Name: Markus & Shahzad
Members: Shahzad Santoo Khan (Vocals), Marc Cormie (Oud)
Interviewee: Marc Cormie
Occupation: Artist, songwriters, performers
Current release: Markus & Shahzad's Janna Aana is out now on Dionysiac Tour.
Recommendations: Pierre Soulages; Mehdi Hassan
If you enjoyed this interview with Markus & Shahzad, visit their page on the website of their label, Dionysiac Tour. Or follow them on Facebook for current updates.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I've always loved music without knowing if I could play it. My first emotions come from rockabilly from the 50s to 55s.
My first instrument was the harmonica, by way of the blues, then the guitar, which I learned as an autodidact, and later the classical guitar at the conservatory. My first composed music comes from theatre and song.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I was listening to the radio and Anouar Brahem was on, playing the oud. I was stuck in traffic in my car (a Citroên BX). It was beautiful. The next day, I decided to buy an oud near my house at "Au point d´accroche" (a unique oud maker close to my house), which I'd discovered. Today still, Arabic music remains to be discovered for me every day. It's fascinating not to know everything.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I seek myself through music. I'm not done yet! My creativity is me but I hope for a little improvement ...? In this sense, my identity plays a role in pushing me outside of myself, towards ... elsewhere maybe.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
At first, the pleasure of building music like a Lego game and then a desire to test myself, too. Today, I'm trying to find a way and let myself go in that direction without thinking too much. The hardest part is finding the road. Music is more natural for me, if the road is right!
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
My first "machine" in a way was my guitar because I always wanted to be able to play on it like on a piano: by playing a bass line and a melody at the same time. Then I started to write this music to play it and now everything is happening on my computer.
I'm a huge fan of sound, mics and effect pedals like everyone else in music. I try not to respond to commercial solicitations by trying not to over-buy anything. There are so many good records recorded with two microphones! But then again, it adds so much to renew your studio, so …
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
The computer has allowed me to go significantly deeper than before. Computers have become remarkably fluent if you know your way with the relevant software. This has allowed me to flesh out projects with so much more ease.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
My favourite role is to come up with a fairly broad idea for someone who can take the track much further. File exchanges have often been important but this has its limitations. I used it many time with Shahzad in Pakistan but meeting someone in person is much more fruitful.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I am at my studio from around 9:30 in the morning until 4:00 pm. I usually teach at a music school until 9:00 p.m. (not every day) so I have time to compose.
I live in the countryside right by a river. I think it helps me refocus. I try not to mix everything up but I think it’s impossible! Everything necessarily reacts to everything else.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I have spent over 20 years playing classical and electric guitar. Then I discovered the oud, which gradually made me give up the guitar. I played less and less guitar over time and now I mainly play oud. It’s a mystery to me, but I think it’s the right instrument for me. This instrument has surprised me with these possibilities for 20 years!
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
No idea what's going on in my head and body which leads me to compose. It's like pulling on the thread of a ball of yarn. You have to try to let yourself follow an idea and spot the beautiful things. This often comes from an error, therefore without a clear-cut intention!
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Music plays a calming role for me when I listen to older oud players like Mohamed El Qasabji. I feel a bit sheltered and protected. It brings me closer to myself and I think that if everyone could listen to music that is close to their heart alone by closing their eyes from time to time, the world would be a lot better.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
The important thing is the encounter, the exchange. In the project with our friend Shahzad Santoo Khan, singer of qawali, the desire to mix our cultures is the driving force of the project. Oud and Sufi song, electronic music seek each other, find each other, but without imitating each other. Respect a culture without plundering it - but by nourishing each other and if possible with a smile!
I don't think it's possible to play French-style qawali without risking the ridiculousness of the copy. So let's do something different together that will arise from our differences!
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I'm not a scientist at all. What I love about music is that it can't be explained. We physically feel the music. For my part, whether it's punk, oud makam or whatever, it's always like an expansion of my listening which joins what I will call my soul. When I am touched, I fully listen. I am captured by the music and its vibrations.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
You don't choose to be an artist. It’s obvious because we cannot do otherwise. Teaching is a form of commitment (sometimes tiring) to bring music to everyone. My approach is that of an autodidact of music that goes through experimentation. It's in trying that you find the urge to play in my opinion.
I believe that a project like mine between France and Pakistan can modestly help bring people together and open hearts through music.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Everything can be best expressed through music! And often many years later. What I mean is this: Music can touch us and echo a tragic or pleasant or nostalgic event from many years ago. It's a mystery anyway. The less we talk, the better it goes. This is also why our music has a dancing quality about it. It's the body that speaks and not the head during our concerts.