Ilaria Lupo and Joe Namy's beautiful and ambitious performance Concrete Sampling (arrangement for derbekah and jackhammer) took place in Beirut on 29 March.
I asked the artists to tell me about the project.
About Concrete Sampling (arrangement for derbekah and jackhammer), from the press release:
Concrete Sampling (arrangement for derbekah and jackhammer) is an evening performance by a crew of workers in an excavation/construction site in Downtown Beirut. It is conceived as an interference in the urban soundscape, as the set up of a new rhythm within the existing one. The audience will experience the piece from above on the cusp of the location. The proliferation of construction sites in Beirut has inadvertently become a distinct ubiquitous sound-landmark. The performance attempts to deconstruct this soundtrack, creating a rupture to engage the space as the actual material of work.
The performance explores the inner nature of the space and its acoustic potential. It is based on the idea that a 'section' of the city (with a particular identity within the urban/historical landscape) will self-activate, turning its own sonic identity into a new autonomous composition. The sounds and rhythms of the site, collected over several months, serve as base material for the actual sound performance.
This sonic identity is partially constituted by the performers themselves - the actual builders of the space. They are Syrian nationals and, in Beirut, the construction sites are often their temporary homes. So far, their voice locally has the nature of a subterranean grumble. Lupo and Namy spent two months working with the crew. Every day the workers rehearsed new possibilities of creating sound out of their daily working tools.
The final performance itself is a sound composition with processed samples culled from the research database of the project site, infused with live improvised performance of work tools and musical instruments performed by the workers, and broadcast with microphones placed strategically within the space to explore the resonant qualities of the site itself.
The project aims at hijacking the functionality of the daily normative, changing a passive reception into an active appropriation and introducing a subjective temporality - other than the day/night, work/rest, noise/silence dichot omies.
Teaser Video Ilaria Lupo and Joe Namy Concrete Sampling (arrangement for derbekah and jackhammer) 2014, filmed and edited by Karam Ghoussein
AM: Could you tell me about the title of the work?
JN: It's a quite obvious reference to musique concrete - the earliest experimental music that dealt with recorded sounds as raw material - it also touches upon the process for this project, mixing field recordings (or samples) from this giant active concrete construction site we were performing in with live accompanied improvisation by the workers. 'Arrangement for Derbekah and Jackhammer' is also meant to position the relationship between two seemingly distant instruments, but if we look closer there is a great deal of similarity and symmetry between these sound machines. This was also an important part of the composition for the performance, looking at the relationship of how these mechanical sounds, sounds from labour, influence contemporary music and vice versa. This relationship can be traced back to early forms of folk music in Lebanon and the Levant that is still popular today, our debkah or shaabi music (popular music) that came out of farming rituals using natural instruments (voice, ney, mijuiz, derbekah) has today become completely electrified and synthesised, much the same as how industrialisation influenced the formation of the modern orchestra, or Fordism's effect on techno.
IL: The initial title was different, and it changed several times along the evolution of the project. This happened also because of the encounter with the site, its features, and its constant changes. The 'concrete music' to which it refers, is also a clin d'oeil to the stage of construction we have been operating, which was the piling of concrete, that gave the space the aspect it had at the moment of the performance. 'Sampling' is certainly the most appropriate term for the composition of the performance, because it comes from the sonic sources of the space and it is constituted as a series of experimentations and variations on this type of material; in fact it is subtitled as an 'arrangement for derbekah and jackhammer': this somehow refers to the basic working tools that the crew performed with, and to the fact that the sound research that Joe ran included also the musical roots of the crew.
AM: How difficult was it to find a building site for the location of this work? Were the construction workers immediately interested in participating in the project?
JN: It was quite difficult on so many levels. We were searching for a very specific moment in the construction process, the initial phase of construction after excavation, as we were interested in exploring the acoustic properties of these giant concrete holes in the ground which in a way could act as a kind of amplifier. We had been researching sites for a while until Ashkal Alwan agreed to support our project, and Christine was able to put us in contact with Bernard Khoury, who was into the project and recommended to us the site we ended up working in. Without this support network it wouldn't have been possible.
