects, creating conceptual sound installations, and working on my own independent research that builds on my academic interests such as ethnomusicology, historiography, and comparative literature. My website (http://hasanhujairi.com/) contains information about my activities, while a large archive of my most recent music is available on http://soundcloud.com/hasanhujairi/.

We understand that you’re now in South Korea on an art residency. This is a loaded question but can you tell us more about your activities there? Are you thinking of collaborating with Korean artists? Also, what are some of the inspirations you are drawing from Korean culture? 

I am currently an artist and researcher-in-residence at the Korea National University of Arts (K-ARTS) as part of a six-month Cultural Partner Initiative (CPI) program by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism of the Republic of Korea. I am mainly conducting research on compositional techniques for traditional Korean music. I have also been involved in the sound art/noise music scene in Seoul since my arrival and have participated in several workshops and have performed in different exhibitions and concerts. I have collaborated with some Korean artists both from inside K-ARTS and with others from outside the confines of K-ARTS. These collaborations are always very meaningful and a great way to share ideas that would help me in my own development. Audiences in Seoul are open to experimental music and sound art, which is key to creating a positive music environment.

 

As for the idea of inspiration, and although some artists don’t really like to talk about it so lightly, it’s something I tend to revisit whenever I can.  I have been exposed to a lot of traditional cultures here in Korea in the form of performance arts, visual arts, architecture, and archaeology to name a few. My idea of inspiration is experiencing these different stimulants in light of my own path of interest. Mind you since I am a researcher and artist-in-residence at the Department of Traditional Performance Arts, I am exposed to a lot of traditional Korean culture. I have been interested in traditional Korean music prior to my arrival, but I have also been finding fascinating sources for inspiration in things such as the architecture (modern and traditional), the people I meet (and their associated cultural habits)

 

The ‘Oud’ is a central musical instrument in your art practice. Do you intend to keep that Eastern element in your work? 

The oud is my central musical instrument just as Western composers tend to have the piano as theirs. This is somewhat normal considering the oud being possibly the most iconic instrument in Middle Eastern musical tradition.

I do have extensive training in the oud and maqam music theory, but a lot of music actually does not include the sound of my oud. In my earlier works, I specifically use the oud in each of them. However, over the past two years I’ve started to use other sound sources, which could be completely different musical instruments (such as the triangle or the ukulele), or sound recordings I have of people walking in the old Souk in Manama.

I have been using the expression “Post-Esoteric Oriental Art Music” to describe my music for almost two years now. This means that the way I treat the idea of the “Eastern” or “Oriental” element in an intelligent way, and not one that is cliché. As a result of my years abroad pursuing my Bachelors degree in the United States, my Masters degree in Japan, and part of my PhD in the UK, I am especially sensitive to my representation of the culture to which I belong. However, my generation did not live in a void, and I have started to realize that I was also influence by cultural cues from outside of the Middle East.

An instrument is a tool used to project the larger picture: a complete musical composition.

That being said, I often tell others that the oud is the instrument that is closest to my heart and mind. I cannot stress enough the rich heritage it holds behind it. By “rich” heritage, I don’t only refer to its popularity in folk music, but also to how it is presented in some central texts to our own history such as “Kitab Al-Musiqa Al-Kabir” (The Big Book of Music) by Al-Farabi, written well over one thousand years ago in Baghdad.

 

We noticed that your songs’ titles are hilarious at times! Please explain to us how you choose them. Is there a correlation between the titles and the music? 

I am glad to hear that you enjoy the titles, too.  One of the things I try to include in my somewhat serious-sounding music is a little humor, which often takes form in the titles of the works. The titles are often from my daily observations of small details around me, many of which are unremarkable in themselves. The main correlation is mainly the timeframe in which the titles and music are conceived. Sometimes the titles are inspired the music, and vice versa.

 

Could tell us your number one source of inspiration before you start working on a new musical piece? 

The only “inspiration” I work with is a fixed schedule, believe it or not. I don’t wait for a grand idea to appear before me, because many times it just doesn’t. When I start working, I just work and think of nothing else. I have a fixed daily schedule, like clockwork, during which I only work on my music and nothing else. That means no distractions from the Internet or cell phones, and certainly no slacking around. The way I see things, if I want to be taken seriously as an artist or intellectual, I have to treat my work and my own self very seriously. It requires a little self-discipline but it’s the only way I manage to operate.

 

Is there a specific artist you feel that you relate to?

This is another question I’d normally shy away from just because I’d give a different answer each time. But if anything, at this point in my life, I think that the artist I most relate to – in terms of music – would have to be John Cage. John Cage’s music and outlook on expression have been a very important part of my intellectual development. I highly recommend younger composers and aspiring sound artists to at least be familiar with some of Cage’s works and – more importantly – his ideas.

Sound art is not yet a common art form in the region. How were you first introduced to it? We are curious to know about people’s reaction to when you first introduced them to your work. 

I was introduced – formally – to the idea of sound art in an out of the way restaurant/music venue in Tokyo out of all places. I had been talking to one of my friends, who is an artist I really respect in Japan, about some of his influences when we started talking about the idea of sound art. However, it wasn’t until a few years later while browsing through the abandoned music wing in the University of Exeter’s Library (The Department of Music had been shut down a few years earlier due to funding issues) that I really considered it seriously. A thorough reading of John Cage’s “Silence: Lectures and Writings” left a very deep impression on me. Soon after, I participated in as many workshops as I could on sound art and experimental music. All this was a result of my need to find a completely new sound, one that wasn’t possible for recreation through only my oud. Suddenly, music felt more than just notes produced on a musical instrument, but could include any possible sound one could capture or create. I pursued sound art because I felt that it is the best way for me to truly express myself sonically. I then pursued it through trying to learn as much as I could about it ever since.

As for how audiences reacted, it always depends on the audience. When I perform in places where such musical forms are more common such as London, New York, Amsterdam, or Seoul, the audiences reacted really well. In Bahrain, although audiences were not familiar with what I was doing at first, I found that they understood the idea behind my work very quickly. They knew I was deliberately using sounds that weren’t necessarily musical to create a unique experience for them. I’ve also found that more and more art exhibitions accepted sound art as an art form suitable for their audiences, which means that my audience isn’t only those who go to concerts but those who go to art galleries, too.

 

Sound art is a very interesting art form, and I believe that the future will bring very interesting innovations to it. I hope to see more sound artists appear from the Middle East and see how they bring forth their ideas.

Do you have anything else to share with Sketchbook Magazine? 

I urge all art patrons active in the Middle East to keep an eye out for Middle Eastern artists who are breaking ground in art fields that aren’t so common in the region. As a sound artist, I also hope that art institutions in the Middle East start accepting newer forms of art such as sound art, performance art, and new media art into the canon of contemporary art practice in the region. Finally, I hope that more artists within the region start supporting each other to build a more vibrant art scene.

 

WORDS: ERUM AL HOWAISH

ILLUSTRATIONS: REEM AL HAJIRI