Cairo, coffee, headphones and a conversation with Ismail Hosny

I’m not sure how to label Ismail Hosny: musician, artist, sound designer?

In his most recent performed work at Cairotronica, Ismail departed into territories of noise, glitch and sound art — and at the same time he found melodies, harmonies and rhythm, unearthed from complex layers of intertwined sounds.

In the first of a series of in-depth interviews with musicians by Kamila Metwaly, Ismail talks about the processes involved in the creation of his upcoming album, his fascination with sound art and his most recent live performance.

Unlike most people who toy with sound, Ismail is tuned into another wavelength. He lives in his own time and space, like a child discovering the world as it unravels in front of its senses. His attention seems caught by the littlest detail, drifting off and into the skies, and the flow of his words stops abruptly. And then, then there is silence___. In the spaces between words, he hears things: a rhythm in the asynchronous beating of two clocks, the rumbling vibration of a moveable bridge, the sounds an image might consist of. And he chooses to press record not necessarily with his mind set to a musical composition, but for one sole purpose, which is: he likes /what he’s/ hearing.

We met in Al-Arouba Garden, a garden café overviewing the Nile in Zamalek: A place that holds a perfect balance between the subtle sound of the Nile and the cacophony — maybe nerve-wrecking, but how rich and curious — emerging from the streets of Cairo. This duality is one of many qualities I attribute to Ismail’s sound craftsmanship. It all felt so right for our conversation.

KM: You performed Room Live Set, the work with no name, with Mapping Possibilities[1] this May. What was the starting point? And will it be your next release?

IH: This is the album I’ve been working on since late 2014, on and off. Sometimes I feel more inspired, other times I forget it for a few months. What I did is, I recorded myself playing the piano, various things, digital glitches, to create rough skeletons of songs or ideas, and I do the live set with them. But I still haven’t finished the actual album. That’s what I am trying to do now, but it’s hard.

I’m trying to work with very low-fi recorded pianos. I don’t use cpensive microphones or recording techniques — most of the piano I recorded off my laptop. I’d just place the laptop on the piano and click record. Digitally speaking, I’m working with recorded sounds, stretching them, processing them, so that’s the contrast to the piano. I work with the conversion of one medium into another, like raw data.[2] For instance, I take a PDF file and open it in Audacity, an audio editor in which you can import non-audio files that then get converted to sound, so you get some really weird sounds out of it. Then I sample those elements.

KM: Did you import something specific, or random files?

IH: It was very random. I think the most interesting thing I’ve imported was when I was having fun, when I just dragged the Audacity .exe file back into Audacity and it became one long audio file which encompassed weird noises and glitches.

KM: What is this album to you?

IH: It’s quite a personal album. Before I was working a lot with more aggressive electronic club tracks, and with this I’m trying to get more into a melodic introspective sound. There’s a lot of nostalgia in the sounds. When I started writing it I was in Sweden [September through December 2014] and completely on my own for three months. This type of isolation, in a very quiet country, had its effect on me. It’s not that I was depressed — it was the soundscape that had an influence.

When I started writing it, it was very different from what it sounds like today. The second day after I got back to Cairo, I sat at the piano and began writing and it started diverting itself into what it now sounds like. I built it up on what I’d written in Sweden, but also released parts of it as two EPs called PreData and Odd One Out, which sound completely different from this current work.

KM: They do sound different, but I also hear a lot of similarities. PreData sounds more like your current album than your other works. PreData is rawer and less emotional or melodically driven, but there is something of the same feel.

IH: They sound similar but are in fact completely different. The current work is a result of the released EP, which sounds more technical, more electronic. I did want to produce a quite technical album, but I got into this other mindset and drifted from there, and it lingered on since my return. Every time I tried to write a song as a continuation of PreData, I found myself on the piano again, recording lines and melodies. In the beginning I rejected it, saying to myself that this is not the work I want to appear on the album. I ended up making songs and abandoning them. Some time after I was talking to Zuli and made him listen to them. He told me he thought that was my album. I considered what he said, stopped working on the other things and focused on that.

KM: Will you release it as one continuous piece of music or as singular songs? I like the continuity.

