Meet composer Kareem Roustom

We are honored to be giving the mid-west premiere of Kareem's work Abu Jmeel's Daughter. He was kind enough to answer some questions for us about his work.

"I have decided that my music must serve as a vehicle for some kind of message, be that advocating for cross-cultural understanding, compassion for the 'other', or to raise a fist against injustice and tyranny, or another cause that, even in a very small way, tries to make our world a little better."

Share a little of your background story as a Syrian-American and the path you have traveled to becoming an established award-winning composer, commissioned by some of the biggest names in classical music.

Well, I'm not sure that I'd use the word "established" but I'll try to give a brief synopsis of how it came to be that I am replying to your e-mail. I was born in Damascus, Syria to an American mother and a Syrian father and was raised there until about the age of 13. At that point it was decided that we should move permanently to the USA. In hindsight, the decision was very wise but it breaks my heart to have to admit this. The move was difficult in many different ways but I suppose you could compare it to uprooting a tree and replanting it somewhere else. However, this sense of uprootedness, and current events, has played and still plays a very important role in my creative work.  Also, because of this uprootedness I found music. At first it was through the guitar and jazz, as a way to run away from my conflicted identity, and then through the oud and "classical" and traditional Arabic music as a way to run towards my conflicted identity and to embrace it.  That process took years. However, I always knew that composition was at the deepest core of my efforts and since I've always had much more confidence as a composer than as a performer my path became clear.

How I came to be "established" is a bit of a circuitous story and not at all conventional. With the exception of few lessons with Michael Gandolfi, I am a self taught composer. I don't have a PhD in composition and I don't hold a tenured position anywhere so I've always had to rely on my intuition. I've always tried to hone my craft, to study the music that I love and to learn from the music that I don't love. Sometimes professional opportunities came when I wasn't ready and sometimes they came when I thought I wasn't ready but I was. The disaster that has been unfolding in Syria has certainly created an interest in its culture. I realize that in some ways that has opened the door, and this is not something that I want to take advantage of, but I hope that the 'door' will stay open because my music has a certain quality to it. So far, that seems to be the case, and I am grateful for that. If I can use this opening to help others then I do and will continue to do so.

Over the years, I've been active in performing, teaching, and transcribing Arab music from the near east in addition to composing. So my work is rooted in both worlds. I am equally comfortable writing in a completely "western" language as well as a completely "near eastern" language as well, or somewhere in between. It is a spectrum that shifts according to the project that I am working on. 

You play the oud, can you tell us a little about the oud and how how the traditional music (classical Arabic) you study and perform on the oud differs from and/or is similar to traditional European music?

The oud   

The oud


The oud is the most central instrument in Arab music. It is the instrument of choice for composers, and on which all the theory is based. The oud is also the typical instrument of choice to accompany vocalists. It is often referred to as the "king" of instruments. It is found throughout the Arab world, in Iran, Turkey, Greece, Armenia, the Balkans and further east. It is the ancestor of the guitar but it still continues to inspire. The new generation of oud players have achieved tremendous technical proficiency on par with high level flamenco guitarists. There are as many styles as there are countries that use the oud, but in the Arab world you can make a broad distinction between North Africa, the Levant, the Gulf countries and Iraq. The latter has its own distinct musical style than the other regions. When I was performing a good deal of early music [European music predating c. 1650) with Boston Camerata, I realized that long ago European and Arab music were not so far apart. At a certain point the differences outweighed the commonalities. However, performers on the oud now perform in all kinds of cross-over settings so it really has become a global instrument. [Click here to enjoy a groovy tune performed on the oud]

What inspired you to set Abu Jmeel's Daughter to music? What is it about this tale that inspired you?  What were some of the challenges you faced when composing this piece?
This morality tale has a decidedly different flavor than European morality tales, do you have any insight about the tale to share with our audience?

Click to purchase book

Click to purchase book

This was co-commission from the Alba Ensemble in France and Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture in Philadelphia. It has been performed in English and French but not yet in Arabic. I don't recall whose idea it was but the commission called for a setting of a folk tale. I did a good deal of research to find a suitable story, and chose this one because I felt its structure lent itself well to a musical setting. Also the elements of magic and the supernatural, as well the difficulties and challenges faced by the heroine, inspired my imagination.