This site specifically contains a crew of around seventy workers on any given day, however we could only take on twenty-two for this project. We had an initial meeting with them loosely describing the project and from that meeting they chose amongst themselves those most interested in participating. It was quite demanding from their end, as they would have to work twelve hour shifts on the site, and then rehearse with us afterwards, so only those who were really interested and dedicated could commit to this.
IL: We explored many places, in many quarters of Beirut. The architect Bernard Khoury generously supported us for realising the project in one of his construction sites in Downtown. That was certainly a chance for us, because obtaining permissions from the owners for public projects is never easy.
The workers were very involved from the beginning. Music is one of their passions, especially because it is a channel to reconnect with their roots and their homeland. We had a lot to discover in this respect! Besides, they were also engaged in the learning process. And - no need to say - extremely excited to perform in front of a public!
AM: Did any of the construction workers have previous musical experience?
IL: Mostly they didn't. The crew included participants from sixteen to fifty years old, so they had very different backgrounds and experiences. Their knowledge of music is mainly rooted in their cultural belonging. Some have excellent skills in dancing, other ones are very talented in singing. This was of a great help for our exchange. It definitely influenced the sound composition that Joe was creating out of the space's sonic identity, as well as the training, and the final performance itself.
JN: Yea, as far as formal training none of them really had any, but in our culture there is quite a bit of informal participatory musical training that occurs on an every day basis - understanding of popular rhythms, clapping patterns, dance patterns, call and response, etc. these were a kind of starting point. In each rehearsal we spent a lot of time on collective listening sessions - where we would play music we thought could relate to building the final performance: everything from techno to tarab, hip hop to avant-garde. In return they would play us music they listened to most often, and we'd talk about a lot about the relationship between tracks, or between sounds heard in the music and sounds they created during their construction work, it was always related back to the sounds from the site.
AM: How long did this project take to develop?
IL: We began working on the idea over a year ago, and started searching for a location six months ago. During this time, we explored different sites in various locations in the city, encountered workers and recorded ambient sounds. Then, the actual work on site rehearsing with the crew was two months.
JN: From very early on as I was studying percussion I had been interested in the rhythms heard from public sound sources: construction sites, the whoosh of traffic, and even the long term rhythm cycles of the city, some lasting over centuries or more. I was super into Lefebvre's ideas around Rhythmanalysis or R. Murray Schafer's Acoustic Ecology. Ilaria's 2012 performance Readily Reverseable in a construction site was really inspirational. In late 2012 we had been informally meeting with a group of local artists in Villa Flemming to talk about working in the public space in Beirut, this kind of initiated our collaboration. From then we kept talking and developing and we eventually received the support of Ashkal Alwan and Heinrich Boll to materialise the project. Once we got the OK from the owners of the site we were racing against time, as it was important for the performance to happen at a certain depth in the site and they were constructing at quite a fast pace.
AM: Did the live performance go as planned? What will you do with the documentation of this event?
IL: The space's features were changing every day, due to the nature of the site. This aspect required a lot of flexibility. It constantly re-shaped the project in a continuous dialectic between our intentions and the reality. That was the challenge, and therefore the performance reflected such a process. The reaction of the public was very warm, and the moment when the energies of the performers and the spectators somehow encountered, maybe that was for us the real 'apparition' of the work.
From the beginning we filmed the different phases of the project. This footage will become a documentary of the whole process. This footage includes also what the workers themselves filmed.
JN: As Ilaria mentioned there were so many difficulties we had to overcome in order to materialise the performance, and this is really what it's about, the improvisatory process it takes to make something like this happen. It's also something difficult to try and prepare a group who've never performed before for what to expect during the actual performance, the energy and magic that manifests. Because of the distance between the performers in the site and the audience being fifty metres above I was afraid there wouldn't be a connection between the audience and performers. And to be honest in the beginning, it kind of felt like another rehearsal because we didn't notice the audience above, but once the audience began cheering after the first section, we all looked up and the excitement level and focus just jumped 1,000 degrees, that was the moment when it all clicked.
Audio Excerpt Ilaria Lupo and Joe Namy Concrete Sampling (arrangement for derbekah and jackhammer) 2014
AM: If you feel it is relevant, could you give the international reader a little context on the current controversies and campaigns around construction in Downtown Beirut?