IH: I do sometimes think I can proceed with this album as one whole file, but on my computer it’s separate songs. I play them live as one set and mix them into one another — sometimes I use parts of one song in another song. But so far I’m leaning toward having the album as separate tracks. Maybe when I finish the mix I can consider mixing those songs into one another on the album. See every time I play it, it really is different. What you heard was recorded at the performance at ROOM (thus the name so far) and it’s a little bit different from how I performed it with Mapping Possibilities.



Maybe it’s just easier to finish it if I look at each song separately. If I consider this work one piece, I might see or hear endless possibilities. In any case, even if the album will be separate songs, there won’t be gaps between them and I will try to make them smoothly transition into each other. The album is sort of a story, so it does have a start and an end point — all the songs are building up into each other. I want to keep that aesthetic.

KM: The set starts with chaos, with harsh arrhythmic sounds derived from live recordings. It then becomes more and more eurythmic and develops itself into a harmonic, quite accessible piece of music. It feels almost like a daydream. I feel that it’s a necessity of yours to go through those contrasting transformations. How do you feel about that?

IH: I didn’t think of creating those two layers in the album. I honestly don’t know why that happened. My intention with the chaotic intro is to create a break or switch between our real setting and the imaginary setting in which the live set exists — in other words, my head. And after that, the set develops into something more familiar and accessible.

KM: What other recordings did you work with? How did you record them?

IH: Mostly everything was recorded on the phone. I don’t have a Tascam or a Zoom recorder, and I was also aiming for  low-quality recording to some extent. Other sounds I recorded when I was in Sweden, just random conversations I happened to be part of. I was working on a play called Revolution there, and in between rehearsals we’d hang out with the crew and I’d leave my phone on record. I wanted the album to have background noise and to sound live. Also, during my concert with Wetrobots in Paris, which took place on a boat — not a moving one — there was a little bridge and when it moved it made some really cool sounds. I was hanging out by it so thought to record them on the phone. I really liked the sound of that bridge. When I recorded the piano — as I said — I just recorded it through the computer’s microphone.

Thinking about it, there are a lot of recordings. The intro is made of two sounds, the talking and the bridge sound from Paris, and the bass sound in the background which is me playing the Tibetan singing bowl, pitched down. In one track I recorded two small alarm clocks, with a Tascam. They were not in sync because one didn’t work well. Initially I also wanted to record the harmonium, but I didn’t use that recording, I used the generic sounds that happened to be on it such as me placing the microphone on the harmonium. Mahmoud Shiha, my old partner at EPIC, has an old laptop with a broken CD-ROM and it created some really weird sounds. I discovered it by coincidence and decided to record that as well. It’s mostly recorded sounds, more than digital work.


KM: You use a lot of reverbs too. The live performance sounds quite airy, atmospheric and minimalistic.

IH: A lot of the reverbs happened because of the live set. I use a reverb pedal when I perform it and I think I’ll keep that aesthetic in the recorded version. In the original recording the part in which the rhythm speeds up was me playing around with a modular synth. I had a noise oscillator going through an envelope that I would speed up and slow down, which sounded like someone riding a bike. When I do it live I send it to a delay pedal, and it adds to that sound a lot.

The idea of those sounds in general is repetition. With the whole album I think repetition is the strongest theme. To me, repetition can sometimes be a very powerful and an emotional experience. When something is being repeated you tend to zone out a bit and you mentally add to that what you feel or want. I like that. I think most of the rhythmic and melodic sounds that appear on this album have that element of repetition, without them being intrusive to me or the listener.

Repetition can be a very powerful and an emotional experience

KM: Tell me more about the piano, your relationship with this classical instrument and the reason it appears on the record.

IH: It’s the only instrument I play — I took some minor training as a kid, but I’m a horrible piano player. I have a piano at home though, so it’s there, and I love the sound. I also feel that the nostalgic elements we have talked about, or the sounds of the music related to my childhood are always related to me playing the piano. It just comes naturally.

I played guitar in one song too and that happened very randomly, it wasn’t even my guitar. I was in EPIC 101 Studio and I found Hussein El Sherbiny’s guitar, so I just thought to record some notes. But again, I think the piano is so necessary because it’s at home, so whenever I want to play around, it’s just there and easy to record. I really like how piano sounds and when it’s digitally processed, when I stretch it, or glitch it, or play around with its classical sound, the contrast between “raw data” sounds and the piano is very strong.

