Sam Shalabi doesn’t exactly think on a moderate scale. Thirty musicians, nearly as many instruments, and a 1,085-page Thomas Pynchon novel went into the making of his piece “Against the Day,” which premiered to enthusiastic acclaim at the Suoni Per Il Popolo festival this past June. The Montreal-based orchestra, collectively known as Land of Kush, filled the stage to capacity at a jam-packed Sala Rossa; they will be returning to the same venue for two more performances tonight and tomorrow. Shalabi, both composer and musician, modelled the large ensemble on Egyptian classical orchestras of the fifties, sixties, and seventies – yet the result is anything but dated. Fusing vocal solos with a diverse assortment of instruments and electronics, he has managed to create 60 exhilarating minutes of music that reviewers can only term “genre-defying.”
The same label has often been applied to the novel for which the piece is named, which Shalabi cites as his composition’s most immediate influence; its five sections draw their titles from the book’s five chapters. Thomas Pynchon’s sprawling Against the Day is not for the faint of heart. It mingles a dizzying number of subplots and characters, paying homage to several different genres while never committing to one in particular. “I’d always wanted to do something with the book,” Shalabi says. He had worked with Land of Kush “only twice before” when organizers of the Montreal festival asked him to create another piece with the group, and gladly “gathered up the musicians again.” At a loss for what to write, however, he found himself looking to Pynchon as his muse.
While Shalabi’s “Against the Day” shares its namesake’s tendency to evade classification, this was not the link on which the musician crafted his project. His inspiration, quite simply, was light. The novel “is structured around light,” he explains, “and [light] becomes a character in a really interesting way.” One narrative thread traces the groundbreaking scientific advances made in the West in the years leading up to World War I – the discovery of the photon, and the connection between electromagnetism and visible light – that led to a widespread obsession with illumination. Nikola Tesla, one of the pioneers of the second Industrial Revolution, makes a cameo; Tesla “was doing many interesting things with light,” says Shalabi, “but was seen as a freak.” The story, he further explains, “is about those moments where no one knows what’s going on, but it’s all really exciting.”
Writing for an Egyptian classical orchestra, and of Egyptian origin himself, Shalabi noted a striking parallel between this relatively modern fixation with light and the heliocentrism of ancient Egyptian religion. Pre-Islamic peoples “worshipped light and the sun as a technology,” and it is this “occult quality” of light that re-emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the West. “Light again became a mystical thing,” Shalabi marvels. “They returned to a cosmology that was actually thousands of years old.” The novel itself acknowledges the “connection between Occident and Orient surrounding light and what it was,” which forms the basis of Shalabi’s piece.
This conceptual link between East and West is evident within the music itself. Though modelled on Egyptian classical music, “Against the Day” features a synthesis of Middle Eastern, North African, and Western influences – the sounds of the Middle Eastern oud, for instance, mingle with electronics. The piece revolves around three vocal solos, for which the singers themselves crafted the lyrics; Shalabi allows for long stretches of instrumental improvisation in between these solos, creating a sense of spontaneity and ephemerality. The result is a complex cacophony that somehow blends.
A number of reviewers have used the word “euphoric” to describe the performance, but Shalabi reveals that he has no fixed intention for the overall effect. “I don’t have anything specific that I want [the audience] to get out of it,” he says. “But I like music that transports, and I hope people enjoy it.”