Omrr (Omar El Abd) is a 33-year-old Egyptian musician, sound artist and guitarist based in Cairo. His recent release Music for the Anxious might not be a surprise for some, but probably many of us remember El Abd from the early 2000s for being a skilled progressive rock guitarist.
In the second in our series of in-depth interviews with musicians, Kamila Metwaly shares part of an ongoing dialogue with Omar El Abd, contemplating organized sounds vs music, dissecting intention vs intuition and meditating on form vs abstraction (maybe even: unshackling the con- from the artist).
I met Omrr in 2004. We played and performed music together for five years in a band called Forgotten Notes, which broke up in late 2008. Reconnecting after eight years, I was surprised to find out that he had axed his guitar for a GUI (*Graphical User Interface) / strings for wires / stomp boxes for plugins — or so it seemed… Mostly though, I was startled by how much I liked the results.
This interview was conducted over the course of two Skype sessions. I was in Berlin and Omrr was in Cairo. One day, I called to ask him about the updates for his (then) upcoming release Music for the Anxious. We ended up not just talking about the album, but about music in general and the processes of creating music/sound.
On day two, I decided to follow Murray Schafer’s concept of working with music/sound art students outlined in: “Ear Cleaning” and “A Sound Education: 100 Exercises in Listening and Soundmaking”. I sat Omrr down and made him listen to his album as though it were natural sounds happening around him, moving from the composer’s chair into the auditorium.
KM: How did you go from playing in a progressive rock band as a virtuous, highly trained guitarist to creating this kind of music? What happened?
OA: At some point I had to give up skill for sound’s sake. That’s a short summary of why the transition happened. I started getting out of the bubble, which for me was playing in a conventional band that had become boring. I felt that what I did there was not a free form of expression, and it inhibited my creativity. Everything I did was based on a single instrument, which was limiting. It didn’t allow me to express myself in any other way but the way the instrument dictated onto me. That can work for others, but it didn’t for me.
At some point everything started sounding the same, what I played and what others played, and I was truly bored. I started looking for something else. I wanted to take full control of every aspect of the composition myself, its arrangement, its instrumentation, sound mixing and production, stepping beyond the limitations of instruments. Suddenly, the landscape of what I could do became much wider. In a band you have pillars, but you don’t have dimensions.
I remember I listened to a couple of musicians who blew my mind – I didn’t even know such music existed. I started digging and I found a different world of music making. It all started with [British singer-songwriter] David Sylvian and [Austrian composer and guitarist] Fennesz. I fell in love with Sylvian’s more experimental pieces and how he works with vocals. I was hooked not only on the genre but also on the idea that I don’t need all that skill.
That made me grab the guitar and make ambient music that was only guitar-based for a while. It took some time before I let go and stopped thinking altogether. Today, I use everything and anything to create what I want to listen to, and I feel the urge to use what I can — sonically speaking — on the spot. If I don’t capture that sound, it’s gone.
KM: But there are examples of artists who approach instruments limitlessly, such as John Cage, or Keith Rowe and his experimental noise pieces for a prepared guitar. Artists who work with an instrument but change the traditional form of playing it, creating a new language for it.
OA: I don’t think there’s a rule for how we should create. Cage’s prepared piano was his personal choice to not limit himself to the piano’s traditional sounds/notes. We are all so very different. For me, my instrument was approached with my previous perception of it. But in Music for the Anxious, everything was improvised. Those were floating thoughts translated into sounds, and none of the sounds had a specific shape in my head beforehand. I didn’t know what would I use to produce them — it could have been a guitar or a pot in my kitchen. The mind was working subconsciously — yet I heard the melodies, the composition, the harmonies.
KM: Why do you call Music for the Anxious “free form?”
OA: Maybe because of my inability to define it with terms such as “ambient,” “experimental electronic,” or “electroacoustic,” etcetera… All those are rigid definitions that do not encompass all that this album is for me. I express myself in a very raw, subconscious way. I don’t want to think about everything I do with music. This way when I’m working on a piece, I feel enabled because I’m not following a traditional form of composition, directed by what you know or like hearing, or even how you play an instrument. What I like about “free form” is that it is a more of a subconscious form of expression, there are no rules that anyone has to follow, and each person has the space to create sounds/music in a very personal way, using very personal tools and techniques.
