Interview with composer Kareem Roustom

On May 15, 2011, Coro Allegro and the United Parish Chancel Choir presented the world premiere of Kareem Roustom's new oratorio, The Son of Man. Commissioned by United Parish (Brookline) in 2008, The Son of Man is based on Kahlil Gibran's book of poems, Jesus, the Son of Man, originally published in 1928. The six movements of the oratorio are voiced by characters, both biblical and imagined, who are contemporaries of Jesus. The oratorio dramatizes the characters' relationship with Jesus through a complex interplay of chorus, soloists, organ, percussion, harp, and trumpet.

Syrian-born Kareem Roustom is an Emmy Award-nominated composer who teaches at Tufts University. Steeped in the musical traditions of the Arab Near East and trained in Western music, Roustom is musically bilingual and has collaborated with a wide variety of artists.

Coro Allegro interviewed Mr. Roustom in 2011 to talk about his compositional style, his musical “bilingualism,” and his exciting new work, The Son of Man.

Kareem, would you talk a bit about your background?

Kareem Roustom: I was born to an American mother and a Syrian father. I was born in Damascus and raised there up until the age of about 12 or 13. And moved to the States for seventh grade to a small town on Cape Cod, went to school. Got into musical studies, and received my undergraduate degree at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. Originally it was more jazz studies than anything else, but shortly after school I really got into composition and I won a fellowship to move out to Los Angeles and work with a television composer named Mike Post, who is probably one of the most successful television composers of all time, and has done everything going back to the Rockford Files, Hill Street Blues, Magnum P.I. And he’s still very active, and a very interesting guy, so it was an interesting time. I lived in Los Angeles for a number of years, and eventually moved back east, and have lived here ever since.

You have these interesting show-business connections, such as Shakira.

KR: It’s complicated; I’m not an academic composer. I don’t hold a post anywhere. I want to reach out to as many people as possible. That means that I also want to work with as many people as possible. So if an opportunity comes that’s interesting and who knows where it’s going to lead, of course I’m going to pursue it, I’m not going to hold my nose…of course if something is poorly done, it’s poorly done, regardless of whether it’s a superstar, or some local artist. I try to put myself in a position where I’m going to be working on interesting things. But I’m not at all interested in saying that only one kind of music is superior to the rest and that’s that. So I try to bring the same spirit to anything I do, whether it’s a film score for an independent documentary, whether it’s an arrangement for a pop-music project, or whether it’s a concert music work. They all demand different skill sets in a way, or at least mental and emotional preparation…but I think ultimately I try to always write at my best.

Did you do jazz and/or classical training?

KR: I did go back for a master’s degree in ethnomusicology. Although composition was part of the focus the demands on my time as a graduate student where spent most on Ethnomusicology. My research focused on a very important 20th century Egyptian composer named Riyad Al-Sunbati (1906-1981). This was at Tufts. Even when I was in school I had a very active composing schedule. I was actually composing music for films while I was in graduate school, and I had other projects that I was involved in.

When did you start writing?

KR: That’s the beautiful thing about jazz, that you’re always composing.

You’re improvising, you’re composing…

KR: And that’s the other beautiful thing about the Arabic music tradition, is that there’s a tremendous amount of improvisation in it. It’s different (from jazz), but improvisation is an important part of both traditions. All along, I decided that I also wanted to write for concert settings and so for years and years I always studied orchestration on my own. And of course when I had pieces recorded or performed, whether it was a film score or something then you learn from those experiences. So I feel like my compositional experiences have been shaped more outside of the classroom, by doing, and by experiencing, and by working with live musicians; and always asking questions.

You’ve said that you are “musically bilingual.” Was there a conscious switch for you from Arabic to more Western-style music, or was there always sort of a duality about it for you?

KR: I didn’t get into music until probably eighth grade, until after we moved here. Had we not moved here, and had we stayed [in Syria], I think I would definitely not have gotten in music…

Why not?

