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Reverse Sessions: Tarek Atoui in conversation with André Vida

As part of our ongoing partnership with REMAIIN (Radical Electronic Music and its Intercultural Nature), guest writer André Vida interviews French/Lebanese sound artist and instrument builder Tarek Atoui about ‘The Reverse Sessions’ – an ensemble of custom instruments that was conceived in several steps and locations.
The preceding text, written by composer and saxophonist André Vida, paints the scene of their close friendship, and opens a narrative into the body of work that Tarek Atoui has been steadily developing over the years, particularly in reference to his building of custom instruments.
The interview is more accurately a discussion of matters of work and artistry, in which Vida and Atoui recount narratives and experiences, which better illuminate the nature of Atoui’s work. The discussion grants insight into the manners of instrument creation and artistic collaboration which Atoui is concerned with. We hope you enjoy reading this insight into the use of alternative instruments. 

Text & Interview by André Vida

Photo Tarek Atoui Recadré 1000x992

Tarek Atoui has developed a distinctive body of sound works and performances drawing from his research of ethnomusicological instruments and recordings, but also from more ‘untraditional’ sources, like his dialogues with deaf students or his observations of shipping ports — even the daily rituals of gardening in China.

Much of Atoui’s work approaches the idea of composition as a social process, involving many collaborations, developing out of shared mutual inspirations. In his work, Atoui proposes models for structuring listening and musical form that emerge from an open minded curiosity.

I met Tarek in a rather hilarious situation, behind a DJ booth on a beach in Dubai in 2013. It was my first DJ gig and Tarek (who is an incredible DJ) was kind enough to help me out. That night we mixed ecstatic music from North African with classics from Drexciya. The music was so bombastic that a sound technician physically attacked us while we played, to ‘defend’ his gear from us. From that moment onwards I felt bonded to Tarek as a brother in the search for something electrifying.

A year later Tarek invited me to participate in his exploration of the ethnomusicological instrument collection at the Dahlem Museum as a part of the Berlin Biennale. I was one of several improvisers recording first encounters with instruments from the collection. Without any specific knowledge of the instruments, we approached them with techniques drawn from our unique contemporary practices.

We combined the instruments in a series of concerts at the Biennale, and a year later in 2014, in Mexico City at Kurimanzutto Gallery, Tarek presented his ‘Reverse Sessions‘, a series of new instruments inspired from the recordings of our performances and encounters. The instrument builders and their imaginings of the unique recordings led to a transformation of the ethnomusicological instrument collection into a series of inventive new instruments, using air compressors, horns, motorised bows and sliding valves.

I had only seen the various inventions of the ‘Reverse Sessions‘ on the Kurimanzutto Vimeo channel until the summer of 2021, when I finally had the chance to experience the new instruments, in person and in their full glory, at artist Danh Võ’s countryside compound in Guldenhof. Võ acquired the first set of instruments in their first iteration from Mexico City, and houses them alongside his own works in an old train station-turned-utopia of his.

Võ and Atoui decided to host a celebration of the instruments with a community of creative musicians and artists in Guldenhof, outside of Berlin, and also outside of the usual institutional context. Over a two-day festival we played and had food, freely improvising situations with a group of unique and inspiring creative instrumentalists.

One thing that I find quite interesting about how you have been operating is the way that you approach recording as a tool, and the idea that the recording is not really the aesthetic destination of everyone’s ears, but that it’s more of a sketch for another purpose, such as building an instrument, or a library of sounds and I think it’s kind of unique to your process.

Thank you — I don’t know if it’s unique, but the experience of the ‘Reverse Sessions‘ is, I think, the origin of your take on placing the recording in another position within a process of creation, or of performance, and also of building instruments from sound recordings. There were other experiences in my work with the act of recording, which is something I have a lot of respect for, and admire a lot from having worked with sound recordists of the highest level and sensibility, like Chris Watson, Eric La Caza, Frederick Nogray.

They all taught me a lot about what this means, and how to take it less for granted, because as an action, the act of recording is something that is of the same order of performing. It’s something with the same intensity and attention — with the same demands on the body, on the mind, on your whole active being when you’re executing it.

