Interviewed & Photographed by:
Aziz Al Motawa
Aziz Al Motawa
Hasan Hujairi's practice exists at the nexus of electronic music, ethnomusicology, maritime history, and historiography. He is a composer, artist, independent researcher, and captivating storyteller across mediums. Hasan's sound art performances and installations are in constant dialogue with his academic research in Historiography and Ethnomusicology, which he presented in different venues in Seoul, Tokyo, London, Glasgow, Amsterdam, New York, Beirut, and Bahrain. This interview delves into his musical influences, experiences working with his mentors, his upcoming album, and matters of time and space in his practice. Hasan also shares his experiences living between Seoul and his hometown, Bahrain, and his learned philosophies of what is musically "traditional" and "contemporary.”
Below is our digital conversation with Hasan Hujairi
AM: As a multidisciplinary artist and an academic researcher, tell us a little bit more about your background.
HH: In terms of what I do, I am a composer, an artist, a writer, a curator, and an educator. But if I were to really sum up what it is I do, I would say that it all comes down to sharing stories that excite me with others.
I am from Bahrain, which is where I am currently based. However, I spent nearly half my life as a student abroad. I completed my undergraduate degree in Finance at Drake University (Des Moines, Iowa), where I importantly received a liberal arts education. I then spent four years in Tokyo, where I completed my Masters degree in Regional Economics and Economic History at Hitotsubashi University. My masters thesis and personal research there was more in line with maritime historiography, and I consider myself of a historiographer than a classical economist. I started but did not complete a PhD at the University of Exeter researching in the field of organology, which is a subset of ethnomusicology focused on looking into musical instruments as subject matters. I was developing an experimental approach to looking into the history of the oud. I finally completed my doctoral degree in music composition and conducting at Seoul National University, where I was mainly affiliated with the Korean Music Program although that did not prevent me from experimenting with electronics and other forms of music traditions.
With all that being said, I think that my education really took place inthose different cities, and not just in classrooms. With all the things I had experienced in those different cities, I believe I learned different things about myself and about what it is I am looking for in my practices. I met so many incredible people who challenged the way I see things, and met so many people who supported and encouraged me in my creative practices. I also think that if my boss from my first job as an accountant in Manama was nicer to me, I’d probably still be an accountant today. Who knows, really.
AM: Would you say your music has gone through different phases, and if so were you conscious of the changes as they were happening or is it something that you were able to analyze after the fact?
HH: I am suddenly reminded of one of John Cage’s ten rules for students and teachers in which he says, “Don't try to create and analyze at the same time. They're different processes.” In those same ten rules, he explains that it is important to break our own rules. So, to answer your question and to evade it at once, the answer I would say is - both!
Out of force of habit, one of the things I have always done is to keep journals of my personal life and observations when it comes to music or my creative practices. The changes I went through musically have always been influenced by conversations I had with artists, world events, personal experiences of loss or grief, books I read, and musical encounters that left me in a state of shock for whatever reasons. I regularly revisit my old journals, to see where my mind was at in a different time and place. I also keep looking for problems or gaps in the logic I used in the past. A lot of the newer music I make is essentially me critiquing my past self, asking the ‘previous’ version of myself as a musician why I didn’t approach something differently. Still, I am arriving at a point in which I am at peace with what I previously did and I am happy with where I am now and where things could potentially go in the future with my music.
Still, I think all I know is that I really love music and making music and thinking about music. I was like this when I was a teenager in my family home listening to different CDs and cassettes, and I still am like this today. The only difference is that now I take more initiative in trying to learn things I did not have access to in the past.
AM: As an Arab composer, how was your experience immersing yourself into studying traditional Korean music and instruments in Seoul? Did it influence a different perspective on how you see traditional Arabic instruments as well?
HH: One of my mentors in South Korea was the late composer and Kayageum master Hwang Byungki (1936 - 2018). I actually fell in love with Korean music after hearing a piece of his from 1974 called Migung (or ‘Labyrinth’) while I was still a student in Tokyo. It was the first time in my life in which I heard someone take a traditional instrument, in his case the Korean Kayageum, and play it using avant garde musical idioms. I felt, as a composer and musician from the Arab-speaking world, that I needed to reconsider my approach to the oud (which is my true main instrument) and my understanding of what ‘traditional music’ could possibly mean. When I finally had the chance to meet Hwang Byunkgi over the course of the six years I spent in Seoul, he kept reminded me that there is no difference between tradition and the contemporary. They are both the same.
Over the course of my studies in South Korea, I also was fortunate enough to spend time meeting with some of my musical heroes such as American composer Pauline Oliveros (1932 - 2016) and Egyptian-American composer Halim El-Dabh (1921 - 2017). I learned from Pauline Oliveros that it is important to present challenging music even if no one else believes in it. I learned from Halim El-Dabh that ‘tradition’ is full of inspiration and that even the idea of the avant garde is a tradition in its own right.
On a final note, I would like to add that it is important to approach learning music traditions from different cultures in a way that is not exoticising or orientalist. At the same time, it is important not to look down at your own culture and heritage, and that it is a responsibility to do your homework on what your own musical genealogy is really all about.
AM: One can observe your work thematically oscillating, blending, and challenging notions of past, present, and future. Could you share some of your thoughts on that?
