Layale Chaker is “Rooted in Community and Collectivity” on New Albums with Sarafand and ETHEL

Layale Chaker’s music draws from multiple modalities — contemporary classical, Arabic maqam, jazz, and improvisation — but to call her music “fusion” would be missing the point. The composer-violinist says she is more interested in clashing — in finding points of contrast and confrontation, and stumbling upon unexpected parallels. “Fusion is sometimes used as a synonym for diluting things, grinding things down to the common denominator,” Chaker told me in a recent interview, adding that she finds it unnatural to force one musical language onto another.

When Chaker writes, the music pours out of her, making it impossible to determine which thread comes from which influence. “It’s not a conscious process,” she said, “and I wouldn’t even know how to intentionally do it” — which makes sense for a multicultural and multilingual artist; born in Paris and raised in Lebanon, Chaker grew up speaking multiple languages and studying both Western classical and Arabic music.

Much of Chaker’s music incorporates Arabic maqam, a complex system of microtonal scales that modulate through tetrachords. While she approaches maqam with care, Chaker does not wish to position herself as the flagbearer of what contemporary Arabic music should sound like. Detractors will always be ready to criticize her music as “not maqam,” but Chaker makes it a point not to seek validation from the “gatekeepers of tradition.”

Layale Chaker — Photo by Anna Rakhvalova

“I haven’t always had this awareness,” she clarified. “It’s something that I’ve had to actively choose. We all feel like we need to be validated by our peers, but it’s best to protect your authenticity and your joy without self-censoring.”

This does not mean that she is a lone-wolf; quite the opposite: she describes her work as being “rooted in community and collectivity,” and her two upcoming albums — Radio Afloat and Vigil (both set to release May 17 on In a Circle Records) — each feature rich collaborations with different ensembles.

Radio Afloat is Chaker’s second album with her longtime ensemble, Sarafand, with whom she shares a commonality of language that transcends the written musical score. “They can always elevate it and sublimate it in ways that even I don’t expect,” she told me. For Chaker, Sarafand rehearsals are like a “laboratory” for works in progress, and the bespoke results speak for themselves; she is at the point where she can compose specifically for the members of the jazz quintet, keeping their individual sounds in mind. “I’ll write a cluster of chords for the piano part; I don’t even use chord symbols [for pianist Phillip Golub] anymore,” she told me. “I’ll write melismas for the cello, but I know that (cellist) Jake Charkey won’t play them as is. Same goes for my bassist (Sam Minaie) and drummer (John Hadfield).”

The ensemble work on Radio Afloat is superb. Free-wheeling improvisatory lines dance and dart over gentle grooves, feeling impossibly long without the superimposition of Western harmony to dictate the pace. In Anatomie of Titus, I: “Fall of Rome,” the violin’s melismatic melodies are punctuated by brusque double stops, and the ensemble tumbles down to the last note in a surprising, rapid unison. Golub’s microtonal piano solo on Khab Nisan is one of many more highlights; the buzzy timbre and tuning of the piano combined with the contours of his dexterous jazz solo make for a captivating listen.

While Sarafand’s debut album Inner Rhyme (2019) explores the physical contours of classical Arabic poetic forms, Radio Afloat is a suite of intersecting movements based on “The Trace of Blue Passion,” an epic poem by Lebanese poet Ounsi el-Hage — “It’s about human and nature and how much our destinies are intertwined with the world around us,” Chaker said. Her interest in poetry goes all the way back to her college days studying literature and philosophy, and on Radio Afloat, she includes her singing voice for the first time, repeating lines from the poem. Between singing to her three-year old son and writing her first opera, she’s been feeling closer to her voice and body these past few years, and she considers singing as just another means of expressing herself.

Musing on the differences between her two upcoming albums, Chaker offered: “In Radio Afloat, you step into that world and live in it for a while, but with Vigil, there are smaller planets that together form an arc made up of different contours and patterns.”

Layale Chaker with ETHEL — Photo by Amanda Wu

Vigil marks Chaker’s first collaboration with new-music string quartet ETHEL, which sees her joining the ensemble on violin. “They’re just fantastic musicians, a very fiery string quartet with so much flexibility,” she remarked, “so everything was possible.” After a few initial days workshopping the title piece before the pandemic, it was clear that the album had more room for individual voices to shine through. Each member of ETHEL ended up contributing a piece, allowing Chaker to act as both a composer and an interpreter of other people’s works, learning their respective influences and musical languages.

The combination of variety and cohesion achieved in the compositions is remarkable, from the sweeping, billowing opening track, November (by violist Ralph Farris), to the spirited fiddling on violinist Kip Jones’ Teen Mania, the layered chromatic churning of cellist Dorothy Lawson’s The Demon Within, and violinist Corin Lee’s energetically Balkan Sketka, in which Jones switches to percussion partway through the piece.

The centerpiece of the album is Chaker’s five-movement Vigil, inspired by Somali-British writer Warsan Shire’s poem “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon,” and born out of Chaker’s “visceral need to react, express and articulate” her response to the 2019 revolution in Lebanon. Sharp textural contrasts between movements — rhythmic col legno in the “Of Thirst,” ghostly careening glissandi in “Vigil,” strident aggression in “Of Fire” — put the composer’s adroit string writing on full display.

While Chaker is very happy with both albums, she is still working on fully letting go of control, admitting that she is “someone who notates a lot.” Even when she starts with the intention of writing something “super bare bones,” she ends up feeling the need to be more specific. But it’s not every single detail that she cares about — the gesture is more important than the actual material, and her “over-notating” is an attempt to protect the sense of forward-moving energy. “That push is extremely important to me, and sometimes, the material I write can be misinterpreted as something that is pulling backward, so I feel the need to clarify that a lot on paper.”

After recently finishing a tour, Chaker is enjoying some down time to get back into a practicing routine, which includes scales and Ševčik, Schradieck, and Kreutzer études, as well as microtonal scales, intonation work, and transcribing improvisations that she likes. She’s currently breaking in a completely new instrument that she’s fallen in love with: an eight-string violin similar to a Hardanger fiddle that includes three sympathetic strings. “It’s renewing my love for the violin,” she says, “it’s almost like meeting someone new, experiencing that first flame.” And later this month, she will be at Spoleto Festival USA for the premiere of her chamber opera, Ruinous Gods.

The pace and scope of Chaker’s creative endeavors has increased over the years, as she has refined her process of dispelling doubt and gathered tools to tell the stories that she wants to tell. Trusting herself more has empowered her to take on bigger projects, like the opera. But regardless of the medium or language, Chaker’s art is driven by her persistent desire to speak, her drive to “follow the flame” of inspiration without knowing where it will lead.


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