That had me deal with the recording in different ways and to use it differently within the process. As much as listening to the recording, to also be present or witness the act of recording, because both become quite intricate in certain contexts and situations — like the context of the project on harbours, and recording harbours, that I’ve been doing with Eric La Caza, and also a bit with Chris Watson.

I don’t know this project

It actually started along the same time we did the Dahlem Sessions at the Ethnomusicological Collection in Berlin, so it’s been a while. For this project I travel to big harbours across the world and record them, so it investigates locations that historically developed from their harbour activity — like Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Beirut, Porto, Athens — and where the harbour played an essential role in the position of the city.

That’s beautiful

Yes, it’s a kind of musique concrète project, something in its beginnings, and it’s a common ground for recording and the history of field recordings with no twist about it, in terms of where does the recording interfere, and what is its place, like in the ‘Reverse Sessions‘. I ask myself, what can we derive from it in terms of building things? But I don’t know, still, after recording several harbours and thinking about what those recordings could mean when you listen to them, and how they relate to a place and how they talk of something.

It makes me think a little of the work of R. Murray Schafer, the Canadian environmental recordist, and how he spoke of the development of the soundscape of certain places – sometimes in reference to sound pollution or technological shifts in infrastructure. I can imagine over the course of time that even those harbours could have changed just from technological developments.

I’m not an expert on harbours, but what I can say is that they are resistant to time and hard to change. You see, it’s not easy for technology to infiltrate the hardware.

That’s a nice thought.

Yes, because the machines and the mechanics have to be universal, you know. You have the container, and you have the crane that’s carrying the container. I observed, wherever the harbour, it’s always the same mechanics, even the same industrial sounds. Maybe the sizes change, or the length of the dock changes, but what you are using as material and as resources is very similar.

I wanted to respond to one thing you said before, because it’s a very beautiful idea that the act of recording is creating this physical exertion on the person who’s recording. That’s a nice observation, because often I’m thinking about the language that people use when speaking about live and environmental recordings. They often use the term ‘documentation’ which gives this kind of illusion that there’s some official scientific meaning and information to a recording that cancels out the perspective of the recordist. So to think about the physical exertion of the recordist frames the so-called ‘documentation’ in relation to the unique body and act of the listener or recording engineer.

Well, it’s funny, because yesterday I was scrolling on websites of microphones like hydrophones and specialised microphones, and many companies make a distinction between microphones they develop for creative and artistic use, and microphones they develop for scientific use. That’s already a distinction that speaks about the act of recording scientifically, which has its other norms and expectations and methods of doing it right.

Then, there is the act of recording artistically, that can be so diverse and personal. Both norms exist, but in our case even if we use scientific tools, we are not using them scientifically. The recordists I had the experience and the honour of seeing at work had very original attitudes toward sensing an environment and placing themselves in it.

That’s quite complex because it goes to the topic of how you involve and embed yourself with microphones into a social situation, like a fish auction or a dock unloading, and to moments where you are in a huge silent refrigerator recording air masses moving inside an empty space, or recording empty docks, where you have to move very slightly and microscopically, and capture things that are very subtle.

I like this idea also that the recordist is tapping into the collective experience of an event.

For instance, take a fish auction — how do you capture what everyone is experiencing? This is already a completely fascinating challenge, and I think you have to say that you cannot capture it.

And what about the scientific microphone?

If you take it from a technical perspective, a scientific or a documentary approach is something where you stand behind the recording device and make no interference. So it’s something that is supposed to be as accurate as possible and it’s usually recording at higher resolutions in narrow spectrums that are sometimes not really about getting sound, but getting just a chunk of a spectrum, and using this to translate data. It’s then transformed to data, and this data is transformed to something else, and this is the basis for some analysis takes place. So that’s the scientific approach.

Maybe the reason I start on this point of recording is that for me, a recording of a performance is a bit like a peripheral memory. Whenever I hear things back, I can remember different moments and emotions and arcs, but am often surprised by certain details that I have no memory of. So this topic of how we remember events and performances is always interesting to me. So, I was curious what your favourite memories are of our time in Guldenhof. How did you feel about that experience?

