Name: Sharif Sehnaoui
Occupation: Guitarist, improviser
Current release: As part of the free improvising ensemble Karkhana, Sharif Sehnaoui has just released Al Azraqayn, a double LP capturing the band's ferocious and unpredictable live approach published by Karlrecords.
If these thoughts by Sharif Sehnaoui piqued your interest, visit his website for more information. He is also on twitter and Soundcloud.
Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?
I picked up the guitar almost accidentally and it stayed with me ever since by accident as well.
I really wanted to be a pianist, drummer, sax player, trombonist and even flutist at various points in my life. I think this shows in my quest to make the guitar sound like anything but itself, which initially drew me towards extended and prepared techniques.
Recently though, in the last 10 years I would say, my love for guitar grew exponentially.
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
Improvisation is really the most open ended form of music to me. It is raw material that can be shaped and molded in any way you want. It's also a process, always questioning itself and seeking new grounds. It's uncomfortable, contrary to what some people may believe and always a huge challenge to the self.
Composition has a form of safety to it. I initially came to it by "structuring" my free improvisations, or simply repeating them to a point where the material is no longer improvised at all. In this regard this can almost be considered a type of "best of" free improvisation so to speak.
Recently I have started to effectively compose: graphic scores, original scores for film, music for dance and theater or even solo pieces with traces of more traditional music elements. What fascinates me most is the possibility to move between these three approaches, how much they feed each other back and forth.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?
Yeah improvisation does have this quality, no doubt. But that's only one definition, or rather one perspective on it. I do believe there are many more, all equally valid.
Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a group compare to a solo situation?
Listening to other musicians in group improvisation is definitely a key factor, but I think Stevens is only half-serious here.
I mean, it generally goes the other way around: you initially play too loud because you are not listening. That may sound easy (the listening part) but you may learn that this is a skill you develop over time. Especially in the early years of free improvising you are usually so focused on your own playing, often in a from of self-inflicted pathos related to fear and anxiety, lack of confidence, etc ... that you are not truly able to listen.
When listening to other players is no longer the issue, and becomes your natural state in a free improv context, everything else becomes a matter of choice: playing loud or breaking from the relation to what you are hearing, depending on the situation, may prove to be a perfectly valid artistic decisions.
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 for your improvisations and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I'm not sure there is an ideal state of mind. I'd prefer to describe it as various states of mind that lead to different decisions and allow creativity to go in different directions.
Being distracted, unable to focus is definitely a musician's nightmare, but fortunately sound and music can always show you the way back into it. That's part of the magic.
Can you talk about how your decision process works in a live setting?
Context is the key. Where am I? Who am I playing with? What are the acoustics of the place? The sound? How am I feeling? Am I getting anything back from the audience? Am I enjoying myself? In any order: listen, think, feel, adapt!!! Something like that.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
It's an intrinsic relation. Finding the right sound for the right space is definitely one of my major worries both as a musician and as an event organizer.
As an organizer I am obsessed with placing a group in the optimal venue for their sound, never easy. As a musician, I will always go from acoustic to amplified as a strategy, meaning: are the acoustics of the space good enough? If not, how can amplification compensate? What kind of sound and intensity is need so that we are able to connect with the audience, or at least convey the specific sound of the project to them.
How is playing live in front of an audience and in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally?
I haven't seen that connection yet, though I would love to.
For a long time I didn't like playing in a studio at all, it was like playing for an absent audience, at least this is how it felt, and it was a mistake to see it that way. I would say what helped in that regard was composing music for film. There are so many layers of disconnection here: the audience will only experience this music after it goes through many filters, and connected to an image that you do not have necessarily know beforehand, and placed by someone else in the longer time-span of the film, and screened at times and places you will never get to know. In a way, for someone like me who prioritized live music, free improv and the feeling of the moment, this was as alien as it could get, a state of disembodiment.
Once these two finally got disconnected in my mind, going to the studio became a thing of its own, a place that has its logic and offers so many possibilities to explore. Over the years I even composed and created several studio pieces that I will never be able to perform in a live setting.
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?
There are many, each of these special events has its own logic and teachings.
I guess Karkhana qualifies as one of them, specially the residency that lead to our Bitter Balls release on Unrock/Annihaya.
The idea behind the band was initially to play free music from the Middle-East, but that's only a pilot concept, not to be taken literally. We had played many shows up to that point, and had several releases, but in that residency in Malmo in 2018, we felt like we got much closer to our aim. We dropped the free jazz element and focused on combining musical ideas that seem heteroclitous to each other. Suddenly, everything started to make perfect sense and the pieces where absolutely fun to play!
In a way, improvisations remind us of the transitory nature of life. What, do you feel, can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Many regret the absence of clear articulate discourse in music, such as those that can be developed in other art forms through the use of speech, symbols, imagery and theatrics. Music is quite abstract, one may say it's just sound, though this statement is of course completely false. I always found this to be a strength instead of a weakness: I may play something that expresses death, but to someone else it may emulate a feeling of joy, or whatever ... and it does not matter really, any sound can be all of these at once and its perfectly fine.
In that regard it may even be considered the ultimate art form, one that still operates when all else fails.