Other People’s Grammar. Mazen Kerbaj on »Sampler / Sampled«

Trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj recorded a total of 318 pieces for his new album and didn’t stop there: he passed on the individual tracks to 13 artists like turntablists Dieb13 and Marina Rosenfeld and dance music producers like Deena Abdelwahed or Equiknoxx’s Gavsbourg to use as the raw material out of which they created new compositions. The resulting album is called »Sampler / Sampled« and collects both the Berlin-based musician’s recordings as well as the 13 new tracks. It has been released on Rabih Beaini’s Morphine Records.

I’d like to start with the solo trumpet pieces on »Sampler«. How did that come about—were you simply bored during lockdown and decided to annoy your neighbours?

(laughs) No, that started long before the pandemic! It was on my mind for a while. The first time that I wrote the concept down was in my application for a DAAD scholarship in 2014. When I arrived in Berlin in 2015, I recorded the first drafts for the project, but then put it aside because I was doing other things. It remained dormant until the pandemic started and I was looking for projects that I could carry out on my own and that allowed me to work with others remotely in a way different from improv collaborations. I don’t like the idea of recording something and sending it to someone else because the first person will inevitably decide many things which means that it is not really an improvisation anymore, but a case of someone adding something to someone else’s work. I have improvised with others remotely in real-time, but that was also not something I’d like to pursue. I went to ausland and made about 1.000 recordings in three days for the »Sampler« project, but you could say that I had been developing this material throughout the past twenty years. I could have taken ten of these sounds and made a solo record, but this is more of a catalogue. If I compare the new recordings to the ones I made six years ago I find the difference to be very striking and I’m happy that it happened now. Also because back then, my idea was to work with improvising musicians playing turntables, or samples. But now the project has expanded and that is fantastic. On the record cover it says »Trumpet Solo Vol. 3« and then there are all the names of the artists featured on it, which is really weird. I like it! (laughs)

You also encourage the audience to work with that catalogue and play the single parts at random, although that seems impossible to do, at least with the vinyl version.

It’s even worse because you also can’t do that with a CD! I didn’t know that, but you cannot put more than 100 tracks on a CD. Don’t ask me why, I thought you could do whatever you want! (laughs) It’s 318 individual recordings, but what you get in the end is two pieces that are about 15 minutes long. Also on the vinyl record, because you cannot separate the grooves from each other if you have so many recordings and especially if some of them are only half a second long. They told us we were insane for even asking! (laughs) If someone wants the individual files, they can send us an email and we will send them over as WAV files that they can rearrange or listen to in shuffle mode.

You have proposed to use the pieces individually for other purposes, as ring tones for example. Why is it so important to you to give your audience the opportunity to decontextualise the material?

This catalogue is organised according to how I prepared it and you can listen to it exactly like that. It wasn’t an aesthetic decision to put the recordings in this specific order, it’s more of a very German way of cataloguing it, I think I’ve been here for too long! (laughs) When I put them in a different order however, I realised that it also works in any other way. That’s why I wanted to make it clear that you can listen to it in whatever order you prefer. It’s a sampler, and a sampler is supposed to be used in any possible way.

It seems a little contradictory that you are being very liberal with the way that the material can be used by the audience, but on the other hand you were quite dogmatic when you gave it to the other artists: they were only allowed to work with what you gave them.

The approach is very liberal and very strict at the same time. The idea behind »Sampled« is that it’s about composition. Many people refer to the pieces as remixes, and I always have to correct them because there were no pre-existing pieces that were remixed by others. These are compositions. The artists had to work with the raw material, but they could do whatever they wanted with it. Donzilla Lion asked me if he was allowed to add kick drum and snare sounds and I had to tell him that he wasn’t! (laughs) I told him that he should try to create something like a kick or a snare out of the material or that he could cheat but that he shouldn’t let me know about it. He just wrote back ‘I hear you, bro’ and that was that. (laughs)

It’s interesting anyhow that some of the musicians who participated in this project come from a club music background while others are more known in experimental or improv circles, though a few of them are at home in both worlds.