IL: Beirut is a city infested with big construction activity. This finds its origins in the post-war process of reconstruction, which began in the early 1990s with the government of Rafic Hariri. It is a phenomenon that is not only related to urban development, but that has wider political implications. The area of Downtown is at the core of such a history. Beyond that, the whole area is very rich in archeological findings, and this brings the construction investments to the center of a highly controversial situation, locally and internationally. A big part of the findings - mostly of the Roman period - have been just erased. Therefore, it was certainly peculiar for us to be able to intervene right over there. But, at the same time, we wanted the project to stand beyond these specific issues, and operate at another level, which relates to the sound research in this type of space and these conditions.
JN: There's a myriad of issues that are embroiled in this construction boom, from dirty land grabs, to gentrification, to labour issues, to sustainable urban planning, to class divisions, erased histories, and so much more. This is a trend that's afflicting any major city worldwide, though here I do believe it's quite accelerated and compounded by regional politics. Artists are often inadvertently a boon to the gentrification process but here the intention was to kind of flip it.
AM: How did the collaboration work between you, as two artists, and with the workers?
IL: We were very curious of each other! Because we have spent two months rehearsing almost daily, we had the time to develop a group dynamic, where everyone found his space in relation to the collectivity. That was very important at all levels: to build a mutual trust, and for everybody to feel comfortable and grow through this experience, them like us.
JN: Building trust with the workers was extremely important, they needed to trust us and the overarching vision. They're dealing with so many external issues, being overworked, the ongoing political crisis in Syria while many of whom still have families there, and just the day to day stress of living in Beirut. All that comes into the rehearsal as well, so there was of course crisis and doubt along the way, but you just need them to believe in themselves and have trust in your process. Some days we would just go in and dance for an hour, because that's what they needed. Some days we'd just listen and talk, partly because that's what they need, partly because the entire level of the site is covered in wet cement that day. We just dealt with it the best we could. But it also speaks to the improvisatory nature of their work as well. Problems often arise in the construction process and they have to solve it on the fly, it's something natural for them.
AM: Could you talk more about the builders you collaborated with, you said they were Syrian nationals and for many of them the construction site was a temporary home?
IL: The situation is certainly very particular, because their conditions of work and living are harsh. Many of the workers in Beirut live in the sites they are building. I would say that their safety is not guaranteed, because they are associated with the current political tension due the conflict in Syria. In the past two years, they have been victims of aggression, and often the media do not want to cover such news.
JN: They're such a common fixture in Lebanese society right now, but yet also remain in the shadows of the city. There's not a lot of interaction between Beirutis and construction workers, who most often stay behind the walled fence of the site perimeter. It was also important for us to keep politics out of the space, which itself is an extremely political decision. So it was a chance to put a spotlight on something that mostly remains hidden, existing only in the subconscious of the city.
AM: I love your idea of hijacking the daily normative and introducing a subjective temporality with this project. Could you tell me more? This work also recalls for me Arseny Avraamov's mythical Symphony of the Factory Sirens.
IL: I like this reference, radical enough!! I definitely love the idea of contamination of many different materials like in the Symphony. Personally, I think that art in public space has to do with 'disruption' by nature. It might be part of its close interaction with the 'real' world. Sometimes even a minimal change in the usual parameters can be very meaningful in a given context. In this case, we were challenging the functionality of the space, by taking over while the economic forces were resting ... At that moment, art would take on the 'role' of space and time, and install another perception.
JN: Yes, that and Edgar Varese's Ionisation. They were definitely influences (although my composition was not so apocalyptic). But yea its all about flipping the world upside down, breaking the mundane and providing new ways of listening. And these sounds from Avraamov and Varese came out of a very particular moment in history, influenced more by physical phenomena than musical precedent. I think this physicality is something important and relevant for today that should continue to be explored.
AM: Are you working on any new projects together or separately you can tell us about?
IL: We are currently editing the video material, which will become the documentation of the project. It will be an overview of the backstage, the context, and the challenges of the work. That will also be for us a chance to look at it with distance, allowing us to see things we are maybe not conscious of yet.
JN: Yes lots of editing. Am also prepping right now for a performance of my piece Automobile, an eight-channel sound work for cars with super modified car stereos, which will be adapted for the Theater Der Welt held in Mannheim this year.
Joe Namy: interview and website
Ilaria Lupo: other projects