“Forming a Structure Out of the Chaos I Created” – Hassan Khan Interview @Sonic Shaman

The following interview was originally published on Taiwan Beats.

Hassan Khan (b. 1975), is a Berlin and Cairo-based artist, musician, and writer whose diverse artistic practice constantly engages with performances, moving/still images, choreography, sounds, objects and installations, and writing. His works have been featured at key institutions and international exhibitions: The Guggenheim Museum, Centre Pompidou, Reina Sofia, Venice Biennale, Documenta Kassel, SALT Istanbul, Taipei Biennial and many more.

As a notable musician since the early 90s, Hassan Khan’s musical approaches closely combine improv, graphic scores, production work in the studio with session musicians, and computer programming with elements from genres like electronica, jazz, hip-hop, New Music and sonic traditions like Shaabi – the popular Egyptian music genre, and Gamelan – the Javanese ensemble music. He has performed in festivals and venues like Contact(less) Festival, Maerz Musik Festiva, Ruhrtriennale, Intonal Festival, Portikus, Stockholm Music and Art Festival, Ghetto, and The Louvre Auditorium amongst many others.

Khan was invited by TheCube Project Space to exhibit the AI-generated never-ending The Infinite Hip-Hop Song installation at MoCA in 2021, though he was unable to physically visit Taipei during the pandemic. With the border reopening in October 2022, Sonic Shaman – TheCube Forum Music Festival had Hassan Khan on the lineup to perform the eponymous live set, a constantly evolving hip-hop set based on the massive database of modifiable original musical content initially produced by the artist for the installation including the edited studio recordings of a diverse set of rappers delivering lyrics written for the piece by the artist.

Q: Most of your projects are mostly large-scale and involve a lot of different approaches and collaborations, especially the algorithmic AI generated –The Infinite Hip-Hop Song. How did you manage to work with talent from different backgrounds?

I have worked with a lot of different people, mediums, and approaches for the past 25+ years; including actors, musicians, craftsmen, designers, architects, photographers, film crews, music arrangers, sound engineers, computer music programmers and even technocrats and administrators as all part of how works come to be.

However, I do not necessarily work with everyone in the same way. It really depends on the project and what kind of relationship I have with those I am working with. In some projects, I am the boss and I just simply tell people what to do, others can involve working in more collaborative or experimental ways. The Infinite Hip-Hop Song is a complex project that exists as both an installation and a live concert. The production involved several stages including of course the actual computer music programming, which Olivier Pasquet (also participating here at Sonic Shaman Festival) did in response to my vision and concept, of course, there was a lot of back and forth and his deep experience and knowledge and the fact that he is a trained composer himself was all very very generative for the project.

I worked with the rappers the way I would with studio session musicians, which meant running the sessions as a producer-director: first introducing the project, then reading and discussing the lyrics, and then using beats specially produced for the recording sessions only to lay down the bars. I relied upon each rapper’s distinct style and approach- their strengths which were already identified in the casting, yet the production (and here my experience working with actors is relevant- because in a sense I directed their vocal delivery) was driven by the content of the lyrics and my general musical vision for the project as a whole. It’s important to remember that they’re not rapping their own bars and therefore my direction was also a way of exploring these lyrics and their meaning. This was all very clearly explained to each rapper at the beginning of the session.

Originally I even wanted to record the rappers on a click with a bpm without any accompanying music or beats. However, Rabih Beani who I had hired to manage the sessions argued with me (rightly so) that that would probably not work and be too difficult for them to express the kind of emotions and textures I was looking for in their flows: loud aggression, quiet menace, whispering frustration, calm paranoia, chilled out expectations, etc. So we had specially made dummy beats for the studio sessions (which were never used in the actual work) for them to rap over.

Q: You’ve played in a nightclub called VENT in Cairo. Do you DJ sometimes?