I create things while recording them. In the beginning, it’s a little blurred, but once I have a recording or a sound on hand, I tweak things a bit. I don’t sit for weeks working on the sound or production though. I really leave the sounds as they are — well, to some extent. It’s not a composition — it’s not an arrangement, and I don’t intend to append meaning to anything.
KM: So, if I ask you now what the reasons are behind your current work, what would you tell me?
OA: That I can’t “reason” with you, unfortunately. I have nothing to share with you. For me, the reason behind expression is not to think. I can’t tell you why I chose this or that sound, why I chose that instrument to work with, or why I even produce this work. It shouldn’t be important what my reasons were. Also, if I had any reasons, they probably already changed from when I created those songs — then what? Am I supposed to constantly keep explaining myself to others about the reasons I have never had? I don’t need to explain myself. It makes me feel that it becomes a creation— a projection or a thought that becomes something defined — not an expression. I’m sure that many times I have immediate delusional reasons, like: my girlfriend dumped me and I made a song and that break-up contributed to the expression — but is it the reason? No. I think sounds can’t describe situations like words can, sounds cannot document a reason like words can. So, if I’d really want to have a reason for expression, I might as well just grab a pen and a paper and write it down instead of going through all this hassle of music making [laughs]. This is of course my personal approach to things — it’s not universal.
KM: I feel that a big part of what you’re doing comes from your ability to be a very skillful instrumentalist, and that that instrument has a very evident place on the album.
OA: How I played the guitar before has definitely contributed to what I am doing today. I’ve had conversations about this many times, especially with Rami Abadir, but I reached a point where I feel that I do not need to overthink what I did before. How I changed — musically speaking — has to do with the fact that I had been doing conventional music for a very long time and reached a point where I really couldn’t do it anymore. I hated myself and had to start something new. I don’t see what I did as something bad, or something I should hide — it was a transition and I needed it and I moved on.
KM: Are there songs that you hate and removed from this album?
OA: Yes, there’s one. After listening to it, I just couldn’t. I was very unhappy on one of the pieces, big time [laughs] but it ended up being released — it was Nymphomania. The reason it stayed was that my girlfriend — thankfully — told me it would be a wrong decision to remove it. I also hated Mirak, after the record label advised me to remove it. I carefully listened and hated it immediately. That’s why I stopped listening to the things I make — it can be counterproductive at times.
KM: What I really like is that you did not completely move away from creating melodies, and you aren’t intimidated by the fact that you created melodies before too, but as a guitarist in a band. I like that you’ve not become a purely experimental sound artist but a melody-driven electronic musician.
OA: I’m happy with that too. There is no reason you should decide to move away from harmonies either. Anything based on a decision is considered a marketing move to me. And sometimes we think too much, which makes us fantasize about what type of artist we’d want to become, and of course our past can chase us down and slow us down by becoming this burden of something that we so don’t want to be anymore. But I don’t mind melodies. It’s just what comes out. Next time it could be just a static noise or a penguin’s scream.
KM: You also work with a lot of other instruments — a computer, pedals, effects, recorders… How does this process work?
OA: I look at making music from a unidirectional perspective. I don’t want to limit myself. I know people say less is more, but it doesn’t work like that for me. Using different elements, instruments, my computer, even a new plugin to produce music, gives me space to widen my expressive vocabulary. If I limited myself to the guitar, for instance (going wild and experimenting with other elements, not only traditional playing), I would not find what I was looking for. I’d get bored. I really don’t want to be a person always producing the same work with different interpretations. It’s like having conversations with someone about the same topic but each time from a slightly different angle. I don’t want to limit myself to the things I’m comfortable with, instruments that I know or sounds that I know by heart.
KM: As far as I know, you produced this work over a year ago. How do you feel with it being released today, especially in view of changing reasons and working differently each time?
OA: The release is very old. I made the deal with [French label] Eilean Records seven months ago, and this work was already there then. Most of the pieces have been there for at least another seven months. I am happy that I wasn’t also working under the pressure of needing to release with a record label — I’ll never do that — but actually submitted a semi-final album to the label. I tried to master the work with a few people aboard, but I ended up mastering it myself. I wasn’t really happy to do that because I ended up spending so much time doing a lot of technical work. The album is old and when I listen to it, at times I feel a little bit embarrassed.
KM: Around a year ago, you called me and told me how excited you were to have found “the” record label for you, Eilean Records. What made you work with them specifically?
