Interview with Composer Kareem Roustom

Melding his Arab heritage with his training in western classical music, Kareem Roustom has composed contemporary music that draws on the traditional and contemporary to create a thoroughly unique sound. His work varies from an Emmy-nominated film score to a narrated chamber orchestra piece set to an Arab folk tale. This Saturday, as part of the Arab Music Concert Series, Al-Bustan will present the works of Roustom. He will introduce the program with excerpts from his film scores, followed by performances of his compositions by a chamber orchestra comprised of talented artists from Philadelphia and New York.

Though you may not be familiar with Kareem Roustom’s name, you have probably heard some of his compositions. He has written the scores for many acclaimed films including Budrus, Amreeka, and Encounter Point among others. The music in these three films is strikingly beautiful, enriching the story without upstaging it. “It is the job of the score to compliment the film in an unobtrusive way…the music has to be subtle and stay out of the way at times and it has to take charge of the emotional flow at other times,” Roustom explained via email. Roustom’s Emmy nomination for the score of The Mosque in Morgantown is a testament to his mastery of this balance. His prowess with elegantly weaving together narrative and music is equally evident in his chamber orchestra pieces.

His work Abu Jmeel’s Daughter is one such piece. Based on an Arab folktale of the same name the story is about Rida, who having been transformed from an ugly woman into beauty by the djinn (genies), captivates Prince Alwan. They marry but the union is rocky because, in exchange for her beauty, the djinn forbids Rida from speaking to her husband. Yet, the story ends happily when the djinn takes pity on the couple and tell Alwan the phrase to release Rida from her oath of silence. Roustom was drawn to both the structure of the story and the darkness he found throughout. “The fact that there are djinns and magic also inspired my decision to use this tale, as I imagined it would allow for a type of musical language that I don’t often get to use when I compose music for the film.” In addition to the musical cues that Roustom provides in his composition, a narrator guides the audience through the tale of Rida and Alwan. His connection to Arab culture is deeper than the narratives for which he composes music.

During the music writing process, Roustom engages many influences including his Syrian roots. “I think being aware of one’s roots is very important whether you are performing Mozart, playing the blues or performing North Indian Raga. This blending of styles and backgrounds is a natural extension of what I’ve been doing all my musical life.” His embracive approach to composition does not mean his work is incongruous with his understanding of the Arab classical music tradition. “Musical language has to evolve in order to survive. That doesn’t mean that everything gets thrown out every time there is a new wave of change, it just means that value and perspectives change.” It is this combination of an appreciation for the traditional while being open to new developments that makes Roustom’s music so intriguing.

Given that “Al-Bustan means “The Garden” in Arabic, Roustom’s botanical analogy for his own work seems apropos. “I try to think of my work very much like a tree. There are roots that keep the tree grounded and trunk that supports the branches that reach for heights in search of sunlight and nourishment.”

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