5 Questions to Layale Chaker (composer, violinist)

Layale Chaker has appeared as a soloist, performer, improviser and composer in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and North and South America, including as a member of Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan. On March 2, 2018, she will perform at the Royal Albert Hall’s Café Verdi as part of the 4th Arab Women Artists Now festival, which showcases work by contemporary Arab women from a range of disciplines. She has a degree in literature and philosophy from her hometown Beirut; has studied at Conservatoire de Paris-CRR, Columbia University, and the Royal Academy of Music; and is currently working towards her doctoral degree at École des Hautes Études-EHESS in Paris. Her compositions include works for soloist, chamber ensemble, orchestra, electronics, as well as for dance and film. We asked her about her upcoming appearance and her work.

What led to your involvement with Arab Women Artists Now?

My involvement with Arab Women Artists Now stems from my connection with Arts Canteen, and more precisely with curator Aser el Saqqa, a man with a true vision who has been championing events featuring Arab arts in London and the UK for a long time. My work was met with interest, so we’ve decided to collaborate under the umbrella of this month-long festival dedicated to featuring the work of Arab women artists in London and beyond.

Will you share with us what your audience can expect at your March 2nd show?

For my concert at Royal Albert Hall on March 2nd, I will be joined by outstanding musicians Attab Haddad on oud and Rhys Lovell on contrabass. We will be presenting works from my upcoming album release Inner Rhyme. The set of compositions is based on Arabic classical poetic meters and was originally scored for my ensemble, Sarafand. However, I wanted to explore the particularity and the uniqueness of a string trio comprised of violin, oud and contrabass. We have adapted and reworked the compositions to fit the colors and nuances of our string trio. In a way, it is what I wish my music to be; I’ve always wanted it to have the capacity to transform and be malleable enough to be able to speak in different circumstances. This string trio weaves in different subtleties, a sense of intimacy that is so necessary in chamber music, and a new light on the unspoken poetry in that music.

On March 21st, I will be joining forces with Wigmore Hall’s resident ensemble Ignite. I was commissioned by Ignite ensemble leader Jackie Walduck, who has also been one of my mentors at the Royal Academy of Music, to compose a piece for this concert; in a way, I think of this piece as the extension of that intimate, chamber sound that is just as much a feature of Ignite ensemble’s sound. It’s a piece that breathes, too, and allows a lot of space and malleability to give a sense of freedom to the performers.

Can you talk about the opportunities and barriers you have encountered as an Arab woman in the various musical spaces you work in, and some of the more satisfying creative experiences that transcended the concept of barriers?

It’s an ambiguous situation. There have been some situations where just the fact that I would be included in a festival programme would be perceived as “too political,” almost as if my mere existence or being who I am were political statements in themselves–politically incorrect statements, that is! It can be quite ridiculous; sometimes, for example, there would need to be someone to “counterbalance” in that same lineup in order to justify my inclusion.

I try not to give too much consideration to any of these aspects. I still believe that at some point in my career, I will be seen as just another violinist, just another musician, without the geographical or ethnical introduction that for now seems to be almost obligatory. I think this is precisely part of our work as artists, to try to break some given stereotypes or misjudgments through our discourse, but also, and most importantly, through the works that we offer, and that hopefully will resonate larger and louder than categorizations.

I also am very much in harmony with who I am. I celebrate my culture constantly through my work, and I strive to share it wherever I go, and this always finds positive resonance. I am very touched when I hear from an audience member that they felt inspired, or reminded of something of their own experience. I also feel the privilege to be standing within multiple musical grounds. It allows me to connect beyond categories and genre boundaries, and I particularly experience it when I work with students, whether I am in residence at universities in Texas or in Beirut, giving strings masterclasses or composition and improvisation seminars.

I think one of the most satisfying creative experiences would be those concerts where I programme back-to-back Brahms and Bach sonatas, followed by the premiere of a new work, and some improvisation! Beyond cultural barriers, it also transcends the inner barriers of musicianship. I think this is what being a musician in the 21st century is all about.

Layale Chaker

Layale Chaker–Photo by Anna Rakhvalova

How have the notions of home, belonging, and exile informed your work, whether it be your subjects, materials, and techniques as a composer-performer, or your collaborations with other artists?

Home, belonging and exile are notions that are constantly humming in my ear. I’m in constant conversation with these ideas, and I think they are at the essence of most of what I do. In a way, I believe they’re profoundly universal human values, as well. We see their traces in so much literature and music, from Adam’s lost paradise until the present day. I’m particularly inspired by Edward Said’s approach of these notions, and by his notion of ‘chosen exile,’ or ‘home in exile.’ I think it is the only way you can come at peace with being away from your roots–the ability of being “home” within yourself, your music, your passion, wherever you are.

At the moment, home is language–through Inner Rhyme, the poetic meters, the sonority of the words, the rhythmicity of pronunciation–even if it’s only part of the process and all of these features are completely abstracted in the end result.

Can you tell us about your other upcoming projects?

Other upcoming projects include the premiere of Confused Cherry Trees, a piece written for Ignite Ensemble, which will be performed on the 21st of March at Wigmore Hall in London. I will be visiting the Lebanese American University in Beirut as artist-in-residence for the week beginning 22nd of March, with two concerts in Beirut and Byblos, Lebanon. In April, there will be chamber music concerts in London’s St. Marylebone and St. Marks churches, performing works by Messiaen and Bach. On April 22nd, I will be performing for the opening of the Palestine Museum in New York. Later on in the year will mark my debut with my ensemble Sarafand in New York’s National Sawdust, and the recording of our album in July, with a scheduled release in early Fall 2018.