OA: I approached them because they have a very interesting and different take on things. They’ve created a map that consists of 100 points. Each point represents a release. After 100 releases, the label will shut down. Also, when signing with an artist, they ask the artist to send them a sample of the soil from the artist’s country. They put this soil in a jar, which is displayed on the label’s premises. I don’t know what will happen with the jars after they release their 100 artists, but I’m sure that they’ll do some interesting project with it. I’m very happy to be working with them.
The label is run by Mathias Van Eecloo (Monolyth & Cobalt), who is also a brilliant musician and person. In the past seven months, he was very supportive and gave me tons of important advice. He really knew what I was looking for as a musician and facilitated everything he could to make this release special.
KM: You have self-released other works before, such as The Quiet Ones. Many feel that they were pre-releases of what you have now, but maybe not having the same maturity or intensity, which makes them very different. How do you feel about your previous releases?
OA: I don’t see them as pre-releases, and I definitely don’t see Music for the Anxious as more mature and intense. It’s just a matter of packaging, in my opinion. I might agree in terms of production quality perhaps, but that would be a very narrow way of looking at things.
KM: How many guitars do you have?
OA: Around 16. Most of them are vintage, made in Japan.
KM: Which ones are your favorite?
OA: I would say that each one has its own personality, but, for a nostalgic reason, I would go with the made in Japan Fender Stratocaster 1983. It’s as old as I am.
KM: Did you use many guitars on the album?
OA: I used a very small guitar that I bought as a present for my nephew in most of the recordings. It’s a mini guitar — I can’t plug it in anywhere — so I had to record it on either my computer or a recorder or anything at hand when I was using it. I love this guitar. It’s very raw and at times very disturbing because of that, but it made me feel that I was working with something similar to a guitar but not a guitar that I’m used to — not a proper one.
KM: What else did you work with?
OA: Practically anything I could lay my hands on that produced the sound I wanted. You name it. I worked with a lot of field recordings, various plugins and sound-generating software. But I don’t remember what I used exactly, and I’m not sure how could I reproduce it.
KM: Give me the geeky stuff?
OA: Usually I don’t like the tech talks. I removed the “gear & toys” part from my descriptions on my Soundcloud and website. I was advised to do so by Stephan Mathieu, a musician and sound artist who told me: “You produced this album, not the gear. It’s also distracting to read that.” He’s so right. I immediately removed it. But why the hell not, let’s do this.
For starters I use Ableton Live as my main DAW [Digital Audio Workstation] with Max for Live. Before, I was a Logic Pro user. Max for Live was the reason I switched to Ableton.
As for things that produce sounds: I use Reaktor a lot, mainly for its sound generators, such as metaphysical function, Skrewell and Antonio Blanca’s Lemurized Spacedrone. Max/MSP PPOOLL is on the top of the list too, I discovered it by stalking Fennesz. It’s just amazing. I mainly use it to produce noises, crackles and other disgusting sounds. For synth, lately I’ve been using Omnisphere 2, a universe of soundscapes and electroacoustic libraries. Absynth, Arturia plugins, GlitchMachines, Kontakt libraries such as NI Kinetic Metal, Soniccouture Geosonics and Glassworks, NI’s The Giant Piano.
Now the things that shape sound: SoundHack plugins are on the top of the list, Waves Plugins, Illformed Glitch 2. I kept this one for last: The Mangle. It’s a granular synth that is absolutely gorgeous. I use it for transforming audio files to produce immensely wide soundscapes.
I also work with a lot of field recordings. I capture sounds on the go, not in a specific place or time, but sounds that attract my listening. I record desk noises and acoustic and classical guitars.
I work a lot with the iPad. There are tons and tons of extremely interesting apps to work with, to name a few: Soundscaper, iVCS3, FLUX by Adrian Belew, Animoog, Borderlands and Lemur — the ideal controller that interconnects everything with Ableton Live. I absolutely love working with an iPad. It’s a very playful device and one can use it in very diverse ways when making music. It’s funny: I bought it as a media consumption device but ended up using it as an instrument — and a very good one.
I work with hardware too. I love Boss Rod-10, a multilevel distortion and fuzz pedal. It has a very organic sound, but also very transparent. It brings the harshness to the sound without taking over it.
