BEIRUT, May 27, (Agencies): For star trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, famed for his award-winning film soundtracks and jazz-inspired mixing of eastern and western sounds, improvisation is “a way of life”.
“Improvisation is a discipline that people don’t understand well,” the Franco-Lebanese musician, who has played with Sting and Elvis Costello among others, told AFP.
“For me it symbolises and sums up perfectly the best way to live, alongside each other,” he said during a trip to Lebanon to prepare for a July concert at a festival in Baalbek.
“To succeed in communicating with each other we must listen to each other and have empathy with others, despite the differences.”
The 36-year-old, born in Lebanon, fled with his parents — both musicians — during the country’s 15-year-civil war and settled in France.
He plays a four-pistoned instrument invented by his trumpeter father in the 1960s, as well playing the piano, composing and teaching.
He won French cinema’s highest award, a Cesar, in February for the music to “In the Forests of Siberia”.
He also wrote the score for Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s “Radiance” which was nominated for a Palme d’Or at this month’s Cannes film festival.
Composition aside, Maalouf has a passion for the spontaneous.
He is the artistic director of m’IMPROvise, a June festival in Etampes near Paris, with Quincy Jones’ protege, pianist Alfredo Rodriguez, topping the line-up.
He has gathered hundreds of people for joint improvisations, including at the 2015 Fete de la Musique in Paris.
“To improvise with others is to share a unique moment that will never happen twice,” he said.
Nephew of leading Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, a member of the Academie Francaise, the trumpeter says he does not try to make his music popular.
“I write music that awakens a feeling in me that makes me happy. I have the impression that people appreciate that,” he said.
“From the moment I’m on stage my priority is not to party with my musicians, the most important thing for me is that the public understands my musical language.”
“Before playing my music I address the audience and explain it to them. I want to be understood by people.”
Despite his film music success, he doubts he could work in Hollywood.
“In my way of working, there is a permanent search for creation and authenticity,” he said.
“Hollywood is an industry that operates according to codes. It is very rare that a film goes outside the usual framework of the Hollywood film industry.”
“If Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino for example asked me to compose music for their films and told me what they want… I would be obliged to refuse,” he said.
“I don’t know how to do that.”
“Listen, I think suspicion is completely warranted, to be honest,” says Giles Martin, talking about the contingent of Beatles fans who are skeptically waiting, arms folded, to hear his new remix of “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” “You’re talking about an album that everyone feels as though they own spiritually, if not physically.”
The reaction among those who’ve actually heard his sonically evolved take on the 1967 classic — in advance of the remixed album’s release Friday in stand-along and boxed-set forms — has been almost universally rapturous, actually. The irony is that, as original producer George Martin’s son, the younger Martin spends a lot of his time in conversation de-emphasizing the idea that “Sgt. Pepper” is a producer’s album and playing up the fab-ness of the core four as lads doing a slightly more advanced version of what they’d always done.
“There’s no trickery,” Giles emphasizes. “You get that from the extras. It’s amazingly organic, the process. You know, for an album that’s claimed to be the epiphany of music production, if you compare it to a modern-day record, there’s really not a huge amount of production on there, apart from great arrangements of instruments.” Emphasizing their humanness by “taking off layers so you’re in the room with the band” helps achieve the goal, Giles says, of destroying “the mysticism of this having been created on a cloud.”
The goal was also to reconcile the differences between the original ’67 stereo and mono mixes, both of which have always had their warring adherents — not just for those fans of a certain “now we’re 64” age but “even more that when you tell your kids or grandkids about this album, they put it on and go, ‘Oh yeah, this is cool,’ and not ‘Why does it come out of one speaker?’ — where, with the stereo, you suddenly had the band all on one side and the bass and vocals on other — or, if it was the mono, ‘Why does it sound old?’ Because it’s not as if it’s an old-sounding record.”
All that having been said, this is not such a radical remix that most of the people who’ve played it casually over the years would even notice many of the differences. In other words, it’s not “Love,” the more radical rethink of selections from the Beatles’ catalog he did with his father nine years ago. “‘Love’ was different because the drive was to try to create this new world,” Martin says. “This is an embellishment of the world of ‘Sgt. Pepper.’” On the eve of the 50th anniversary release, Variety took a deep dive into that world with Martin.
Question: You have to love the passion of the hardcore fans on the message boards as they speculate about the choices you’ve made before they hear the finished product. I just read several pages of people talking about the clucking sound effect at the end of “Good Morning Good Morning”… because apparently the chicken sound is different on the stereo from the mono, and people wonder, which one he is going to use? And then there are a different number of beats on the two version going from that into the “Sgt Pepper’s Reprise.” It’s stuff most of us have never thought about.
Answer: Oh, you see, I do actually have to think about this stuff. And I don’t take it lightly, because it’s important to some people. There’s an edit between “Sgt. Pepper’s Reprise” and “Good Morning” on the album, the segue where the guitar cluck merges with the sound of the chicken.
