John Kameel Farah, a Toronto experimental pianist-composer, continues to raise the level of artistry involved in mixing ebony, ivory and silicone chips. The proof is in his new EP, Distances, being launched at the Music Gallery on Sunday night.
The Music Gallery, a haven for anyone on the cutting edge of art music in Toronto, has included Farah in the seventh edition of is X Avant festival, dubbed “Expanding Circuits.”
Farah, a University of Toronto-trained pianist and composer, has spent the last 10 years honing his diverse skills not only at the piano (and harpsichord) but at the computer, turning him into a one-man orchestra.
Unlike many of his experimental peers, Farah views what he does through the filtre of traditional harmony and counterpoint, flavoured with the seductive melodies of the Middle East, which represents part of his genetic ancestry.
The two Farah solos on the EP are not only fascinating explorations in structured sound, they are masterful examples of clearly defined, engaging musical narrative.
The opening track, “Distances,” opens as a deeply seductive dance in syncopated 4/4 time that floats us out to the eastern fringes of the Mediterranean as it unfolds.
The closing track, “Earth,” is a passacaglia rendered in 21st century baroque embellishments made up of overlaid beats, glitches and an elaborate acoustic piano part that build in intensity in much the same way a piece by J.S. Bach would.
You’re not going to hear this at Roy Thomson Hall anytime soon, but it is no less remarkable feat of composition (in this case involving buttons and dials as well as dots on sheets of lined paper).
Farah describes his decade-long journey from traditional concert pianist looking for something a bit more stimulating to someone being recognized with commissions and regular gigs as personally satisfying.
He feels he has now reached a level of proficiency in composition as well as electronic manipulation of sound that are allowing him to expand his musical storytelling abilities.
“Every performance I did in the early period was a workshop on how I was going to improve each piece,” he says of his early trials with piano and computer. “It sometimes felt like sending a little satellite into space and it just lands in the ocean.”
Farah has learned how to structure, establish and develop musical thoughts. “Like a Prokofiev sonata,” he says, before blushing slightly and modestly insisting that he’s not trying to say his music is as good as that, yet.
But I think Farah is selling himself short, because Prokofiev was only working one keyboard, while Farah is working with several.
The Torontonian says his goal is to produce music as satisfying to him as the works of English Renaissance composer William Byrd. “I want something that you can listen to 100 times and hear something new, just the way I play Byrd over and over again, because I can’t believe how much is loaded into just four bars.”
Farah describes his favourite type of concert setting as something that has the feel of a large living room full of friends, where he can say — in music, not necessarily in words — “look, here is something I’ve just composed; listen to this part, isn’t it amazing?”
Sunday night should be just the ticket.
Farah is joined for the concert by “laptopolist” Matt Miller, who brings a fresh twist to the traditional sounds of Morocco. For all the details, click here.
Farah has made the seven tracks on Distances (the other five are remix collaborations, each with its own distinctive character) available either for full streaming or free download here.