What I Play John Kameel Farah

What I Play John Kameel Farah

Many classically trained musicians get to a point in their academic work where their musical tastes have far outstripped their desire to stick with the European canon. John Kameel Farah isn’t a "lapsed” classicist; he keeps building on everything that came before. He won two Glenn Gould awards for composition while studying at the University of Toronto, then proceeded to further investigate the work of noted boundary breakers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Ever since, he has found numerous ways to incorporate his education into bold and uncategorisable musical activity that includes elements of renaissance and baroque music, free improvisation, Middle Eastern textures, ambient minimalism, techno, dubstep and electro-acoustics. He is as comfortable at the Om Festival as he is in a concert hall. His first solo release Creation (2006), was a DVD composed of all these various influences as a soundtrack to astrophysicist John Dubinski’s computer animation of galactic formation, which earned him suitably diverse media attention. Any investigation of what Farah plays quickly raises questions about how he plays and in essence, how he thinks.

Farah’s world is keyboards — from early renaissance instruments to the alphanumeric variety. His arsenal is composed of piano, synthesiser, Fender Rhodes, Hohner Pianet, several different flavours of harpsichord and a laptop, with each keyboard having different possibilities for self-expression. Farah describes each of his instruments as either pianistic or colouristic. "With keyboard instruments, you express yourself with notes. You’re not using it as a sound sculpture, ideas are conceived of in a more traditional way, with classical development, structural development, and melodic ideas that are made up of notes, even if it’s clusters. Suddenly with a synth, you start with a note and all of the sudden the parameters for changing it are radically different. On the synth, suddenly you are a wizard with sound and the environment changes right in front of you.”

The relationship of pianistic and colouristic sounds extends to his musical choices with these instruments. "The more expressiveness that an instrument is capable of — like a grand piano — is ideal. The synth is completely colouristic. The harpsichord is more pianistic; if I’m playing something with beats, it doesn’t compete very well. I have my bass keyboard, which is my most pianistic one, and I don’t improvise on the synth like a keyboard, I use it completely for sound sculpture.”

Sometimes sound design wades into classical forms. Because Middle Eastern scales and modes are part of his musical vocabulary, he has had to find a way to play melodically while accommodating its unique demands. One very specific keyboard is his choice for expression along these lines: "Korg is the only universal synthesiser. They have a parameter across all their synthesisers to detune their keyboard to Eastern scales. Even Nord doesn’t do that. So Korgs have cheesy presets, but for me this huge thing of being able to play quartertones. Therefore, I can’t [perform in this way] unless I specifically rent a Korg. I have my own style of playing on an equal temperament keyboard, which accesses the same frame of reference of ornamental, oriental notes. But it’s more atonal. I can play asymmetrical scales that have a hazy balance of tonality and atonality.”

Farah expresses both fascination and frustration with his computer, because it opens up worlds of possibilities while presenting a new set of technical and mental challenges. He sees his computer as a compositional tool and an accompanist, but not as an all-in-one improvising and recording device. There are philosophical and practical reasons behind this. "Beat sequences are always pre-sequenced, because my computer is so archaic it could give out at any moment. Also for compositional reasons, it would take too much of my processing power in my own brain [to manipulate beats live]… The live electronic processing I leave to my synth board. I’m a very hands-on person: clicking is not an active process, it’s not dynamic, it’s also not as expressive for me. So I’m not a laptop wizard.” Premeditated laptop work and beat construction represent a different source of pleasure than playing a physical instrument. "It’s not providing you the same pleasure as if it were an instant connection to your instrument, but that’s not a downside. I do enjoy it but it’s not the same as the high as you get from improvising at the piano at five in the morning.”

Farah thinks in terms of structures in whatever he does — even the outer margins of free improvising or breakcore can be part of a greater overall structure. "Everything is in a galactic symphonic context… What [I’m] doing is essentially creating a piece of musique concrete. Let’s say somebody’s performing a piece for marimba and tape, he has his graphic score of the tape part that goes all over the place, he interacts with the recording going on, he phases himself out in certain spots and it just grows organically from that. I conceive of it that way.”