For me this was a very nice conversation and collaboration with Danh Võ and this space of Guldenhof on his farm – the people who work and live there, plus all the guest musicians and friends who came over these two days and the performances that happened. The idea was to do something that we wouldn’t do with the institutions – that we had the freedom to do, by ourselves and with our friends, and so it was like a way to offer some situation with a multiplicity of possibilities and then just enjoy and have people play and propose things freely.

There was no kind of expectation from the musicians to play given times, or execute something specific. They could just walk around, and when they felt like playing or taking part in something that is already existing, they could do it. So, I have lots of good impressions and lots of memories, but also I knew that I will not be able to catch all of it, and accepted it like this from the beginning.

I can offer this one memory — one of the days I teamed up with Miriam Siebenstadt, and there was one experience we had on the Babasse (the hurdy-gurdy type of instrument made by Leo Maurel in Strasbourg). That instrument has a volume pedal, which is normally for one person to play, but the way that Miriam and I played the instrument as two people was that we put the pedal in between us, kind of like a scale.

Then we used our hands to make sudden shifts in the volume, while we simultaneously played the rest of the instrument. It was a very beautiful moment for me to have a chance to share all of the spontaneous compositional decisions about the Babasse with Miriam. Just to have this kind of negotiation about something so powerful and simple as the volume with someone else was super inspiring to me.

The last time we spoke, I remember you were talking about this idea that these instruments in the ‘Reverse Sessions’ are only part of a larger sinfonietta. How is it now? Do you have two sets of these instruments which when they’re together completes this sinfonietta, or are you still working on new instruments?

Now there are two, even three versions of every instrument, but each version is different from the one before. So for example, the Babasse you mentioned has the second version, which is called the hybrid violin, and is an instrument that looks very different and is a major upgrade of the previous instrument. So there were cases like these, where each prototype took the previous one further, until the third version. It’s good three times, and after this you get bored. Also for the instrument maker, it takes years, so it’s nice to move on and do something else.

In other cases, it was the same prototype three times like the stones. The stones stay stones, but a lot can evolve in a stone; the principle of the stones is a very rich thing. So some instruments evolved and others stayed the same.

I’m not doing instruments like this anymore, but the way the instruments developed is that today they are spread out across the world. Some of them are part of other compositions, so they went out from the ‘Dahlem Sessions‘ and the ‘Reverse Sessions‘, and became part of another piece. Some ended in ensembles of three to four instruments or became part of a smaller group. That’s the case with Danh Võ, so what we were working with in Guldenhof were the first versions of all the instruments.

I see, because I was just thinking about this thing that you had mentioned to me a long time ago, when you were still in the process of developing the whole project, that you were imagining the challenge would be about how you would approach ‘writing’ for the completed collection.

For me now, an act of composition is like what we did outside in Guldenhof, by placing these instruments in dialogue with the space. Through discussion with Danh we developed ideas that helped us figure out the space. So that was that for me the essence of the composition and this kind of intertwined with details like where the kitchen was, how the people could sit, where big speakers were and how sound could flow. All these things created this rich context, so yes that’s for me is all part of the compositional act.

But, at the time of the ‘Reverse Sessions‘, I started figuring out what happens after you build this information and how you can exhibit it and work with it. So there were very simple lines of composition. I would think about how others can also use this. So inviting musicians and improvisers like yourself and others to come in pop-up mode, inside an exhibition or like a muse situation, and improvise and do sets of 15 to 20 minutes and then reconfigure instruments. And to talk between each other for ten minutes before each session, and do this ‘X’ times a day. So that was for instance one possible approach to working with the instruments.

Another way was to invite a composer or performer and have rehearsals and practice sessions with these instruments, then present the concert in the way he or she envisions it. Having things happen in the space of the installation, or outside when possible, or where to place the audience: all of these parameters can be revisited by the invited composer. So these are the two modes that are essential in terms of continuing to keep this piece living and existing.

