The Power of Music. Kareem Roustom Answers Questions about the Festival Theme of “Psyche”

Kareem Rostom (Photo: John K. Robson)

Kareem Rostom (Photo: John K. Robson)

What is your earliest musical memory?
Hearing a song by legendary Lebanese singer Fairouz in the back of my father’s Chevorlet Impala while he drove my mother, siblings and me to some destination outside of our home in Damascus, Syria. There was this high tinkling sound in the song and it was very unusual for Arabic music of the time. Only later did I realize that it was the piano and the Rahbani brothers, the composers and arrangers of most of Fairouz’s music, used it in a way that was very unique and rarely heard in other popular Arabic music of the 20th century. That high, shimmering, and fragile sound within the other textures of the music has stayed with me and has often influenced some decisions in my orchestration.

What formative musical experience confirmed your desire to become a musician?
I’m not sure it was so much a musical experience as much as a life experience. Moving from Syria to the USA was a very difficult experience at a formative age. It was on a trip back to Syria after we had settled in the USA that I discovered music through the form of a guitar at a friend’s home. For some reason I felt an urgent need to figure out how to play it. This is the kind of curiosity that eventually led me to compose.

What work or works do you find to be extremely sad?
I don’t think of sadness as a negative feeling. Rather I think that it is important, or even vital, to recognize the inevitability of suffering in life. Confronting mortality and dealing with the heaviness of loss and the subsequent and anger and grief that follow it are perhaps some of the most difficult things we humans must do. For a meditation on grief and loss I’m drawn very much to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Because I love this work so much and I feel it articulates these emotions so well it is not a work that I can listen to very often. It is a work that I have to hear live or I have to put aside part of a day to listen to. The Eastern Orthodox music from the Easter Season also has a special place in my heart. Especially these days.

And what strikes you as the epitome of joy and high spirits?
I think this is more difficult to answer because I’m drawn to music that has complexity and drama and isn’t so emotionally one dimensional. For classical music, I can think of the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s 4th symphony is a great example of this for me. It is a piece that begins with a great deal of energy and even exuberance but the dark undertones are always there. When the opening horn call comes back in, I find that very chilling.

Is there music that moves you so strongly in emotional terms that you actually shudder before a performance? If so, why?
I don’t think so. However, I feel that there are times in our lives when we experience a significant event and there might be music that we associate with that time. Then the meaning we give the music can forever alter how we experience it. That said, I think Bernard Herrmann was a master of creating such a strong emotional atmosphere with his film music that it can be heard away from the film and it still has the same powerful effect. His score for Vertigo will always be a favorite of mine. Preisner’s score for Kieslowski’s La Double Vie De Véronique is also very moving to me. Although I now find that score a little less musically compelling I will always be moved by the emotional memories of when I first heard it.

Is identifying with a work psychologically a process that is indispensable for a convincing performance to succeed?
Very recently I was in the recording studio working with a cellist who was recording my work for solo cello titled Hanjale. While the cellist and I were discussing the recording I noticed that the cellist had written above a particularly agitated musical passage the words “Jill/Thanksgiving.” It seems that this passage had reminded him of a very difficult time with this Jill (perhaps the end of a relationship) during the American holiday of Thanksgiving. I noticed that there were similar emotional memory markers written throughout my score. So, for some performers, it seems that making a personal emotional connection to a work is vital. As a composer, I would consider myself very fortunate if every musician who performed my music tried to make such deep connections with it.

And vice versa: is there music that can make you sick?
To answer both these questions, I truly believe that there is no one kind of music that is appropriate for all the times of our lives. If we hear one kind of music and we are in a mental state that is closed and unwilling to receive it, then we can become agitated. However, in states when we are open and relaxed certain kinds of music can really benefit us and possibly even positively alter things such things as our blood pressure or our breathing rate. As a composer who writes music for film, where one of the functions of music is to heighten or even manipulate emotions, I try to cultivate an awareness of how music can make us feel. However, I don’t believe that there is a universal consensus on what music ‘means’ or how it makes one feel. Very recently I wrote music for a film that featured a somber waltz-like pizzicato figure in the strings. Unfortunately, one of the producers of the films associated all pizzicato strings with cartoon music because this person’s only experience with classical music was through cartoon music. So for that person the psychological association with pizzicato strings will always be limited to how he first experienced it. This meant that my music for that scene was rejected. Perhaps I now have a new emotional connection with somber waltz-like pizzicato string figures.

And to put it yet another way: would you “diagnose” neurotic or even psychotic traits in certain compositions?
I think that it would be very difficult to ‘diagnose’ much in music because we always bring our musical and life experiences to any listening experience. I am convinced that it is impossible to remain objective when it comes to experiencing music. A listener will often hear something other than what the composer or even the performer intended to convey. Cultural experiences also affect this. For instance, I find that the language of Arabic instrumental music, in its traditional uses, is not well suited to convey emotions such as psychosis or madness. When I work in film I often find that to bring heavier emotions to the foreground I have to combine musical languages to achieve this mood. The first time I saw the 1947 Egyptian film Fatma I noticed that the only scene that was not scored with Arabic music (typically wonderful songs for its star Umm Kulthum) was the scene in which a the main love interest was experiencing a guilt laden hallucination behind the wheel of the car. He ultimately crashed his car to the soundtrack of Debussy’s La Mer. I doubt that Debussy intended for the music to convey this emotion but someone involved in the film making process thought that this was the perfect music for this mood.

What famous work from music history leaves you completely cold?
If “completely cold” means unmoved, I think music that is poorly conceived or is too cerebral can do this to me. A balance between heart and mind needs to be found for a work to really connect.

Are you haunted — perhaps even plagued — by musical impressions (the so-called “ear worm effect”)?
Not clinically, but if there is a particular piece of music that has captured my imagination I find strains of it appearing throughout the day or in my dreams.

Do you believe people become “better” through music: more intelligent, more communicative, more sensitive?
I believe through the act of music making, at any skill level, requires co-operation, listening to others, empathy and a willingness to adapt to a changing situation. All these are traits that we also need to live with one another in relative peace. So yes, I do believe music making is a human activity that makes for better lives. As far as a listener is concerned, a role that I often find myself in, I think that listening to a broad range of music makes for a more interesting life experience. If one is willing to try new and unfamiliar kinds of music, and to experience them in live in new settings not just on recordings, one is more likely to be open to the new and unfamiliar and this person is more likely to be able to adapt to changing situations more easily.

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