HH: I think the intention behind my recorded music comes from a different place from the music I perform to live audiences. Most - but not all - of the music I recorded is published through free platforms such as SoundCloud, mostly recorded late at night in my room when I am feeling curious about a musical idea I would like to explore or if I am just unable to really sleep. I’ve been doing this since around 2009, and I consider this a way of learning by doing, but also a way for me to share some of my interests and activities with people around the world. Soundcloud, funny enough, helped me build many great friendships around the world, and I even released my 2017 ‘Throat’ after connecting with Chris Hund from Paxico Records.
The music I perform live is oftentimes intentionally improvised, with lots of room for error, mistakes, and hopefully some happy accidents. I mostly perform in art spaces or events, and on some occasions in experimental music or sound art festivals.
With all that being said, a lot of the music I seem to put out have elements of ‘traditional’ music in it whether by me playing traditional instruments such as the oud, Persian tar or setar, Bahraini claypots associated with Fidjeri music, or event archival recordings as a means of sampling. They are also often fed through tech-driven means of music-making. I like the process of live coding improvised music using tools such as SuperCollider, Max/MSP, PureData, or live coding-specific languages such as Threnoscope, TidalCycles, and SuperClean. I often use modular synthesis processes, both in hardware and software-driven forms. I use a lot of old samplers, cassette recorders, and field recordings. I am sometimes interested in parametric/discrete composition process, and have occasionally dabbled with machine learning/artificial intelligence techniques to come up with some of my musical ideas, too. Past, present, and future aren’t all that divorced from one another, I think.
AM: How do the elements of performance and visuals play into your work?
HH: Like I said, my ‘recorded’ music and ‘performed’ music are generally two different things. When I record music, I often find myself having to make my own visuals and text to go with the music I release. In my live performances, it depends on the context, and obviously, the budget. I generally try my best not to hide behind visuals. When I perform, I want the audience to just directly connect with me without the need for a visual filter. That being said, I have sometimes created pieces of music that are to accompany silent films I had created.
Most of my career as a musician, I have worked with very limited budgets. I have learned to create my own visuals through learning some 3D animation software, creating audio-reactive visuals that are designed for specific performances, and have also played with other tools such as presentation and lighting to create interesting visual experience for audiences. It’s all still a major work in progress, and I have a long way to go.
AM: You’re currently in the works of composing a new album, what inspired this new record? Did you have sound or mood in mind?HH: Well, in the month of July 2022, as we do this interview, I suddenly found myself out of work and at a sudden sense of loss. You see, I worked for a number of years at an art space in Bahrain, which was where I had been pouring most of my focus since my return to Bahrain from Seoul in 2018. I had also worked there for two years prior to my move to Seoul in 2018. I was also a regular contributor to an online regional music magazine and platform that has recently shut down. So yeah, suddenly my whole sense of community both in Bahrain through my day job and the regional music scene took a big hit. I found myself, without really thinking it through, making music nightly using the simplest tools or processes I can think of. After nine nights, I felt that I said what I had to say, and that maybe I should just self-publish under a web-based record label I run called Qarār Records. I did all the music, mixing, mastering, and cover design myself. Partially out of financial limitations I deal with, and partially out of my joy in just doing this kind of thing. The album should be out on July 26th on Bandcamp and on all streaming platforms. It’ll be called ‘Greatest Hits’, which is a tongue-in-cheek way of critiquing how albums are made and how the idea of a recording artist’s music legacy is commercialized. I suppose I’m making fun of myself to an extent, while also just putting out some music so that I can get myself out of the situation in which I find myself.
AM: Some artists describe music as something that doesn’t come from them, but through them – as if they’re a medium that it filters through. Does that resonate with you?
HH: I do have friends - musicians and visual artists - who describe their creative process as just something that happens and that they are conduits or mediums for whatever they create. To me, I’m not quite sure that’s how it works for me. I am usually very conscious about certain processes or tools or rules that I set for myself while putting together a piece of music. I am also usually very aware of whatever it is I am personally going through on a particular day or a period of time, and I try my best to embed that mood into the work as well. Music-making, to me, is an activity that is simultaneously intellectual and emotional. When I hit the record button sitting at my desk, I am carrying with me all the joys and disappointments of that particular day, and I like to think that they somehow found their way into the innards of my computer as it records. When I perform live, a big portion of the sets I present are - by design - unknown to me. This means that I might know what the very first sound I’m going to make will be, but as the performance progresses, I’ll be making decisions in real-time as I improvise. This allows me, I think, to be very honest and vulnerable when I’m on stage. I’d like that to somehow grant some room for whatever it is I am going through that day to come through the music.
AM: Manama and cities in general seem to be a motif in your work. Tell us a little bit about that.HH: Cities, Manama or otherwise, carry their own histories, stories, tragedies, and disasters. Part of my education was in historiography, which is about the connection of time (history) and space (geography). Over the years, as I spent time in different cities and away from others, I got to learn more about myself. In a way, when I talk about a city like Manama or Tokyo or Des Moines or Seoul or Exeter, I’m actually just reflecting on my experiences in life. Sometimes, it might be a play on nostalgia, other times, it might be a speculative view of what the future could be like.
HH: In the immediate present, I am split between hunting for jobs and trying to find a way to move forward with my creative practices. It’s not very easy at the moment, especially with all the uncertainties going on in the world around us. I also don’t want to put on a front that I’m all business when it comes to what it is I do day in and day out. I’d like to find a way in which I could improve the quality of my personal life and my connections with others outside of the realm of ‘work’. Our role as artists is just to be human.
AM: So, what’s next for Hasan Hujairi?
AM: So, what’s next for Hasan Hujairi?