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Anguish, hope in composer’s response to Syrian catastrophe

Composer Kareem Roustom John Robson

The composer Kareem Roustom was born in Damascus, one of six children born to an American mother and a Syrian father. The family moved to Wareham, just west of Cape Cod, when he was 13. It was a transition with which the teenage Roustom struggled, “whether it was being the only foreign kid in this tiny school on Cape Cod [or] just trying to understand who I was as a person,” he said during a recent phone interview.

His visits to Syria over the years accentuated the feeling of being split between two homelands. His last was in 2008: He went to Damascus for the premiere of a piece called “Buhur” for clarinet, violin, viola, and cello. It was something of a revelation. Finally he could return to his birthplace “as a mature person, having found my voice, I suppose. I was able to connect with relatives and [to] the place itself, which I owe so much to, with a complete work.” He gave talks at a local conservatory and met with students. “I was hoping to go back as much as I could, and volunteer.


“Then came 2011,” he continued, his voice dropping slightly but perceptibly in volume and intensity. “And all that fell by the wayside.”

2011, of course, marked the beginning of the uprising against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which has led to a bloody civil war entailing hundreds of thousands of casualties, millions of refugees, and the wholesale destruction of parts of the country’s rich cultural history. For Roustom — who’s penned works for the Kronos Quartet and Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and also composes film music — the eruption of war meant not only sorrow for the loss of life and culture; it also knocked sideways a complex relationship with his birthplace that was just beginning to flower.


Several of the concert pieces Roustom has written since 2011 have been marked by his response to the Syrian catastrophe. One of those is “Traces” for clarinet, piano, and string quartet. Premiered in 2013, the piece will have its first Boston performance at a Friday concert at Tufts University — where Roustom is an adjunct faculty member — in a performance by the Apple Hill String Quartet, pianist Sally Pinkas, and clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, a close friend of Roustom’s who accompanied him to Damascus in 2008.

“Traces” is inspired by pre-Islamic poems in which the poet rides through the desert in search of his beloved, only to find that the encampment where she had been staying has been broken. “And in those days that was it, you would probably never see them again,” Roustom explained. Nothing would remain but “the traces of the beloved and what was there. And the poet is just completely gutted.”

Roustom felt a similar sense of anguish when he began seeing pictures of the destruction of the city of Aleppo, the site of near-constant military confrontation since 2012. His despair is voiced in the opening moments of “Traces,” which he calls “a scream”: a dissonant chord with multiphonics in the clarinet, the strings sliding in eerie glissandi.

The rest of the piece draws much of its musical material from an old nationalistic song that Roustom remembers being played frequently on Syrian television during his childhood. Shortly after “things started getting bad,” he found online a version of the same song by a Syrian clarinetist and vibraphonist, but now presented as a kind of dirge. “So what was once this cheesy patriotic song became very emotional, and all of the harmony and all of the melody [of ‘Traces’], in some way, is based off of that melody.” There is a slow build after the initial “scream” to an energetic middle section before an audible release of musical tension, after which the sound gradually dissipates and the piece ends.


What the meaning of that release is, the composer himself isn’t quite sure. It might signal passive acceptance, or perhaps it’s a lament for something dead and gone. Roustom recently had another piece of his played at the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming, and in talking to audience members afterward, he realized that the emotions they took from the music were different from what he’d had in mind during the composition. It may be that since these pieces were brought into being by a calamity, their ultimate connotation may be dictated by its ultimate resolution. But that, it seems depressingly certain, will not be definitely known for some time.

“God knows how long this conflict is going to go on and what the meaning of any of these pieces is going to be,” Roustom said.

He has not given in completely to despair. Lately he’s been thinking about a quote from a documentary about Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Azmeh, the clarinetist, is a core member of that group, and in the documentary he wonders whether his clarinet can stop a bullet.


“I thought about that a lot,” said Roustom. “And I saw him recently, and I said, ‘Maybe your clarinet can’t stop a bullet, but maybe it can change someone’s mind about whether or not they pull the trigger.’ ”

Apple Hill String Quartet

With Sally Pinkas, piano, and Kinan Azmeh, clarinet. At Distler Performance Hall, Tufts University, Medford, Oct. 7, 8 p.m.. Tickets: Free - $10. 617-627-3679, as.tufts.edu/music/musiccenter/events/index.htm

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.