Syrian clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh vividly remembers watching the 2011 uprising in his native country on television from New York. The government’s violent response left many dead and sparked a huge exodus of refugees.
“I can’t describe the magnitude of this,” said Azmeh, who became a US citizen last year. “I couldn’t write for a year. I kept playing, that’s how I pay my rent. But it seriously affected my creative process.
Azmeh broke his unwanted hiatus by composing a single song, “A Sad Morning, Every Morning”, which he shared with his longtime friend, visual artist Kevork Mourad.
Mourad, an Armenian-Syrian American, hosted the song, which can be found on YouTube. “A Sad Morning” was the cornerstone of what became “Home Within”, a unique collaboration of music and visual art created live on stage.
La Jolla Music Society presents “Home Within” – one of two Silkroad Ensemble tours this season – at the Baker-Baum Concert Hall at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center on Sunday, April 3.
In an unusual format, Azmeh and five other Silkroad musicians will perform while Mourad works at an easel, with his drawings projected onto the screen behind them.
“Syria inspired ‘Home Within’, but this project encourages exploring the broader concept of home,” said Azmeh, speaking from a stop on the tour in Calgary, Canada. “Is your home the place where you grew up and have memories of? Or is it somewhere you would like to contribute?
“I have always said that Syria belongs to all humanity. Events in Ukraine, visually, there are similarities. The tragedies repeat themselves.
The Silkroad musicians accompanying Azmeh and Mourad are bassist Shawn Conley, cellist Karen Ouzounian, oud player Issam Rafea, percussionist Shane Shanahan and violinist Layale Chaker. Chaker and Azmeh are married and live in Brooklyn. They bring their one-year-old son with them on a tour.
Azmeh said it took him and Mourad about a year to build the piece from the 3.5-minute “Sad Morning.” Sections of the piece are improvised.
“I’m a collaborator,” said Azmeh, who was confirmed March 15 by the US Senate as a member of the National Arts Council. “One part is driven by the clarinet, which is a single line instrument. If I want to harmonize, I need another player.
“Music is unique in that we can all talk and listen to each other at the same time. I wrote the music for it, but I left time for the musicians to bring their own stories. Not just the musicians – Kevork will say something. I like to play with the fine line between composer/improviser.
Azmeh, who performed in San Diego in 2019 with the Brooklyn Rider string quartet, agrees that “Home Within” stems from a tragic situation.
“It brings me back to deep emotions every time we play it,” he explained. “We hope this will open a window to investigate further. Our business is to create art but also to document history.
“I hope someone in the audience is from Ukraine. The concert ends on an upbeat note. I believe we can rebuild something. Art can heal the human soul.
What is Silkroad?
Clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and visual artist Kevork Mourad are longtime members of the Silkroad Ensemble, the performing part of Silkroad, founded in 1998 by famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He considered the history of the ancient trade route of the Silk Road linking Asia and Europe as a model for the exchange of ideas and innovations.
Silkroad has four music-oriented components: Creation of new music; social impact initiatives, educational partnerships and the Silkroad Ensemble, a diverse collective that performs around the world.
In 2017, Silkroad Ensemble won the Grammy Award for Best World Music Album for “Sing Me Home”, which features Azmeh as a clarinetist and composer.
“Silkroad is a collective of communicators who think bigger than themselves,” Azmeh said. “Whether they play, dance or speak, they are all thinkers trying to make sense of the world.”
La Jolla Music Society presents Silkroad Ensemble: Home Within
When: 7 p.m. Sunday April 3
Or: Baker-Baum Concert Hall at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla
Call: (858) 459-3728
In line: ljms.org
Wood is a freelance writer