Kareem Roustom is a Syrian-American composer, born and raised in Damascus, whose work has been described as ‘bi-lingual.’ Active in a number of genres Roustom’s concert music seeks to create a voice that reflects his heritage by combining a fluency in both traditional/classical Arabic music and Western concert music. His commissioned works include Daniel Barenboim, the Kronos Quartet, the Landmarks Orchestra (Boston), the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Educational Department, the Michigan Philharmonic, the Crossing Choir, Coro Allegro (Boston), the Boston Children’s Chorus, the Gammage Center at Arizona State University, the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College, the Aplle Hill String Quartet, and others. His music has been performed by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, under Daniel Barenboim at the Lucerne Festival, the Salzburg Festival and the BBC Proms. Other performances include the Malmo Opera Orchestra (Sweden), the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra Chamber Music Series, Choir of the 21st Century (London), The Peninsula Women’s Chours, the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus, the Verbier Festival, the Braunschweig Music Festival, the Rheingau Musik Festival, and the forthcoming American premiere of Roustom’s Ramal for orchestra at the Grand Teton Music Festival under Donald Runnicles (August 19th & 20th 2016). James R. Oestreich in the New York Times described Roustom’s Ramal as “propulsive, colorful and [an] immediately appealing creation.” Stephen Pritchard in The Guardian described Ramal as “arrestingly quirky and postmodern…music with lots of personality.” Of his triple string quartet A Voice Exclaiming, commissioned for the Kronos Quartet and Rhode Island- based Community MusicWorks, David Harrington wrote: “I think that with A Voice Exclaiming, Kareem Roustom has made a vivid, thought-provoking new piece that reflects hope in the time we live in, and the immense possibility for positive change as well as its awesome uncertainties and dangers.”
Kareem Roustom’s new work, Letters Home for violin and cello, will be performed by Cuatro Puntos at the next Late Music concert, Saturday 4th June at the Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, York.
Steve Crowther: Can you describe the work to us?
Kareem Roustom: Words are probably not the best way to describe music but I suppose my work is a reflection of my upbringing in Syria and my life in the USA. How this manifests itself depends on the musical situation at hand but I think it is not quite accurate to say that there is any one definition of my ‘work’ since some of it is professional work (i.e. jobs) and some of it arises out of a deep interest in life and a profound need to express something about it. The latter is the kind of spirit that I try to bring to my concert music.
SC: Do you write at the piano, do you pre-plan? Can you describe the compositional process?
KR: I don’t play the piano, my main instrument is the oud. However, I do have a piano at home that I play excellent ‘composer piano’ on (imagine two index fingers fumbling on the keys). My favorite place to compose is at my desk, away from the computer, with pencil and paper. Although I use computer based notation a great deal I try to keep things on paper for as long as possible as I truly believe technology gets in the way of creativity and certainly dulls the inner ear.
SC: Is it important to know the performers? Do you write with a sound in mind?
KR: I think it is. At the very least, I try to imagine the performer, practicing the piece and asking “is this really worth my time to practice?” Then I avoid answering that question and continue writing.
SC: How would you describe your individual ‘sound world’?
KR: I hope to some day have an individual sound world but as I look back on what I've done so far I find that my musical language can vary widely. However, I am trying to find a voice in my concert works and, I suppose, one might say that I try to combine elements Arab art and folk music with contemporary western concert musical languages. But this isn’t always obvious to the listener, which is not something I try to be blunt about. I am fascinated by instrumental colour and I try to be expressive with my orchestration.
SC: What motivates you to compose?
KR: A deep interest in life and the need to say something about it. A need to connect, to somehow console, even if it is only my own consolation that I seek, and a need to try and reach for something better than the last work that I composed.
SC: Which living composers do you identify with or simply admire?
KR: I cannot think of any that I identify with but I am very taken with the music of Oliver Knussen and Thomas Adés. However, any piece of music, whatever the style, can also be something that I’m drawn to if it has the right combination of elements.
SC: If you could have a beer and a chat with any composer from the past, who would it be and why?
KR: This is always dangerous because I worry that I might really dislike the person whose music I love. I recently read a biography about Sibelius, whose symphonies I am absolutely moved by, but I don’t know that I would’ve wanted to spend much time with him had I lived in during his lifetime. His poor wife, how she suffered for his genius. Great artists don’t always make for the most pleasant personalities. That said, I’d very much like to meet with Ravel to discuss orchestration, his life, and anything else. However, I’d assume he’d prefer a nice glass of merlot rather than a beer.
SC: Now for some desert island discery – please name eight pieces of music you could not be without, and then select just one.
KR: The great Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum’s Al-Atlaal (The ruins), composed by Riyad Al-Sunbati, Sibelius Symphonies no 3 & 7 (can those count as one), Huwa Sahih (Is it true that love conquers all?) by Zakaria Ahmad, Britten’s War Requiem (it is a shame to choose just one of his), Mozart Clarinet Quintet, Penderecki’s Passion, Knussen’s Horn Concerto, Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe. If I had to choose one, I guess it would be Al-Atlaal. Nostalgia would be a very powerful factor on a desert island and the sung poetry deals with facing the ruins of one’s life/civilisation but are also defiant and inspiring.
SC: …and a book?:
KR: If I were stuck on a desert island, I would want a book on navigating by the stars.
SC: …a film?
KR: The Double Life of Veronique by Kryzstof Keislowski
SC: …and a luxury item?
KR: Here, my luxury item is quiet time, on the island it would probably be something very basic, like a blanket.