“Oriental Sonatas” is an album of instrumental music performed by the Lebanese pianist and composer Wassim Soubra. Classical music? Jazz? World music? This deserves further investigation, for Wassim Soubra writes using the grammar of classical music (harmonies, counterpoint) combined with the sounds of his childhood, a western composition that tells an eastern, Lebanese story.
Life and music are not separate entities; on the contrary, the aim is to bring them together, to be present at the piano body and soul and through the music to tell stories that cannot be expressed in words, from emotions to wounds; and also to tell of the life that passes through all of us and which can, sometimes, in spite of everything, fill us with joy: the joy of being in the world.
1 – Tobacco from the Orient –5’53
2 – Lost in Lebanon – 3’51
3 – Dunes – 3’00
4 – Sonata N°1 W.Y.S. N° 10 – 7’06
5 – The Dream – 4’58
6 – The Scent of Rain – 3’16
7 – Shams – 3’14
8 – Trim Trac – 5’07
9 – Dawn Part I – 4’28
10 – Dawn Part II – 2’58
11 – Dawn Part III – 4’06
Interpreters and instruments
Wassim Soubra (piano)
A child runs through the street, crossing the city with its multicoloured sounds and thousand-and-one architectural forms. He is nine years old, an age when we stand upright, our feet planted firmly on the earth, as if it belonged to us, an age when words are objects. The child does not feel the need to question the meaning of life or what is real: he is real, as real as seed or stone, like all children. So he runs joyfully on, tearing and sashaying down towards the sea, which nestles at the foot of the perfumed mountains of the Lebanon, towards the Mediterranean, the sea between lands.
(Once upon a time, long ago, this was Lebanon. Since songs have been sung, Lebanon, bathed in myrrh and incense, has rushed down, an embodiment of love, rushed down towards the sea.)
A piano. In my mind’s eye, I see it as a gleaming black Pleyel, perhaps, standing in the half-light at the back of the house, in the area of Ras Beirut, the part of the city that juts out into the Mediterranean. It belongs to his mother; she used to play it, filling the glittering evening gatherings and dream-laden mornings with classical music, like the soul of happy days. It has the distinction of being one of the first pianos imported into Beirut, a few decades earlier, at the time of the French mandate (1920 – 1943).
The child is now an adult and has come home after five years in exile. He had just passed the baccalauréat and then travelled to France, where, because of the war, he found himself obliged to stay on and study, far-away from his parents who were still in Beirut, while single-handedly taking care of his younger brother and sister – like him, they were educated in a French-speaking context. In Paris and in Besançon, he saw only images of war, but he also saw childhood friends, exiled like himself, become what religion told them they were, regardless of what had been, up until then, a shared history.
In the large rambling house, built over decades on the only piece of land that belonged to his father’s father and perhaps to his father before him, he has at last come home, and it’s the child in him who moves shyly towards the gleaming black piano. His finger clears a path through the dust that has accumulated on it. Lost in Lebanon, he has just crossed the city – which has been devasted for six years – and found it disfigured, ripped open, given up to the hatred of the friends of yesteryear, so many of whom are already dead. He sits down and raises the lid to reveal the ivory keys. Images of rubble, craters and corpses, which no on dares to clear away, their legs splayed open, sprawling on pavements, flash before his eyes. He closes them. An arpeggio. A chord. He starts to play: he plays what he knows, the pieces he has been working on for years – Bach, Chopin. The permanence of another time at a time of bombing. Years later, in 2006, leading the Trio Rhea, so-called in honour of the mother of the gods of Greek mythology, he names an album Bach to Beirut. You might even say, Bach for Beirut.
His hands set the keyboard free, symbolic of an open time, a composed time rediscovering the past in the present and thus opening up onto the future. The pianist would like the music to flow naturally, as naturally as a stream that he would call Lebanon, the Lebanon of his childhood, this hub of European and Oriental cultures, a mille feuille of history where layers of Byzantine, Ottoman and European architecture coexist and are superimposed. The war has been over for fifteen years, but it has taken him all that time to learn to structure and combine the grammar of classical music that he studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music and the vocabulary of sound that he absorbed during his childhood: the snatches of melody and oriental rhythms that haunt him, that originate in the popular music he was immersed in without being aware of it. He starts to play and once again, the child is rushing through the streets, behind the smokescreen of time, cleaving the light and the warm shadows that are saturated with ringing sounds: he passes through the vibrato of an organ playing in the entrance to a Maronite church, followed by the muezzin’s call to prayer and the cries of stall-holders and children playing; blessings rise up from the lips of mothers in the name of a God common to all but different for each; hymns pour from a choir in an Orthodox church and then a few steps on, a fragment of Oum Kalsoum’s voice escapes like a bird through an open window and stabs the heart with a pang of memory.