There’s a lot more, I wouldn’t be able to list everything. I always try to test new plugins, libraries, Reaktor ensembles, Max devices and new means of making music. It’s an ongoing process and always evolving.
KM: How do you see yourself performing this album live?
OA: I don’t want to perform this album live in a conventional way. Performing in the regular context of going on stage and just standing in front of a mixing console, trying to mix this work in a different way, would be pretentious — at least to me. I have some blurry ideas in my head, but nothing solid yet. All I know is that I want it to be a new personal experience, which means that most likely I would not want to work with a regular visual projection that plays behind me.
KM: I totally understand, but I don’t feel that you have to necessarily chose a stage. There are different forms of performance. You can exhibit your work, or work with a multi-channel sound set-up — you name it. I think your problem is the concert format, isn’t it? Why think of stage then? Or limit yourself to the idea of the stage?
OA: That’s the blurred part. I would want to think of “performance” just like the way I do with music. I don’t know what exactly will that mean or be. I have some ideas in mind, but I don’t think that I will be able to implement them in Egypt, which is my first problem. My second problem is that I’m not sure I will find the audience for such ideas in Egypt.
KM: Have you considered working with a visual artist?
OA: I am looking for someone at the moment for my upcoming release. I’m not planning for it to be just a musical release — I thought it could be nice to delve into visual representation of my sounds too. Music is not enough. For now though, I am lacking the skill to produce a visual representation of that work.
KM: How do you see the connection between sound/music and image? Would there be a leader and a follower? Would visuals support your work, becoming an extension to the sound, or a contradiction?
OA: I don’t think of it as an extension or layer but more of an independent form, which together with music could create the illusion of purpose. Interconnected if you want it to be. With the music, I’ve expressed what I wanted, and I’d like visuals to say more — not the same thing.
KM: That makes me feel that you’re not interested in being a musician but a sound artist. I remember, however, that you recently told me that calling you an artist or a musician is offensive. Why do you consider it offensive, and how do you want others to refer to you when describing what you do?
OA: I define “being an artist” as a job or a person who dedicated his life to do so. I don’t think I’m an artist, and it’s insulting to real artists to call me one because I am an amateur hobbyist. Calling me an artist is an overstatement. I have spent much more time working on being a corporate slave than making art or sound art; meanwhile, there are so many people out there that are actually doing art full time.
I’ve been working in the corporate world for as long as I remember, and I still am working to make money because I can’t afford to start even thinking about becoming an artist or taking art or music as a job, especially in Egypt. I would probably have a difficult time making a living if I did.
KM: What do you do for a living?
OA: I’m an owner of a digital publishing company, Epic Media House. We own and operate digital destinations here in Egypt. We have a network of websites on which we sell advertising and sponsorship spots.
KM: How long did it take to produce Music for the Anxious?
OA: My works are very spontaneous. I don’t think about them a lot and don’t even do much with them — they just happen. This album took me around two days to make. Then the technical part, mixing and mastering, of course took much longer. It happens so fast. I feel that I haven’t worked enough to be credited for it. When I received some appreciation, I thought it was too much for what this album is about.
KM: I made a listening exercise for you. I’ll ask you to answer a few questions after you have listened to your album differently. The questions are based on Murray Schafer’s listening exercise guide “A Sound Education,” which suggests “ways teachers might help students to listen more effectively.” I’m interested to know how you can hear your work differently through some of these questions, and how you will recall the process of creating this album.
Make a list of your favorite songs that appear on your album. Write down why you like them, how they emotionally affect you and why.
OA: This City Lies: This one reminds of our city’s life rage and how beautiful the thought of leaving it can be. Nataly: I like this one because it reminds me of her.
KM: “Compositions should be discussed and criticized. We are novices in the field and should not be so arrogant that we cannot benefit from criticism.” Write down the songs you don’t like. Why?
KM: What is the most memorable sound you hear now on this album?
OA: On Sins & Wine @1:15, the high frequency buzz.
KM: Can you share with us some of the recorded sounds that we hear on Impeccable (She Likes Tulips)?
OA: Chopsticks, Kamila Metwaly’s voice, things burning (candles, matches, a lighter), glasses, iPhone electronics noise, circuits.
KM: “Sometimes there is a contradiction between a sound and the object producing it. One may be attractive and the other unattractive.” Can you think of attractive sounds that appear on this album that come from visually unattractive sources?
