We used to play music in shelters. Get vinyls from abroad whenever we got the chance. If found in local stores, M. would break those same records so we'd have the exclusivity to own them... This was Beirut, in 1985. If the whole country was going to hell, our music was not going along with it. It was our life, our time. We were 14, 16 and 17.
All I have from those memories, and others that are much older, are tapes that I found in a box, stored in the attic. Some memories are as old as me. I hear myself talk, I am a stranger's voice that seems to have belonged to me, but got lost somewhere in time. Somewhere in this Pandora sound box that I decided to organize one day.
"Octophonic Diary" was originally composed as an 8-channel sound installation / electroacoustic performance involving a grand amplified piano and 8 speakers. It was based on pre-recorded sounds and music generated from the speakers, spatializing the composition on the one hand, and live piano improvisation on the other. While the work process took about 3 years, the setting kept on changing, almost organically. But the subject remained the same: what were the sounds of memories? Getting inspired from the hard material in my possession, I began to eliminate more than to preserve, to recreate, even to record new ones, and in an attempt to narrate them in an organized polyphonic ensemble, constantly in flux, the idea of the improvised piano performance became slowly unnecessary. I realized I was working with private matter that neither required my presence once the work was over, nor did I feel like playing, i.e. improvising along with it.
Ultimately the work is not so much about remembering, as it is about the limits of memory and its sonic reinterpretation. To what extent does the discovery of lost information cause us to reevaluate our perception of who we were and what were the expectations then: "They used to ask me as a child, what do you want to be in life? What are your ambitions?... think before you act". (Pierre Schaeffer, Faber et Sapiens, 1986)
When the installation was first presented at the Beirut Art Center in Lebanon, it involved 15 speakers embedded in the low ceiling of a confined space. The sound was amplified and spatialized and the visitor would enter as if stepping inside a sound box. Within aural architecture, the components of the piece (composed piano and cello score, text, voices extracted from my childhood tapes, urban landscapes and electronics) had become a multi channel vehicle for a many layered story.
For the City of Women festival in Slovenia, I opted for more intimacy. Since this was a ‘diary', it would be confided as such through a more confidential and personal interface which is a headset -as a bracketing of a certain moment in time. Instead of wrapping everyone in a single acoustic space like in Beirut, each listener is able to travel separately within reminiscences of the past and sometimes the present, like crackles of an old record, or riddles engraved as a 26 min remains of a long lost world. Or are they?
One day before my performance, a young Lebanese minister was killed in Beirut; it was part of the long parade of political assassinations that had started with PM Hariri in Feb 2005. I decided not to tune the piano. It suited perfectly with the chaos of the city I was in (Delhi) and the city I was from (Beirut). A different chaos, but one nevertheless. I had taken the piano out of its normal 'habitat' therefore de-contextualizing an ordinary setting, and was using it to interact with a city that was not mine in a language I knew best. We drove around the busy roads of Delhi with me sitting in the back improvising on the piano, challenging the instrument to connect with the urban environment, almost like trying to fit in a place I didn't belong to. Some drivers would beep back, some would just stare in awe thinking it was a movie that was being shot. Feeling the instrument turn into a purely sonic interface to communicate with cars, rikshaws and trucks was both an intense and painful experiment... and after 2 hours on tortuous roads, the piano eventually gave up.
"September 3, 2007: Just arrived. The boats outside are nearly moored to this residence on the Bosphorus ... I still have to adjust to my new space and its silence. I'm finally in Istanbul, land of the grandfather I've never known."
"Missing Links" is part of a broader work that attempts to reconcile the notion of inherited memory with that of unfettered fantasy; or, how to tackle a singular family history when, over the years, different stories have been told.
I went looking for traces in Istanbul, from archive registers to physical locations; investigating a man who was my grandfather in a city that was not mine.
All I knew of him were romanticised notions: He was born somewhere around 1893, he lived in a palace, his mother was a pianist, his family was wealthy. And all I knew for sure remained the fact that he was a painter who, unlike my other ancestors and the Armenians of the diaspora, had deliberately chosen to emigrate from Constantinople to Beirut in the beginning of the twentieth century.
But the quest was much harder than I thought it would be: My investigations disturbed people and my questions opened old wounds. After the assassination of the journalist Hrant Dink in 2006, and the turmoil that followed, Istanbul's Armenian community was muted and cloaked in an atmosphere of unprecedented fear.
Surveillance cameras surrounded churches where birth certificates were registered, stored in thick volumes and kept in centennial records.
When I was finally able to access these documents, I found that some of them were missing. Others were indecipherable. Most of them were powerfully beautiful.
The only records of reality that I had in my possession were old family photographs, bolstered by the stories my grandmother told my mother, who in turn told me.
On the reverse side of these pictures were numbers and street names, though most often they turned out to be the addresses of photographers rather than the subjects who sat for them. The absence of material slowly contributed to making my grandfather "material" himself. In an attempt to bring focus to a man who seemed to reside only in the blurs of my genealogy, I walked those streets, re-inventing him, re-creating episodes of his life and re-writing his story while taking inspiration from history and my own family's tales.
Slowly moving away from "reality", tracking down evidence became almost unnecessary...
The installation consists of 15 sheets of paper that frame an illustrated account of my grandfather, A. Manass. The papers rest on top of a black wooden box (length 2.30 x width 80 cm - height 90 cm) under which eight 40 W speakers are placed, facing up.