The first time Tarek Atoui played in Bahrain the performance had to be stopped because the speakers blew up. ‘This kind of music is really harsh on speakers and it killed them.’ The incident didn’t stop the Middle East’s most innovative sound artist getting an immediate invitation to come back. Though getting invites is not something Tarek Atoui finds particularly challenging. Currently the artist in residence at Sharjah Art Foundation, its artistic director, Jack Persekian, ‘invited me to continue my work and research in Sharjah even after the Biennial had passed,’ achieving something of a Holy Grail for artists.
Describing Atoui’s work in musical terms is almost impossible since it transcends musical boundaries and fits much more snugly into the wider term, sound. Computer generated and electronically synthesised, Atoui describes his work as electroacoustic, a genre that ‘analyses and approaches music through the physical parameters of sound.’ Those looking for a sing-along will be sorely disappointed.
But unlike many electronic artists who take the Kraftwerk approach of standing stock-still behind a laptop, an intricate part of the Atoui’s music lies in the performance. ‘My work in terms of performance is the articulation of three things: composition, body movement and computer and electronic engineering. The performance is not about building computer programmes through which to play and then rehearsing and performing, but doing all three things at the same time.’
Indeed, since improvisation plays such an important role in his performances, no two are alike. ‘It’s a mixed process, some moments are pre-planned, at other moments I arrive at a blank page in the composition. At other moments the computer is suggesting things in an autonomous way that has autonomous behaviour, and then I am responding to what the computer is suggesting and how it sounds.’
If it sounds high tech, that’s because it is. Although the Lebanese-born Atoui went to one of France’s most prestigious conservatoires, his background was computers. ‘It is based much more on science and physics than the classical notation of music,’ he says. ‘One of the aspects of my approach is thinking and trying as much as possible to use the computer as a musical instrument.’ And rather than producing something that sounds like the Crazy Frog, Atuoi’s works are strange and unsettling, ranging from something which could be almost a melody to a sequence of sounds that are almost oppressively random.
So what is the music’s underlying meaning? ‘I work in an abstract medium. This is something that gives [the audience] the freedom to interpret it and interact with it the way they want. There is no one clear message, people can create the story or connect with it on a very personal level. It is not about the first degree, there is no first degree meaning, actually.’
Although electroacoustic music has had a modest fan base in Europe for a few decades now, for most audiences in the Gulf Atoui’s work will be their first introduction to a genre that is rapidly gaining esteem in the avant garde and academic circles of progressive music. ‘In Europe, this music has its history, its crowds, its theatres, festivals and venues, and people who come to listen to you in Europe already know what, in a way, to expect. Whereas here, I love that fact that anyone can come and have the opportunity to see this. As an artist, it is really important that I expose myself this way and don’t just stay on the safe side and address people who understand and are familiar with what I do.’ And the reaction so far? ‘People felt that this was sincere, and people felt the energy in it. And even though people didn’t really understand where this was coming from and what it was about, they interacted with it and were affected by it.’
So is this the future of music? ‘Well, no, I would say at this is one of the futures of music. This is something that is really big, and you cannot reduce it to a technological process or a set of technological innovations. It is way beyond human understanding, and I think electroacoustic music can be considered the natural continuation of a number of other musical genres. It is not here to replace classical music or jazz or pop. On the contrary, it is here as a sort of extension.’ Tarek Atoui is expected to play at the grand opening of the refurbished Al Riwaq Gallery on December 7. For more information, visit www.alriwaqgallery.org. During the month of December he will also be running workshops as part of the Bytes and Pieces project, which will address young and established artists in Bahrain, both native and expat, and look at ways in which electroacoustic music can inspire their work and explore opportunities to collaborate with more traditional art forms. Those who wish to join can contact Atoui at email@example.com For further information, contact the Sharjah Art Foundation, where Atoui is artist in residence.