By Glen HallAs a musician and current electronic composer-in-residence for Toronto-based Soundstreams Canada, pianist/musician John Kameel Farah represents the antithesis of the all-too-common "superficial modernist." Focusing on making deep connections between all the elements that go into his music, weighs countless hours of research, study, practice, and experimentation — translating into hard-won, unified performances that have a symphonic scope. From Renaissance William Byrd, to avant-garde Stockhausen, free improvisation, Middle Eastern scales, sampled beats and ambient electronic soundscapes, all are subtly combined in an enveloping sonic experience of genuine artistic vision. With a recent "Stereophonic" presentation — based on legendary dance artist Peggy Baker — completed and under this belt, Farah is working on new album (Between Carthage and Rome, due out later this year) while continuing his unique approach to improvisational electronic sounds.
Can you describe your approach as "electronic composer-in-residence" in general and as it pertains to the recent Peggy Baker show in particular? Getting to employ different sides of myself is definitely one of the satisfying aspects of it. The show consists of four solos, danced by Peggy Baker, Andrea Nann, Benjamin Kamino and Sahara Morimoto, and a new piece for four dancers called "Split-Screen Stereophonic." When we first started working together, Peggy knew me more as a pianist than composer, but after she heard me improvising and working with electronics in solo concerts and during rehearsals, I think it opened up new possibilities in our artistic relationship. So in this show I go from shouting out bits of newspaper text while playing "Encoded Revision," a piece by Michael J. Baker, to playing "In a Landscape," a minimalistic, modal piece by John Cage, and finally moving to my electronic set-up, improvising a score using Fender Rhodes, synth, iPad and Ableton Live processing, in a piece called "Aleatoric Solo No. 1."
As a classically-trained musician, how did you gravitate towards improvised, electronic and beat-based music? I always tried to improvise around piano pieces I was learning as a teenager. When I started getting into contemporary classical music, it opened up endless possibilities for improvising on. Discovering electronic dance music in university, I loved the textures, complexity of structure as in a sonata, in beat-based pieces, and incorporate my improvisation as well. So I experimented in that direction, and in a way the electronics became my imaginary orchestra.
What new projects have you got going? I'm working a commission from Soundstreams, mixing my new album, and writing a short piece for violinist Lara St. John. I'm doing a preview of the commissioned piece for piano and electronics that also incorporates a new Soundstreams music app for iPad at Toronto Symphony Orchestra lobby. And the new album, Between Carthage and Rome, is entrenched in Middle Eastern rhythms, modes and themes, and also steeped in dense counterpoint — there are three solo piano fugues that each go in completely crazy directions. Plans after that are to make album only using keyboard textures — Rhodes, piano, harpsichord, clavichord, synths.
You do a number of creative things exceedingly well: compose, perform and improvise on piano, harpsichord, organ and synthesizers, play electronic/ambient music, and you're a fine visual artist, too. Do you come from a musical family? Where does your creative inspiration come from? I am the only musician in my family, but my mother is a big creative inspiration in my life, always trying something new, whether it be a new type of painting, quilt-making, writing a cookbook or making her website; a kind of fountain of creativity, which encourages me to follow my inner voice. My immediate family is split between science and creative arts, and that dynamic has been really stimulating for my development.