Noise Education

A conversation with Hassan Khan

Hassan Khan is an artist, writer, and musician based in Cairo, and a contributing editor at Bidoun. He just completed a European tour featuring a trio of performances, “I Am Not What I Am,” a lecture, and two concerts, Incidence and The Big One. Works include I Am A Hero/You Are A Hero, Dom Tak Tak Dom Tak, and To The Man Masturbating in the Toilet of the Charles de Gaulle Airport. His largest solo show to date is upcoming in May 2010 at the Kunsthalle St. Gallen in Switzerland.

Hassan Khan’s album Tabla Dubb, a sometimes brutal yet compulsively listenable dialogue between Middle Eastern beats, drum and bass, and Jamaican dub, appeared in 2007 on the 100COPIES label in Cairo.

Michael Vazquez: So, your whole childhood was in Egypt?

Hassan Khan: Actually, I was born in England.

MV: Was your father working on a film there?

HK: Actually, he owned a jeans shop. I mean, he had studied film in London and been involved in the sixties, working as an assistant director in Beirut, making short films and writing about film. And he stayed in touch with that network — when we came back to Cairo, it was because he was going to shoot his first feature. But in London he was selling jeans. He met my mother there, as well.

MV: Was she British?

HK: No, she was Egyptian. She had gone to the UK in the early seventies. But I’m quite mixed, ethnically — my father’s father is Indian, and his mother is Italian. But my father was born in Egypt.

MV: Were your parents very into music? Were you, as a child?

HK: My father had a lot of LPs. He had a very sixties-seventies type of record collection, with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin and stuff. Mostly I remember just the LPs themselves, like physically, as LPs. There was also this cartridge? Before cassettes — it was this weird cartridge that you plugged into a machine.

MV: The 8-track?

HK: Yeah, we had two or three of them. Probably we had a lot of them at one point, but when we moved back to Egypt we lost a lot of things. Most of my dad’s record collection, too. What I remember, a little later, is playing my father’s LPs and recording them onto a cassette recorder with a microphone when he wasn’t at home. There wasn’t a taboo or anything, but for whatever reason I would always do it secretly, when my parents weren’t there. I don’t remember exactly when this was… I was somewhere between eight and twelve, it’s all childhood time, you know? I guess the earliest music-related memory I have is from nursery school — just after we got to Egypt. I was, like, four years old. My mother likes to remind me. The teacher was always complaining that when it was music time and we were supposed to bang on things and sing and that kind of stuff, all I ever wanted to do was be the maestro and just stand and wave my hands and refuse to play with the other kids. So there was an authoritarian streak there already… [Laughter]

MV: Do you remember the first record you ever bought?

HK: I don’t, really. I just remember that among our 8-tracks, there was an ABBA tape.

MV: You don’t have a particular memory of becoming a consumer or a fan or whatever?

HK: Not really. Of course, I was exposed to a lot of different music including Arabic music. My mother took my sister Nadine and I around a lot to see things — not necessarily concerts on stage. For example, I remember going to some clandestine left-wing gatherings where Sheikh Imam was playing oud and singing. Which I really didn’t like, actually. But then also popular Egyptian music, whether in a popular moulid or in a street celebration. My mother had a very good sense of the city, so she would take us to many, many different places and show us many different things. That’s a strong memory I have in general, not just in terms of music. When you’re a child, nothing is really underlined, somehow — it’s like, it’s all there, it’s just there, and it doesn’t matter, you know? So there was no kind of revelation or anything. It was just there.

MV: So, when did that happen for you? Was it in high school? That’s certainly when I discovered music that I am not embarrassed to talk about now… or, at least, differently embarrassed.

HK: For me it was when I got to university…

MV: Ah.