KM: Did you ever consider working with piano with an aesthetic like the Grandbrothers, or the “prepared piano” of John Cage?

IH: I’d love to go in that direction but it’s not easy. Eventually I also hope to find an interesting way to perform this album with a piano on stage. But that too is not easy. I guess I would be taking a signal from the piano and have it go through different effects and use everything in the piano to make this work. But at this point if I want to have a piano in the venue, the venue would probably respond with a plain:Not available.” Still, I want to eventually – even at home – try to work more with piano. I also like the works of Ryuichi Sakamoto, he does things of that sort a lot. It would be nice to incorporate the piano as a physical instrument.

KM: Do you consider yourself moving toward being more of a classical electronic music composer, like Nils Frahm for instance?

IH: I love his work. He sounds really grand though, and I’d like to go more with minimal sounding recordings. But in terms of performing live with a piano and electronics his works are the closest to what I feel I’d want, at least with this album and maybe some future works. Not sure if I can consider myself a classical electronic music composer, or if with time I’d be able become that sort of a composer.

KM: How did you get to play the piano? How was it introduced to you?

IH: When I was a child, we used to visit my grandparents every Friday, who had a beautiful piano. I would look forward to this day and as soon as I’d enter the apartment I would run to the piano and start playing. As I grew older, I learned how to play some tunes on it, then I played some songs and I wanted to learn for real. I don’t remember how old I was, but for my birthday my parents got me a keyboard and I took private piano lessons.

KM: Was it a Casio keyboard?

IH: Of course. I still have it and still use it actually. It wasn’t my first keyboard, because when I was a baby my grandfather got me a small Casio keyboard that was sort of a calculator and a keyboard in the same time.

When I was a baby my grandfather got me a small Casio keyboard that was sort of a calculator and a keyboard in the same time

KM: I don’t remember those.

IH: It was very cool actually, and I managed to play some tunes on it too. Then I got the big Casio keyboard and started taking the lessons. It was really nice but I eventually stopped, I don’t remember why. Then I got more into electronic music, and most of the music I’d make on my computer. I feel that I will never be as good as I was, as a piano player. Today I consider the piano directly related to my electronic music composition. I usually hook it up to the laptop and just play around with it, not necessarily sit and play something concrete.

KM: What other influences are apparent on this work?

IH: The strongest influence on this album, although you can’t really hear it, is the Japanese noise scene and the very harsh experimental music that I have been exposed to. I used to go to a lot of noise concerts and attend intense experimental music events. It was all about creating feedback loops for example that would blow the space away. This idea of feedback has become an element on the album, but it’s subtle and in the background. A lot of the sounds were made through the creation of feedback loops – it created continuity. As for the more digital sounding elements, well those are based on the raw data. It was really just random things that I found on the internet that inspired me a lot. I thought to myself that if I will work with the computer, then I want to really work full on digitally or create a computer generated sound concept.

Everything influenced me to some extent; it is very hard to speak about the influences. You get influenced everyday, you meet someone that influences you or you can see a movie and then it becomes a part of your work.

KM: This might be a zeitgeisty question, but in the early 1920s, Luigi Russolo wrote a futurist manifesto in a form of a letter, “Art of Noises.” He argues that the future of music is in “noise-sound,” and due to industrialization and machine sounds that surround us the future of music will become the “substitute for the limited variety of timbres that the orchestra possesses today the infinite variety of timbres in noises, reproduced with appropriate mechanisms.” How do you feel about that, since you’ve worked, processed and created rhythms, structures and beats out of recordings, creating non-traditional forms of tensions, sometimes speeding them up, other times slowing down?

IH: Before I went to Sweden, I was doing very loud aggressive, distorted club music. The isolation that I experienced in Sweden meant what I was doing didn’t feel right. Not because it isn’t right, but because of what surrounded me. I couldn’t imagine myself working on that kind of music when everything was so quiet and neat. In general, I think the setting or where you are affects you greatly. Sometimes it can have also a reverse effect – you can be in a very quite place and as a result produce extremely loud music. Some of the biggest metal bands are Scandinavian. At the same time you have industrial techno for instance that is coming out of Detroit, which is a very industrial city.

