Her recent aural appearance on Touch Records by Genera, a live recording grabbed by Mike Harding at Salon AB in Brussels on May 3, 2019, aroused our curiosity, so we posed some questions to Saudi Arabia-born sound artist Bana Haffar (currently based in Asheville, NC), whose attempt at snazzing some aged schemes in electronic music composition sounds fascinating. Check it out!
Chain DLK: Hi, Bana! How are you?
Bana Haffar:Doing well, thanks.
Chain DLK: Biographical words introduce you as a lifelong expat. Roots are important according to many people, but is the idea of a motherland strictly necessary in your opinion?
Bana Haffar: The Arab diaspora has estranged me from my motherland. I see myself as a sort of airplant, who’s learned to survive wherever conditions permit. I identify culturally as an Arab and will always carry that with me, even though I live in the West. I think the idea of a motherland can be something internal, accessed through maintaining one’s language and cultural connections wherever they are. Whether it is necessary is, of course, personal; to me, it’s a matter of self-preservation.
Chain DLK: How did you get closer to music composition during the childhood you spent in Gulf countries?
Bana Haffar: I was classically trained in piano and violin as a child in the Gulf. I wasn’t actively composing at that age, but I was internalizing international music through osmosis. I was exposed to a lot of Indian and Pakistani music, Khaliji (Gulf) music on the radio, and my parents listed to Western music at home. It was all over the place and I’m sure these early musical surroundings are embedded in my consciousness, peeking their heads through my compositions today.
Chain DLK: Mere curiosity… Is there any school in that area of the world for whoever wants to study or get closer to electronic composition as far as you know?
Bana Haffar: To my knowledge, there aren’t any dedicated electronic composition courses in the Middle East. But, I’ve been living in the US for 14 years now and wasn’t in the synth milieu when I lived there, so I could be wrong.
Chain DLK: How did you fall under the spell of modular synths?
Bana Haffar: I bought my first synthesizer during my bass-playing years, a Moog Voyager. I started tinkering with it and quickly found that the synthesis part was much more interesting to me than the keyboard bit. I told a friend about this, and he recommended I check out modular synths and alternate (non-keyboard) controllers. I started researching Buchla and Eurorack and eventually invested in a small modular system. This separation of sound design from functional harmony tied to the black and white keyboard was monumental for me. It was a chance to begin again and re-define what I wanted out of sound and music.
Chain DLK: Before studying modular synths, you studied other instruments… What’s the distinguishing element of synths that other instruments have besides the hermetic charm of walls of mysterious (for people who have no idea of what they are, of course…not my case!) wires, knobs, LED lights and controls?
Bana Haffar: Yes, I studied piano, violin, and bass before switching to the modular synthesizer. The modular synthesizer can be seen as a deconstructed synthetic sound generator and processor that is not tied to a keyboard, freeing it from sounding like anything else. There are no pre-made connections under the hood, nor are there presets. The synthesist becomes the arbiter of sound from its inception, patching anything to anything, as opposed to being bound by fixed synthesis chains pre- determined by marketing teams and engineers.
Chain DLK: Are there any electronic musicians (of the past or the present) that you consider as a sort of mythological entity for composition skills or just for charisma?
Bana Haffar: Autechre. I’m totally obsessed with Autechre. To me, they are the ultimate sound designers, ruthlessly pushing sound further with each release, crossing formats, mediums, genre, and still going strong almost 30 years later. I mean, are there any sounds left?! They’ve made them all!!
Chain DLK: I was checking your Soundcloud… It’s weird that you’ve made such amazing stuff, but most of it is unreleased… How come?
Bana Haffar: I often ask myself if Soundcloud didn’t exist, would I have spent more time working on those earlier pieces and forming them into an album? Maybe. Soundcloud makes it so easy to upload music and get immediate feedback. It’s become a sort of testing ground for new ideas. But, this is also dangerous because it can prematurely remove us from a trajectory that’s still in development, depending on whether the feedback meets our expectations and how much weight we give it. On one hand, feedback can motivate us; on the other, it can make us lazy, writing off material as “good enough” in response to instant gratification. That said, the positive feedback I got for my early Soundcloud works gave me a push of confidence in what I was doing. I’m now focusing on longer-term releases.
