Thursday, August 14, 2014

Concert in Volubilis

The jewel in the crown of Morocco's Roman ruins is certainly Volubilis, located at the foot of the Atlas mountains in a sweeping valley filled with olive and almond trees.

This city of 20,000 was the westernmost extremity of an empire that once stretched to the gates of Persia. The sprawling floor plans of its buildings and brilliant floor mosaics suggest great wealth.
The site is dominated by the remains of the grand public buildings around the forum, with the impressive arches of the Basilica courthouse arrayed in front of pillars of the temple to the god Jupiter – now topped by bushy stork nests. 

Every old ruin in Morocco appears to host its own of population of the large black and white birds, which soar over the sites or preen in their nests as tourists snap away with cameras.

When they start clacking their beaks in chorus, it sends an eerie chattering noise across the ancient stones.

- Rebecca Dolan, The Huntington Post

December 20, 2013
Volubilis, Morocco

A powerful place and location still reverberating across time from when it was an Administrative Center for the Roman Empire. The appellation Volubilis has at least 3 meanings:

 1. turning, spinning, whirling, rolling, revolving - like the inside of an atom.
2.  rapid, fluent, voluble
3. changeable, mutable

Breakfast with Bill in the large, hushed dining area.  Mostly empty, all the tables covered with white tablecloths, crystal glassware and gleaming utensils making it a little unnaturally bright reflecting the sunlight pouring in through the tall windows.  Outside, the air looks very clean and clear, the sky incredibly blue. You can see the ruins down the mountain a mile and a half away.

 I don't notice at first, but then see Bill wearing a fine-art Aleister Crowley shirt under a vest - the famous image of a robed Crowley wearing an illuminated eye in the triangle hat making horns with his thumbs at the side of his head in a posture called Vir.  In the Star Ruby operation this posture symbolizes the Hierophant who functions to communicate the secrets of the Temple.  The advice when going into this posture says to take an attitude of Pan, Bacchus etc.  Seems appropriate since later in this rapidly fluent mutable Volubilis day Bill will be introduced by none other than Boujeloud, an incarnation of Pan himself,  for an historic performance with The Master Musicians of Jajouka.  It will be the first time they ever play together publicly.  Before that happened, yours truly went through much spinning, whirling, rolling, revolving and getting turned right around by events to be told - so much so that it seems, once again, entirely miraculous we got a decent recording.

First order of business was to scout the location - go there, look around, decide what you're going to do, how you're going to shoot the scenes at this location, etc.  I went along to scope out the recording parameters and to record some location ambience.  When we got to the ruins I remembered hearing this was where Scorcese shot The Last Temptation of Christ.  As we're walking through the ruins I ask Adil, who had been an AD on that film, if this was true?  He said, "Yes, that's where Jesus spoke."  He points to a spot we're now passing by.  Just happened to be right there when the question got asked.  I stopped and recorded five minutes of ambience at this historically resonant spot while the party moved ahead.  A little earlier, a local guide, perhaps an official connected to the site, told us of a floor mosaic dedicated to Orpheus, the Roman God of Music.  Recorded five minutes of ambience there, as well.  Boujeloud, a reincarnation of Pan would have a prominent role in tonight's concert.  Later, I considered how nice it was that Christians and Pagans could play in the same sandbox albeit at different times.  Time was created so that everything doesn't happen at once according to a line from E.J. Gold's play, Creation Story Verbatim.

After lunch, two laborers and I hauled the recording equipment about a quarter mile down a muddy gulley, across a small stream, and up a hill on the other side to the ruins.  David, (Art Director) went over the musician's staging with me for the concert tonight.  The large front area had two rows of six pedestals facing each other.  The plan was to have each Jajoukan musician play standing on a pedestal.  There were 10 musicians.  I began setting up and micing them accordingly.  While setting up I considered how windy it was, it had been like that all day.  Wind plays havock with sound at a certain point even with sufficient windscreens on the microphones.  I recalled an experiment Aleister Crowley had made to divert a storm that would ruin his cousin's crop while staying with him in Florida.  The storm successfully dissipated before causing harm.  In that spirit, I set an intention for the wind to die down, not really expecting it to work, but knowing that it couldn't hurt.  Coincidentally, a half hour later the wind did noticeably die down and stayed that way more or less until late in the night when we were back at the hotel.

