Self-portrait by Muyassar Kurdi
Photo: Self-portrait by Muyassar Kurdi

The Urgent, Interdisciplinary Art of Muyassar Kurdi

Be it film, music, movement, or photography, Muyassar Kurdi is dedicated to creating multisensory, interactive experiences for her audiences. PopMatters recently spoke to her about recent projects, her artistic philosophies, and what’s on the horizon.

Voice Games
Ka Baird and Muyassar Kurdi
Astral Spirits
28 February 2020

Low-end electronic humming is combined with the droning sound of a bow across an upright bass. Muyassar Kurdi controls the electronics from a table while emoting a series of vocalizations and ringing a bell. She moves deliberately across the stage, as does the bassist, Luke Stewart. Graphic scores and earthly materials share the stage with the two artists.

The commissioned piece, Vast Geographies, is a hypnotic, 42-minute performance from last year at Roulette Intermedium in Brooklyn and is typical of the kind of unique, mesmerizing work that Kurdi creates.

Witnessing the art of Muyassar Kurdi can evoke transcendence, discomfort, ecstasy, calm — often in the span of a single piece. Her works, which encompass sound art, extended vocal technique, performance art, movement, analog photography, and film, are meant to instill visceral reactions. “In performance, I demand the presence of audience members,” she says. “I don’t want to be seen as entertainment or a spectacle as I recoil at the very thought of being consumed as if I were a commodity. I want to share a multisensory and interactive experience with others. I don’t want to be alone as I confront and channel the energy.”

Many of her recent projects speak to her wide, eclectic range. Last summer, she completed Colors, a dance film shot in Red Hook, Brooklyn, danced by Miriam Parker with music by Ben LaMar. The “vast, desolate industrial zones” of the Red Hook neighborhood have always fascinated her. “I loved how the body related to the endless surrounding cement and metal structures,” she explains.

A recent interdisciplinary piece called Brain Works was completed as part of her Harvestworks residency on Manhattan’s Governor’s Island. It featured large-scale abstract paintings (created by Kurdi) in a large, empty sunlit room. Movement and sound were later added with collaborators Joanna Mattrey on viola and danced again by Parker, performed outside on the island with the paintings.

For Vast Geographies, Kurdi worked with bassist Stewart and performed voice, electronics, and bells herself. Graphic scores were created and laid out on the theatre floor with scattered earthly materials such as soil, sea stones Kurdi had found in Athens and Istanbul, and some dried sage she had grown from seed during quarantine.

The performance was a ritual combining movement and sound; what she refers to as “meditation on walking, traveling, migration. Luke was dragging his bass from one side of the stage to another while playing and vocalizing or using his bow as an extension of his body creating gestures and choreographies. Sometimes he was playing the bass or the bass was playing him.”

Kurdi explains that her creations over the past year have enhanced her experience in deep listening. “I am really interested in improvisation, accessing flow, and moving towards liberation,” she says. “Working with improvisers is often playful, and they are so fluid in that they can move across disciplines without being limited to just one. The art of improvisation honors the moment in all of its openness. I like to compose structure and form while leaving room for improvisation, and for collaborators to just be themselves.”

Describing herself as “self-made,” Kurdi was born in Chicago to a Jordanian father (originally a Palestinian refugee) and a mother of French/Swiss descent. Growing up in a biracial home, Kurdi was exposed to many things and often pulled in opposing directions. “I grew up going to church and a mosque simultaneously,” she explains. “That’s when I learned to sing. I grew up singing at a Baptist church in a family band. My mother was a folk singer and guitar player, and through her, I found my voice as a child.”

She also took piano lessons for six years and lived in a house where a piano was always present and artistic growth was encouraged. “We didn’t have much, but the piano was a source of joy and creativity; my mother made sure we had music in our lives.”

Her father’s cassettes of Jordanian music were always present, and her time spend at the mosque helped inspire her love of movement. “(My father) would take us to the mosque and I recall movement and sound becoming one,” she says. “The recitations of the prayers along with the bowing appeared as a beautiful ritual to me. There were so many bodies in one room moving and reciting in unison.” Later, as a teenager, she bought a 35-millimeter film camera that she still uses to this day, shooting Chicago street photography as well as self-portraits.

