What’s with all the noise?

I never got to meet multimedia artist, musician and teacher Ahmed Basiouny. I never saw his exhibitions or installations or heard his music live. I’ve seen YouTube videos and a stencil of his face, which until recently used to be graffitied all over the city’s walls. I see his portrait hanging in Cairo art spaces — the outlines of his face, glasses and facial scruff highlighted against the bright yellow poster from a 2011 tribute retrospective. His smile temporarily fixed on a handful of walls.

How do you remember a man you have no memory of? How do you recall artworks you’ve never seen or heard?

A couple weeks ago music producer Mahmoud Refat dropped an album onto my hard drive to listen to. “Egyptian Females Experimental Music Session” was released by 100Copies in October, and it is a visceral and jarring compilation featuring seven musicians and sound artists.

“I didn’t even know that sound art existed before I met Ahmed Basiouny,” says Ola Saad, who reckons he changed the course of her life.

“Ahmed taught us a lot about white noise, ambient sounds, experimental electronic music — he let us run free with the idea that this is our expression, and this is our imagination about how we visualize being a girl in our Egyptian society,” adds Yara Mekawei, who says sound can act as documentation of our lives.

The Experimental Digital Sound Art Workshop, which Basiouny created and ran from 2005 until 2011, welcomed 10 and 20 students each summer, both from in and outside the Helwan University Faculty of Art Education where he also taught. Some of the most dedicated pupils were seven women: Saad, Mekawei, Asmaa Azzouz, Shorouk al-Zomor, Hala Abu Shady, Jakqueline George and Nina al-Gebaly.

“Their album is pure noise, experimental electronic sound art — and it’s incredibly expressive,” Refat says, calling the seven artists “baby Basiounys.”

“Ahmed was a main part of our music events and discussions at 100Copies,” Refat says. The two shared a fundamental interest in using sound as a material and medium for visual expression.

Sound art deals with the all facets of sound, listening and hearing. Often it triggers emotions, memories and images through day-to-day, found sounds.

In Egypt, sound art and electronic music in general go back to Halim al-Dabh, who is said to have constructed the world’s first electronic tape piece from recordings of an ancient healing ritual in the early 1940s. In the 1950s John Cage, an American pioneer of electroacoustic music, moved beyond the limitations of conventional melodies and harmonies in past music structures to champion the use of any materials and sounds to make music.

“Most of us involved in sound art here have always been very intrigued by the practices of Cage,” says artist Shady al-Noshokaty, a friend and mentor to Basiouny. “The main problem in Egypt however is that the art education curriculum is too stiff to ever include these types of disciplines.”

“So not too many people have focused on sound art — but there are a couple of handfuls, like Youseff Amin, Habib Gorgy and the 1990s generation like Basiouny, Ayman [El Semary], Adel Thawret and such. We’ve always had this idea that we want to change the educational system, to really alter it from within,” he says.

Basiouny launched the Experimental Digital Sound Art Workshop as part of the alternative media art summer program Noshokaty set up in 2000 outside the curriculum of the Faculty of Art Education where he taught. Noshokaty offered students sessions on video art, creative methodology, digital audio art and more during summer holidays.

“What’s special about this workshop is that many participants, like Basiouny, ended up later becoming supervisors as well,” says Noshokaty. “They grew with the workshop and organically built their own alternative education programs within their specialized discipline. At the time, many of us were professors at various art schools around Egypt — but on the side, we were running the only workshops that taught alternative media art.”

“It [new media] is a perfect tool to express cultural and social variables since it plays a great role in shaping the cultural identity of a society, including its different classes,” he adds.

Saad, now 26, enrolled in Noshokaty’s video art workshop in 2008, and in 2009 she sonically stumbled into Basiouny’s sound art workshop.

“I was learning to make videos, but realized I needed to make sound alongside the videos. Soon after joining Basiouny’s class, I learned that sound can be entirely its own art,” she says.

Noshokaty says Basiouny’s workshop was split between theoretical sessions and practical lessons on how to use recording and editing software.

“He first taught them how to visualize sound — how to create images, sonically,” says El Noshokaty. “He would also try to both teach and learn how to measure sound — he would do a lot of sound theory and mind-mapping. He played a lot with sound layers, how sounds affect the individual visually and psychologically.”

For Mekawei, also 26, Basiouny’s most invaluable lesson was his insistence on learning to listen.

“He would start every workshop with exercises on how to use our ears. We would sit in the classroom, or in the pergola of the faculty grounds — our eyes would be blindfolded, and we would be there for hours just practicing listening,” she says.

Mekawei works with range of sound materials. Her sonic signature is a cross between ambient noise — dripping water, film sound clips — and spurts of rhythm or percussion — keyboard, piano or harmonica. She makes field recordings, manipulates them, and combines them with digitally created sounds. In her track “Red Mouse” she tried to extract the sound from a scene in a Said Mekawei book about two lovers admiring the sea.

“It’s the ambient sounds of a city that define its character,” says Mekawei, picking up a lighter and clinking a tea glass in the café where we meet. “You know, all these sounds of life — the blowing wind, the distant horns, the roaring conversations, this lighter tapping the glass — this is what Basiouny taught us to hear.”

For Nina al-Gebaly, “Basiouny taught me how to express each word in my mind, as a sound with a note or vibration. I learned that you can interpret words as sounds — but the beauty of experimental electronic is that it’s very subjective. Each person has their own memories associated with certain sounds, therefore everyone can hear one track entirely differently and personally.”

Gebaly, originally a drummer, found sound art in 2009 through attending Basiouny’s workshop. The 26-year-old still has a thriving career as a drummer, often playing with Grammy-award winning musician Fathy Salama.

“I’m consumed by the idea of combining acoustic and electronically created sounds,” says Gabaly, whose track “Nadagha” reveals her dedication to non-lyrical music. “There’s a lot of dialogue in the track between the different materials … they talk to each other, they play against each other, first quietly, until it gets so loud that the sounds are screaming at each other. The acoustic plays until the end, and the world keeps turning.”

“Egyptian Females Experimental Music Session” prompts your imagination to run wild with visual displays rooted in sonic possibilities, while its cacophony of sounds  and lack of lyrical content evoke entirely different emotions than other types of music. Using tone generators to deconstruct pitches and timbres and create layers of field recordings and jazz structures, the album is a testament to free creative expression. It is emblematic of Cairo’s soundscape: a beautifully orchestrated and outrageous experiment where one track flows seamlessly into the next.

The album and my conversations with the seven musicians lead me to believe that sound art’s visceral power relies on its ability to trigger memory. In some ways, both the compilation and the music Basiouny made in his set at 100Live 2009 leave me with a similar thought: sounds became cultural artifacts that can engage listeners as witnesses to the gaps and contradictions in collective consciousness.

The tracks on “Egyptian Females Experimental Music Session” provide a framework that lends itself to capriciousness: absolute truths are dissolved and the listener becomes an agent in the discovery of new meanings that arise in sonic spheres and our experiences of them. The seven artists use sound to create poetic and sometimes disturbing visual spaces that allow the listener to interrogate the familiar as well as personal and collective memory.

Basiouny would have turned 35 this past week, had he not been killed in protests on January 28 2011. But it becomes increasingly clear that his impact will continue to reverberate long after his death. As a tribute, I sit blindfolded and practice listening to the city.

“Egyptian Females Experimental Music Session” is on sale at 100Copies for LE35

Maha ElNabawi 

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