About halfway through the set up, I got a call to go to the front gate of this location where Jay and crew were preparing to film an interview with Bachir Attar and his brother in the back of a car while driving.  I hurried over leaving the locals to guard the equipment.  All the production trucks were there by the front gate.  The small baby monkey I'd seen earlier while getting the audio gear was still running around being mischievous and providing comic relief for the crew.  Someone said it had been abandoned.  When seated in the backseat of the car wiring it up, the monkey quickly jumped in without warning, perched on top of the seat in front of me, and gave me an intense look.  It was a small car so the monkey was quite close.  Looking into its eyes, I could see that it had its own deep intelligence, visibly more than many people I've seen.

The car interview recording was a fast paced, high stress guerilla theater operation approached with the same kind of intensity as a life or death situation.   To my relief, the recording worked out, I'm still here to tell the tale.  This proceeded until dusk whereupon I rushed back to the concert site to finish setting up. 

Got everything connected  then discovered that the electrical feed I'd been given had been turned off,  I needed electricity to set up the Pro Tools session and check the mics.  The electricians were being slow about it, I don't know why, there may have been a problem.  I yelled at everyone or no one an  instant demand for electrical juice.  Time waits for no one especially the Audio Department on a film shoot.  I was running around the stage making sure the mics and cabling were all good to go.  The control room area was in a separate room off the main courtyard staging area.  Walking around doing several tasks, I checked in  the control room  and caught an electrician with the male end of the 110v AC strip that all the American gear was plugged into trying to connect it directly into my 220v power supply bypassing the step-down transformer.  He could have succeeded, that strip accommodated both European and American plugs, and if he did, it would have instantly and permanently fried all our audio gear including some of the mics.  Fortunately, I stopped him in time.

Amidst all the chaos I was introduced to Mustapha, a young rising film-maker flown in to be my assistant.  The Audio Department doubled in size! It had taken Mustapha 26 hours to get here from Palestine where he lived.  From the distance involved one would think it would only be a 3 or 4 hour flight and maybe a few hours more to drive to Volubilis from the airport.  Palestine, of course, has severe restrictions even without active warfare because the backwards humans of Planet Earth don't know how to tolerate and get along with each other.  That area in their feeling apparatus called 'empathy for all life' seems atrophied, dormant or undeveloped.  To get to Morocco, Mustapha first had to travel to Jordan then fly out of there.  I had an immediate good first impression of him and gave him some tasks to do.

We are nearly ready to go when David informs me that they have a rule forbidding standing on the pedestals making it necessary to change the concert staging which means half my mics are now out of range.  I dash out to move them to a better position, not as easy as it sounds as I'm always having to take into account their invisibility to the camera.  By now my body and brain are running beyond maximum racing to get everything ready in time.  This is sometimes called a 'wind-up' in bardo lingo when things start speeding up.  I also hadn't eaten anything for 7 hours.  Sandwiches were passed around about 15 minutes before shooting.  I stuffed a couple of bites into the ole gullet while bouncing around the set like an atom on course in a particle accelerator.  The taste of garlic - kryptonite to me - came through (food allergy), but I took a couple more bites anyway.  I knew the energy coming from whatever biochemical cocktail I was on - adrenaline, necessity, the usual anxiety and nervousness before trying to pull off an Earth shaking event that's never happened before, etc. - would make insignificant any adverse effects from whatever garlic may have been in whatever food.

In addition to the regular close and ambient mics for the Master Musicians, we set up a Direct Input for the bass guitar and miced his speaker cabinet with a 421.  They found Bill a small Marshall combo amp and a 12" speaker with sufficient tone to make it sound like a bass; enough power to get him loud and clean enough to match the thundering drums and loud reeds of Jajouka.  The first DI I checked ( an active Countryman) had a loud ground buzz and distorted on peaks.  Fortunately, the spare worked just fine.