Shouts, light, smells. Everything is there, beneath his fingers. In that space, a space of contrasting harmonies that rise from the open piano, the space of a Lebanon so close and yet so far that it can only be reached through the heart and yet, which still exists. Conversations come back as well and the sound of dice bringing their rhythm to the backgammon table where tobacco is shared like words. The joyful thunder of adult voices, those legendary giants when viewed from a child’s perspective. Their laughter, perhaps, as reassuring as a token of immortality. The smokescreen of time, tobacco from the Orient. In the Ras Beirut of his childhood, one of the most socially and culturally diverse areas of the Lebanese capital, the men are Druze, Shiite, Sunni, Maronite, Assyrian and Nazarene; most of them are the heirs to a long history, a history of resistance which has led, from invasion to invasion, to entire tribes blending into the unassailable mountains of Lebanon; since the dawn of these heroic times, some of them have worn turbans and others crosses: this is seen and made note of, but they all live side-by-side, they all greet and respect each other. (Once upon a time, in Lebanon.)
Nostos. Nostos, the return or homecoming in Greek, is the origin of the word nostalgia, the ending of which suggests pain: to return means pain, the pain of an impossible return. You do not return to Lebanon, or rather, if you do, it is to find yourself confronted with the impossibility of returning. Time is not the only element that is slipping away. The space as we experienced it, the space as it continues to live on within us, long after we have left it, that space is also slipping through our fingers, flashing before our eyes, to such an extent, that in times of violent upheaval it becomes the rug that is being pulled out from beneath our feet. It is an open secret that Beirut is no longer wholly in Beirut, even if we can now wander through it; what was known for a long time as the Lebanon is no longer in Lebanon. Lost in Lebanon – it is Lebanon itself which is also lost.
The French word libanisation, which may be roughly translated as lebanisation, first appeared in French dictionaries in 1985. Unfortunately, it is now a common noun, used to describe a collective nightmare referring to a certain kind of civil war: the fight to the death between different ethnic groups or religions, which coexisted peacefully up until that moment. However, even if the Lebanon is now a mere dream, the artist aspires to share this dream, rather than locking himself up behind the closed doors of a nostalgia impenetrable to the present.
How do you avoid being devoured by the rats of nostalgia, under the swollen scars of war? How do you avoid sinking into resentment? The music of Wassim Soubra is shaped by nostalgia, but a nostalgia that does not give in to bitterness, a nostalgia that is not backward-looking and refuses to bear the weight of past grudges. Instead, it is a nostalgia that sets the music free, its songs and descants, bass lines in tune with the ‘A’ of memories that can at last ring out. This is a nostalgia that may even become joyful and thrilling through sheer freedom and thus breathe new life into an ideal vision of Lebanon, a vision that can be shared of a Lebanon that still exists beneath the wounds. Free-flowing nostalgia is not forbidden when it expresses tremulous happiness. On the contrary, it becomes a present, in both senses of the word: a gift and an entity born of now. The musical freeing of nostalgia bears witness to what was and what might be. One of the pieces on the album Bach to Beirut was entitled “unknown witness”. If the word witness is one of the most beautiful that exists, it is because its very function is to pass on experience, to bear witness brings the other to bear; it vacates a place for a third person – the one for whom we bear witness. It is an act that involves the whole body, the physical presence of the witness when he is asked to raise his right hand and swear, “I do.”
Oriental Sonatas. Life and music are not separate. Quite the reverse: the aim is to manage to bring them together, to be present at the piano body and soul. When he describes the long path that led to the composition of his oriental sonatas, Wassim Soubra tells of his struggle to overcome the protective dichotomy that he maintained for many years between the piano and his personal story, between the piano and his life in fact, a life that he finally had to admit had been shaped by collective history – like all lives, but in his case to an extreme by war – so as to allow it to play itself out on the piano.
It could almost be the subject matter of a cautionary tale, which suddenly breaks off at this point. A child was born in Beirut during the time of Lebanese glory. His father was a brilliant lawyer, an important figure in postwar charitable organisations. His mother was the first woman to graduate from the American Faculty of Pharmacy in Beirut. One of his grandfathers was a sheikh, a gifted healer, who practised Sufism and emphasised the importance of altruism. His behaviour was a daily example of proud humility and open-mindedness. His maternal grandfather, a sharpened pencil wedged behind his ear, ran a shop in the heart of the souk where you could find all sorts of oils and learn about the properties of mysterious herbs. (He prepared his own tobacco, leaving it to macerate in honey; he loved perfumes and the sensuality of essential oils.) The family was at the crossroads between ancient and modern worlds. It belonged to the brilliant world of a Beirut profoundly attached to its traditions, but open to the West; the piano, in what had been a house made of beaten earth only a few years earlier, was perhaps the best symbol of this. Educated in French, living day-to-day in Arabic, travelling by car through a country where donkeys were a common form of transport, the children spent time at the family shop in the souk, yet at the same time, learned to play what was referred to as great music, the western classical music played by their mother, bathed in the centre light of progress.