No, I don’t DJ, and I never identify as a DJ because everything I perform is either composed, produced, or improvised, which is a different relationship to the actual musical material a DJ has. But my first album/solo music project Tabla Dubb (2001), which I am not going to label as dance music or not dance music or not-not dance music (laughs), works in a dance context and was performed using a DJ set-up. Of course anyone can dance to anything if they feel like it and I’m not producing specifically for the club- I’m just working with impulses.

There are pieces though that are friendlier to that zone than others. Club Gamelan (2014), which I premiered at VENT, at the time Cairo’s most musically adventurous club now sadly closed, was produced with the idea of performing it in a club in mind. An interesting thing about music for me (probably not a very fashionable thing to say) is that there are borders between genres and specificities to them that people take seriously, yet at the same time everything is also fluid- a beautiful contradiction. This contradiction offers something very valuable and exciting if you are not designing your work around genres – first, it means you can approach anything in any way, but also whatever you do with these musical genre languages will be understood in a profound way, you get me? The space is open because it’s sort of closed! What I can’t stand though is the idea of “fusion”!

Hassan’s performance at Sonic Shaman, Taipei


Q: There’s a trending genre in the club scene called “Global Club”- producers taking the musical textures from their heritage on top of mixing with regional grooves. However, sometimes producers in Asia carefully rethink if it’s a form of cultural appropriation since most Asian countries are not widely multiracial like the US, UK, and Europe. Do you have this struggle and concern when developing music?

I think my approach is a bit different. Because I do not sample sounds from different places at all. I produce the material; I work with musicians or with myself or on the computer and I produce the content- and I use that content as a musical language, not as a signifier of somewhere else. I think that’s already a big structural difference. Of course, what’s now called “Global Club” is not that new – it has been going on for ages- we had World Beat in the 80s for example. I think we need to differentiate between looking at industry practices (which should be monitored, questioned, and critiqued for their exploitation of musicians- especially marginalized ones) in terms of rights, distribution, fair profit return, and credit. We all know that musicians from certain parts of the world are not protected, their content is used for commercial purposes but they are not getting any or very little back. However, this is a different conversation from looking at how music is constituted with time, how culture travels and creates its realities instantaneously, and basically what music is and means. This is not the same conversation and it’s dangerous to confuse them.

My counterargument here is to the idea of music being pure. Music has never been pure. Music, even indigenous music, has historically always been hybrid, everywhere in the world. You will always find that influences are myriad. Any form of contact (whether benign or violent) immediately creates a response and human history has been one of constant change and transformation. Do you know of  the “Slack-key guitar” in Hawaii? In the late nineteenth century, Portuguese and Mexican Cowboys were invited to Hawaii to teach the locals how to herd cattle- they brought with them Spanish guitars some of which were left when the cowboys departed after finishing their mission. Hawaiian musicians picked up these guitars and changed their tuning and started playing this style (which still has elements of Spanish music and Country Music) using open chords and finger picking which is now identified as a Hawaiian local genre- I love this story because it very clearly demonstrates how hybridity and the global effects of commerce and politics are part of what music is. The idea of “purity” easily and dangerously slides into Nativism, Fascism, disguised Racism, and reactionary traditionalism.

There is a lot of terrible music that takes ethnic sounds from here and there and uses them to ornament some banal beat. I might hate it as music, but I’m never going to say you cannot make it. It’s dangerous to take the position of censorship. Even if a lot of this music is superficial and exploitative, even if it is cynically commercial music that horribly feeds exotic stereotypes. The power of music is also complex (and this is a quote from my text piece Purity): “And let us remember, always, that even the cheesiest song can save your life one day.”

Q: Does having a comparative literature background play a big role when it comes to narrating and researching during the musical process, and creating a dialogue between you and the audience?

I studied Literature because as a kid I was a big reader – books, all kinds of books modernist poetry, Science Fiction epics, Victorian Novels, Astronomy, History, Mythology, and Classical Arabic Metaphysics which all gave me a sense of understanding what I am going to call here “human civilization”. When I entered university I decided to study Literature – I wanted to be a writer.

