Excitement and Rapture with Clarinetist – Composer Kinan Azmeh

Nélida Nassar   07.24.2013 

Echoes from Syria at Beiteddine Art Festival presented at the intimate small palace’s courtyard a roaster of prominent Syrian artists: the engaging and charismatic clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and his Ensemble (Manfred Leuchter, accordion from Germany; Dinuk Wijeratne, piano from Srilanka; Petros Klampanis, bass from Greece; John Hadfield, drums, from USA); Ibrahim Keivo, voice; guardian of Ancient Syria’s musical heritage and 
Rasha Rizk, singer of a classical Arabic repertoire. 

The concert displayed the various tessitura and richness of Syrian music including the well-loved maqamats and mouwachahates. Kinan Azmeh’s Mozart-like style with vibrato clarinet lyrical music created a delightful atmosphere on a tranquil summer’s evening. Art and culture Today had the opportunity to meet with Azmeh who resides in New York. I leave the venue to the young virtuoso.

Nélida Nassar: When did you first realize you wanted to be a musician?
Kinan Azmeh: It was never a question, as I always knew partially that I wanted to be a musician. I started to play music as early as I can remember. Making music was always second nature. When I graduated from both the faculty of electrical engineering and the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus, I found myself applying for music graduate schools. It just all happened naturally I think.

NN: Can you describe the first song you ever wrote?
KA: My first composition was a simple single-lined melody that I wrote when I was 8 years old. I titled it “To Mom,” but a year later I felt a little guilty and I added to the title to dad and sister also.

NN: Why did you decide to move to New York to attend Juilliard?
KA: After graduation from both the University of Damascus and the Higher Institute of Music, I wanted to pursue my master degree in the US, and more specifically in a musically challenging city and in a top school. Juilliard has these qualities: An academically and musically brilliant body of students, very demanding faculty, and a super musically charged city. I do believe that these three factors are very important in shaping one’s musical language during the formative years.

NN: How has this experience influenced your work or chartered your musical life
and career?
KA: Juilliard (and New York City) is one of these places where you need to know exactly what are the reasons that brought you there and what do you want to get out of it. Being at Juilliard and in New York opened my ears to lots of new types of music. I came to attend graduate school so I knew exactly what I came for and what I wanted to do. I can imagine that some people may be lost in an environment like that, if they are not fully aware of the potentials and challenges associated with a music school such as Juilliard and a wild city such as NYC.

NN: Who would you cite as musical influences in your life?
KA: I have always believed in the collective, and have never liked singling out just one inspirational figure. Life as a whole inspires me, all sorts of music genres that I get exposed to continue to inform my musical language. I have a particular fascination with multi-faceted people, and as a musician, I love genre defying. Mozart is a great example, now we know him as a composer, but he was also a conductor, he was an instrumentalist (played keyboard and a number of string instruments), and he was also an improviser. The idea of a “fuller” musician is something that I aspire to.

NN: Who are your favorite composers and the representative musical styles that influence your work?
KA: Composers and instrumentalists alike inspire me. The list is long but it certainly includes Amadeus Mozart, Krzysztof Penderecki, Johannes Brahms, Jan Garbarek, Chet Baker, Sabah Fakhri, Pink Floyd, Johannes Sebastian Bach, (in addition to a large number of contemporary composers and improvisers, many of whom are great friends and colleagues). If I am to give a list of all the works that I like, I would need to go to a deserted island to prepare for it and this interview won’t be enough to list them!

NN: How have you developed your musical language?
KA: I am not in a position to analyze exactly how my musical language evolved since I am too close to it to properly assess it. I am mainly concerned about finding my voice (both clarinet sounds and compositional voice). I am also aiming to find a balance between what is improvised and what is composed, believing that the best composed music is the one that sounds spontaneous as if it is improvised, and that some of the best improvisations are the ones that are structured and well thought through.

NN: How did you develop your Arabic music training, is it an ear training (mostly tonal harmony and melody) or something else?
KA: Growing up studying western classical music in a city like Damascus (where a variety of Syrian music is all around you) opened my appreciation for the different sensibilities of different types of music. I did study Arabic music theory and history at the higher Institute of Music in Damascus, but this study was further supported later in my professional life when I started the ensemble Hewar (Dialogue) with my dear friend and colleague the oud player Issam Rafea. Forming the band and playing each other’s music was instrumental to me in digging deeper in the tradition that I was not very familiar with before.

