Riding the interdisciplinary wave | Ruben Zahra

Musician Ruben Zahra speaks to Teodor Reljic about Rhythms of Vision, an upcoming interdisciplinary event merging music and visual art and taking place at the Manoel Theatre, which forms part of Zahra’s Modern Music Days initiative

Ruben Zahra (Photo: Lisa Attard)
Ruben Zahra (Photo: Lisa Attard)

What led to Rhythms of Vision, and how would you say it’s an extension of the Modern Music Days ethos?

The concept of Modern Music Days lies in an effort to present a series of events showcasing contemporary classical music, and 21st century repertoire performance. And one of the strongest strands in all of this is a movement towards interdisciplinary expression, because I believe the interdisciplinary is a very strong reference point for many artists working today. We are seeing countless examples of visual artists using sounds and music through video and installation art, and composers are also involving more visual media in their work. Rhythms of Vision marks the first time that Modern Music Days is connecting visuals so strongly with our musical performances, though creating a space for interdisciplinary performance is something we’ve always wanted to do.

Video art by Ritty Tacsum forming part of Rhythms of Vision
Video art by Ritty Tacsum forming part of Rhythms of Vision

Why did you believe it was important to merge music and video art in an event like this, and do you think it’s an effective way of multiplying audiences as well?

Yes, definitely. From a marketing perspective, it’s actually a strategy – to pull in audiences from different territories. If we organised the same event, at the same venue, but did away with the visuals, we’d have a smaller audience – I’m sure of that. We saw something similar play out when we organised two contemporary ballet performances last January, which allowed us to capitalize on the dance scene. 

Having done this for 20 years now, I can confidently say that the most unpredictable ring in the chain of performing arts is marketing. Partly because you have to rethink your strategy every time. But the one thing I always keep in mind when promoting an event is the importance of “creating curiosity”. With contemporary music, it tends to be less about any ‘big names’ and more about having a hook that makes audiences curious to attend. Then it comes down to ensuring that you’re tapping into the right channels. I’ve actually started to sub-contract this aspect of the process – employing PR agencies to take care of media promotion and the like – because it’s actually quite time-consuming for an artist to have to do all that stuff organically. Naturally this is not viable for artists, especially those who are first starting out, but if you go about it in a clever way you can make it work for you (apparently it’s called creating an “influence campaign” – I didn’t know it had that tag, back in the day!).

Video art by Trevor Borg forming part of Rhythms of Vision
Video art by Trevor Borg forming part of Rhythms of Vision

Sticking to the example of classical music, there’s still a pretty conservative streak that runs through the scene, when it comes to using these newfangled tools. Slowly but surely though, practitioners are realizing that the medium to use is video. To wit, YouTube is stronger than Soundcloud. 

On a broader note – and given that the event is organised in collaboration with the Valletta 2018 Foundation – how do you think events like Rhythms of Vision help promote the kind of initiatives that will ensure the success of Malta’s status as European Capital for Culture next year?

It’s certainly one aspect of what Modern Music Days is all about. Let’s remember that any Capital of Culture has a number of priorities on the agenda. Among them, for example, is community-based projects. Now, MMD doesn’t quite address the community aspect in particular, but it most certainly seeks to strengthen the professionalization of the arts, with the interdisciplinary aspect that we were mentioning earlier being an important part of all that. 

And what about longevity? Malta seems to be lacking in artistic projects that sustain an impact after their unveiling – how does Modern Music Days face up to this reality, and does falling under the remit of the Valletta 2018 Foundation help in this regard?

This is definitely an important element for us, and one way we make sure to tackle it is by engaging with students. We do this by creating platform-sharing opportunities whenever we organise a major event. For example, on February 8 we will be doing a presentation at the University of Malta – for students from both the Department of Music and those from the Arts course – tied to Rhythms of Vision. We’ve basically invited some of the participants of the event to present their work to the students and walk them through it. 

Video art by Vince Briffa forming part of Rhythms of Vision
Video art by Vince Briffa forming part of Rhythms of Vision

In fact, this ties in directly to another priority of the Valletta 2018 Foundation – pedagogy. And it’s this focus on education that will help generate the jobs of the future. And it’s clear from the response we get from the students that there’s a real thirst for this sort of thing – they are really thankful to us for helping facilitate this experience for them because they don’t get this kind of hands-on experience from anywhere else. We’ve also made sure to ‘solidify’ this experience by making it part of the student’s assessment at University, so they really feel they are engaging with the material. 

I feel that it’s important to create these platforms because at the end of the day, Malta remains something of a backlot when it comes to the performing arts. Even compared to places like Sicily – where you’d get very vibrant and ongoing performing arts scenes in places like Trapani or Palermo – Malta doesn’t enjoy that kind of long-term engagement. Events like the Malta Arts Festival are great, but they only happen once a year. So we need to put in the effort to create these opportunities.

Forming part of the Modern Music Days initiative, Rhythms of Vision will be taking place at the Manoel Theatre on February 11 at 20:30. The event is organised by Teatru Manoel in collaboration with the Malta Association for Contemporary Music, supported the Valletta 2018 Foundation.
Bookings: https://goo.gl/4TRpdn

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