For many people, Mazen Kerbaj is just Mazen Kerbaj, an accomplished graphic artist and trumpet improviser who’s toured and recorded in France, the US, Lebanon, etc. He’s gotten plenty of well-deserved, enthusiastic press for his playing.
For others, he’s the guy who, back in summer 2006, recorded himself playing the trumpet on his balcony in Beirut while Israeli warplanes dropped bombs on the city. This occurred during the brief but severe Israeli attack on Lebanon. Kerbaj was, like most people around, a citizen not a soldier. The munitions aimed at him were not aimed at him. Perhaps their sound was.
The piece is more complex, compositionally, than trumpets v. bombs. It begins with crickets and a pregnant silence that isn’t disturbed for a while. The trumpet is quiet for almost a minute, and the first bomb doesn’t hit until 1:09. The explosions each echo for a long time, through corridors of buildings, setting off choruses of car alarms and barking dogs. The crickets always return. The bombs shut them out again. The trumpet eventually reminds us of tens of thousands of ears in range – like the musician, impatiently interpreting.
The recording, titled “Starry Night,” is a few years old now, and has been plenty written about. Of all of Kerbaj’s work, it has gotten by far the most gushing praise for what is received almost across the board as an elegant critique of war. However, Rana El Kadi (U of Alberta) presented a paper on Kerbaj’s work last week at SEM that complicates the issue. She interviewed Kerbaj and, as it happens, he is lukewarm about the piece’s reception. It is, he apparently feels, a condescension for American and European critics to hear only metaphors of resistance in his work, while failing to evaluate it on the same aesthetic grounds as the output of a musician from someplace less war torn. He was not returning fire against the war planes, but simply expressing the weakness of his being in the shadow of a violence that threatened to overwhelm him.
My question (unasked) after El Kadi’s talk was about whether any of the Israeli fighter pilots involved in the bombing mission had ever heard Kerbaj’s recording, and if so, how had they reacted? What would their aesthetic criteria be? How would they be affected hearing someone hear them bomb Beirut, which is the gist of the piece? Kerbaj is right – his recording does not fight back. It makes his own audition audible, however, which is volatile in its own right.