HK: But I went to university when I was fifteen. I was very young. So everything happened at university. Everything happened all at once, in fact — in the span of one year, it’s as if I had lived ten years or something like that. That was when my relationship with music really started developing. It was really a mix of everything. I took a music class in university, a very standard music class where you do a bit of notation, and they give you music history — classical, romantic. And then we were listening to different samples of things and they played something from Pierre Boulez, and it was immediately that that I was interested in. I have no idea why my aesthetic affinity was immediately toward dissonance and intensity, most of the time. So I discovered lots of music, lots of different types of music, from punk to modern classical to free jazz. I also discovered Yassin El Tuhamy, who’s an Egyptian munshid — who’s very famous now among the intellectual bourgeoisie, though he wasn’t as famous then. And then, of course, like every teenager, I got an electric guitar, and I started smashing it and making feedback. And then recording it. I had two tape recorders, and I would make multi-tracks by playing something, recording it, then playing along and recording on the other one — like, six or seven times. [Laughs]

MV: How were you finding out about things? Was there a store or fanzines or a radio station or something? Or a particular clique of people you fell in with? What was the apparatus of your education?

HK: It was a mix, of course. There were friends who had things. There was a store close to my house, called Frequency, that used to have lots of LPs and would record LPs onto tapes and sell you the tapes. But most of the things that would reach the store would almost by definition have to be pretty mainstream. Actually, another source was just the adult people, friends of the family — I started to look at their music collections, which could be more conservative but still interesting — classical Iranian music or whatever it was. Actually I remember being at a friend’s house and discovering that her father had this tape called Bitches Brew, and I just stole it. [Laughs] The thing is, there were a lot of things — movies, books, music — that I had read about, things that you maybe never actually see or hear, and it’s as if you have. You know what I mean?

MV: Yeah, oh yeah.

HK: And they become hugely influential. Through their description, they’re influential. More with music than with film, as I had more exposure and it was easier to see film at university and around town. There was a film library and film classes and programs and stuff. And the Film Critics Association, which was always organizing screenings — not experimental films per se, but still. I didn’t make a lot of distinctions. There are people who are into particular things and who make severe distinctions, like “I’m really into structuralist cinema from the sixties” or whatever. I wasn’t really into distinctions. If it’s commercial, if it’s Hollywood, if it’s art cinema, if it’s super-experimental — basically if I liked it, I was caught by it, then I was really into it.

MV: How much of this explosion of new stuff was part of the university curriculum? And what was your major?

HK: Uh, comparative literature. I knew that I wanted to be a literature major when I got to university. I’d always been into reading, since I was five or so — I read a lot of literature without knowing it was literature — and then at school I had a teacher who became a good friend and who was my literature teacher and a short story writer, and I really developed that interest. So when I got to university I declared my major my first semester, which was not very common. You were supposed to take all these classes to prepare you, first, and I got exempted from them. It was a big deal — I was fifteen years old, and I got into university and got exempted from everything and declared my major, and everyone in the literature department was convinced I was going to be the Golden Child. [Laughs] So I was a severe disappointment for them.

MV: You know, that’s a lot of what college is about, I think. Learning to disappoint others’ expectations. [Laughs] So was comp lit there full of literary theory? In the States, at least, there was this funny thing where English departments were kind of resistant to theory, while comparative literature departments were highly susceptible…

HK: Well, there wasn’t a lot of it, but the little of it there was, I was completely into. It was again a very strong affinity. I was into it much more than my professors, even, so I was kind of pursuing it on my own, and not reading my Aeschylus and Shakespeare. [Laughs]

MV: What was the equivalent, for theory, of your hearing Pierre Boulez? Do you remember the first theory thing you read that kind of blew your mind?

HK: Yeah, I mean — this is not really theory, but Georges Bataille. Actually, in terms of chronology, the first thing I read in that direction was this not especially well-known theorist, Ihab Hassan, who was an Egyptian-American —

MV: Yes!

HK: You know him?

MV: I was just reading something by him about F. M. Esfandiary.

HK: So I read him in class, actually. Probably they assigned him because he was Egyptian, and I remember having that affinity toward it immediately. And then Georges Bataille and Frantz Fanon. Roland Barthes.

