What motivates you to compose?
I’d have to say that the musicians for whom I’m writing a piece for are a very motivating factor. It is very difficult for me to write a piece of music in the abstract, without a performance date or no person in particular. When I connect with a performer and begin to understand what makes him/her excited and challenged and we can share that energy, that is very motivating. Also, the setting of the premiere can also motivate. Perhaps the most motivating factor is a deadline.
The other motivating factor is simply trying to get “it” right.
Composers are, by nature of their craft, tinkerers. Like watch makers always working with intricate parts trying to make the watch tick accurately but also being pleasing to the senses. The ever elusive target of achieving fine craftsmanship, is also a motivation.
Lastly, it is simply feeling a need to say something with the utmost sincerity. If I cannot find that feeling at the outset of writing something, it is very likely that the piece won’t see a final bar line.
These are my motivating factors for concert music. In film, if the project is inspiring it is easy to move forward and find the right motivation. When the film is not so good, that becomes more difficult. Luckily, it has been a long time since I’ve experienced this difficulty.
How would you describe your music?
This is also a difficult question, as whatever I might think of it may not have any relation to what someone hears.
I suppose it is fair to say that my music has roots in Arabic music but has branches that can go in any number of directions.
Here is one example of Arabic music roots but with a very free harmonic interpretation <http://vimeo.com/24823869>
Here is an example of a very traditional type of writing based on a folk dance called Dabke’ <http://vimeo.com/46102825>
Do you have a preference? Film work? Concert hall or television?
I really enjoy the variety. However, concert music is the only place where I feel I can ask the really big and difficult questions in life.
It is one of the few creative outlets where I feel I am able to meditate on and contemplate the human condition in a thoughtful and mindful manner. The constraints of commercial music (stylistic demands, deadlines, budgets etc.) aren’t there. There is a great deal of freedom in concert music, but that freedom can also be intimidating. Film, however, allows for a composer’s work to reach a large audience and if the film and the music have a really good synergy, it can be a very rewarding artistic experience.
Can you explain a bit about your cultural influences? How does cultural influences inspire your music? Are you interested in any particular kind of world music?
I was born and raised in Damascus, Syria and then moved to the USA for 7th grade on. In the last decade and half, or more, I’ve been actively trying to find a way to make meaningful and thoughtful connections with the music of the Arab world, specifically the Near East. For a time that meant performing traditional and Classical Arabic music at the highest level available to me in the USA.
I’ve since moved on to really think deeply about how this music, and culture, moves me and inspires me. My work is based on finding ways to incorporate these elements into my writing in a natural way.
Rather than add these elements as a mere spice to be sprinkled on the top of the meal, I like to have these elements be part of the broth, so to speak. In other words, I will use these elements for the foundation of a work rather than just as a coloristic after thought.
My background also includes jazz and concert music as well as a lot of other styles of music. One has to be flexible to survive so I’ve had to wear many stylistic hats. At times though, people want to paint my work into one corner, or say that I’m not a serious (for lack of a better term) composer because I’ve worked with artists like Shakira. I’ve confronted this attitude from both concert music performers, other composers and non-musicians. There still seems to be a habit to Orientalize composers or musicians who come from the Arab world. However, those performers who have taken the time to learn and perform my music have always given me very positive feedback, whether students in a university choir or world class performers like clarinetists Kinan Azmeh or Ricardo Morales.
To demonstrate what I’ve been talking/writing about, here is example taken from my chamber piece Buhur (2008). The work is based on the poetic meters of classical Arabic poetry (called Buhur). My goal was to see if I could re-imagine poetic meter as musical meter and this, the final movement of the work, is the result <http://vimeo.com/46109431>.
Another example is Abu Jmeel’s Daughter, which is based on a folk tale. Here the, musical language supports the drama of the text and there are elements of Arabic folk music, avant-garde writing techniques and even influences of Ravel. The piece was originally co-commissioned by a French ensemble so I suppose that just came through at times. <http://vimeo.com/47662443>
Who has influenced you as a composer and why?
Anything in life can be an influence to a composer. I suppose that this is what it means to aspire to be an artist, the we have to respond to things and people around us. I aspire to always do this with sincerity and with craft. That said, I’m drawn to traditional music from the Arab world and beyond.
As far as Western classical music the work of Benjamin Britten is a constant source of inspiration, as is that of Witold Lutoslawski, Henryk Gorecki and many other Eastern European composers. Somehow, I find much more depth their music than in what a lot of what is happening in America these days. I suppose I’m drawn to the drama, the angst and the dazzling colors in their works.
The music of Giya Kancheli and Valdimir Martynov have also been very inspirational to me of late. Of course, there is a wide range of other music from the Arab world (the songs of Umm Kulthum for instance) that is a constant source for inspiration. Over the years I’ve also been involved with Early Music and I love exploring those sounds as well and finding the early connections between the East and West.
Can you tell us a bit about your current composing projects? Any exciting plans for 2013?
I’m very excited, and challenged, by a commission project to write a work for three string quartets: the Kronos Quartet, the Providence String Quartet and the latter’s students at the amazing Community Music Works program in Providence, R.I. USA (<http://www. communitymusicworks.org/>). The work is being commissioned by CMW and will be premiered in November of 2013. Also in the works for 2013 is some piano music: a sextet for clarinet, piano and string quartet as well as some solo piano pieces that I’ve been wanting to write for some time. These last two projects are still in development so I’ll announce them as soon as they’ve been finalized. I recently completed a work for solo cello and solo clarinet. These are shorter (about 6 to 8 minutes) pieces that are part of a series of pieces I’m writing as reflections on the ongoing war in Syria.
In June of 2010 you were awarded a fellowship to the prestigious Sundance Film Composers Lab held annually at the Sundance Institute. Can you tell us a bit about this and what it meant to you?
This was such an honor and a really fun and rewarding experience. It is very difficult to get into this program so I was very excited, after applying for several years, to be accepted. The program provides an opportunity for composers who are interested in film to compose music for various film cues and to have this work critiqued and guided by established film composers from Los Angeles and elsewhere. The setting, the mountains of Utah, was stunning but most of our time was spent in little trailers writing into the wee hours of the night. It was just a wonderful time and I was able to make some good friends in the process.