And then came the war. The exile hung on to his piano like a raft that pitched and tossed, in Paris, then in Besançon, and later in Boston. At that time, as he himself readily admits, he had not yet found his “musical persona”. He was certainly a very good pianist, but had the feeling of being hampered, of not knowing how to progress further. As is often the case, he wished to protect his music from the surrounding existential storm; when he was at the piano, he split himself in two, refusing to allow any expression of collapse that was both personal and collective to permeate his music. He just wanted to be a pianist when he played. He just wanted to forget the child he had once been, to blot out the images he received every day giving details of the Lebanese conflict. He wanted to forget the anger that seized him when he heard the flood of misguided opinions and falsehoods, which were meant to inform but did nothing but deform the truth to such an extent that they gave rise to thoughts of revenge. Little by little, he would have to open up to something other than fingering techniques and the knowledge acquired at the conservatory to set the piano free. What he had to learn was to draw both body and memory into the dance of the keyboard, to be entirely present at the piano. Two people were essential to this awakening: a piano teacher, Antoinette Vassal, and a dancer who specialised in the art of the spiral, Lari Leong. The spiral, or how to accept falling as a way of drawing yourself up to your full stature as a man.
Thanks to this, his music now tells a story. We might at times find it naïve, but it is first and foremost narrative in quality and impossible to place in a single category, encompassing as it does several cultures and traditions on an instrument that is the pure product of the greatest western music. His music tells the story of a man, or rather the collective history that shaped him as an individual as a result of his unconscious resistance to it, and the leap towards beauty that the music itself implies.
The practice of music in times of civil war transforms the individual, but it also transforms the music. Even on a modest individual level, whatever resists is always shaped by whatever it offers resistance to. Ultimately, Wassim Soubra’s work has been to allow himself to be shaped in his turn by whatever shapes his own music, a very personal form of music that also bears witness to the power of the collective; and it is this power – albeit plunged for a time into madness – that has made his music what it is.
From feelings to wounds, his music blindly recounts what cannot be said: it tells a story without words but in colours, shaping memory which reciprocally gives form to the music just as a river shapes the earth it springs from. The music tells its story in a stream, sometimes stopping on the edge, just on the edge, then leaping and bounding before flowing in cold torrents, watching itself mirrored in the cracked basin of time. The music flies, flies like passing time; it spins like a spinner repairing the injury of time. It spins, it weaves, it creates a space, it invents it, meaning that it discovers or rediscovers it. It creates a space, it recreates it, it tells its story. The space that surges forth is not just any space: it is Lebanon, where since the dawn of time, with the greatest possible freedom, men and women have sung of love, myrrh and incense, of the life flowing through us, which can occasionally, in spite of everything, fill us with joy – the joy of being in the world.
Interview with Wassim Soubra
It seems impossible to place your music in a specific category. How would you yourself define it?
I can’t place it in the usual categories like classical, jazz or world music. I prefer to explain that I use the rules of western composition to tell an eastern story: a story laden with an oriental vocabulary that corresponds to my early life in Lebanon. I write according to a grammar that I learned to master, the grammar of classical music – harmony and counterpoint – and the sounds of my childhood. You might say that my music has been shaped by events; I played a relative role in the choices that produced this music. I am a sort of historic-geographic-cultural product.
The first of these choices was the piano. You were born in Beirut in 1956 into a family that was part of lively postwar Lebanese society and you were, paradoxically, introduced to western music, while living in world steeped in traditional sonorities. My mother owned one of the very first pianos purchased in Beirut, a Pleyel, which incidentally is still in the family house in Ras Beirut. She used to play Schubert, Mozart. Yet there was a certain freshness about this, because at the time we were just discovering this music in Lebanon. She was a talented pianist, loved playing the instrument and wanted her children to learn in their turn. On the other hand, having grown up in middle-class Beirut society in the 1960s, I had no access to traditional Lebanese music, knowledge of which was not passed on to me; it was not taken into account at the time and its importance was readily played down. I subsequently suffered a great deal as a result of being cut off from the world of sound, which was supposedly ours.
You spent several years in Beirut during the war, before going to the Boston Conservatory. You worked, you carried on playing. Did you experience this as a form of resistance?