Still images led to an interest in movement, as Kurdi began taking workshops in Chicago on butoh (a type of Japanese dance theatre) and became heavily inspired by this meditative dance. “When I made films, I was more interested in embodiment as the central focus and its relationship with the camera,” she explains.

A 2004 brain injury forced her to relearn the use of her body. “My art practice today is also informed by my work in Alexander Technique, a somatic movement centered on awareness through movement. I call it a nerve-dance. I am accessing new parts of myself, my shoulder in it’s socket, how beautiful to feel my insides, organs dancing, and my head liberating itself from my neck and spine.”

While Kurdi’s formal education did not involve art or music, she became inspired by many years of workshops she took at the New York loft of acclaimed artist Meredith Monk while in her early 20s. She calls these workshops a transformative experience. “I was working in so many disciplines and felt pressure to commit to just one, which seemed so impossible for me,” she says. “Meredith Monk opened me to the possibilities of all the disciplines co-existing and working together. It was possible to be a movement-artist, musician, performer, and filmmaker at the same time.”

Aside from Monk, Kurdi’s list of influences is wide and varied. “Audre Lorde is someone I think about a lot,” she says. “I revisit her writings so often and find myself thirsty for her wisdom.” Other artists who have inspired Kurdi include Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, Don Cherry, Alice Walker, Sun Ra, Yuko Otomo, Alice Coltrane, and Daniel Carter, to name a few.

In addition to writing and performing, Kurdi also actively teaches interdisciplinary workshops involving movement, voice, and theatre, which are usually followed by her solo performances and/or screenings of her 16mm film works. These workshops have included everything from remote classes through MoMa to a movement-sound workshop at Bilgi University in Istanbul. “I love to travel, teach, share, and learn with new communities,” she says. “It gives me the opportunity to grow and transform my work as well as give back. I am humbled by the opportunity to share with my communities, touch someone’s heart in a positive way, exchange ideas, stories, and aspirations.”

Kurdi has also released a great deal of music on various labels, including the eclectic free jazz/experimental imprint Astral Spirits. Intersections and Variations is a 2016 collaboration with musician Nicholas Jozwiak. Voice Games, released in early 2020, is the result of a partnership with Ka Baird, a multi-instrumentalist and one of the founding and continuing members of the long-running avant-psych project Spires That in the Sunset Rise.

“I was already familiar with Ka’s work,” Kurdi says, “And it was during my second year living in New York City that we started to collaborate in various interdisciplinary works. Ka’s performance presence is a very physical and raw ritual that I was totally entranced by.”

She describes Voice Games as “a collection of journeys from our time at Pineapple Reality and Pioneer Works in 2017 and 2018 when we ‘played’ with our voices and breath.” Recording in the heat of the Brooklyn summer, she remarked that “We were totally zoned out singing microtones and overtones for a few hours until one of us busted out laughing hysterically. We agreed it felt like one long car ride and we’d known each other for a lifetime. Laughter is a resource which I tap into as it expresses my desires, heartache, and joy; I am able to access flow by releasing tension in my body and connecting with others.”

As far as upcoming projects go, Kurdi is in the pre-production phase of her next 16mm dance film work, a larger-scale project which will directly address her Palestinian ancestry through movement, sound, and celluloid. In April, she’ll complete a residency at New York’s Watermill Center with composer Lucie Vítková. The focus will be on movement, sound, and graphic scores while in isolation surrounded by nature. She also wants to release a solo record this year for voice and electronics, as well as more duo recordings. “I have many dreams, desires, and cravings,” she says.

For Kurdi, she doesn’t see her wide range of disciplines as separate. “I think of how they inform one another and exist interdependently,” she says. “From the outside, it may be hard to understand or seem intimidating to approach. Often people want to categorize what one does, name it, package it, and sell it. Each of the modalities working together reveals new things to me. I couldn’t just do one thing even if I tried.”

“My message feels urgent,” she says. “It feels like life or death to me. That intensity is what it’s like to live in a body and move through space when faced with outside forces that want to constantly kill, exploit, and erase you. There never seems to be a rest from it, the injustice of it all. Even so, I have so much gratitude for life itself, the grief, pleasures, and the feeling that goes along with it.”