Jean Genet – Quatre heures à Chatila
Not On Label (7″)
There exists a certain tension between politics and art, a dichotomy that on the one hand suggests all art is political, in so far as it seeks to elicit change (mood, opinion, stance, perspective) within its perceiver, whilst on the other claims that such realms are so distinct as to render the infusion of one with the other an impossibility. The philosopher Jacques Ranciere argued that self-stated ‘political-art’ is not really art at all – that through its explicit political objective, it loses the intangible and amorphous quality that is the foundation of artistic expression. Pharoah Chromium’s ‘Jean Genet Quatre heures à Chatila’ perhaps muddies this debate, by offering a distinctly political work that nonetheless retains the elusive allure of the composers increasingly unique artistic voice.
Based upon the Jean Genet text for which it is named, these two tracks document the authors first-hand experience of the 1982 massacre in Beirut during which 3,000 Palestinians were killed by Lebanese militia. It is perhaps useful, from an aesthetic perspective, that the text is spoken in French, a language I do not speak. Without ‘proper’ comprehension of the text, I am forced to rely instead upon the inflection of the voice, its pacing, the space between the words. Without knowing the context of the composition, I might well be oblivious to its political underpinning: however, the work is framed in such a precise manner that it would be unfathomable that I would overlook its overall meaning – it is a composition rich with a poetic, almost tired sadness. That is not to suggest it is in anyway melodramatic. There is something distinctly charming about the way the different lines of music and text are woven together: a taunt but emotionless, deadpan, yet bitter voice sits centre-stage, the loudest element by far, whilst beneath it almost incongruous distorted plucks, and melancholic trills are offset by an otherworldly drone.
From a technical perspective, the composer is working with the tools of production as much as the instruments to which they pertain. Volume, and as such, perceived distance, plays an integral role in the works effect, with high-pitched, piano-like arpeggiations placed as if emerging from another room altogether. The distortion, whilst running throughout the majority of both tracks, is always restrained, subdued, held back somehow in the mix. The application of delay, too, serves as more that an aesthetic colouring, providing much of the character for ‘Saint Genet à Chatila’. The length or nature of repetitions, the accent of the delay, its feedback and speed, all are exposed as compositional elements rather than mere effects, resulting in a deeply moving work for which it is challenging to pin down any over-riding mood or sentiment. The sound-world is always broadly similar, and the structure never gaudy enough to be broken down into parts, yet there is a sense that we are on a constant journey, though perhaps one without any intended destination.
It is the elusive, wandering nature of Pharoah Chromium’s composition that allows it to so easily, and without distraction, support the political text with which it engages. Indeed, it is arguable that the composer has done something quite exceptional in producing such an overtly political work without compromising the art-form that serves as his base material. These two short tracks are at times dramatic, at times sorrowful, at times vaguely humorous, such is the manner in which their elements are juxtaposed. And whilst not every sound seems to have been handled with the same finesse – some of the more distorted parts feel ill-at-ease, as if faintly out of context – Pharoah Chromium’s strength is in using such inconsistencies as part of the character of his work – a seductive web of both emotion and restraint that perfectly frames the political text and glacial voice that it serves.