 In the midst of the getting the bass signal the musicians starting rehearsing.  I sent Mustapha out to record with the Tascam 2 track.  About 10 minutes later Jay directed me to wire up Adil now adorned in the goatskin of Boujeloud.  He said they were going to shoot something with Boujeloud.  In my mind that meant they were doing a scene with him before the concert, but nothing was specifically said.  I got Adil to put the Tascam in his back pocket, clipped on a lavalier and put the machine into record after getting him to do a few test howls and screams for level.  Hurried back to what I was doing getting all the mics to work.  I was working on fixing one last mic signal path when I heard Adil's voice form the far side of the lot call out the prerequisites to shooting a scene which included "ROLL SOUND."  I thought, sound is rolling, I had put the Tascam in record, and that they were shooting a scene with Boujeloud prior to the concert.   No one from the Production asked me if I was ready though they had every time before.  I had no sight line to the stage when situated at the recording control spot.  Hearing the Master Musicians play broke my concentration from solving the last problem.  I realized they had started the concert and the multitrack audio was not rolling so quickly flipped it into record then told Jay about the delay - he was at the visual monitors right beside the audio. 

On some evening, for instance, when the unsophisticated tourist has retired from our economic nightmares, a master's hand makes the harpsichord of the fields come alive, they're playing cards at the bottom of a pool, a mirror which brings to mind a few queens and call-girls; they've got saints, veils, threads of harmony, and legendary irridescence out there in the sunset.

- Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations

The Earth did shake that night for me, and for everyone else it seems.  Jay seemed ecstatic afterwards and told me how he would fix the issue at the beginning.  The concert started with the 10 Master Musicians, 5 on drums, 5 playing rhaitas, led by Bachir Attar the spiritual and familial heir of this ancient, psychedelic sufi music.  The floor mosiac to Orpheus began to glow as the music, acoustically amplified by the stone ruins, echoed and bounced off the hills filling the valley with sound.  After about 20 minutes they stopped playing.  Boujeloud made an appearance to introduce Bill Laswell.  Everything was rolling, this was it.  The first thing I noticed  monitoring with headphones, and was pleasantly surprised by, was that Bill had his characteristic heavy, thick, low bass sound.  It seemed like physics was being defied or else Orpheus provided some unseen processing.  He was playing a cheap Fender imitation bass through a rehearsal size guitar amp combo without any pedals.  I had no sweet eq or compression to record with, just straight through the Presonus mic pre into the convertors.  Yet it sounded as heavy as Dazed and Confused.  Later, when making a rough mix, I realized that the rich bass tone was due to the amp sound leaking into the ambient live mics.  The Romans simply knew how make buildings sound incredible, that used the reflective properties of stone, size, shape and overall architecture to amplify the sound in a clear, even, acoustically pleasant way with punchy, tight low end.  That's been my experience every time mixing in a Roman ampitheater - an apt name as the whole stage gets acoustically amplified.  They probably picked up the technology from the Greeks or Egyptians somewhere down the line or maybe it all came from Vitruvius, I don't know.  Now it seemed to have the same excellent sound reflection qualities even in the ruins. 

Everything, all the musical instrument sound generation was acoustic, non-electrified, except for the bass amp.  The mix of the bass with Jajouka sounded exactly right just naturally in the space.  The musicians balanced themselves  It sounded loud, powerful and clear.  Exploratory.  If I was poetic, I would say it felt like the music reached across space and time. Crossing universes and parallel worlds.  Though it marked the first time for this configuration, it seemed like it had happened before or that it was always meant to be.  Music of the ages ... nice to hear it again for the first time ever.