MV: Was the Bataille something from the pink book? From Visions of Excess?

HK: No, we were reading Erotism: Death and Sensuality. Actually, one of the very first things I recorded was my friend Firas Al-Atraqchi playing thrash metal and me reading Bataille on top of it, reading from Erotism. In my bedroom.

MV: Yes.

HK: So that epitomizes that, kind of, I guess, yeah.

MV: You know, there’s a Stereolab song on their third record that is sort of a bullet-point summary of Erotism.

HK: What song is that?

MV: “Pack Yr Romantic Mind.” I remember listening to it when it came out and finding it quite hilarious as a secret message encoded in public.

HK: Yeah. [Laughs] It’s a useful secret message.

MV: So, were you in a band at university?

HK: I played in many bands and there was a lot of bedroom music and recording and primitive multi-tracking… I played a lot with Sherif El Azma. A lot of it was just taking your guitar to someone’s house and jamming with them a bit. But we never had any concerts, you know, “gigs.” We were just playing in each other’s bedrooms or houses or sometimes parties, if we got a bit bigger. But I have to say it’s all very blurry; it was a very blurry time.

MV: What was the first group you played out in public with?

HK: Actually, we did have a gig. It was me and Sherif, both on guitar. It was a little gig at the Cairo Atelier in January 1993; we called it Modern Music for the Guitar.

MV: Was it improvised?

HK: No… it was semi-improvised, but we had laid down some basic structures. It was also semi-melodic, there were melodic parts… it was just me and Sherif, I mean we’d been playing together for a long time, so we kind of composed the structure and then performed it.

MV: Can you give me an idea of what it sounded like? I hear what you’re saying about it evolving out of the stuff that you guys were doing together, but, you know — were there other people, musically, who were doing things that related to it, or that you were inspired by? It’s a little hard to imagine.

HK: Yeah. I mean, it was made out of very different sections. So one section was a pentatonic scale, a harmonic minor scale, so it was kind of melodic, acoustic-y melodic. One section was a kind of Schoenberg-type thing, where we limited the notes we were using to one specific transharmonic — can you say that? — pattern, and we played variations of it to death and with great enthusiasm, very nervously, like, plucking at the strings. Another section was more power chords and crazy guitar solo type stuff; another one was a bit like Captain Beefheart a la Trout Mask Replica, without the vocals. There was probably another section that I can’t remember now — that was 1993! But they all hooked up together into one thing. So it sounds a bit odd. It probably wasn’t very good.

MV: [Laughs] You never know.

HK: No, it was probably not very good. But we were very happy. [Laughs] And even though not that many people came, it had some kind of an impact, somehow.

MV: How so?

HK: The key thing is that after this I was approached by Ahmed El Attar, a theater director. He hadn’t been there, but he’d heard about it, and he asked me to become the music director of his theater troupe. That was very influential on what I was doing. He was doing these theater exercises and improvisations with actors, and some of them would be done with live improvised music. And I was just playing the guitar, nothing too complicated, but just being in that situation, responding to what was happening, and seeing their response. Actors are very dramatic people, anyway, so they would break down and start crying or whatever, reaching their inner id, and it was like seeing the materialization of the power of this music. And maybe it’s all make-believe, maybe it’s a bunch of privileged kids who are just being narcissistic. But on the level of the image, this is what happens. You are chugging away at the guitar, and in front of you there is someone who is responding to it. And that’s what’s supposed to happen, you know? So the theater workshop made me very conscious, in a way that was not related to theater, it was just personal. That had a very big impact on me — this idea about performance, and about music, and about materialization or… maybe you can call it sublimation? That’s something that has remained important to me in some implicit way.

MV: Part of what seems interesting to me about your story is the… extreme particularity of it. Or maybe the opposite? At the same time that you describe this incredible explosion of knowledge and experimentation and exposure, it also seems very bound up with the people and the place and the surroundings. I guess what I am wondering is whether you felt very plugged into the outside world at that moment, or whether you were conscious of a kind of insularity?