Back to your question, I don’t really know why I’m using such sounds or producing them. At this point it feels that it’s a liking factor, they sound interesting to me. For the past five, six years, I have been also exposed to a music scene that’s based on found sound or field recordings, so I also started paying attention to the idea of recording and sounds that surround us. I started looking for sounds myself. One of the audio/visual projects I was working on in Sweden, Patricia Vane’s Blinding to See (2014), was based on recording sounds of rooms and amplifying them. Patricia was then making videos to the sounds. This got me into a mindset where I was constantly listening to sounds in rooms or what I could record that would be interesting to me. So when I returned to Cairo, I kept recording.

I don’t think that machine sounds could completely substitute other, more classical instruments, but they have definitely become an important element in music making.

KM: Many musicians these days work with such musical concepts. What are the tools you’re inspired by? Is it the technology? The ability to record while on the road? Are you aware of the noise pollution that’s ever-growing around us, is that why it has become a tool or sound for many musicians like yourself?

IH: Being able to record on the go changed things and I feel more enabled to record with anything. I used a really bad Nokia phone to record most of the sounds that appear on this record. In general, the idea of how technology is enabling us is really great. All the work that has been done around the world using this method is also very accessible. It’s very easy to listen to a huge variety of music and it’s also so easy to read about how certain things have been done.

KM: In your recent performance, how much of the set was prepared and how much was recomposed and live performed? In general, how do you work on stage with your compositions?

IH: For this work I have my piano recordings and sound recordings as audio files in Ableton Live. Then they all go through the mixer, then some pedals, and I have some channels feeding back into each other. I decided not to ever rehearse this set, so that every time it’s different. When I performed it in Falaki Theater with Mapping Possibilities it was really very different from what happened in ROOM. I hadn’t opened the project since my ROOM performance and I wanted to keep it that way. I know what’s in there because I wrote it, but when I performed it live again, I had forgotten many details and would randomly pre-listen to them or play them out the way I felt suited the performance at Cairotronica. That’s really nice I think, at least to me. I want to re-explore the set every time I play it live so it is different. I do have an order for the flow, but how I play it or what sounds are in the background and what sounds are in the foreground are decisions I take on the spot. The first time I performed this set was in D-CAF in 2015 and because I played it in Shahrazade Club, which is a big, loud place, it turned out to be a very aggressive set. It’s strange since it sounds now so subtle, but it had a lot of distortion, a lot of bass, and got even more aggressive toward the end. I just leave it open and try to feed off the space I’m in, the sound of that space, and of course how I’m reacting to the set itself.

KM: And how have people received your work so far?

IH: I’d say 99 percent of feedback was really good. Most people say it’s a very sad set, which I can see, but it’s not. Out of all the sets I’ve played, this one’s gotten the best feedback. I am very happy because I also enjoy playing it more than any other set. In a way, it’s a very self-indulgent set to me. It’s the most personal work to date. I don’t even look at the audience at times, I just sit there and zone out and play. It’s people watching you do your thing, rather than playing to people. In my other sets I’m more interactive, I look around to see how people are reacting to interact with them in return.

KM: Do you have a date for the album release?

IH: I have no idea. I don’t want to force myself to sit down and finish it. I really have to put a structure to it so I need to be in the mood for that. Last summer, I said to myself that I don’t know how to work on this album except during winter. It is a very winter-feel album. So I’ll wait until next winter comes and get into the mood and work on it, I hope.

KM: How do you feel about it in comparison to other works of yours? Are you opening a new era for yourself, or could you go back to some elements that appear in your previous work?

IH: I’m very indecisive when it comes to these things. Sometimes I really want to do music to perform in front of a seated audience and don’t want to play in clubs anymore. Other times, I miss my club music work, so I get excited and work on it. I can’t decide really. I do want to do both, if only I could.

KM: Can you tell me about your recent collaboration with visual artist Nurah Farahat[3] during your performance with Mapping Possibilities at the Cairotronica closing? How do you feel about the image being a part of your performance? Is it something you consider a collaboration or conversation? Or is it another layer to your work, not connected to you?

IH: I think it was another layer of an emotion to the set. It was more of a conversation than a collaboration. It was my set and Nurah’s interpretation of it in a visual way, so we performed together. With a collaboration we would have needed to start something together, but here, the set existed and then Nurah reacted to it. She did a wonderful job. I really hope we can perform it again together, because also a lot of people reacted so well to the visuals. It had an impact on my music, or how it was perceived.