KR: My dad was a surgeon, and he was hoping that all of us would either go into medicine or law or all of these fields that are…I think certain cultures have acceptable professions that they want their children to go into and those are the types of things that the class of people of the Syrian culture that my dad comes from, that’s what you do. You become a lawyer, an engineer, a doctor, that sort of thing. That’s not unique to Syrian culture, I don’t think. So I think had we stayed there, it’s very likely that [a musical career] never would have happened…. I was really drawn to music on a visit back to Damascus, after we had moved here. Somebody had some instruments, I started to fool around with them, and immediately I was very curious. But as soon as it clicked, it clicked. It was a spark, and I was very serious about music from very early on. So, A, it clicked, but B, it was difficult to be here [in the U.S.] Especially for seventh grade, and being the foreign kid, in a such a small-minded community where most people had no idea where Syria was, or had only vague, at best, or negative notions of the Middle East in general. And that’s what I confronted at that time in that community and as I’ve heard from nephews experiences, who attended the same school system on the Cape, recently not much has changed.

So, part of that was music was really an emotional release for me as well, an outlet to be expressive about the frustrations of being here, being uprooted, really, and that’s something that I still think about. And in a way that’s a huge part of what I write about, is kind of yearning for a time gone by.

So the duality I think just came naturally. It was really through jazz and Western music first that I explored it, and then eventually on a later trip going back during the 1990s in my 20s I began to study Arabic music a lot more.

You are also an instrumentalist.

KR: At this point, my main instrument in performing is the ud, the Arabic lute. In the past few years I haven’t been performing as much, I’ve had a lot more demands on my time for composing. So it gets harder to commit to that. Also we have a three-year old daughter, so I was happy to be home, and to compose more. Who knows, I have a feeling these things could be cyclical, or not, or I’ve just settled into a long-term groove more focused on composition.

Regarding The Son of Man, the work that Coro Allegro and the United Parish Chancel Choir will be performing, how did you choose this text? What drew you to the text, and how did the commission come about?

KR: For the text, like most people I knew Gibran through “The Prophet,” but I also knew Fairouz the Lebanese singer and from other things as well. In January of 2008 in The New Yorker there was an article about a new publication of The Prophet. And in that article the author talked about Jesus, The Son of Man (by Gibran). She excerpted a couple of lines and I thought they were really powerful. I can’t remember if I read that article before I spoke with Susan DeSelms or after, but they were close to each other. Susan had been thinking about this commission, and she specifically mentioned Easter. The idea of this book of Gibran’s stuck in my mind very much for this project. So I thought it was a natural fit, and also given Gibran’s very strong Boston connections I thought it would be really great thing.

Kareem, can you talk about some of the musical elements of the work?

KR: In a very general way, melodic figures, ideas, the way the melody might resolve, at times have very traditional Arabic flavors in them. A lot of my harmonies are based on melodic elements. The initial ideas can have very strong Arabic roots. And the scales can be based on Arabic maqam, or scale systems, as well as some metric cycles as well; a large part of my writing is using some of the traditional classical or folk metric cycles (which are not always noticeable but they’re in there) as sort of the framework of the piece. For example, a drum pattern on which a melody can be composed. I take this pattern that for instance may be played on a hand drum and then really spread it out for the whole group. Then begin to ornament it and color it that way. So sometimes for me these metric cycles from Arabic music can play a very important role in the framework of a section or of a whole piece.

But then at a certain point I begin to really explore chromatic variations on these things. And if you break it down sometimes, looking at this very thick harmony you can trace it back to the original melodic idea. There can be a lot of thickness and chromaticism; sometimes it just depends on the text.

Sometimes I’ll sit down and do very ‘thought out’ permutations or manipulations of melodic elements and just break them down into pitch sets, and be a little bit dry about it. But then just to come up with some colors and ideas and to expand the original idea…that’s how some colorful harmony can come out of the initial idea. The ideas have very clear roots and sometimes you can point to something and say, oh, well it’s very clear what that is. But then to me it’s more than that, it’s taking these ideas and turning them upside down/backwards/inside out, and coming up with coloristic ideas.