Someone had made a 5 foot high bonfire in the center of the square in front of the band that blazed while the music played.  They won't let you stand on  3 foot pedestals but building a huge fire in the middle of a monument is totally ok in Morocco.  I'm sure Boujeloud was in effect, getting his fertile, creative, panoramic energy amplified and broadcast out by the Roman stones and the revolving, cycling, spiralling music.  I tell ya,that's one God with a great soundtrack!  I didn't get to watch, being on the job and all; I'll have to wait until the movie comes out!  For me, there was a palpable glow on the set afterwards that something profoundly different had occurred, such that you can hardly believe we pulled it off.

Concert afterimage silencing my nervous system, still in engineer mode; language turned off, hyperaware; reverberations still rumbling inside ...  like what just happened??  Something opened up, some kind of spatial shift. New tracks into the Unknown, cracking open the door -  to be continued... soon, with upcoming concerts in Italy this September.  More on that, later.

Breaking the set and packing up once again started out at the speed of a military drill getting out of unknown territory after a brief incursion there.  A lot of local laborors on hand hauling all the cases away as soon as they were packed.  Seloua and Mustapha were helping collect mics and wrap cables.  A location manager told me two or three times to make sure to check that all the audio cases make it back into the truck.  I dropped my guard and made the mistake of letting them take my personal duffel bag that contained the hard drives with all the music files.  When Seloua and I got to the truck, there were no audio cases there?!  I started to get anxious, with no gear in sight, including all the music, and no clue as to when it might arrive.  It was now about 10 pm, the rest of the production crew was long gone.  I hadn't eaten since noon.  Ripe for the tweaking.  A small white pick-up truck pulled up with lighting equipment, but no audio.  These guys were obviously in no hurry.  Seloua tried to keep me calm and on Earth, but it still shook for me, especially now that the whereabouts of the hard drives was temporarily unknown to me.  There was a courtesy van there to take us back to the hotel, but I wouldn't leave without my bag.  I asked them to wait, Seloua said they would, while I hiked back to get the bag.  It took a minute to locate, everything had been moved to another staging area.  I was nearly back at the gate,  about 100 meters away from the van, when it started to drive away.  I yelled and unsuccessfully tried to chase it while at the same time getting a distinct feeling of being in a Keystone Kops film short.  With the laptop in my backpack and the hard drives in my duffel, I started hiking up the mile and a half to the hotel, pissed off at being left behind,  but happy that I had the files and a direction to go in.  To great joy, the van returned shortly and rescued me from being abandoned in the night, though I was still pissed when I got back.  I gradually wound down after getting food and some ice-cold Coca Cola which tasted incredible.  A return to a more regular, if permanently offset, reality.

For some, a celebratory party raged into the night, while many of us like myself chose to wind down in our rooms.  The movie channel had Die Hard 4 playing (released in the States as Live Free or Die Hard)  always good for comic relief after a long day at the office.  I was amused when a computer hacker named 'Warlock" discovers the code to access the data a master NSA facility and that code turns out to be 666 which reminded me of Crowley and how the secrets of the Temple got communicated tonight.

December 21, 2013
Volubilis, Morocco

Breakfast with Bill and Andy who impresses me with a story about having lunch with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.  Yakout says hello, golden smiles eye contact.  Some people are going separate ways - the Master Musicians back to Jajouka to await their next call for song, for the next chance to have their horns ring through the hills awakening  the "eld of the All- Father"

Thrill with lissome lust of the light,
O man!, My man!
Come careering out of the night
Of Pan! Io Pan! 

- Hymn to Pan, Crowley

Bill is going to Casablanca on his way back to New York.  I'll be going with the film crew on a road trip through the Atlas Mountains with the first stop at a town called Azrou.  I have another eight days to go on this project, though the days here seem much longer - not tedious, just loooooonnnnnger. ... in a good way.

Before leaving we have to reshoot the scene with Bachir and his brother that was rained out in Jajouka.  The story on that is in the last installment here.  The scene starts with Bachir playing a beautiful passage on the bamboo flute.  It's soothing and hypnotic.  In between takes he tells me that it's an old melody he learned from his father to change Boujeloud.

To be continued ...

No comments:

Post a Comment