You come from a fascinating and eclectic background: born and raised in Jordan to a Syrian mother and a Bosnian-Palestinian father, you studied in Damascus’ Higher Institute of Music (Syria), and later at McGill university in Montreal (Canada). How did your diverse background shape your musical personality?
This is a very interesting, multilayered question that I’ve also contemplated throughout my life.
On the one hand, being of a diverse ethnic background means that I carry in my genes a rich musical heritage that’s been passed down to me from my Arab & European ancestors. However, on an immediate family level, I grew up as a classically trained pianist in a family where my mom listened to anything from the legendary Lebanese singer Fairuz to George Michael and Stevie Wonder, and where my dad was an avid classical music listener with a huge collection of vinyl records ranging from Vivaldi to Rachmaninov. This all happened in a country where music was seen as a hobby only, and where my parents were going against the flow by encouraging me to pursue my dream of becoming a professional composer. When my dad proudly told one of his pharmacy customers that I was specializing in music now that I was done with highschool, she looked at him, put her hand on his shoulder and said, “Well it’s better than staying home doing nothing!’ So you get the idea haha!On the other hand and on a much more profound level, this same exact diverse ethnic background meant that up until now, my sense of identity and belonging to a particular place is very fragile and blurred. I come from a history of conflict, war, and displacement, and never got to live in a place where I fully belonged. This lack of sense of belonging is the reason I became a composer: I needed to be in control of a ‘place’ that is not bound by a tangible location, where I can be everything that I am, and where all my identities can have one home. Composing music was-and remains to be-my way of bringing all my identities into that one place and without trying to romanticize things here, music is truly my only home.
With 30 film credits within the last few years, you’ve been very busy scoring award winning features and shorts that have screened in the biggest festivals like Hot Docs, Edinburgh, and Dubai to name a few. As an in-demand composer, how do you usually choose the projects you work on, and what is your scoring process like?
I went through a couple of years of saying yes to everything. In a way, I was challenging myself to be as prolific as I can, to work well under pressure, and to just plough through project after project in order to hone my skills. I had to take a step back recently when I realized that as much as it’s nice to accumulate IMDb credits, if I am not fully captivated by the project or if I do not see its true potential, then the scoring process becomes more of a burden than a joy. I have therefore learned to rely on my first instinct after reading a script or seeing a cut, and just the general vibe I get from the director or team. With experience, I feel we develop this sixth sense of knowing whether or not a project will be worth our time, and whether the relationship with the director and their team is worth building.The biggest lesson I learned in the past year was to trust this gut instinct and sixth sense, and it has worked wonders for me on a mental health level.
As for my scoring process, I usually tend to juggle a few projects at the same time, which means that I need to prioritize some over others depending on the deadlines, while still maintaining the flow for the other projects. Given that I compose and orchestrate all my music, I only get assistance when it’s time to mix and stem for deliveries. I developed a system of giving myself short hourly deadlines to get cues done in what I’d like to call ‘power hours’; basically, uninterrupted intensive work sessions where you have to deliver a cue after each session. As the saying goes, it’s not the amount of hours you put into your work, but the amount of work you put into your hours that counts.
Alongside film scoring, you’re also a prolific concert composer, whose music is performed worldwide. In 2019, you were commissioned to compose music for the UAE 48th official celebration, recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. How did you approach this project?
This project was a dream project in every sense of the word because it required me to do what I love doing best: composing orchestral music. It was extremely demanding because I was required to compose full orchestral demos of five to seven minutes each, with barely a week to complete each. Knowing that I was hired by a reputable production company that produced events such as the London Olympics closing ceremony, amongst others, and that the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London was going to record it, meant that the pressure was high and that I had to give this my best shot. Given that I’m super comfortable with Sibelius and can notate really fast , I decided to work directly there and then send my demos to a fellow composer in LA to do a realistic mock up that I would later send to the production company for them to play for the client. This also fell during the Toronto International Film Festival where I had already purchased a full industry pass, so it was a fun juggling game where I’d go to the festival along with my composing gear, sit in a corner in the industry lounge working on the commission, watch one film during my break, then go pick up my one year old son from daycare before starting another shift of composing when he’s gone to bed. It was fun, exhilarating, and just plain glorious. The real cherry on the cake was flying to Abu Dhabi and witnessing the stunning audio-visual, Olympics-style opening show at a stadium with thirty thousand people in attendance.
