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After the Sampler

Dub figure Raz Mesinai talks about looping Sumerian myths and electrifying downtown musicians

By Marc Weidenbaum

“I’m really screwing myself over with the performance aspect,” says Raz Mesinai, speaking on the phone from his apartment in Manhattan. Said screwing has to do with how difficult — impossible, he suggests — it is for some of his recorded work to be performed live.

Take, for example, Before the Law, Mesinai’s cycle of compositions inspired by the writings of Franz Kafka, which was released on John Zorn’s record label, Tzadik, in 2001. In contrast with much of the music Mesinai had released previously, under the names Sub Dub (a duo with John Ward) and Badawi, Before the Law sounds downright traditional. In place of his once-trademark “illbient” meshes of sodden ambience and dub music were an assortment of exquisitely detailed miniatures, performed by such accomplished instrumentalists as violinist Mark Feldman and cellist Michael Moser. As it turns out, though, the acoustic sounds that comprised Before the Law belie a production process that was, in a word, painstaking — exceedingly so.

“Nothing was notated,” explains Mesinai, who worked with the carefully selected musicians on Before the Law individually, rather than live in the studio as a group, having first constructed an audio blueprint for the album on his own. “I played piano, or I processed a lot of stuff, to come up with a basic skeleton,” he says, “and I played, like, a small sound and said, ‘You play that.’ And I’d put that aside — I’d put that in the sampler and save it for later. And I spent, really, months editing that stuff, and then re-composing it all.”

As a result, the chamber sketches he developed in homage to Kafka’s The Trial, with what sound like chimes above cat-scratch violin and precisely placed piano notes, are too intricate, too studio-enabled, to be realized in concert. The irony, of course, is that Mesinai first made a name for himself as a DJ, playing live sets of impossibly unnatural soundscapes, and yet some of his most realist work to date is virtually unplayable. That’s quite a corner Mesinai has composed himself into — one might even call it Kafka-esque.

The frustration is especially keen at this moment to Mesinai. (His first name, which rhymes with “jazz,” is a family nickname, short for Reuel, and his last name, which means “from Sinai,” is pronounced “may-see-nigh.”) He is just coming off a successful live show at the Kitchen, the esteemed Manhattan performance venue, for which he put together an opera based on Sumerian mythology. Titled Myth of Nations, it combined rapping (Seraphim), poetry (Celena Glenn), singing (Jessika Kenney) and various instrumentalists (including Carla Kihlstedt, Shahzad Ismaily, Jim Black and Miguel Frasconi). “It was composed like a DJ would compose,” says Mesinai. “I have a loop, and I’d say this loop can go over this loop.” The project also introduced an unfamiliar element into his mix: vocalists. “This is a landmark for me,” says Mesinai, who wrote specifically for each of the performers. “I picked them out because of the sound of their voices, the texture, and that led me to the piece. I was still working with instruments, really — I was seeing them as a sonic element.”

Myth of Nations is just one of several new directions for Mesinai, who participated in the 2004 Sundance Composers Lab, subsequent to which he scored Sorry, Haters, a 9/11-themed movie starring Robin Wright Penn. He recently completed the soundtrack to Romantico, a documentary about mariachi musicians. Just relax, now — the Jerusalem-born Mesinai isn’t going all Nortec Collective on us. He explains that the mariachi movie doesn’t necessarily sound like what you’d hear in a Mexican neighborhood. “We did a lot of music,” says Mesinai, “but it wasn’t working because even though it’s about a musician, he’s really in his own head, he’s talking about his problems and stuff — so, I ended up using a lot of folk instruments, but then droning them, kind of finding like little harmonics in them, and stretching those out, so that it sat in the sound design. You don’t really even know it’s there, but it’s really effective.”

Other upcoming Mesinai projects include Safe, perhaps his final album as Badawi, which is due for release on the Asphodel record label in early 2006, after four years in the can. He mixed a new album by his wife, DJ and composer Marina Rosenfeld, and he’s currently producing the new album by bassist Mark Dresser. Dresser, like Feldman, is one of a number of musicians into whose orbit Mesinai has entered, in part thanks to his association with Zorn — folks like Shelley Hirsch and Marcus Rojas, who helped define outward-bound music in Manhattan a decade or further in advance of Mesinai’s arrival on the scene (he was born in 1973). Zorn fans looking for a point of entry into Mesinai’s soundworld should immediately check out “Reanimator 1.0,” off Cyborg Acoustics (Tzadik, 2004), which recalls Zorn’s early game pieces. Mesinai describes it as being for “genetically enhanced improvisers.”

Asked if the Dresser album will bear his mark as a producer, Mesinai says, “I think you’ll get that I recorded it. The technique Dresser has, and the harmonics, and his knowledge of how to bring out harmonics — that’s what I’m so excited about working with: hearing all these little fragments of sound and catching all those. I think that’s why he wanted me to record it. It’s mostly improvised, but, you know, he just went for it. There’s no editing. We just got a sound, and then it felt like the sound was so good that he could just play it all and it could be heard. Yeah, it’s him, a side of him that’s not really on any other record.”

Between the soundtrack work, his production credits and that Sumerian opera, which he hopes to stage again, there’s little sense of Mesinai settling into one mode. Of course, defying categories can have its downside, especially in regard to, well, categorization. I mention to Mesinai that I once had difficulty locating some of his albums at the Amoeba Music store in San Francisco. Eventually a clerk checked the retailer’s computer database and directed me to the “Jewish” section.

“The Before the Law one is on Tzadik’s ‘Radical Jewish Culture’ series,” Mesinai says, “so that kind of makes sense. But I’d prefer for it not to be in the Jewish section, and I think Kafka might as well.”

The above profile originally appeared, in lightly edited form, in the sixth issue of e/i magazine in 2006 (more information at ei-mag.com).
Related links: Raz Mesinai's website, razmesinai.com.

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