Personally, I never thought of taking up arms and going off to fight. Not at any time. However, I couldn’t bear the general blindness, the lack of lucidity of those around me. What could you do to make people understand that they were being manipulated, that they were taking part in something that was abnormal? I think that only the arts can help, however modestly, in the struggle against stupidity, against thoughtless misrepresentation. In fact, I believe that you should save your own skin in such cases – literally because you have to survive and also metaphorically, because you have to avoid losing your reason in all the madness that contaminates people’s very thought processes and which only benefits a few war leaders. Even if you live in exile in a country where you’re not in direct contact with violence, you can’t avoid it because you take this violence with you and so, comes a moment where you have to deal with it just to see what you can make of it. In my case, I turned steadfastly towards art, towards music.
However, for all that, I only really found my way of working much later, after my studies at the Boston Conservatory. When I used to work at my piano playing in Lebanon during the war, I used to try and recreate a sound image that pre-dated the gesture. It remained a purely mechanical, sterile way of playing. I played and at the same time I was out of touch with a part of myself. It’s what I learned when I finally met a piano teacher who was able to give me a true musical technique, Madame Antoinette Vassal, at the Ecole normale supérieure de musique, in Paris. She taught me to approach music in the right way. What is music? From our first lessons, she insisted on the three parts that need to be put to work together: there’s the conductor, the head; then there’s the affect, the heart and the emotions; and then finally, there’s the rhythm. The rhythm is instinctive and what’s important is to transform these instincts, however violent they may be, into emotions and then to keep a sufficiently cool head to transform the emotions into music.
Were you suffering up until then from a kind of teaching that placed too much emphasis on technique?
No, it’s not a question of technique but of automatic reflexes, because, as I said, true technique is learning to combine the three aspects of being , so that you can reproduce and perform a work. On the contrary, I lacked a technique worthy of the name. Of course, I had acquired a certain competence as a pianist, but once I started at the Boston Conservatory, I reached my limit and couldn’t go any further. I had created a system of playing that was completely false. Instead of developing the depths of my inner being and blossoming, I was shutting myself in with false gestures and a false understanding of music…
Had this split anything to do with the war, without your being aware of it?
During the war, even when I was abroad, I could see in a dream what was going on, what the news on the following day would confirm: fighting, assassinations, kidnappings… Whatever you may wish, a part of you will always be living with other people. And as a musician, it was as if I’d wanted to deaden that part of myself. The method that Antoinette Vassal taught me, made me realise that you can’t play the piano if you’re amputated, that you have to be fully present for the music to construct a “musical persona”. I came up against a lot of inner resistance. I found it difficult to find my way back to such sensitivity, to this inner world that reawakened so much pain… With hindsight, I think that it is this difficult process, that today gives me my strength as a man and a musician, which are not one and the same thing. It’s what characterises me, in any case. I no longer try to correspond to the image of the virtuoso pianist. I approach the piano like a book filled with blank sheets of paper, and I try to write poems on it.
At what moment did you start combining the classical approach and eastern sounds, whether alone or with the Moroccan master of the oud, Saïd Chraïbi?
Another very important event in my life during the 1980s was my meeting with a Malaysian dancer: his name was Lari Leong, and he died about fifteen years ago just as he was emerging as an important figure in the world of contemporary dance. I worked with him for years, first as a student and then as a musician. I will always remember that magical moment, when one day, with a gesture, he drew me into a spiral movement – a movement that sent me towards the ground and then brought me back up again, bolt upright. I felt as if I had been caught up in a wave, a very beautiful wave that drags you down and then lifts you up… It was an inspiring moment for me and a lesson in living – it’s sometimes when you let yourself go that you rise up again. And it was from that moment, when I’d just started playing the piano for his classes that I tried to enlarge my field as a pianist, to move away from a purely classical repertoire and introduce my own personal vocabulary. Lari encouraged me a great deal. That said, the classical piano is still my daily bread; I try to spend some time every day working on Bach or Chopin; it’s my language, the one I’ve mastered. I took a long time to understand how, fundamentally, western classical music – Bach’s in particular – and oriental music – sacred music, in any case – are similar and to sense what they have in common in spite of their apparent differences. Bach, in my opinion, has the same ultimate aim as a mystical oriental musician. He fervently desires to reach a state of ecstasy not dissimilar to that sought after by Sufi singers or the Greek orthodox. A desire for wild rapture, to forget oneself as a fixed identity with the sole aim of reaching a place where sharing is truly possible. A spiral movement, as it were.
Translated by Reena Khandpur
- Reference : 321.086
- Ean : 794 881 935 024
- Main artist : Wassim Soubra (وسيم صُبرا)
- Year of recording : 2009
- Year of publishing : 2009
- Music style: Classic instrumental
- Country : Lebanon
- City of recording : Paris
- Main language :
- Composers : Wassim Soubra ; Saïd Chraïbi
- Lyricists :
- Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe