Wavelength's Craig Dunsmuir interviews John Kameel Farah (2003)

Wavelength’s Craig Dunsmuir interviews John Kameel Farah (2003)

An Interview with John Kameel Farah for Wavelength Magazine, Toronto, with Craig Dunsmuir

JOHN KAMEEL FARAH  — interview by Craig Fraid Dunsmuir

Usually seen on stage at more meditative environments like The Music Gallery and The Ambient Ping, local composer/improviser/electronic tinkerer John Kameel Farah makes his debut for the rowdies at Wavelength April 6.

When I last saw you play (almost five years ago, now that I think about it, back when Ronda Rindone put on her Improvisor’s Series at the Idler Pub), your stage set-up simply consisted of, if memory serves, just a synthesizer and your charts. Judging from an archive CD-R of your Music Gallery performance from this past fall, though, it sounds as though you’re now trying your hand at incorporating beats, samples and processing into your work. How does this accompaniment affect your live performances — is it used to make the pieces more MIDI-ish programmatic and rein in your playing by giving you cues and signposts, or do you take a more active, in-the-moment role in the process in terms of triggering things on-the-fly and multitask-flitting from laptop to keyboard?

Basically I use both of those approaches. Back then I was just making tracks on my old, huge, cranky desktop. It wasn’t something I could lug out to a live show, so I just played straight piano/synth/keyboard. Getting a Powerbook basically allowed me to start working on bringing the producer and the pianist together. I usually manipulate as I play, but the degree that I fudge with the sequence depends on a lot of things, not the least of which how close I think I am to maxing out the computer! I can map it out in huge sections and will often go back and forth between completely minimalistic and ambient, to drum’n’bass beats, trying to displace the beat as much as I can while still remaining on top of the time. Sometimes I’ll route several outputs and take turns mucking with tracks while playing the piano; recently I tried filtering the piano live as well. It can a be a lot to handle, basically playing two instruments at the same time, but I enjoy that stress — usually. Of course, the more you do in the computer, the more you dance around the dreaded system crash. If I really get into something and want to just focus on improvising, I have to give up any simultaneous electronic fiddling and just zone out on what ever pattern I’ve hit upon; then you have to give up a hand if you want to tweak the texture from there. I pre-program some of these things, but the more you can handle live, the better and the more the whole thing breathes, the more it can stretch and bend in front of you. The idea is not for me to be playing keyboard all the time, though. I sort of bounce from being extremely busy at the keyboard to just leaving space and meditating on three notes and their placement in the groove — actually I prefer that, just pick the most messed-up notes, depending on the context.

Another more specific tension in your playing is that between your many melodic sensibilities, the three most striking being the scales and phrasing of Arabic music, the quiet-but-violent dynamics and freeze-frame chord choices of Morton Feldman, and (admittedly, the only influence I could pick out back when I first saw you) the abstract baroque flourishes of the likes of Arnold Schoenberg or Cecil Taylor. Do you find that further schizophrenicizing your works through playful digital sabotage paradoxically helps cohere all these disparate voices? Is this conscious (dis)integration something that you’ve fought for for a while in terms of attempting to arrive at your own compositional style?

It’s been a huge question mark for a long time: what the hell do I do with all these disparate styles that I’m immersing myself in? For a while I was trying to have seperate lives, one as the “modern” classical pianist, one as the experimental improvisor, one as the jazz player, another as the composer, and also the producer making sort of techno collages on my computer. I loved all of them, but it was so stressful and cumbersome. I still keep these elements separate, depending on the occasion, but right now I am very excited that I’ve found a way to let all these multiple personalities have their chance to speak in a live performance, and for me it’s been exhilirating. Once, listening to Messiaen’s Illuminations of the Beyond, I heard a huge, sustained orchestral chord, sort of shimmering on the harmonics of D, and then sampled it, and meditated on the harmony on the piano in a live performance after complete and utter chaos. If I were ever to spin records, I would prefer to layer a Boulez piano sonata and have its crystalline tones sparkle over a thick bed of anything from Gwar to an Arabic classical ensemble. A beat will hold almost any different elements together simply by being present, but I try to bring the percussion to the level of sophistication of whatever’s going on. But also the harmony holds it together, too, as I’m always going to improvise around the harmonic implications of the sample or sequence, whether it’s tonal or atonal. To sample Feldman (for example) and superimpose it over elaborate, hard but complex breaks, improvising alongside basically as if with a jazz rhythm section, perhaps tonally, or perhaps atonally, satisfying the composer, the pianist/keyboardist and improviser in me all at once, makes me feel that I’ve created something my own, very personal. Yeah, it ties it all together for me in an essential way.

Finally, as obvious as the question may be, it had to be asked: what was it like working with Terry Riley? Was it part of some sort of fellowship or scholarship, or something more informal? Like you, he seems to deliberately blur the edges of the improvising/composing distinction, one informed in his case, I guess, by being inspired by such open-ended song forms as Indian ragas to emphasize the process behind the creation of his pieces. Did working with him, then, entail a more holistic approach to teaching than learning from a more tradition-ensconsed Western composer?

It was a great experience for me in many aspects. It gave me my first and so far only truly positive experience learning composition with a teacher. I had met him at one of his performances in New York at The Knitting Factory, and a few years later I went out to stay with some friends in San Francisco, then rented a car, took a tent and drove out to the Sierra Nevada mountains, and set up camp about a kilometre from his house, and had lessons with him every day. No scholarships, it was my own project, and it was more valuable in that week than all I had learned in four years of composition study at university. It was an adventure in every respect. For some lessons he introduced me to the rudiments of the Sergam system, North Indian modal devotional tradition, which he studied for many years with the great singer Pandit Pran Nath. It was mostly with a Tambour (drone), with him spinning off vocal lines, and me doing my best to imitate them, just like teaching a baby how to speak, really. I wish I had another lifetime to explore that tradition to the level that he has (or Arabic music, for that matter) — at this point it remains a huge eye-opening experience. Other days we discussed composition, and others I would just improvise for him and we’d discuss aspects of what I just played. He’s developed this astounding way of merging the melodic and rhythmic characteristics of Indian with Western, somehow keeping the integrity of both intact. We even discussed politics, which was a key issue for me — his humanity further amplified my experience of his music and re-affirmed that among these great musicians are also people who are equally well-intentioned and not just pure ego. That might seem off topic, but it was a huge thing for me. It accelerated my own thinking about ways to realise the merging of elements that I’m trying to fuse together.
— interview by Craig Fraid Dunsmuir