I’ve always had a great desire to dance to my own music. (laughs) Like I have said before, my idea of the project has expanded a lot over the years. I wanted to involve musicians who, regardless of their musical background, work with samples or turntables. People like Gavsbourg from Equiknoxx, who comes from dub music, something that I know nothing about except for the fact that they also use samples. Dahlia Borsche from DAAD and Rabih Beaini of Morphine Records were really helpful in finding people from the world of club music. I love clubbing, but I know nothing about the music! I was very happy to discover these musicians and very happy that they discovered me as well. Inevitably, people who didn’t know me asked me if I was sure those were trumpet sounds. (laughs) It was a very enriching experience, also because I went beyond what I know. Dieb13 or DJ Sniff made fantastic pieces, but that is music that I can relate to, I know how it is made. There were many surprises and in the beginning I was actually thinking about whether or not I would like the results or how it would sound at all. Little by little however, I came to understand that it was not at all important for the project what I expected from the other musicians. At one point, one of them asked me if I liked their piece or if they should change something about it and I told them that it wasn’t up to me to decide that because it was their piece and if they liked it, then that was that! I’m very happy with every single one of the pieces. Funnily enough, they also work together as a whole. I was really afraid that it would sound awful if you mix together all these genres, but they all have a similar energy. I don’t know how to explain it.

This touches upon something that you have picked up on in the press release for »Sampler / Sampled«: the notion of music as a universal language. You seem a little ambiguous when it comes to that concept.

Let’s get this out in the open first: there’s no cheesier thing in the world that you could say. (laughs) But in this context, it did feel like the appropriate thing to say. The musicians all come from various geographical and social backgrounds, but more importantly from very different music genres. For me, the idea of music’s universality only ever felt appropriate in the context of improv music. When I, coming from Beirut, meet people from the US, Indonesia, and Japan, we can improvise together perfectly, even though we don’t speak the same language. That is one aspect of improv music that isn’t being talked about much, but something that I really love about it: you can communicate with each other without needing to speak to each other. In the context of this project however, we’re dealing with people from different music genres. In improvised music, it’s very important to create your own vocabulary, new sounds, but for me it’s just as important to develop a new grammar. This is what the project is all about: I gave my vocabulary to others who have their own grammar. Even though I don’t really recognise my own sounds in some of the pieces because they have been transformed, it’s nice to see that the end result is always a co-composition. I co-composed a techno piece! It’s very interesting how my sounds were translated and while the idea of music as a universal language is very cheesy indeed, it does apply in this case.

I suppose that this is also due to the fact that you deliberately involved musicians from all over the world.

Absolutely, and it’s a potentially endless project. I could send it to a hundred people and get one hundred very different compositions back. And those pieces in turn could form the basis for other versions, even by the same musicians. It’s a very open-ended form of composing, even though it’s very dogmatic, as you have called it. This also has to do with the question of property in improv music, the ownership of certain sounds. To be honest, if I ever saw someone playing the same sounds as I do, I certainly wouldn’t like that in the beginning. Especially if they’re more successful than I am! (laughs) But when I think about it, it’s totally okay to steal my sounds. I do the same! I just don't get caught because I have a trick: I don’t steal from trumpet players, I steal from drummers or double bass players! (laughs) I like the idea of getting rid of the ownership of certain sounds by throwing them into a sampler and someone else just does whatever they want with it.

The question of ownership is also tied to the notion of authorship and of course you could ask: whose album is this, really?

Are you asking me for my opinion or what [German collecting society] GEMA thinks? (laughs) For me, it’s my trumpet solo, though the pieces on »Sampled« are co-compositions. I made two trumpet solo albums for Discrepant, »Cuts, Overdubbing, Use of Electronics« and »No Cuts, No Overdubbing, No Use of Electronics«. For the one on which I used electronics, I took an old piece and fucked around with it a lot. I was really happy with the end result, »I'll Be a Digital Bitch For You«, but I found myself asking myself if this was still a trumpet solo. And my answer was yes. Even though I transformed that old piece into something that had nothing to do with it anymore, I still call it a trumpet solo. The same is true for the pieces on »Sampled«. The raw material is mine and as a whole, I still consider it to be my trumpet solo. Though of course it wouldn’t exist without those 13 artists.