NN: What do you select from the Arabic repertoire and mix with the Western canons, what is it that you keep and what do you discards?
KA: I actually don’t like the term “mix.” I have studied western classical music most of my professional life, I improvised, composed and was exposed to a wide range of other types of music. I feel that these seemingly contradicting elements happen to appear naturally in my musical vocabulary. Music is just music and I don’t believe in the categorizations of classical, eastern, western, or contemporary. It is all music for my ears at least. I simply play what I like, and I try to understand the musical elements that inspire me and make them my own. This applies to all sorts of music that I’ve played or composed in my life.

NN: How long ago have you formed the group you performed with? Do you tour internationally?
 For the concert at Beiteddine Art Festival, I invited old friends that I have been playing with individually for a number of years. This was not a “band” but rather a “Kinan and Friends” kind of concert. I wanted for this concert, which was celebrating the diverse Syrian culture, to include many of the friends that I have been playing with internationally and who visited Syria with me during my previous tours.

NN: Can you list the musical scores you performed at Beiteddine Art Festival and why did you select these in particular?
KA: The six pieces we played were: A Sad Morning; Every Morning; 139th Street; November 22; Dream; Airports; and Wedding.
I selected scores that I liked and wished to share with my band’s members and with the audience. I knew that there will be many Syrians in the audience and I wanted to play for them some of my older compositions the ones they were familiar with.
I did open the concert with a solo clarinet piece titled “a sad morning, every morning” which is my one moment of “music” instead of “silence,” in honor of more than 100,000 Syrians who have died in the past couple of years and in support of an endless number of detainees who remain imprisoned.

NN: The music you performed at Beiteddine Art Festival is bittersweet. Why and what do you hope people will get out of it?
KA: Many years ago, my mom asked me why was my music sad in general. I wondered about that a lot, especially that I do remember having a quite happy childhood. The answer to that came many years later when I started to think about art, the role of art and its effect on people.

Some people believe that art is the artist’s reflection of his/her surrounding world; others see that art represents the ideal world imagined by the artist. I don’t belong to either camp; I believe that art is about expressing emotions that you don’t have the luxury of experiencing in real life…. This is possibly where all this sadness came from. The concert at Beiteddine was different as I was playing music that expressed exactly how I felt at the moment… The bitterness, sadness and tragedy of what is going on at home… And the sweetness of playing so close to home and of being able to play and self-express loudly with few hundred people. I truly believed for a little moment while on stage, when the audience joined and sang louder during my piece “airports,” that some of that music would and could have reached the Syrian border.

Music is not the right platform for slogans. As an artist I am happy if I brought a smile, a thought, or simply some meditation and reflections to just one spectator in the audience.

NN: In what way does your music and which piece or tune in particular echoes the Syrian or Arab Spring dissidents’ voices and in what way it does it not?
KA: It is quite simple: making art is an act of freedom. One can question whether a musical note can stop a bullet and free a political prisoner… May be not… But we shall keep playing music loudly.

NN: Can you give us a sneak preview of your upcoming work?
KA: I am presently working on several new pieces, but it is too early to talk about. This coming season I will be touring with my New York’s quartet promoting our new album “Elastic City” which was released in Europe and the Middle East last summer. I will also be touring with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, the New Sounds of Arab Land project, and will have a number of concerts in the US, Germany, Canada, Lebanon, Iraq, India, Oman, Poland and France.

NN: What is the role of “entertainment” in changing the values of society?
KA: I have to disagree with your use of the term “entertainment.” Entertainment does not change the values of society since its sole role is to entertain us. However, Art, on the other hand does change societies in ways that are too difficult to measure. Think of chamber music as an example: In most languages, a conversation can only be achieved if one is silent while the other speaks. Music is one of the only languages where people speak while they are actively listening. A good musician knows when his musical intervention is not as important as the main tune played by someone else. This incredible real time interaction must have an important impact on the ways people live and interrelate in real life.

Azmeh’s sound sets a clear contrast to the classical sound that people in the west are used to, especially if one often hears players taught in the German style – that is also quite different from what one hears in a Dixieland or marching band. Kinan is definitively unconventional he is a good example for the modern, flexible clarinet player who can adapt to the style required rather than playing all types of music in exactly the same manner.

Historically, and quite often, the clarinet players influenced composers directly – this wasn’t always just a professional relationship, but often a friendship. It helped both: The musician needed new and popular pieces to play, and the composer benefited from finding out what a player could do with the instrument. Azmeh’s singularity is that the player and the composer in him espouse each other. His intimate familiarity with the characteristics of his instrument – the clarinet, makes him compose virtuosic music for it – while arousing enthusiasm and rapture in his fans.

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