The only challenges in the commission were the reaction to some of the text: In France they asked me to remove the word "God" from the text as the story ends with "...and God blessed them with a happy life" or something of the sort. The French are almost religious about their secularism. In the USA it was decided to hold a panel after the concert about misogyny as some people felt that the tale leaned that way. Both instances were baffling to me. As far as the element of misogyny, of course the Arab world has been and continues to be male dominated. This tale, I believe, was told by mothers and grandmothers to daughters and granddaughters. I believe that the point of passing such stories down was to tell young girls that as a female member of this society 'the cards are stacked you' and to prepare them for the challenges ahead. Each story probably had a nugget of knowledge it. But they were also told as a form of entertainment as well.

For a contemporary society to say that we no longer need such tales or that they send the wrong message is more than a little disingenuous. We don't have to search further than our American borders to find proof of this. Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man" deals with similar themes. Also, for people to want to keep such tales hidden is a denial of part of history.

As far as the 'otherness' of these tales, I don't feel that they are so far off from European folk tales. In my research, I found an old Arab/Persian folk tale that was very similar to Snow White. As for difficulties in European folk tales, what lesson can one take away from Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl? That is a very dark, sad, and upsetting story but I believe that this was how children were taught that the world can be a very uncaring and dangerous place. That is the function and purpose of such tales. I feel that it is a mistake for us to shelter our children from these tales by Disneyfying them (the original Little Mermaid did not have a happy ending).  Abu Jmeel's Daughter is a tale about paying a price for seeking material gains; physical beauty and greed for wealth, in this instance. It is also a story about patience and perseverance through difficult times as well as a warning to recognize our limits. To look for facile moral lessons in such stories is kind of the easy way out.I prefer things that force you to scratch your head a little and to have to think. As a composer, a little darkness is also inspiring as it offers opportunities for the use of color inspired by dark humor. That said, audiences of all ages have enjoyed this story and it was a pleasure to see young children enthralled by the performances.

A lot of your music blends the two traditions of classical Arabic and classical European music. What are some of the natural ways the traditions overlap and what are some of the challenges? What can we listen for in Abu Jmeel's Daughter to hear this?
Is all of the music you compose a blend of Arabic and European traditions, or do you sometimes intentionally set one tradition aside to focus on another?

I suppose that I've been trying to master two languages. As a result any given piece can have a style that is somewhere on a spectrum between 'pure' Arab or 'pure' Western 'classical' or somewhere that blurs the line between both.  In Abu Jmeel, you might hear the influence of Ravel and some Elliot Carter as well as a traditional folk song (it is used right after the wedding of Ridda and prince Alwan - see video below).

The reason I used this melody is because it is based on a rhythm called Zaffa which happens to be a rhythm that is often performed at weddings in the near east. While most listeners won't get this, I try to bring this kind of depth to all my work.  As far as when to use one language or another, or a combination, it depends on the project. However, I've arrived at the point where my overriding focus is on the emotional intent of the composition, not so much the surface features.

What are your current projects?

I am in the final stages of producing/composing/arranging an album project that features female vocalists from a number of world traditions and orchestra. We recorded the fabulous Philharmonia Orchestra at Abbey Road in London this past August and I will be mastering the album in Los Angeles later this month. For concert music commissions I am very excited about the three commissions I have this year. The first is a work for clarinetist Kinan Azmeh [who just won a Grammy Award with the Silk Road Ensemble] and the Deutches Symphony Orchestra in Berlin. I'm working on this piece currently and it will be recorded in Berlin later in 2017. Following that I will begin a 25 minute work for Boston choir based choir Coro Allegro and string orchestra. The text, which is still being compiled, deals with 'current events.' The third work is my second commission from maestro Daniel Barenboim and it is a work for clarinet (Kinan Azmeh) and the newly founded Pierre Boulez Ensemble. This work will be premiered in Berlin at the Pierre Boulez Saal in 2018. I am deeply humbled and grateful that maestro D.B. has asked me for another work. Incidentally, Kinan and I have been struggling to find funding for a work for clarinet and large ensemble since 2008 and now we are blessed with two amazing opportunities.

What do you believe the role of music, especially "art music", plays in today's society?

This might sound too lofty but I believe art music can and should comment on the human condition and the condition of and our relation to nature.  At this point in time both the human condition and nature, our planet, are in a very difficult place. I have decided that my music must serve as a vehicle for some kind of message, be that advocating for cross-cultural understanding, compassion for the 'other', or to raise a fist against injustice and tyranny, or another cause that, even in a very small way, tries to make our world a little better.  I believe that this can be achieved through subtlety, sincerity, the highest craftsmanship possible and passion.

You can hear Abu Jmeel's Daughter by Kareem Roustom, along with works by Valerie Coleman, Andre Previn and Igor Stravinsky on March 10 at the 560 Music Center.