And there’s a general belief among fans that the mono version of “Sgt. Pepper’s” is far superior to the stereo version — apart from that edit, which is better on the stereo version than it is on the mono version. And I had to learn about these things. It’s one of those things that’s easy for me to pay attention to and respect. And I think talking about these things on these forums is great, because it’s the same thing as people talking about fishing or anything like that. But the most important thing is, how does the music make you feel? I know what those people are talking about, and the answer is: I think they’ll be happy. But I don’t read the message boards. I possibly would go mad if I did.
Question: Which version of the album did you grow up listening to?
Answer: I had the stereo. I’d never heard the mono, actually. It wasn’t available. I’ll probably get burned at the stake for saying this, but there are certain tracks that I think are sonically better on the stereo. I can already sense the letters! But, you know, I mixed “I Am the Walrus” when we did the “Love” album and show, and I thought that we were brilliant, and then I heard the (mono) original. The original kind of sounds really screwed up, but it makes you feel a certain way. And then you realize that it’s not about sonic perfection or technique. And it’s the same with, say, the mono version of “A Day in the Life” — it’s so good, and it was a really tough challenge to get to that level, even with everything we have now. As I’ve said, it’s not as though anyone’s ever said that “Sgt. Pepper’s” a bad-sounding record. But yeah, I grew up listening to the stereo. I was surprised. I didn’t know that there were different pitches in “She’s Leaving Home” in the mono and stereo, and how stark the differences are, before I started working on this project.
Q: That’s the only song where the entire tape is sped up between the original mono and stereo versions, right?
A: There are other subtle differences that you don’t realize that are there. For example, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is a slightly different pitch as well (between the 1967 mono and stereo). So is “Lovely Rita.” They don’t sync up (if you play them side by side). Which gives them each a kind of different feel. See, I could write a message board forum!
As you say, the conventional wisdom among Beatles aficionados has been that the mono was superior. Yet I was one of those people who always heard that and preferred to keep listening to the stereo anyway. For an album as grand and lush and complex as “Sgt. Pepper,” I just did not want to hear it without panning effects. There is a reason people with two ears have come to prefer recordings with some separation in them.
I know completely what you mean. This is actually one of the reasons to validate—if I need to validate—what we’re doing. Because if the mono is indeed the definitive version of this album, (most) people aren’t going to accept that as a listening experience. It isn’t satisfactory to people. And all of that kind of claustrophobic grunge-ness that you get on the mono is great if you’re an experienced listener—I sound like a real pretentious bugger—but not great if you’re discovering the music. And I don’t think this music should sound old. I don’t think it does sound old.
Q: There is, again, a conventional wisdom among Beatles fans that the stereo mixes were kind of tossed off as an afterthought after the Beatles had left the studio. Does that do a disservice to what your father did do with the stereo mix and the things that are good about those?
A: That’s definitely true. You know, “Sgt. Pepper” was the longest recording process they’d ever been through, and they did the (mono) mix, and then they had to do the stereo, and it was kind of like, “Haven’t we already done this?” There was probably that reaction — I mean, this is obviously both of us second-guessing, because we weren’t there.
Q: So how do you make a choice for the 2017 mix, if you’re choosing between two variants from 1967?
A: If you listen to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” for instance, John’s voice is heavily affected on the mono and sounds kind of spacey and weird, and the whole track has a lot of phasing. It’s more psychedelic, certainly, than the stereo — which is weird; you’d think it would be the other way around. But it sounds pretty cool, and then you just think to yourself, okay, we should probably do that. John probably had a Varispeed knob, and was probably insisting, as my dad always used to say, that he wanted to change the sound of his voice. I’m sure that he was part of that, because he was at the (mono) mix session, and this record was so important to them. So it’s all guesswork, but then you think, okay, we should do this to this version. Above all else, it sounds cool. I mean, that has to be the guiding line. There’s only so far you can go in being historical. You have to make decisions that you think sound good.
Q: Did you ever have a moment where, when you were making a decision like the one you were just describing with “Lucy,” you were choosing between something John might have had a bigger influence on in the mono and what your father did a little later with the stereo, and you think, “Oh, I’m being disloyal to my father if I pick what John did over the decision my dad made”?
A: No is the answer. Actually, no one’s asked me that question before, and it’s a very good question. It’s one of those things you’re not really conscious of, but I think that I would have sided with John, probably. And I think that my dad would have been happy with that. I haven’t gotten any validation for that, because I can’t, but that’s what my gut says. I have the honor and the beauty of retrospection, where I can line up all the mixes, including our new one, and see if I’m missing anything spiritually as well as physically.
I’m going to give you a good example, which I don’t think we got right, but we really tried. Like you, I’m used to the stereo, but listen to the mono of “A Day in the Life.” It sounds beautiful; I think it’s the best-sounding (in) mono. When Ringo’s drums come in, because it’s mono and it’s so claustrophobic and limited, the drums kind of take over the entire mix for a bit; it’s like they explode. You can’t do that in stereo, because you’ve got two speakers — unless you put the drums in the center, which you can’t do for various reasons.