The Apollo Chamber Players are just days away from making their Carnegie Hall debut. At the center of their program is Fantasy on Bulgarian Rhythms, a new work by composer Karim Al-Zand. A professor at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music, Al-Zand drew inspiration for the commissioned piece from the irregular rhythms of Bulgarian dance music, in particular gypsy wedding music. This from a guy who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the solos of jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley.
Wait a minute, hard bop jazz, gypsy wedding music and classical chamber orchestras? All of those things go together? In Al-Zand-land they do.
Al-Zand was born in Tunisia and grew up in Canada. ("My father's from Iraq and my mother's from Minnesota. I tell people I'm a Middle-eastern Midwesterner.") He studied music at McGill University in Montreal and Harvard in Cambridge, before landing on the faculty at Rice University in Houston. He started a jazz big band at Harvard and was a founding member of a contemporary classical group here in Houston. While he enjoyed performing, he knew early on that his calling was as a composer. "I've always made music but I always felt that my musicianship ended at my wrists," he tells us. "I could play, I could perform, but not at that really high level. My musical instincts were more in the composition area. It pretty soon became clear to me that whatever musical talents I had, that's where they were."
What He Does: "I primarily think of myself as a composer. In my case, that means people will commission me to write a piece of music for them or their group. The way composition is today you have to wear a lot of hats as a composer. You need to not only write the music, but you need to market it to a certain point, publicize it to audiences and groups. That aspect, the PR part of it, is a little less comfortable for me since that's something that I'm not necessarily quite as good at. That's the reality of the situation today; with composition, you have to be your own advocate.
"I'm also a teacher. I teach students of composition, individually and in a classroom setting."
Why He Likes It: " I like communicating to other people through music. It's also a little bit of a control issue as well. I like to be able to control all of the elements myself. It's difficult to control a lot of things in your life, but you can control what's on the page, how the notes move and how they interact with one another. I like that sense of being able to mold things."
Al-Zand enjoys the writing process, but says the most fun he has as a composer is having his finished pieces performed and recorded. "Hearing it at the end, that's the interesting part for me. You get to see if all the things you thought would work out well really do work out well. Maybe to see how the parts that you weren't so sure about, how they work out. As a composer you're writing things in your head, you're imagining what it's going to sound like. When you go to hear it, it's just an enormous, very fulfilling experience."
What Inspires Him: "Most of my pieces are inspired by other extra-musical things. It could be a poem, it could be a work of art. Usually it's some non-musical thing that gets me thinking."
If Not This, Then What: "I would like to do graphic design or typesetting or something like that. I'm a complete font-nerd. I have books about typesetting. I love to look at beautifully type-set things. I would love to design fonts. I don't know how to, but I would love to do that.
"I don't know if that tells you anything about how I compose or how my brain works," he laughs.
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If Not Here, Then Where: "We have family in Pittsburgh, a lot of cousins there so that might be a nice place to live."
What's Next: Apollo Chamber Players will be performing Fantasy on Bulgarian Rhythms in Carnegie Hall in October. The piece will also be featured on Apollo's upcoming debut album. "I also have another piece about to be recorded by a co-worker. I've got a couple of more chamber pieces on the way ... and I have a piece being performed by Musiqa in January."
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