Listening to a stringed instrument leaves a soothing effect on one’s mind. If in trained hands, the instrument truly pulls you in to form a connection and let your soul reverberate with the waves of every melody that it touches upon.
Yet there are potential barriers that may, and do, disrupt the connection between the instrument and its listener. As an avid listener or an enthusiastic musician, you must have yearned many times for creating acoustics minus noise and other such disruptive effects inside your musical environment.
Even the quietest of the rooms are often not quiet enough to enable you to translate melodies into music exactly as it plays in your head. There are people who have or are attempting to achieve that ideal state of purity.
Meet Karim Sultan, a Doha-based musician and oud player who loves experimenting with sounds using his computer. Listening to him, one feels creating the ideal space where you sway directly in sync with your favourite instrument is possible.
Interestingly, this acoustic quality is produced electronically. It is like placing the instrument, and the listener, within an acoustic environment and playing it from there. Karim improvises with sounds, using his computer, and produces music in whatever environment he intends to.
The oud is a pear-shaped stringed instrument commonly used in Middle Eastern music. The construction is similar to that of the lute but is distinguished by its lack of frets and smaller neck. It is considered an ancestor of the guitar.
Listening to Karim playing electric oud in combination with a computer-generated sound at Katara Art Centre (KAC) recently was a treat.
“The piece was a combination of Arabic and electronic music where there is an alarm sound that we sing here at the office a lot. So I took that alarm sound and I turned it into an organ. I basically improvised the melody of the oud with it,” the musician tells Community in a chat after his performance.
“For me, an important approach is to take electronic music, the computer as an instrument, like any other instrument, and I want it to be humanised, basically a vehicle for emotions for telling stories,” says Karim.
Why he loves using computer for producing music, he explains in a metaphor. “Let’s say if you are playing a flute or a guitar or any other instrument, it is kind of like you are telling a story in one voice. And one storyteller might be able to tell many different kinds of stories but with the computer you can create a sort of space around them,” says the electronic music producer.
Imagine you have a storyteller, an old man with a very emotional kind of story to tell; you can actually create a room or a setting for him to tell the story musically. Whether it is a small intimate space or a huge cathedral or a hall, you can create the atmosphere and an environment that you can use to make music like anything else, explains Karim.
“The rhythm that I used in that piece is old Arabic devotional music. It is a spiritual slow kind of rhythm which gives you space and you feel like there is space in it. For me, I like to create that sort of space,” adds Karim.
Arabic music is a lot of rhythm and a lot of ideas in the music that can be translated into electronic music, he adds. So his performance was very much taking the ideas of Arabic music, doing them in an electronic fashion and using the oud in a very different way.
So how exactly does he achieve it? Karim is using a pre-existing software called ‘Ableton Live’. It allows one to do everything from DJ-ing to sound design. “You are able to deconstruct the existing pieces of music and improvise. It is a very flexible piece of software and it is called Live because you can perform with it as well that is what I use it for. I use it for producing and performing live as well.”
“If you do not have access to a percussionist or a singer or a performance hall, you have the computer for you. There are no limits. All you have is a phone and an old computer from 1999 and you can still make music,” says a smiling Karim, explaining the uses of the computer software in producing music.
For Karim and his band of musicians, even noise has music in it. Again, it is an electronic process that helps him record the noise and produce music from it. In another piece that did not involve oud, Karim displayed exactly how is it created and how it sounds.
Just sitting before his computer with the software playing the pre-recorded sounds into music on it, Karim enthralls the audience. “The idea was to turn the art centre into a kind of an instrument,” Karim describes. Explaining his idea, he said each space has its own sound. The gallery for instance has a lot of echo. The office has a certain sound and there are a lots of sound as people are walking around.
“If you have your recorder you can be in a very quite room, you press record for five minutes and you listen and you hear the air-conditioning and people outside, the cars, etc. So we wanted to take those sounds that exist in the centre and turn them into music pieces,” the musician adds.
In one such experiment they used the gallery as an instrument. They took different things like keys and bits of the art frames, threw them around and scratch them to make sounds. The first piece he played was all those sounds recorded directly from the reporting section of the gallery.
He is not just an enthusiast who has taken up an instrument and started playing for his passion. Karim has studied music and evolved his taste and his interests in different genres over time.
“I have studied classical Arabic music but then also I did the electronic music production. For many years they were quite separate and I wanted to see how they could come together.
“I used to sort of not like the Arabic music or the music from the region but then I took a lot of time. I started studying music from the wider Middle East; Turkey, Iran, India, Central Asia and started realising the connection,” he reveals.
For him making those connections helped him study Arabic music as a natural choice. He had a production partner and together they used to improvise and do interesting things with it.
Karim said it became very natural for Arabic and electronic music come together for him, when it finally did come. He said he always has some project or the other going on. Recently, he performed in Abu Dhabi at contemporary electronic music festival for musicians from the Arab world.
It exposed him to people and ideas that changed his own. “These people were experimenting with noise and strange new instruments and techniques. So for me it was an incredible experience,” he adds.
Himself as an artist, he has performed and produced original works in Toronto, London, Doha, and the UAE. He has released music with Co-Op, an electronic music group he co-founded in Toronto, composing pieces for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and for Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha.
He is currently with the Katara Art Center in Doha and is a founding editor and producer of Kalimat Magazine, an internationally distributed magazine of Arab thought, art, design, and culture.