Interview with Saad Haddad

After an incredible first concert in September, on October 7th Kaleidoscope will continue its third season with a concert featuring three new chamber works by three different winners from our Call for Scores. Saad Haddad, one of the composers, will have his West Coast Premiere of his work Takht alongside Julia Adolphe’s Veil of Leaves and Jee Seo’s 4 Pieces for 2 Violins. Generously donating his time, I was able to sit down with Mr. Haddad and not only talk about the inspirations and influences that went into writing Takht, but how over the years he has utilized his Jordanian and Lebanese heritage to not only develop his own voice as a composer, but creatively and beautifully bridge together the Western canon of classical music with traditional Arabic music.

Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started in music?

Saad Haddad: When I was seven years old I was in this class where each month we would write reports on famous people. One month we focused on writers, so I researched Steinbeck; one month we focused on scientists, and I researched Einstein; but one month we focused on music and it just clicked. I researched Mozart, but it wasn’t even listening to the music that hooked me, it was just reading a picture book. I vividly remember the book said that he wrote his first piece when he was five and I remember thinking that I was already a couple of years behind *laughter* But that’s kind of how it started.

CR: *laughter* Awesome! So I know you play piano, but do you play anything else?

SH: I used to play clarinet, but I don’t play that anymore. Composing takes up most of my time these days.

CR: So you got into composition pretty early on it seems like, rather than switching from playing an instrument.

SH: Yes. I wanted to be a composer from the start, and being a pianist was more of my vehicle for being a composer. You first have to learn to read notes, play basic piano and know the repertoire.

CR: For sure. Did you listen to a lot of Mozart growing up, or who are some of your musical influences?

SH: Well, no one else in my family listens to classical music, so growing up I listened to a lot of 80s music. My mom loves the Bee Gees, Air Supply, Michael Jackson, and on my own I listened to Beethoven, Mozart, etc. It was an interesting dynamic in the house because I was always practicing Chopin with 80s music in the background. In high school I also began listening to a lot of film music and joined this program called the Los Angeles Composer Fellowship program. That’s when I started to really get into contemporary music.

CR: Oh ok, are you based in Los Angeles?

SH: I’m not really based out of anywhere right now, but my family is from LA. I’m kind of jumping in between cities at the moment.

CR: Gotcha. In relation to Kaleidoscope, what motivated you to submit a piece for the Call for Scores?

SH: I heard about KCO by reading a really good LA Times review about the Mahler 4 performance. Takht was premiered by the New Juilliard Ensemble during my Masters, but in my mind I always thought of the piece being conductorless because the music feels like the musicians are almost warming up, trying to improvise as they go along. Halfway through the piece they start to play together and have these motivic ideas with their own little embellishments, and I felt like if this could be done without a conductor it really would feel like they were making it up on the spot. I’ve never worked with a conductorless ensemble of this size, but I hope that the connection the musicians have with the audience is better achieved in this piece without a conductor.

CR: Since you’ve never worked with a conductorless orchestra before, what are some of your expectations? What are you excited to find out about in the rehearsal process?

SH: I’m really excited to see how the artistic vision is affected. I’m not overbearing in trying to show my artistic interpretation because I already put everything I wanted on the page; I don’t want to be too much of a micromanager. At a certain point, I have to give it away, and I feel like players can really hear what it sounds like and do something different with it. It’ll be interesting to see which players take the lead and decide how the piece should be played. The inspiration of this piece goes back to traditional Arabic music in that it has a theme and the musicians kind of variate it all the time, having their own ideas of what to do with that motive. So they’re going to have to follow the music sometimes, but if they hear something that can be stretched then they’re obligated to think about those ideas and relay it to the other players in the ensemble. At least, that’s the way that I think of it. If I expect to come to every group and they do it the same exact way, I mean what fun is that? You might as well try something new with it, try many things. So I look forward to seeing how KCO interprets the music.

CR: So what’s your background with Arabic music?

SH: I was born in the United States, but my mom was born in Lebanon and my dad was born in Jordan. My dad immigrated when he was 17, and my mom came when she was 8. They haven’t been back to their home countries since they left, so the only things we have left are the language, the traditions and the music. I listened to Arabic music all of my life because we hear it all the time at weddings, parties and just about every event that we gather as a family, but I never listened to it as actively as I do now. In 2013 I was writing a piece for string quartet and electronics that involved retrieving snippets of sound off of old VHS tapes I had when I was really young. My mom wanted me to convert them to a digital format, and because it’s not like burning a CD, it takes 70 minutes to convert 70 minutes of analog to digital. I ended up spending my whole summer watching 200 hours of footage, and I began to notice that the sounds and speech from my family members sounded rhythmic and musical. At first I didn’t know what to do with all the footage, but I wound up organizing the footage into a piece called Mai for string quartet and electronics. Since this personal footage had obvious influences from my heritage, I wanted the music to go a step further and include remnants of music from artists from the Golden Age of Arabic Music, like Oum Kalthoum and Farid al-Atrash. These singers were wildly famous, with a similar following to the likes of Elvis. They became my source material, and I took what I could and transferred it to two violins, a viola and a cello. That’s the basis of how this whole process started of utilizing Arabic influences in my music.

CR: So would you say that you have a specific style of composition?

SH: I think that’s the goal. I mean, I can instantly recognize all my favorite composers within the first few notes. When I was at USC every piece of mine would sound different because those were my formative years where I was trying to figure out my voice, but I think the goal is to find something that’s uniquely ‘you’. I’m always trying to find a new avenue to go through in Arabic music, and I am constantly finding new tools I have at my disposal so that with every new piece I write there’s something new but within my style. It’s a constant transformation, it’s always going to sound different in the context of a new piece. That’s what I try to strive for.

