Jerusalem in My Heart
If He Dies, If If If If If If
By Robin Smith | 10 July 2015
Jerusalem in My Heart was not supposed to be a recorded project, but not isn’t never. The project, fronted by Constellation’s in-house mixer Radwan Ghazi Moumneh, began as a live performance involving music as only one part of a larger sensory piece—the full effect was procured with visuals and light projections, a culmination of artforms that actively interacted with setting and audience. For those of us who’ve never seen Moumneh perform, Mo7it Al-Mo7it provided only a slither of the project’s transient context, especially from an institutionalised Western perspective, where it was interpreted with some degree of xenophobia. Ultimately, though, Moumneh’s change of heart is indicative of his poignant approach to narrative: for a project as non-linear and far-reaching as this one, isolating the music is its own form of improvisation.
Mounmeh begins his second record proper–If He Dies, If If If If If If–as if he’s still freefalling from the awful tension of “Amanem,” the closer to Mo7it Al-Mo7it, in which he sang until exhausted of his voice. Hearing the sombre, processed a’capella of “Al Affaq, Lau Mat, Lau Lau Lau Lau Lau Lau” immediately familiarises the listener with the same artist, one whose diverse techniques somehow fit into a seamless relay of sound. The sequencing honours something larger than just the record of this particular cycle, echoing back to the estranged properties of Mo7it Al-Mo7it. On If He Dies, his modulated vocal passes over into electronica, hyperventilated breaths, drone and frenetic buzuk improvisations. It’s in keeping with the way Mo7it Al-Mo7it delineated setting and sound, but cohered with a very constant sense of dread.
Beyond Jerusalem in My Heart, Moumneh is responsible for mastering and preparing a great deal of the music that passes through the Hotel2Tango studio, which shares the aesthetics and anachronisms of Constellation mainstays Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Colin Stetson, and Eric Chenaux (the latter of whom he has previously collaborated with on warped drone record The Sentimental Moves). It may exist around different timbres, but traditional post-rock journeying and shredded folk music are implicit in the disparate arrangements of “A Granular Buzuk,” where he combines fragments of buzuk strumming with arpeggiated synth. The sounds are forceful towards nothing, calling for a climax and then sending it away. It sounds like he’s climbing a mountain without ascending it.
On If He Dies, Moumneh is weaving a narrative with complexities only his label has the patience for. Matana Roberts is busy creating a twelve-part musical tapestry that eschews its role as “free jazz” through noise, loops, and conflating voices, and the aforementioned Stetson has performed an upheaval of his playing-style’s rigid parameters in three subtly changed records. What Moumneh is doing with If He Dies is similar to his colleagues, in that his is a type of experimentation that knows there’s no such thing as straight lines—so he’s never temped to follow them. You can hear this in the way the record traverses its sounds, but also in the way it restrains them and holds them off. Moumneh plays buzuk among the shifting waves of a Lebanese beach on “2asmar Sa7ar,” but the piece’s structure comes from its sudden declarations of silence, the moments where it sounds like Moumneh has got to recompose and improvise himself another route.
By integrating environments into his recordings again, Moumneh is not opening his music up to the world, but rather bringing its forces to the studio. On “Qala Li Kafa Kafa Kafa Kafa Kafa Kafa,” he takes in a bitter breath before releasing it as a barrage of distorted noise, which plays over brief, trembling buzuk riffs. It fades out as if it were just a plane travelling overhead, but Moumneh, a masterful producer, makes it sound like he’s shifting the sky himself: he breathes out and the noise comes crashing back to the fore. The clean presentation of samples on If He Dies makes them sound like affectations as much as they are fluid elements; on “2asmar,” he plays off the buzuk and the waves as if they were polyrhythms circling each other in the studio.
If He Dies is not only the best iteration of Moumneh’s sound to date, it’s also the clearest showing of his motivations. Beyond continuing to combine distinctive sounds into song-written form, Moumneh is creating music far away from the West’s typecasting of it—transcendence, spirituality, prayer. Instead, Moumneh strikes with harsh textures, bracing instrumentation and an uncomfortably personal vocal performance. It’s “Ah Ya Mal El Sham,” a steadfast drone, that best captures this record as a literal body of work, one that trembles and shivers, one that treads paths, one that makes its process a part of its profundity. Among that foggy sustained ambience, the listener can hear not only the sounds of a flute, but the sounds of guest Dave Gossage playing it. It’s those subtle breaths, between the mouth and the music it makes, that remind me of “Amanem,” of Moumneh’s voice dangling off the edge. His work isn’t linear, nor is it easily understood—but it can be unfurled in its breathlessness, and it’s heard most clearly in the sound of fingers tackling their instruments.