This year marked the 15th edition of IRTIJAL, Beirut's much-loved and anticipated Festival of Experimental Music. With a hardcore fanbase and a mystique that's drawn the attention of art lovers and academics alike—seriously, here's a thesis and a book that delve into the festival and its key figures— sat down with IRTIJAL's co-founder and managing director, Sharif Sehnaoui, to get an insider's view of its improbable success and longevity over the past decade and a half.

"When we created the festival back in 2001, we were 23.. 24.. 25 years old. Of course, today, 15 years later, we’re still young, but not that young,” Sehnaoui laughed. “The team is still more or less the same. Yet the changes have been enormous, but also gradual, reflecting the changes in our own lives. Our idea of the festival has changed, our relation to the audience, and to the general music and art field here in Lebanon, has very much changed. Our selves, as artists—our practice has also evolved.”

As a “musician-led festival with a familial feeling,” it is very tempting to describe IRTIJAL with musical metaphors. One image in particular, that of an ad-hoc jazz band jamming on an unfamiliar stage, seems particularly apt for picturing how the festival found a place for itself in Beirut's music scene.

“Initially, we just wanted to make a Free Improvised Music festival,” Sehnaoui recalled. “That was the plan back in 1999. As soon as we started, however, we saw that it’s a bit pointless to just do a FIM festival, similar to some festivals we saw in Europe. There, you have festivals specialized in contemporary music, festivals specialized in world music, in rock, so you can make a specialty festival. But here in Lebanon, everything needs to be built. So very quickly we saw that it’s pointless to have such a reduced scope, and since the first edition, we were already trying to get anything creative from the Lebanese scene, even if they’re not in our idiom of Free Improvisation. But of course, at the time, we didn’t know the scene very well, and discovered more and more of it over the years.”

This constant searching, which Sehnaoui described as the essence of what an artist does, was driven in this instance by a desire to carve out a space where new languages and identities can be formed. “The specificity of IRTIJAL,” Sehnaoui explained, “is to promote, assist and feature people who are involved in something that has a strong experimental or research component—people who want to take a risk, who want to try new ideas, even in old styles, people that try to change a style profoundly.”

Yet, defining just what it is that makes something new, let alone profoundly different, is no easy task, so IRTIJAL's definition of what “fits” has also developed over time: “We are always asking questions to ourselves, to see what could fit. What is ‘experimental? I don’t really have answers,” Sehnaoui admitted.

“But also, through the development of the [local and regional music] scene, I discover new ways to define it. To give an example, in the last four years, we’ve had something hard to define, experimentations coming from traditional music—from ‘tarab,’ from ‘maqam,’ from popular Arabic music—all of which are suddenly going in a totally new direction. These things—I don’t know if they existed before, but I was not aware of them, so suddenly, I’m surprised. This is for me now a priority: to find projects that take the Arabic music tradition and move it forward.”

(Image: Revolutionary Birds at IRTIJAL’15)

This year, IRTIJAL's new priority was made loud and clear from the very first night. Despite being billed as a mainly Swiss-themed edition—a theme that's been in the works for two years, and was co-curated by Sehnaoui and Paed Conca—IRTIJAL'15 gave the honor of the opening concert to two, boundary-pushing, Arabic acts: the Asil Ensemble, who played a sprawling piece called “Autism,” and Revolutionary Birds, a special, IRTIJAL-exclusive production that brought together the haunting, Sufi vocals of Mounir Troudi with the piercing, Breton bagpipes of Erwan Keravec.

Yet the sense of surprise that gives form to IRTIJAL's take on the "unclassifiable" was not reserved solely for Arabic traditions. Indeed, IRTIJAL’15 was at its best when performers took any familiar vernacular—a style, a sound, a set-up, whether traditionally 'classical' or classically 'avant-garde'—and made it strange, stretching its expressive possibilities to the outer limits. One particularly striking example of this was Swiss drummer Julian Sartorius, who performed at Yukunkun on April 5. Playing solo on a standard drum kit, with a few bells and gizmos thrown in, Sartorius captivated the audience with a set that deconstructed the breakbeat to produce a sound that was at times ambient, at times industrial—conjuring flashes of Autechre and Aphex Twin with shamanic mastery of his instrument.

The breadth of moods and atmospheres showcased this year—“from the playfulness of the Joyfulnoise Orchestra to the sheer power of SUUNS,” as Sehnaoui put it—is a testament to another recent priority for the festival. Since 2009, Sehnaoui has been trying to strike a balance between the different styles on offer, arguing that every genre and performance makes more sense when seen alongside another, a relational approach to meaning and identity that one can't help but read metaphorically, against the background of Lebanon itself.

“I often say: Lebanon needs new languages, new identities," Sehnaoui mused, "not because we are lost and we don’t have an identity, but because our identity is so complex, and our previous tools are no longer valid, having actually proven, politically, to be a failure. We need to build something new from this failure. And all of this can coexist: people maintaining the traditions, people taking traditions somewhere else—all of this is possible. There's space for all of this to coexist.”

And since the work of building never ends, Sehnaoui and his team are already planning IRTIJAL’16: “In 2016, we plan to focus on the Berlin scene, via two Lebanese musicians and label owners who live there.”

Here's to fifteen more years of discovery.

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