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Music & clubs

Raed Yassin on trauma, Berghain and his Phantom Orchestra

Raed Yassin on his work Phantom Orchestra, a specially commissioned piece for CTM

Image for Raed Yassin on trauma, Berghain and his Phantom Orchestra

Photo: Tony Elieh

You famously made most of your debut album all by yourself. What did that experience teach you as an artist? What is the idea behind Phantom Orchestra?

The idea of the Phantom Orchestra project started during lockdown. At first, I thought, no way, I’m not going to be one of the musicians doing an isolation project. But then, honestly, the idea started to develop in that period which was really dark and cold, and I was lonely. I started to have all these existential thoughts, “What do I do that is really meaningful?”

I was thinking of my work, the music community, the free improvised music community and all my friends who were suffering. As improvisers, travelling, performing live and meeting new people is vital to composition. But everybody was paranoid and musicians weren’t meeting each other, so a sort of solo language developed in improvised music.

I didn’t know if it was better or worse, but something had changed. So, as someone obsessed with music, I thought that this was a crucial moment in the history of music, and these musicians and I wanted to capture it.

How does that work in a live setting?

There were so many different ideas about the performance. There are works from 42 musicians, and I wanted to play the role of conductor and composer. In improvised music, every musician has their own sound, approach and techniques that they have developed, which is mind-blowing, and I’m using that to make collages.

It’s also interesting because, in Berghain, I have six different speakers to play with. I can diffuse different elements through individual speakers and create spaces for the audience to move through which adds a level of three-dimensionality – which, woah, makes things difficult for my head.

I’ll have 12 turntables as the sources of sound, and I’ll be creating an orchestra with them. Honestly, it’s a bit of a crazy idea for me and I don’t know how I’m going to do it. I’ve done something similar before with the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and six turntables and that was already a little difficult, so now it’s double.

In what ways did improvised music change during lockdown?

On many levels, actually. I asked a friend about this, who told me that he is forgetting how to play with others but that he was getting better at playing alone. Many musicians have had to find new ways to play. Imagine a saxophone player. A saxophone can’t really be muted, and during lockdown, one friend started to practice at a very low volume so that he didn’t bother the neighbours. He couldn’t play loud, so he developed something totally different, which entirely changed the voice of his instrument and his music as a whole.

Could you imagine a project like this outside of a pandemic context?

I can, but the process would be different, and I wouldn’t be playing them as phantoms. I think this project is the fruit of what happened to us. People were really sick, but the crucial thing is that for the first time in history, the whole of humanity experienced something altogether, and it created something I call a global unconscious. It’s not what we think together, but what we feel and what’s stored in our psychology.

A lot of your work deals with the interplay between the personal and the collective. Can you explain more about that?

As an artist, I consume culture like music, images and cinema. But these things happen in a society, so I don’t consume them alone. I consume things with friends. I consume things with a whole generation.

I was born in the late 1970s, so for me, the 1990s was a very important period and those influences changed the way I digest things. It’s a part of a collective unconscious that somehow shapes us as humans and informs how we imagine things, feel about things, and react to things. For me, the personal aspect is more present in my visual art than in my music.

The works I do in visual arts are often related to personal trauma. Events happened to me because I come from a turbulent area full of civil war. I lost my father when I was very young, which shaped me, and I don’t speak about these events in general terms but in personal ones. There’s a narrative, and there’s a story. I’m interested in storytelling and the life that I lived with that generation in that part of the world. We have so many shared experiences that it’s almost as if their experiences became mine somehow. There was a way to express that through words and images, while in the music, it is different.

Is the Phantom Orchestra an optimistic project?

If you go through my work, the visual works are colourful, and the sonic works often have a bit of a pessimistic touch. But, funnily enough, I was so fucking pessimistic during the pandemic that the approach of this project is very hopeful and optimistic. It’s about looking forward and throwing the negativity away and fighting it because, fuck, it’s worth fighting for.