+Aziz seeks to do for Middle Eastern indie music what the Velvet Underground did for rock and roll: create performance art. On June 21-22 at New York’s Hotel Particulier, +Aziz and a group of musicians will draw upon music, ambient sounds, and theater to take his audience on a journey through Middle Eastern culture. In doing so, they’ll share in a tradition established by artists such as the Velvets, Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, and Peter Gabriel: daring an audience instead of entertaining them.
In fact, the Kuwaiti songwriter and indie musician revels in the prospect of liberating music from what he perceives to be the strictures of entertainment. He rejects music glorified on mainstream Arab media, which he derisively refers to as “plastic surgery pop.” Instead, he seeks to synthesize natural sounds with music and cultural flourishes from the Middle East, such as the use of incense to enrich a performance. He will also perform three songs in Arabic (and provide translations). Also, catering will be provided by taïm, a falafel food truck.
The performance, titled UNCOLLECTABLE, is part of a larger project developed by +Aziz alongside ArteEast, an arts nonprofit focusing on contemporary Middle Eastern art. Those interested in a discussion of Middle Eastern sound art can find a published eMagazine on ArteEast’s website. Part Two consists of the June performance. And then Part Three will consist of an art exhibit from June 20-July 10 at Hotel Particulier in Soho.
+Aziz will draw upon his passion for music and cultural trend spotting (he works at brand strategy firm FATHOM + HATCH and is a regular contributor to PSFK) to fulfill his vision for synthesizing culture and music.
“I’m probably closest to the indie music coming out of Lebanon,” says the indie rock singer, songwriter, and guitarist. “I believe that I am shining a light on alternative Middle Eastern music, but the bulk of indie music in the Middle East is actually hip hop, not rock.”
He asserts that he and his UNCOLLECTABLE performers will not create music in the conventional sense. Instead, audiences attending his performance will experience sound art — which he describes as “art that has a sound component.” In doing so, he believes that as an indie musician he can become more relevant.
“I believe that by looking beyond trends in entertainment, indie musicians will guarantee impact and change the way the industry giants engage us,” he recently told the Mideast Tunes blog. “My goal is to give Middle Eastern indie music its rightful place by developing experiences that are more than just a concert; I am kicking off this vision with a hybrid-concert experience that combines an art gallery reception with musical experience.”
To support UNCOLLECTABLE, +Aziz is relying on a grass-roots funding effort through Indiegogo — thus joining many other indie artists who are bootstrapping their careers with the support of digital. +Aziz recently shared with me more insight into UNCOLLECTABLE, including why he’s so passionate about liberating Middle Eastern indie music from the clutches of commercialism. Here is his story:
Before we talk about UNCOLLECTABLE, tell me about yourself and how you got into music
I’m from Kuwait originally. I grew up there most of my life and moved to New York City four years ago. I now work at a brand strategy and innovations firm, FATHOM+HATCH and write for PSFK. My work puts me in a unique position as a musician because I keep a pulse on cultural trends, and I want to integrate this wealth of knowledge into the live music experiences I develop.
I’m interested in music beyond its entertainment value and perhaps also trend spotting beyond its application to brand problems. I seek to express culture through music and art and to find an audience who appreciates the interplay between culture and music. For instance, I am fascinated with the Animal Collective Guggenheim Installation, which is the kind of statement that will have a deeper impact on indie music because it’s a unique experience. Amon Tobin’s ISAM is another great experience. By creating a hybrid experience that intersects with culture, I will apply my position as a trend analyst to music.
I’m heavily influenced by alternative rock and more recently by the Mars Volta and Sigur Ros. The Smashing Pumpkins are a pivotal influence on my identity; their influence has eroded over time, but I would be a different person without their music.
What is UNCOLLECTABLE?
On a tangible level, UNCOLLECTABLE is a musical performance followed by an art exhibit. The performance, which takes place on June 21 and 22 at Hotel Particulier in New York, will explore the relationship between sound art and music. I chose a venue with a positioning that is consistent with my appreciation of multi-disciplinary thinking. In the case of UNCOLLECTABLE, I want to offer the audience a new perspective on Middle Eastern culture.
UNCOLLECTABLE is a reaction to the overproduced, hyper-glamorized musical industry that exists in the Middle East — what I refer to as plastic surgery pop.
In the West there is a place for indie musicians like Animal Collective and Amanda Palmer. The Middle East is believed to have no indie music scene, no underground culture. The only way to make it as a musician is play along with the rules of plastic surgery pop. But in fact if you explore digital closely enough you’ll find Jordanian songbirds, Iraqi metal bands, Lebanese electronic DJs, Egyptian beatboxers, and so on. The scene is there, but it’s fragmented and under-monetized.
As you know, much of what we hear about the Middle East is political and religious in nature. Perception of Middle Eastern life tends to be polarized: on the one hand, you have high-rise luxury in the Gulf and on the other hand you have the simple Bedouin desert life. I want to give you a better appreciation for the sounds, smells, and cultural nuances of the Middle East.