CR: Great. I know a little bit about Arabic music because I lived in Bosnia this past year. Not by any means do I claim to know a lot about Arabic music, but I know it incorporates drums and stringed instruments, like a qanun. Are you trying to take the rhythms, scales and the pitches and transferring that onto a violin or wind instrument?

SH: Exactly. In this piece, Takht, the harp is mimicking the instrument you just talked about, the qanun. Some of its strings are de-tuned to sound like the qanun, and some of the techniques to pluck the harp are very reminiscent of how you would pluck that instrument. Same thing with the strings, I try to mimic that sound on the string instruments, and with the brass and winds it’s more of gluing together all of the western instruments. Part of the challenge is figuring out what to do with the instruments that don’t really have an equivalent to instruments in the Middle East.

CR: For sure. So the word ‘takte’ in Bosnian means ‘measure’, or ‘bar’--

SH: Oh really?

CR: --yeah, so what does ‘takht’ mean in Arabic?

SH: It means ensemble. It’s the word that’s usually used to describe Oum Kalthoum’s back up band, which consisted of about twenty accompanying instrumentalists. Those members made up her ‘takht.’

CR: Are there any other underlying meanings to the composition?

SH: Yes, although the name of the piece implies that there is a singer involved, there actually isn’t an individual ‘part’ for a vocalist. So instead, I decided to incorporate this element through the ensemble itself by having many of the musicians have a take on what her voice would sound like on their instrument. The harpist sings into her soundboard, almost as though you don’t know where the sound is coming from, and the flute, clarinet, trombone, and tuba all sing and play at the same time in their instruments. That was my way of invoking Oum Kalthoum throughout the ensemble. I don’t think it’s obvious when you hear it, but I feel like she’s part of it.

CR: That’s really cool! So I’m going to assume for the purpose of this interview that Arabic music is not a genre of music people are entirely familiar with, but what’s one thing about Arabic music that you hope to share with people?

SH: The concept of “tarab” which means ‘musical ecstasy’. In traditional Arabic music that is the goal for every kind of piece. It’s a state of raw emotion, where time stops, and you don’t want the music to end. That’s the goal, and that’s what I hope for. I’m describing it in English, but it’s rare that it happens and it’s a way where the audience is involved during the piece; I always think about how to achieve that. While listening to Western music, I usually sense a more intellectualized listening experience, rather than an emotionally wrought one, so for me I’m trying to be thoughtful as well as emotively sensitive in how I write my own response to these musics. That’s what I most hope I can give to people.

CR: To what extent do you hope people become involved with your music during a performance?

SH: Well, in the Middle East, if the audience loves something they clap, they yell things in Arabic for the singer to repeat, or if they want a specific song they’ll ask for that; it’s just the practice. It doesn’t have to be exactly that, but something that’s akin to that. So whereas I’m taking the techniques of Arabic instruments and applying it to Western instruments, I think about how to create the equivalent of this audience participation environment. That’s a big psychological question I probably won’t answer, but it’s still fun to think about.

CR: Great! So Kaleidoscope is really invested in the Los Angeles community, putting on performances in different kinds of venues, providing free concerts, and this year they’re implementing a “Pay What You Can” model and eliminating ticket sales. This is because a core value of the ensemble is that music can and should be provided to all people regardless of social and economic status. What are some of your own personal goals to try and connect to the community through your music?

SH: Well I hear about you guys all the time and how you’re making an imprint on the community. But, there’s different shades of help. For me, I think my place is helping as many people and composers who aren’t as far along in their careers and show them the ropes; I really enjoy that part of it.

CR: Great! In relation to KCO, if someone asked you why they should consider supporting the orchestra, what answer would you give them?

SH: Any ensemble that’s starting out needs support. But, the musicians in this orchestra seem like they’re all very dedicated to what they do, and they have a genuine understanding that not only does standard repertoire need to be showcased, but that new music, new voices that reflect who we are today as a society should be showcased as well. So, if people are looking to support something, what more could you ask for? By supporting KCO, you’re supporting the art of your time. The outreach that KCO does is a big plus, but that higher purpose to showcase art of today’s society, that alone should be supported.

CR: Great! So what are some hobbies of yours outside of music?

SH: I love watching sports, especially basketball. I’m a huge Lakers fan, fortunately or unfortunately *laughter*. I follow that a lot. Hanging out with my family and large extended family, especially in the summer time, is something I always look forward to since recently I haven’t been able to see them as often. Going to their Arabic events takes up most of my time *laughter* I meet a bunch of family members where they know who I am but I don’t know who they are.

CR: *laughter* I understand that. As a summation, having talked about your piece, your background with Arabic music and your family, is there anything that you’d like to leave readers and the audience with about you or your music?

SH: I hope they come away not hating it, but at the same time having an opinion of it. I like when people are honest and tell me what they like about it and what they don’t like about it. I’ll be at the concerts, so they should feel free to come up to me and say what they think and ask questions that I will hopefully have an answer. I love discussion, so whether or not you know anything about what you’re watching or listening to, let’s discuss it.

CR: Great, well thank you for taking the time to talk!

SH: Of course, thanks for the chat!


Carrie Rexroat is a freelancer writer for the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra’s blog, and is also the Founder of the storytelling blog, A’tudes & Brews.

Kaleidoscope will premiere Takht on:

Friday, October 7 @ 8 pm
First Presbyterian Church
1220 2nd St, Santa Monica, CA 90401

Sunday, October 9 @ 2 pm
Rolling Hills United Methodist Church
26438 Crenshaw Blvd., Rolling Hills Estates, CA 90274


Carrie Rexroat