Interview with Abed Azrié

An Exploration of Contemporary Music and Oriental Heritage

In his latest album "Venessia" the Syrian musician Abed Azrié opens himself once again to a wide range of thematic sources and musical influences. Saleh Diab spoke with the artist, who now lives in Paris

Mr. Azrié, in "Venessia" you sing in a language other than Arabic for the first time. Why?

Abed Azrié (photo: Saleh Diab)
Abed Azrié: "I have never regarded myself exclusively as an Arab composer or singer."

​​Abed Azrié: When I read Andrea Zanzotto's text for the first time back in 1986, I was immediately taken by its expressive power and the rhythm of its language. After the text was translated my enthusiasm only grew, especially because of its similarity to the mythological writings of Mesopotamia. It seemed to me as if it were really about Ishtar's adventures. The only barrier for me at the time was the language. However, in the end the magic of the text enabled me to overcome this barrier.

In my exploration of music I have never regarded myself exclusively as an Arab composer or singer; I have always aspired simply to be a musician – without having to belong to a certain musical culture. For that reason it's quite possible that one day I will set a Japanese, German or Senegalese text to music without ever having thought of it before.

The album carries the listener off into a strange, enigmatic world which leaves behind a sense of confusion. Can you explain this feeling?

Azrié: To answer this question I'd like to quote a music journalist. Writing about my album from 1970, he said that my music is "without origin". Perhaps these words most aptly describe the fact that my music is, above all, a personal matter.

You alter the musical and geographical order of the world: the Orontes flows through Venice and the water wheels of Hama turn on the Piazza San Marco. Can you tell us more about the dissolution of time and space and their reconfiguration?

Azrié: New forms of art are always concerned with reinventing the connection between the smallest of the small and the greatest of the great. It's all about the great dream that is expressed in artistic work – the dream of a reality which does not exist. But this requires a society in which this is possible. In the Orient I have found no place where I can live, because the Orient is still living in the time before the Middle Ages, in a mental, ethical and symbolic sense. The Orient clings with all its strength to long-gone values which have no place in the present time.

​​But how can existing things be dissolved and reconfigured when society is treading water? There is a deep gulf between the society into which I was born and the artistic dream which I and others like me hope to realize. To communicate, one must speak a common language.

We would have to invent a time machine like H.G. Wells' which would either take us back a thousand years or catapult the society of the Orient a thousand years into the future. Since I have a different view of morality and a different mentality than the Arabs, I prefer to live in the time in which Europe lives.

The album "Venessia" uses no Oriental musical instruments, but the music still has an Oriental character. What is the relationship between Oriental and Western music?

Azrié: Oriental music is not necessarily characterized by the oud and the qanoun, any more than the piano or the violin indicate Western music. Music is either good or bad. We can listen to and enjoy music independent of whether it is Andalusian or Spanish or whether it comes from other parts of the world.

"Venessia" is a work which has a definite Oriental character as well as a Mediterranean one, and this is due to its composition, its tonality, mood, emotions and expressive character. It is up to us to sensitize our hearing so that we can hear and enjoy this music.

"Venessia" gives the impression of having a many-layered musical structure. How is it composed and how did you maintain this organic unity?

Azrié: To preserve spontaneity throughout the composing process, I first sketch my musical ideas and come back to them later. These notes or musical sketches reveal my Oriental side, which is rooted in me as a listener.

Then comes the phase in which I repeatedly draw on and rework these sketches, resulting in a musical rough draft which assumes its final form during the recording process. This preserves the fire of the first moment, preventing its glow from being sacrificed to the coldness of reason and thought.

It seems as if you are trying to concentrate the scattered energies, in the words of Claude Debussy - the internal, hidden sources within a work - as an organic whole. How do you manage to do this?

Azrié: Every artist harbors hidden sources which strive to become an organic whole and express the aspects that are hidden deep inside him. I call this the artist's hidden inner power. As far as Debussy's statement is concerned, the artist's skill consists in concentrating the forces involved.

Only then do the internal things find powerful artistic expression, whereby chance can play a role as well: the constellation of different musicians, sound technicians and producers has a power which helps realize the dream which the artist brings forth from his innermost being.

Does the new album reflect modern and classical music?

Azrié: "Venessia" is an exploration of Western music undertaken in my imagination. It begins with Gregorian chants and ends with contemporary music. However, throughout the entire journey I have taken care not to lose sight of my Oriental heritage. Like a painter's palette of colors, I draw the Oriental element of my music from this heritage.

There are barely any similarities between your earlier works and this new work.

Azrié: In Arab music each repetition heightens the listening pleasure. But I am always searching for something new which cannot be compared with earlier works. For me, pleasure means making discoveries and crossing boundaries. I don't presume to have reached the ultimate musical and artistic goal. Each new work can only reflect a part of me.

Interview: Saleh Diab

© 2005

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

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