What makes you passionate about orchestrating your own scores?
For me, when I think of a melody, I’m already orchestrating it in my head. I feel that composing and orchestration are part and parcel of each other the same way preparing the ingredients for a dish and then cooking it go hand in hand. The act of orchestrating in and of itself is so incredibly inspiring and rewarding and gives me chills. When I compose a strong melody with good bones, I’m usually super happy because I know that it will be a great backbone for some amazing orchestration. I love how the same melody can transform into something completely new just based on how it’s orchestrated, and since I love writing for orchestra, my favourite part of composing is sitting and orchestrating my melodies: It’s like magic and I would never want to rob myself of the pleasure of experiencing this magic.
You recently won the Hollywood Music in Media Award for Exceptional Instrumental Performance for your orchestral piece, ‘Tomorrow’, which is absolutely stunning, reflective and moving. How did your collaboration with the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra (SEPO) come about, and what was the inspiration for this particular piece?
Sometime in 2015, I received a Facebook message from an old colleague from my days at the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus, telling me he just created an orchestra for Syrian musicians living in Europe. His name is Raed Jazbeh and he had big dreams for this orchestra (dreams that would later come true). He asked me if I had any orchestral music ready and which I could send the following week for them to start rehearsing at their inaugural concert in Germany. I lied and said yes (you ALWAYS say yes!), then locked myself up for a week and composed (and orchestrated) Tomorrow. The inspiration behind it was the idea of a better future for Syria, based on my memories of the beautiful and charming historic city of Old Damascus and its morning rituals which I used to witness in my daily walks. This work was the prelude for a long relationship between me and the orchestra, in which I became one of their composers in residence. I got to fly to Berlin for the official world premiere of the piece at Konzerthaus Berlin; a day I’ll never forget as I got to reunite with many Syrian friends whom I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. We played sold-out concerts at the Berlin Philharmonie, Konzerthaus Berlin, the BOZAR in Belgium, the Universitat der Kunste Berlin amongst many others in Europe, and every chance I got, I would fly and attend in person. I’d like to mention that not only did Tomorrow win an award in Hollywood, but so did another piece I composed for this orchestra, named ‘The Borrowed Dress’, based on my score for a documentary by the same name. This piece won the Artemis Women in Music Best Foreign Score Award in 2019, and prior to that, upon the online release of its world premiere, it was shared by one of my all-time heroes, Hans Zimmer, on his FB profile, which was a huge surprise and honour for me.
Can you share a bit about your upcoming projects or what you’re up to these days?
I just came back from the Locarno Film Festival where a film I scored, entitled ‘Night’, had its world premiere, and just submitted the score for a promotional video for the Abu Dhabi Ministry of Culture. Prior to that, I was selected for the Cannes Marche du Film Spot the Composer programme, where I connected with an incredible Bosnian-American film director whose feature animated film, ‘Pour the Water As I Leave’, I’ll be scoring. My cello concerto, commissioned by the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, will have its world premiere in October, and I’m also booked on two beautiful feature documentaries, each by an award-winning Canadian director, as well as three short films. I am releasing my soundtrack album ‘A Very Important Appointment’, which was nominated for Best Original Score-Short Film Live Action at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards in 2019, and am preparing for my other album ‘The Edge of Life: Soundtracks from Arab Cinema’, which will feature select scores I wrote over the past few years, and which will be released in 2022. Right now, I’m on my way back from a wonderful creative retreat in Bozeman, Montana with the team of ‘Cortina’; a TV series about tango which I am scoring.
Interview with Nami Melumad
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