Finding the soul of a place is the goal behind many travel adventures. Some find it leafing through the past in museums, while others go a more primal route by sampling traditional cuisines. But for Tarek Atoui, it is found in the ebb and flow of its sounds.
For the past three years, the Lebanese artist and musician has undertaken commissioned projects in which his team record hours of atmospheric sounds and incorporate them into live audio-visual musical performance. The end result is not so much a traditional concert, but a love letter to the city itself.
“No concert is the same,” he says. “And that’s the beauty of it. The sounds cannot be repeated because it is unique to the city itself. The city is the inspiration, venue and performer in the concert.”
The 37-year-old is now set to bring this immersive approach to the capital as part of Abu Dhabi Art’s performance programme Durub Al Tawaya.
Commissioned by the annual festival, Atoui will helm the keyboards and a range of sound gadgets in an intimate Friday gig – titled I/E - with fellow Lebanese trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj, at the venue of his latest sonic exploration, Mina Zayed.
The performance marks the end of a series of visits to the port over the past six months, in which Atoui and his team gathered hundreds of hours of natural sound across all times of the day. The audio material includes different aspects of the port; there is the sea side, the truck stops, the main roads and, of course, the fish market.
Like a trawler, Atoui casts a wide net when it comes to the recording process.
“The sounds that we use often act as the foundation to the music that we perform,” he says. “So what I am looking for is a sense of rhythm and tonality. You know, there are so many different frequencies that you hear that they almost sound like [the Solfège] Do, Re, Mi. So I try to work with musicians who have the sensibility of processing those sounds on the spot.”
Atoui’s approach is equal parts jazz musician and researcher. Depending on the kind of audio captured – a pre-dawn start to record the chirping of birds or a late-night expedition to hear clear sounds of waves – Atoui and Kerbaj create the skeleton for their compositions, and these will be fleshed out live on Friday. Atoui says the audio collection process is still ongoing until the day of the performance, ensuring the set will be as loose and current as possible.
“In terms of what I do, the danger lies in being over-prepared. Because the more you know what you want to do, the more you will hit your head against reality,” he says.
“My aim is to work with reality and show an understanding of where I am. If I come pre-prepared, then what I am doing is imposing my will on the space and I don’t like doing that at all. I didn’t come here to tame the city to fulfil my desire. That’s not the attitude that I want to have to art and life in general.”
There is a meditative aspect to the process, Atoui says, in that the greater the search, the more revealing the insight.
“A certain sense of patience is needed. There are hours of silence and immobility and then there is lots of movement as you follow the sound” he states. “I record roughly around seven hours a day and I travel to various parts of the city collecting all this sound, and after a while, you begin to hear certain things that are characteristics of the place.”
The artist recalls his experience in Athens last year as a case in point.
“We were in an industrial port and harbour that was about 12 kilometres from the capital,” he says.
“And I remember recording everywhere in the harbour and even underwater and it was all very silent. There was no movement when it came to people and the boat. In fact, the only thing we heard that night was shrimps. It all pointed to an area that was in industrial decline.”
Atoui says his experience at Mina Zayed, and the fish market in particular, is the opposite. His speakers crackled with the energy of hundreds of fishermen returning with fresh stock and of the early morning auction.
“There were so many human voices in different languages. There were even the sounds of Jet Skis, machines and oil rigs, and different kinds of boat engines,” he says.
“There is a dynamism there of humanity, trade and the industrial. It was really interesting and inspiring in an way.
“I remembered looking at the people on the boats and thinking that were similar: they were looking for fish, and I was fishing for sound.”
I/E featuring Tarek Atoui and Mazen Kerbaj will be performed at Warehouse421, Mina Zayed, Abu Dhabi, on Friday at 8.30pm, as part of Abu Dhabi Art’s Durub Al Tawaya programme. For information, see www.abudhabiart.ae