I think working with image and sound together is really important, especially for those kinds of sets. I’m very boring to watch. I just sit there in front of a laptop and other stuff no one knows much about. So to have a visual element makes it much more interesting for the audience. It adds this equally important layer, and now I feel that the set alone is not as strong as when performed with imagery.

KM: Have you performed with other visual artists before?

IH: Not really, not professional visual artists. Sometimes when we do our KIK tours,[4] Hussein El Sherbiny would be playing some visuals from his laptop, but it’s nothing that is solid conceptual or created for the set.

KM: How engaging an audience would you wish to have or perform in front of? It’s said that during the performances of Luigi Russolo’s orchestra, many in what the avant-garde movement considered to be the “bourgeois” audience were shocked, disappointed and even fight with the musicians. You can have the audience clapping, singing and chanting, but an audience so engaged to the extent that they become an angry mob – it’s a horrific example, but it’s fascinating.

IH: With this work it could be a bit hard to sit and listen to it. The problem with me when I perform is that I want to completely shut down all the lights because I don’t want people looking or being distracted by other things, I want them to have the capacity to zone out. I don’t want the audience to focus on me or have me anywhere in their minds. It would be great if we could have an audience that has the space to do their thing, whatever they want, whatever be it lying down or standing up or walking around the space, whatever. I don’t want people to feel obliged to sit and watch a performance of mine. When you just sit and put your headphones on and you really just listen – that’s the experience I wish for the audience to have with my music.

KM: Do you manage to get that in Egypt, where in most concerts things such as a phone ringing and a person answering the call happens?

IH: Some do listen, and people come to me after a performance and tell me how they really had their own experience in there. Again, I don’t want people to watch me. Maybe this scene has a specific audience that manages to listen somehow.

KM: Let’s move to the music scene and your work with EPIC.

IH: I’m not a part of it anymore. I started working with my father as I need to earn money since I’m getting married soon.

KM: But you were one of the founders. Why did you guys feel the urge to create kind of a school, an agency also, and meanwhile created a collective of musicians under the name KIK? There’s an evident input to the cultural scene from this group of people. Why did you go there?

IH: It started when we were doing Wetrobots + Bosaina, and Zuli, Assem and Nader were doing another project together. I think Zuli contacted Bosaina, as he wanted her to do the artwork for his EP. Both groups then came across each other’s music and found it interesting on both sides. At the time, there weren’t too many people doing that kind of music, I believe, and we felt that we’d finally found someone who’s into what we do too. We listened to the same artists and were really happy that we’d found each other. We all got booked for a tour in Switzerland and started feeling more and more that we understood one another. We created the collective to promote each other, tour together and explore what could be done to help one another. Of course we ended up  working together more, and became very close friends.

EPIC was launched before. Hussein El Sherbini, Mahmoud Shiha and myself felt that we didn’t want to work in any other field than music. We thought that with everything that was going on back in the day, it wouldn’t be so hard to build a music studio. It’s not very expensive, you could make a low-budget studio that could produce good-quality stuff. We started EPIC and in the beginning we didn’t offer the courses, it was a very basic, low-budget studio that we built ourselves – literally – and then we expanded. Hussein felt that there were so many talented people out there who were interested in electronic music, so why not offer them courses with Ableton Live at relatively affordable fees? We started doing it. I think it was a really great initiative from Hussein and turned into a success story. So many people came and started doing very cool music. So I’d like to think that it has contributed a little bit to the electronic music scene in Cairo.

KM: Let’s speak about your other collaborations. Can you tell me more about your role on The Alexandria Street Project? And how the idea of audio-documenting the streets of Alexandria altered your perception of sounds as a musician?

IH: I got a call from Mahmoud Refat and he told me that he wanted me to collaborate with two German artists, Berit Schuck and Julia Tieke, who were producing a sonic map of Alexandria. They were recording different locations and interviews from each location. Then they did this map on a website, on which you can find all the locations and recordings – you just click on an item and hear the soundscape andinterview. 100Copies wanted to make the presentation of the project a bit more interesting, so they called me in to work on a set from the recorded sounds. They wanted me to create a live performance or remix of the recordings from Alexandria, and I wanted to create a set that was completely made out of all the sounds that I have been given access to.

