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Tarek Atoui - Mort Aux Vaches

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Artist: Tarek Atoui

Album: Mort Aux Vaches

Label: Staalplaat

Review date: Oct. 20, 2008

Computer-generated music has been around for decades now, but it’s still developing a comfortable niche in the live setting. Solo laptop performances are especially prone to critics seeking a more “organic” approach to music-making (you know, with guitars and stuff), questioning the musicianship of a person clicking away at a MacBook. Let’s face it, watching someone stare intently at a glowing screen for an hour doesn’t offer the most enthralling visual display, and there’s no telling what’s actually happening on the other side of the monitor.

It would be incredibly narrow-minded, however, to dismiss the merits of laptop performers on such grounds. As computers have changed the way we make, consume and distribute music, our concept of what constitutes a “musician” should shift accordingly as well; at the very least, advances in software, hardware and media technologies have blurred the distinctions between rock star, artist and computer programmer. With the ever-evolving possibilities of on-the-spot digital processing offered by programs like Cycling ‘74’s Max/MSP, musicians of all walks are creating unique avenues for composition and improvisation, from sample-deconstructor extraordinaire Carl Stone, to Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood.

Lebanese-born, Paris-based composer Tarek Atoui is another example. His debut full-length for Mort Aux Vaches, the groundbreaking series of live, experimental performances from Dutch cohorts Staalplat Records and VPRO radio, is composed entirely from his custom-made patch for Max/MSP, which allows him to meticulously process sound and samples on the fly. The five untitled tracks employ Atoui’s code-writing abilities in real-time, masterfully mutating a collage of circuitry and plunderphonics.

Zipping between the busiest of Luc Ferrari’s concrète and Planet Mu’s beat-induced assault, Atoui’s cuts erupt like a short-circuiting television stuck on channel surf — volatile enough to enamor Shitmat supporters, but too spacious to be accurately lumped in with breakcore. The tracks convey a plotted, rhythmic deterioration though, suggesting order within disorder, a skewed clarity amid the calamity.

The aggression and distortion featured here are likely the product of Atoui’s experience in war-torn Lebanon, as he recorded the tracks live in Amsterdam just days after leaving his native country at the end of the 2006 Lebanon War that summer. Dedicated to “the courage, the perseverance and the resistance of the Lebanese people as well as to the ones of all Arab and worldwide populations who are suffering and enduring illegal and unjust repressions and occupations,” Atoui’s installment of Mort Aux Vaches attempts to filter a tarnished sense of hope from the turmoil, though the digital bombs and resulting smoke make it difficult to notice.

Atoui’s ideas aren’t as clearly articulated through his music as they appear on paper, but they still poke through in bursts of cynical humor and confrontational juxtapositions. His method is novel enough though, and the tracks featured here offer an interesting, if abstract, performance that takes steps toward advancing live compositional techniques within the scope of computer programming. The development of such interactive, innovative software like Max/MSP and its malleable features offer artists a world of potential for multi-media expression and live performance. Plug in Jitter, a video processing extension for Max, and you can even make that lonely laptop session visually appealing. Ain’t technology great?

By Cole Goins

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