During the last few weeks, my friends and family have mistaken the work of Christine Abdelnour Sehnaoui for both a broken air conditioner and a car dying outside my window. I can't say that I blame them. Her recordings call to mind unoiled hinges, deflating balloons, asthma attacks. This Parisian alto-saxophonist, born 31 years ago to Lebanese émigré parents, plays like music does not exist. When she performs live, Sehnaoui clamps her eyes tightly shut - an expression that speaks to the intensity of focus she applies to her challenging and surprisingly diverse oeuvre. At a recent concert in Amsterdam that I was fortunate enough to attend, she began her set with a metre-long stick of PVC tubing inserted into the bell of her horn. The otherworldly timbres she generated were amplified by a microphone mounted above her head. About 15 minutes into the half-hour improvisation, accompanied by the guitarist Andy Moor, I spotted something else peeking from inside her instrument. A few moments later, she pulled out a plastic water bottle which had been acting as a sort of mute. It was an absurd sight but, as the saying goes, a fine line often separates the ridiculous from the sublime, and Sehnaoui delights in trampling all over this arbitrary border.
Preferring to play collaboratively, usually in duos or trios with like-minded friends, she never notes her pieces down. As a die-hard devotee of spontaneity, she places as much emphasis on her reaction to the environments in which she performs as those she has to her fellow musicians. "I work a lot with breath, with microtonality, with small modulations in the sound," she explains. "I'm also interested in creating trouble within an acoustic space - [making people ask], 'Where does this sound come from?' It's all about feeling an environment and embracing everything in it, but also creating something very small and very intimate in the ears of the audience."
Sometimes Sehnaoui's saxophone sounded thin and machine-driven, an effect achieved by unusual finger placement and inspired by minimalist electronic noise music. Every so often a run of clean notes escaped, offering a brief flash of the massive legacy of Sehnaoui's instrument of choice; everything from Albert Ayler to Maceo Parker, condensed into a few brief seconds. Still, regardless of the resonances embedded in her explorations, the jazz canon means little to Sehnaoui. In fact, she ignores it almost entirely. "I don't really have a historic [appreciation] of the saxophone," she explains. "It's just a medium to express myself with. I'm more interested and much closer to the history of contemporary art - abstract painting or installations, working in space and working with time. I don't feel like a musician. I see sound largely as a plastic material."
Sehnaoui comes from a school of improvised music obsessed with the sonic possibilities of things. For instance, Pascal Battus, her sparring partner on the 2010 album Ichnites, uses the motors of old Walkmans to vibrate sheets of paper and cardboard, pieces of plastic, wood, metal and polystyrene. Like their counterparts in the visual arts - think of the densely layered paintings of Antoni Tàpies - these avant-gardists operate as janitors of cultural history, recycling and extracting new significance from the tired and well-worn. In her efforts to revitalise the saxophone, Sehnaoui produces rumbling exhalations, distorted crescendos and delicate atonal passages. Commonly referred to as "extended technique", her approach abandons traditional virtuosity in favour of idiosyncratic personal engagement.
Magda Mayas, a frequent collaborator with Sehnaoui, plays the piano in much the same way. Her music frames the instrument not as 88 keys arranged in tidy scales, but as a sonorous tangle of wood and wire. As a result, Teeming, an album by both women released earlier this year, is as much an exercise in listening as a demonstration of performative skill. Both musicians manoeuvre from frenetic swells to extended interludes of wandering contemplation. Like all of Sehnaoui's output, there is no rhythm or melody, but a narrative momentum drives the action. While Mayas's piano remains recognisable in its gentle deconstruction, Sehnaoui's sax inhabits a more hermetic soundworld, one closer to the synth blips of musique concrète than any form of handmade art.
All seven albums that Sehnaoui has released over the last five years have been culled from live performances and jam sessions. The most noteworthy of all is Shortwave, a duet with the late Dutch artist Michel Waisvisz, released in 2008. As the director of Amsterdam's STEIM - a centre for the research and development of electronic instruments - Waisvisz pioneered a variety of innovative electronic performance interfaces. Although his resumé included partnerships with Laurie Anderson and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Shortwave is the first instance of recorded work since the 1970s and a perfect example of his process. On it, he used an invention called "the hands", which, as explained on his website, were fitted to his fingers and "littered with sensors to translate movement immediately into sound".
With "the hands" Waisvisz controlled synthesisers alongside real-time sampling and processing of Sehnaoui's saxophone. The physicality of her playing is only underscored by this abstraction. Throughout Shortwave, the horn is made to sound like an extension of Sehnaoui's respiratory system, delivering reedy flutters, tinny wheezes, and rasping expectorations. Aided by Waisvisz's near-tactile sampling methods, the pair perform with exquisite sensitivity to each other. Bottom of the Pond offers nearly 10 minutes of struggle between quiescence and feral power. Sheared of any glimmer of standard musicality that may be found elsewhere on the album, Sehnaoui's contribution is swampy and convoluted without Waisvisz's intervention. Still, even at its most frenetic, the piece feels neither aggressive nor confrontational. If anything, it feels like a quiet and private moment, amplified into audibility; what sound might be like if you could look at it under a microscope.
The album was Sehnaoui's second release on Al Maslakh ("The Slaughterhouse"), a Beirut-based label run by her ex-husband, the guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui, and the trumpeter and cartoonist Mazen Kerbaj. Both men are central figures in the city's small experimental music scene. Kerbaj's most famous work - Starry Night, an improvisation for trumpet, backed by the exploding bombs of the Israeli Air Force and recorded on the balcony of his Beirut apartment in July 2006 - offers an illustration of the stoic, do-it-yourself ethic behind the imprint. Sehnaoui was co-organiser of their festival, Irtijal, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last August. A duet between by her and Kerbaj opened the event in 2000 ("The first ever public performance of free improvised music in Lebanon," they claim), and it has continued ever since, uniting Lebanese and international experimental musicians for a few days each year.
By most accounts, audiences for leftfield music in Beirut are better than their European counterparts. Instead of self-selecting patrons who know what they're getting, Al Maslakh's Beirut events draw a broader crowd: large, curious, and open-minded. "Playing at places like [the established Parisian venue] Instants Chavirés is playing for an elite - people who know this music very well and can judge and compare it to the history of improv," says Sehnaoui. "In Lebanon it's more for the very curious, and the reaction is usually very positive. In France it's: 'You made this sound at this second, what was that?' In Lebanon it's much more like a political gesture to come and experience this music."
However, when asked about her relationship with music from the Middle East, Sehnaoui is quick to deny any connection. Unlike the Iranian avant-garde composers Ata Ebtekar and Alireza Mashayekhi, she neither hears nor proposes any link between her work and the traditional music of the region. As a teenager she rocked out to David Bowie and Frank Zappa, later she studied the work of the free-jazz saxophonists Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker. Although she is comfortable situating herself firmly within this lineage of European (and predominantly male) musical adventurers, the politics of identity still occasionally trump self-definition.
This usually ends up being a good thing, Sehnaoui explains: "When I play outside France, there are often some people who come because I'm Lebanese. They're expecting Lebanese music, and are positively surprised by what they discover." To illustrate her point further, she relates a story of a recent performance in Weikersheim, a sleepy German town that has, over time, become an unlikely and much-loved stop on the European improvisational music touring network. "A group of women wearing veils were there," she says. "They had come because I was Lebanese, too, but they still stayed and enjoyed the show."
Jace Clayton is a DJ and musician in New York, and a regular contributor to The Review.