KM: How did that work for you?

IH: It was interesting. That was my first live set performed as a solo artist. It was also the first time for me to work with recorded sounds of such intensity. I got influenced by it of course and found myself able to make music out of all those recordings, which was something that I hadn’t put too much thinking into before. It was so much fun, and the recordings I was given were really very rich – car doors being closed, someone hitting something random and so on; all those were very percussive sounds that I used to create the beats from. In one song, I used a recording that had a radio playing in the background and created melodies out of it. It is one of the sets that I felt was very specific. I haven’t got to perform it again, it was just a one-time thing, yet it was a great experience for me.

KM: Where do you stand on melody and rhythm in music, do you consider music organized sounds versus unorganized sounds from real life, which are reflected in the recordings you’ve taken?

IH: Melody and rhythm are important, but lack of them can be as important and even more impactful. I would consider music as organized sound, or rather intentional sound, but even that is hard to define because there’s a lot of music now that is randomly generated, so the sounds themselves that we hear are not intentional or organized, but their randomness is intentional, and there’s a lot music that might sound like random and unorganized sound, but is actually very meticulously arranged.

KM: What do you listen to from Egypt or the region and internationally?

I can’t say I’ve heard anything recently coming out of this scene that I did not find interesting. I’m very excited about what’s happening

IH: All the KIK guys, they’re naturally my favorite artists in Cairo. I really also like Mostafa Onsy’s debut EP, it’s very nice. I listen to Nur’s music as well, which I really like. I also like a lot Maurice Louca’s work, even though it might not be my kind of music, but I have fun listening to his work. Aya Metwalli is also on my list, Smash Beats is great as well, he’s a really good hip hop producer and he also works with Karim El Ghazouly, who released his first EP recently and it’s incredible. I can’t say I’ve heard anything recently coming out of this scene that I did not find interesting. I’m very excited about what’s happening.

KM: Nur actually I heard too. That’s something – she has progressed a lot in the past year and the work is pretty impressive.

IH: She did, she has really progressed a lot and her live sets are mind-blowing. She is doing a lot of interesting things lately. Nur is my number-one favorite artist.

KM: You sound pretty optimistic.

IH: Yes, there’s so much coming out now, good music. Even though back in 2012 there was a really nice peak in the scene and so much happening, and now it feels that there’s a lot of music coming out but no venues or places for people to perform. This is very depressing because we got to a point where things sort of were happening, we had VENT, 100Copies, and Rawabet, and now all of a sudden there’s nothing. You hear of a gig every now and then in ROOM, but other than that there’s little capacity to see people perform live.

KM: What’s the next step for you?

IH: I’m planning to work more with art-based things. I’m also trying to get more into MAX MSP, to be able to do more sound art than music. I find this very interesting, but it requires a lot of self learning, which means I’ll need to teach myself a lot of things, read things, and know how to implement the ideas I have in mind. We’re thinking, Nur and I, to make a project together, since she’s studying sound art. And of course I hope that in winter I will resume the album.


KM: Who would you recommend Mada Masr interview next?

IH: Nur.

[1] Mapping Possibilities is a Cairo-based collective of visual artists and musicians aiming to explore the possibilities of experimenting between the visual and sound fields through presentating original works emerging from the Egyptian contemporary scene.

[2] Uncompressed and unprocessed data in a file format of any medium.

[3] Nurah Farahat (b. 1986) is an Egyptian multidisciplinary visual artist and a video and animation producer based in Cairo. She has worked and performed with various artists in Egypt, including Rami Abadir, Mostafa Onsy and Ismail Hosny. Farahat works mostly with 3D animation for live audiovisual performances.

[4] KIK (“Kairo is Koming”) is a collective of six electronic musicians, producers and artists — $$$Tag$$$, Bosaina, Hussein Sherbini, Zuli, Naa and Ismael — based in Cairo. It aims to redefine the structure, concept and perception of Cairo’s electronic music scene. Its members are also founders of projects such as VENT, a progressive Cairo club, and EPIC 101 STUDIOS, a music studio which offers recording, mastering and mixing services as well as courses such as music production and 3D-projection mapping.