The story itself is a very dramatic one. Can you talk a bit about what some of the characters in the drama meant to you as you were composing the piece?

KR: I believe there are 79 or so chapters in the book Jesus, the Son of Man, and each one represents a character. And of course I couldn’t have used all of them. Initially, I had wanted to set seven texts but I had to drop one. Eventually the six movements got really big and I thought, well, I have to stop (laughter). I was trying to paint the story, I suppose, with those particular texts, and remain faithful to the spirit of Gibran’s book. Part of choosing the texts is that some of them really lent themselves to a musical setting. Also, some texts imply for me a particular mood and a tempo, like the ‘John the Baptist’ (fourth) movement. It’s just so fiery, and I knew it would have this scherzo feel to it, and had to be this very active moment…in a work of this nature, around that point a busy section would come in. Images of war and fighting, but really it’s talking about resistance (to oppressive authority).

And now the text makes even more sense in the context of recent events in the Middle East; of people having broken through the barrier of fear. And speaking out, despite knowing that they might be shot in the street. To me (in Gibran’s text), John the Baptist knows he’s going to die but refuses to remain silent. He’s speaking against the injustice of the Roman occupation, collusion with the Romans and hypocrisy. To me, yes, it’s a biblical story, but people tend to forget the politics surrounding the life of Jesus, and what was going on at the time. That’s an aspect that I suppose I had in mind as well. The piece was written before the recent events in the Middle East, but now that I think about it more…it also could be China, it could be these political prisoners who are thrown in jail for writing a blog, or whatever the case. Unfortunately it’s not confined to the Middle East. In a sense, it’s a universal topic.

The textual message is Gibran’s message. And all I’m trying to do is support it, because I was inspired by his work. In some ways this is where my experience as a film composer – and this might be a weakness or a strength, I don’t know – but when you are asked to compose for a film you’re supposed to really support the theme, and not step on the theme. So for me, working with text, I try to make sure that the delivery of the text is as clear as possible, that the setting is as clear as possible, so that the message of the author is not lost.

What is it about Gibran’s work that appeals to you?

KR: Personally, I’m conflicted about religion. I was baptized Greek Orthodox but my mom was Catholic so she took us to a Catholic church. So I had sort of a broad view of both eastern and western Christianity. And I think there are wonderful things. But I think sometimes religion actually gets in the way of being spiritual. The institutions of religion and the taboos…and what appeals to me about Gibran’s work is that what he’s trying to do, I believe, is bypass the nonsense and the hypocrisy and the literalism of people who want to interpret the scriptures...So I suppose for me the first movement of this work is about these priestesses who get a little bit too frenzied, too passionate, and too lost in this kind of adoration, and then they have to be brought back to try to remember the initial message or the deeds. And when you really think about them, Jesus’s words and his actions…it’s difficult, how few people are willing to take the path of somebody like that, whether it’s a Martin Luther King, or Gandhi…they’re not of course considered prophets, and in many ways they had their faults as individuals…

They functioned as prophets, though.

KR: Yes, they did the right thing despite knowing that it would mean their death. I think very few of us are willing to do that. These are the things that the prophets, I suppose, did. But I think so much gets lost with people who want to interpret the scriptures in one way or the other, and there’s so much nonsense out there, I suppose. Ultimately we need to believe in something, otherwise it’s a quite awful existence. But Gibran was open to a lot of religions and a lot of ideas. His tradition was that of Christianity, but he wanted to see through the hypocrisy and I guess that’s what cut through.

What sort of experience would you hope the audience would have after hearing this work?

KR: I hope they enjoy it. I don’t know what else I would ask, because people hear things in different ways. It’s a very full piece and I don’t think anyone can hear everything in one listen. Ultimately I just hope that they’re moved by it.

-- Interview conducted by Coro Allegro tenor I Tom Regan