What I’m doing is part of a larger movement of initiatives celebrating Middle Eastern Culture, such as the Shubbak festival, an exploration of Arab culture in London, and World Nomads, which celebrated North African culture in New York. I’m sure there are many similar initiatives like these around the world.
How did the idea for UNCOLLECTABLE come about?
I was approached by ArteEast to guest edit their quarterly magazine after they saw some of my trend spotting work. I had developed a trend titled “Uncollectable Art.” My hypothesis is that contemporary artists are shifting to making work that resists being collected in resistance to the emerging commercial infrastructure in Doha (Qatar) and Dubai (UAE). This would include performance, sound, and site-based work; it’s not stuff a rich patron can hang up in their living room and show off to their friends. So in talking with ArteEast I proposed the idea of looking at sound art and the role of soundscapes in culture through an eMagazine and a performance. They approved the idea and I got to work.
At the end of the day, approaching this trend in the arts as a songwriter enables me to expand the vocabulary of what a songwriter can do with music. When I approached Hotel Particulier, they loved the idea so much that we agreed to develop an art exhibit. I had little to no idea what I was saying yes to (laughing).
Who will perform at UNCOLLECTABLE?
An interesting mix of performers will be participating. Here’s our lineup:
Matthew Halley, a prolific songwriter and biologist. He’ll primarily be playing the banjo. In addition to being a great musician, he’s conducted extensive fieldwork in Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. Consequently, he’s collected bird sounds from his adventures and we’ll be using samples in one of our songs.
My brother Sam Ali is flying from Los Angeles to play lead guitar, harmonica, oud, and other objects. He’s been performing under the name The Hollywood Music Parade. Live performance is very much in his blood, and we’ve done over 30 shows together, so it’s very comforting to have him join me on UNCOLLECTABLE.
Seif Al-Din is an Arab-American producer/songwriter based in new York. He’s producing my debut EP, SoHo Spirit, which will be released later this summer. (I have three of six tracks uploaded to Soundcloud right now.)
Jie-Song Zhang is a Chinese born American raised musician and international project manager/global community organizer. He’s done a lot of work in China (e.g., 2010 World Expo; Shanghai International Beatbox Competition). He is also the founder of Emerging Face of a Nationless World, a global campaign to connect communities, worldwide, which expects to have representatives in 40-50 countries by the end of this year.
Our sound artist is Joshua Liebowitz. The source of Josh’s work on UNCOLLECTABLE will be vocal and instrumental tracks recorded from my EP – he’s taking the individual audio signals or waveforms of my voice and guitar and running them through spectral processors.
What do you hope people will experience through UNCOLLECTABLE?
On a very basic level, I want people to experience optimal hospitality. I am not putting Middle Eastern culture on a pedestal; I am embedding it into the performance and giving my audience a new way of looking at it. For instance, the sense of smell is very important in Middle Eastern culture. When you receive guests at home, it’s commonplace to light incense. So during the performance, we’ll light incense for attendees, but not in a random way. The incense will be lit at a specific point in the program where I tell a story of a woman who chooses to leave her husband and abandons duties at home.
Intellectually, I will help my audience better understand the relationship between sound art and music. I also want you to experience how a songwriter brings together sound art and expands your musical vocabulary. For instance, I have a song called “Shop Today,” which is a commentary on consumerism. During the performance, musicians in different places will call each other and their ringtones will be integrated into the composition. Another idea is to have a vacuum cleaner sucking up money off the floor, or using the typewriter as a percussive instrument. The ideas are endless, but I’ve narrowed it down to gestures that pertain to songwriting or tie in on a thematic level to my lyrics.
How will you define success?
On a broad level, I want to succeed in looking beyond entertainment. It’s important to look at what’s happening in culture. Having cultural nuance is very, very important not only to my own success but to the longevity of fresh Arab talent. So success will be having more opportunities to perform at unique venues and to be associated with great music experience design.
On a specific level (as I mentioned earlier) people should walk away with a sense of how sound art and music relate to each other. I guess reaching my funding goal is a sign of success too; possibly the most important one!
How do you discover new music?
Honestly though, I’m not very consistent with my music discovery. So I will use anything from Turntable.fm and Spotify to buying random music in analog formats (e.g. vinyl and cassettes).
I have heard you refer to the music industry as being broken. How does a musician succeed in a broken industry?
You need to have a unique content strategy. In the United States, the infrastructure exists to succeed and your content is part-and-parcel of your craft. I love the way musicians are experimenting with music videos, apps, microsite, and other forms of content. I came across a website today called Patreon. It’s a crowdsourcing site for specific pieces of content, which is a genius idea. Historically speaking, bands like Nine Inch Nails, Gorillaz, and Amon Tobin are pushing the boundaries of how music is experienced. So audiences will become increasingly more hands on and comfortable with multiple experiential layers, which means they feel entitled to expect more! Therefore musicians must be daring and transparent to be competitive.
You have to think laterally to survive a broken industry like music. This is why I will continue to position myself as a songwriter who draws on cultural trends beyond entertainment. I am looking at my songs and asking: how can I develop music experiences that are more in line with my cultural observations and insights?