Of course the word composition invokes a lot of different things but in this model it’s a very flexible and ever-changing terrain. I mean you have the instruments which are producing sounds, but then structurally it’s not that we were reproducing one thing, but instead it’s more the question of how we operate as improvisers, and how we catch these moments with these tools.

What is it now that you’re the most excited about? Because it seems like these instruments are just one chapter in your creative output, and now you’ve moved to something completely different.

Honestly no, it’s not completely different. These things all complete and take from each other and build on each other. What you realise after time with a project like this one is that the different versions of each instrument are able to have multiple lives in different parts of the world. And with time you start also using them as your own instruments. So it’s super nice when they get totally out of the context and logic of the ‘Reverse Sessions‘ and the ‘Dahlem Sessions‘, and become autonomous in a totally different sphere, and that creates lots of freedom.

This idea that the instruments can circulate and find themselves in different configurations, that things that were created for the ‘Reverse Sessions‘ or for ‘Within‘, the project on sound and deafness, or the sounds from the harbour, can all meet and then start saying something else. That is what I’m excited about, for things to complete and complement each other you see.

What happened since Dahlem is that I built a lot of instruments, some on sound and deafness, some for the project that took place in China. I also got lots of inspiration from practices we observed there, but to come back to the subject of these instruments, when you build a lot of instruments, you don’t want to endlessly continue building more and more. You have to play them at some point, so you have to work with them and see what they tell you, outside of the initial context or framework in which they were created, because lots of instruments were developed initially for one type of composition, and they end up being used in a totally different proposition right?

And also maybe now, you start asking yourself what comes after this idea of making instruments and what’s the next step? So this is where ideas of terminals of listening and investigating all environments for listening comes from, so that the idea can go from an outdoor space, like a barn in Guldenhof, to a smaller and more intimate space. That could even be the nature of a speaker or something that broadcasts or diffuses sound in a particular way. So I am thinking from the space to the small object and device with a multiplicity of sizes and materials and states.

I especially appreciated seeing those instruments in the outdoor nature setting. It reminds me of the ethnomusicological recordings of Hugh Tracey in Africa. When you hear those instruments in nature and you realise that those particular instruments are so specifically both worshipping and embedded in nature. Each instrument is uniquely built and not trying to create any universal intonation. And when you hear it in nature then suddenly you understand how all the intonation and the funk in those instruments is so tied to being outside. So it’s a much more interesting context than if you would hear them in a gallery – nothing against galleries, but it offers a whole other range of experience.

Yes I totally agree and that’s why it was very liberating with Danh’s invitation, because the possibility to explore this helps us figure out how we can work with galleries and institutions on situations like these, and how you can develop outdoor spaces and what it requires. How to organise things to take place in a complementary way between the inside and the outside. That’s also exciting actually because when the weather is nice, you will enjoy listening to these outside, but if it’s raining and cold it better have an indoor space.

So, André, what are you doing at the moment?

Well, I was very inspired by one of your instruments in Guldenhof – the Aquaflute made by Thiery Madiot in Paris. I have an upcoming performance in Houston, in a massive cistern where I will be up to my thighs in water, and decided to make an experiment with the idea of using water to control the timbre and pitch of my sax, so I am developing something I call the Aquasax for the performance. The Aquasax is the first of several new approaches to transform my saxophone into a new form. So this moment in Guldenhof has already succeeded in creating a beautiful crossover of inspirations.

The context of the performance is an installation called ‘Time No Longer’ by Anri Sala, who was also with us in Guldenhof. I worked with him on the music for the film, which is projected large scale like a hologram in the cistern.

Sala and Olivier Goinard and I spent three months arranging, composing, and recording the music for the film using Oliver Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’, and then making a total recomposition of the clarinet solo into a duo for sax and clarinet. The space itself is the Buffalo Bayou Cistern, which is an underground reservoir the size of a football field, and the film is being projected on a massive scale. The images in the film have to do with the space station and a weightless record player, and so my idea in a way is to connect and disrupt the reflective water underneath with the outer-space and otherworldly projection above.

Inverted Audio is an official media partner of REMAIIN. Stay tuned for further news articles and features.