And with time I plunged into theory – now all of this exposure gave me powerful tools when it comes to working in art and music – a sense of self-criticality a fantasy or understanding of what one is doing not in terms of self-expression but rather in terms of what it means to the world itself. It sensitizes you to structure of course  (but so can a music education), and also what that might mean to the public. It allows you to understand that you are working with a language and that you can always produce your tools from scratch. Most importantly for me, it makes me understand what music is NOT – so in a strange sense it heightens my appreciation for the possibility of breaking things.

Q: How do you feel about music streaming services? 

Well, I mostly use Soundcloud which I kind of like (I am also on Spotify but don’t like using it)- because it undeniably gives you more access to everything, and it is a tad inelegant. Of course, in terms of revenue streams, artists still have a long way to go to assert their rights. Interestingly I mostly listen to albums on streaming platforms, seldom playlists or the boring algorithm so I guess I am a grumpy old user.

Q: You often introduced your mixer in many interviews. Could you tell us why it is so special?

I’m not using it here this time because I have another set-up for The Infinite Hip-Hop Song Live! but it’s an old 90s Mackie 1202. I bought it secondhand over twenty years ago from my friend Brian Wood whom I was making music with at the time, he is one of the coming Taipei Biennial curators. I remember I read an article on Toshimaru Nakamura (with a photo of him holding that same mixer) in a second-hand copy of The Wire I bought in Cairo in early  2000 and I immediately plugged my outputs into my inputs (laughs). However my impulse was maximalist – so I daisy chained many pedals, split signals bounced mixers, and even used live miking to enhance the feedbacking loop – my mixer was not a no-input zen act of purity but a feed-backing beast. Now after more than twenty years of working with this mixer, it’s like an intimate instrument for me.

It’s also incredibly sturdy as it’s been beaten up and abused deeply for years- feedbacking mixers have to of course bear incredibly loud signals. My Mackie is a very raw chaotic synthesizer that I have been pushing to the limit. However, it has survived. I have a deep respect for this mixer. Every concert I use it I wonder if will it finally give up – but I like to think the love goes both ways. 

A lot of the time for my named sets- I work with Mackie mixer in relation to an Eight channel live bounce from a laptop session with music that I produced in the studio (String Quartets, Arabic Takhts, Clapping, Singers, Piano, etc..), and this relationship between the composed and the deeply chaotic is how I craft a live concert, how sets like TarabanThe Big OneLive Ammunition! Music for Clapping, String Quartet, Live Electronics, and Superstructure are all performed. Of course underlying all of this is the fact that I use this Mackie to produce chaotic structures, not just chaos but actual structures on the brink. What I’m doing with this chaos is shaping it, forming it and creating a form out of it, and then putting it in relation to the composed. It is music at its most fundamental. It is very powerful.

Q There is a wide cassette selection you introduced to London’s Vinyl Factory readers. Is there any Egyptian music you’d love to share with us since Egypt and Taiwan are both geographically and culturally far from each other?

There are of course new and excellent musicians coming out of Cairo’s experimental club scene: for example 3phazABADIR, El Kontessa, and ZULI. Of course, there is also incredible stuff on cassettes.

I spent the 90s listening to tons of Egyptian music from the classical Shaabi of Ramadan El BrensAbd-El Baset HamoudaShafiqa, and Ahmed Addawiya to the Inshad of Yassin El Tuhamy and Ahmed El Tuni, the high romanticism of Ref3at Garana, the incredible Tarab of  Youssef El Manialawy. The past period saw the Hip-Hop explosion (one of the main motivations for The Infinite Hip-Hop Song was when I began listening to Egyptian Hip-Hop) there were tons of guys who were very good, but The thing with hip-hop is that they’ve all sold out (laughs). When they start making a lot of money and getting a huge fanbase, which is great and I understand, their music immediately becomes way too poppy and what was initially interesting is…gone. 

I still like newer guys like Mousv Sam and Ziad ZazaDouble Zuksh (who are huge) are still exciting and fun, and Molotof though a bit of a one-trick pony can be super sharp sometimes.