Chain DLK: I also listened to Genera, a live recording released by Touch… really stunning! There are traces of Arabian traditional motifs mixed to old piano tunes and ghostly entities in the first of the five parts, sounding like an exorcism of cultural conditioning… Would you say so? Can you tell us something about the first 7-8 minutes of Genera?
Bana Haffar: The first “zone” of Genera is a microcassette collage of personal recordings. An out-of-sequence dreamscape of accumulated cultural shrapnel. The naay (Arabic flute) samples are audio examples from a book I co-wrote several years ago about Arabic music. The piano samples were of my father playing in the living room, songs he’s been playing since I was a child. There are samples of my mother bossing a cab driver around on a hot summer afternoon in Beirut, Qatari radio songs, Quranic recitation, and other jumbled field recordings. These were layered multiple times over and cut in and out of each other at different speeds on a GE 35383 Micro Cassette Recorder with a dying battery.
Chain DLK: The five parts of Genera are strongly interconnected by elements that appear in both of the adjacent parts…but besides resounding elements, what’s the glue keeping all parts together?
Bana Haffar: The glue is the system and the samples within in. I configured a relatively compact system to be able to travel around Europe with. This meant that I had to re-use the same modules and sounds in different combinations throughout the patch. The output chain was static, further connecting the sections. The samples I used were also limited and reused throughout, just played back differently and processed differently. That’s the technical explanation, at least. The esoteric connections haven’t made themselves clear to me yet.
Chain DLK: Even if you could consider traditions as a sort of cage, I have to say that you kept something of Arabian music…its hypnotic powers! The entities you forged (I was totally fascinated by the third part of Genera, for instance!) are really entrancing. Did you forge music with this feature on purpose or spontaneously?
Bana Haffar: The result was an interplay of pre-planned structures and the spontaneity of unplanned interactions with the modular synthesizer itself.
Chain DLK: How do you remember the moment when Genera was recorded in Brussels? Do you remember an audience reaction or some feedback of the lucky ones who took part in it?
Bana Haffar: The environment in which it was recorded was ideal. AB Salon in Brussels is a dedicated, focused listening space with an excellent quadraphonic sound system and a great pair of Genelec monitors. It also sits on the second floor, away from foot traffic and road noise. The room was intimate and the audience was quiet and focused. There was no clinking of glasses and side conversations like most live venues. It was dead silent and ready to receive. I’m very grateful to Touch and Mich Leemans for inviting me to play in that space. It felt like the ideal setting for this type of performance and listening exchange. I felt like both the audience and myself were able to immerse ourselves in what the synthesizer had to say.
Chain DLK: Any word about the fascinating audio equipment you used to forge Genera?
Bana Haffar: Genera was made using a eurorack format modular synthesizer. I used modules from different manufacturers rather than a complete pre-configured single brand system. The system I configured for Genera was centered around sampling modules with only a single oscillator.
Chain DLK:Is there any synth that you like more than others? If so, why (was it a particular gift or was it related to some specific memory)?
Bana Haffar: I’ve been using the Make Noise Morphagene module a lot these days. It enables the user to manipulate samples in highly creative ways and extract completely new sounds from existing ones. I’m a big fan of Make Noise music. They embody the experimental and speculative spirit of modular synthesis both in their hardware and aesthetics.
Chain DLK: Any work in progress?
Bana Haffar: I’m currently working on a composition for Third Coast Percussion that has been commissioned by Black Mountain College Museum here in Asheville. The piece is going to be inspired by weaving, so I’ve been spending a lot of time doing research, studying looms, and learning how to weave. There are many parallels between looms and synthesizers / cloth and composition.