HK: I think part of it is a function of being a certain age and at the university. In retrospect, when I look at it, we were terribly, terribly isolated. Of course we were. But I didn’t feel that way personally or anything. I think you build your own genealogy, and everything you see or hear or read about becomes internalized, as if it’s part of your history. I’m just describing, I’m not analyzing… I think this is what I was doing in a way. Without ever going to a concert of Schoenberg’s music, it just became as if this was part of my genealogy, and there was no big question about it. And it must have left a big impact on me to this very day. What’s interesting is that it influences you in a different way than it does those who maybe have been exposed to the content itself. But there’s still some weird connection. I don’t know if it makes sense, but I think it’s something like that.

MV: Was there anything besides Schoenberg that you can think of?

HK: I keep coming back to Schoenberg because in Modern Music for the Guitar there was this Schoenberg reference. And I had never listened to Schoenberg.

MV: Right. [Laughter]

HK: So that’s why I keep saying, Schoenberg. But yeah, John Cage’s Silence, I read that book at a very early age. I was also — I was not into mysticism or anything like this, but I was reading a lot of people in Arabic, like Ibn Arabi, and that was hugely interesting for me also, because his language was very philosophical, the language itself. So it was all a mix — John Cage’s Silence, then Ibn Arabi, then, I don’t know, Naked Lunch and William Blake and then… just like that. There was no hierarchy. Also, couple all that with drugs and alcohol, and you get a weird mix.

MV: So did you get into actual “noise music” at this time? While you were getting into all this stuff, were you also listening to Throbbing Gristle or Einstürzende Neubauten or —

HK: Much later. All that stuff I heard later, but I identified with the aesthetic much earlier. I had started doing soundtracks with the theater workshop pretty early on, after working with them for two or three years, and my first soundtrack with them — this was 1996 — had a lot of noise even without my ever really listening to noise music. About the same time, I did my first audiovisual piece, lungfan, with my friend Amr Hosny, a photographer, which we also showed in the Cairo Atelier. And got booed. [MV laughs] And that soundtrack had a lot of recordings of… blenders and stuff. I edited them on tape and multi-tracked them with outtakes from guitar-synthesizer jams with an insane friend of mine who I used to play a lot with. With stuff like that, it’s really, like, making up your own meaning. Which I think is why I never became specifically anything. I never became a “Noise Head,” but I was into it. Maybe the subculture of it was not available so you didn’t need to become a member?

MV: So, when or how did you discover that there was a subculture called noise, and that it had a sound you were in alignment with, and that you could have been an honorary member of it or whatever?

HK: Yeah, uh, [laughs] I mean, it’s impossible to say, really. I must have been aware of it even in a way, in terms of the Futurists and stuff. Because I was quite well informed about art history from early on. Just out of my reading, I was aware of this tendency as part of the early avant-garde, and I was aware that there was some kind of contemporary thing, but in my head “experimental” music was the word I would have used rather than “noise.” But I think The Wire magazine was important for me. It was a bit later when I picked up a copy and started reading it, and I got excited about a lot of the reviews because what they were describing sounded interesting to me. And they had a whole section for “noise.” So that may have been my first encounter with the term. In any case, I know I read about Merzbow a lot before I ever heard him.

MV: That makes total sense, that’s great.

HK: But the funny thing is that you hear something like his and then you suddenly feel not only that you have an affinity to it but that you totally understand it — it’s your own fantasy, of course, but it’s as if you totally understand what they’re doing, and it connects to your whole genealogy, your whole history, seamlessly. You know what I mean?

MV: Yeah.

HK: So it’s as if you’ve been hearing it since you were ten years old. I don’t know. But this is honestly my sensation, has been my sensation as I’ve grown older and more exposed. I really started traveling in 1999, so everything changed then. Because everything became available. And at that time, the internet was starting to show up. But when I encountered these things, I never felt it as a shock. It’s funny, but it never felt like a discovery. It just felt like recognition.