OA: A falling building, a construction site, a few street fights, the sound of peeing and other toilet elements.
KM: “Do sounds have color? For some people they do. Discuss what colors some of the sounds in your collection, in this case Music for the Anxious, might be. Why?”
OA: After listening to This City Lies, I think I see it as blue and white. I can see myself lying on a train roof, looking only up for the whole time. Yellow for Impeccable (She Likes Tulipes), which reflects the soft, gentle skin of a human being. With Nataly, I see red, because she is shy, anxious and doubtful.
KM: “No two communities sound the same.” In our case, no two albums sound the same. What sound makes your album different?
OM: That would be the sound of my nephew’s tiny broken guitar. It’s a very special detail. I don’t think its sound could be replicated or sound the same on anyone else’s work.
KM: “The soundscape is constantly changing. Old sounds are constantly disappearing. (Where are the museums for them?) Also new sounds are constantly invading the soundscape.” How many sounds can you remember hearing from your youth that are no longer heard today? And what are the new sounds that are a part of today’s soundscape that you’ve acquired and possibly used in this work?
OA: Sounds I don’t hear anymore: Family game duck hunter trigger gun sound. 8-bit ringtones. People I know that passed away. The dial-up modem connecting sound. The VCR re-winder. Old phone ring tones. The newspapers being thrown on the balcony by a paperboy. Creating a sound on impact with the floor.
Sounds that are only part of today’s soundscape: Facebook notifications. Charging and battery low sounds. Donald Trump’s voice.
KM: Then there are sound paradoxes. One example is: “two things collide but only one sound is produced. A ball hits the wall, I drop a pen on the floor, I tap my foot against my desk — in each case a single sound results. We might call it a case of one plus one equals one, which is a mathematical impossibility. Utterly illogical but perfectly natural.” Do you recall any of the sounds on the album like that?
OA: Yes, a lot of sounds behave similarly. Loose guitar strings hit by a pen, and coins dropped on a desk in This City Lies. Chopsticks hitting desk objects such as cups, ashtray and plastic in Impeccable (She Likes Tulips). Hammer and spoons hitting kitchenware on Nataly.
KM: Complete the sentence with as many variations as you feel like: Silence is…
OA: Silence is viral. Silence is contagious. Silence is sexy. Silence is underrated. Silence is violent. Silence is okay. Silence is home.
KM: Thank you for doing that. Why did you call the album Music for the Anxious?
OA: A friend was listening to it and told me that this kind of music made her anxious. She didn’t say: I don’t get it? Or, why all the noise? It just made her feel anxious. No matter what she thought of it, it put her somewhere beyond obvious deformities, which I loved and decided to call the album that.
KM: Tell me about the series of videos you’ve produced that appear on your YouTube channel.
OA: The Dulcet Noise video is based on Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), which is a public domain film. But that was just doodling — don’t pay attention to it. The other one is Mathias Van Eecloo’s teaser video for This City Lies piece from Music for the Anxious.
KM: Tell me more about the artwork and the handmade copies of the CD. Why did you chose the CD format while the whole world has a fetish for vinyl releases?
OA: The artwork was made by Cameron Robbins. He harnesses the forces of nature such as rain and wind, and uses this kinetic energy to create amazing drawings through his drawing machines. It’s hard to describe his works, but I really love what he did.
As for the CDs, I didn’t choose that format — it’s how Eilean Rec. work. In general, I don’t think that record labels release on CDs or vinyl for listening experiences — they’re collector’s items which help the label to generate some income to sustain its operations. That’s why you find many labels nowadays even releasing on cassette tapes.
KM: Is there any musician you want to work with?
OA: David Sylvian would be top of my list.
KM: What do you listen to?
OA: I don’t listen to popular music at all. I mostly listen to independent and small record labels’ music. I pick a record label, if I like how they chose their artists, and I dig in and listen to more of their releases. I really like listening to releases on 12K. Also Erased Tapes Records has a pool of great musicians, as well as Unknown Tone Records and others.
KM: What’s next for you?
OA: Eilean Rec. produce a yearly compilation release, which includes one piece from each artist released with the label throughout the year. This year’s compilation was released on December 12 and I released a single called Prelude on it. Prelude is sort of a transition from Music for the Anxious to the upcoming album I am working on, which I hope will be an audiovisual work.
KM: Finally, who would you recommend Mada Masr to interview in the future?