Ruben Zahra: Images in Sound
In this edition of MyMAC we speak to Ruben Zahra, an internationally-acclaimed Maltese composer and producer whose interdisciplinary work has earned him a reputation for originality and excellence, and has established him as a sophisticated and engaging proponent of Maltese contemporary music.
Born in Malta in 1972, Ruben's influences are certainly eclectic, encompassing rock, jazz, classical, contemporary, electronic, folk and film and television music. After graduating from the University of Malta with a degree in Music and Theater Studies in 1994 he was awarded a scholarship to study composition in Rome with Azio Corghi at the National Academy of St Cecilia. Whilst in Italy he studied film music under the tutelage of Ennio Morricone and electronic music with Giorgio Nottoli, followed by a move to Oakland, California, to study for a Master's degree in Film Composition for a further two years. After completing his studies Ruben worked as a film composer in Los Angeles before returning to Malta in 2004.
In a career that has so far spanned three countries and two continents as well as including numerous other international visits and collaborations, Ruben's creative output shows no signs of slowing down, his recent activity including a project with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) premiering his new work Taqbida as part of the 'Il-Kunċert tal-Indipendenza' online concert in September of this year, and with further engagements planned for 2020 and 2021.
We caught up with Ruben to discuss his career, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and his plans for the future.
Ruben, can you tell us what first attracted you to a career in music, and have there been any unexpected surprises when considering the directions your career has taken?
I guess the life of any artist is a non-linear journey, with twists and turns and unexpected surprises of all sorts. The four years studying composition with Azio Corghi at the Accademia of Santa Cecilia in Rome were probably the most influential years of my career. After Rome I spent two years in a master's degree program at Mills College in Oakland, California and soon after another two years in Hollywood working for the film industry as a music editor / composer. These were all unexpected surprises, but in retrospect they are inexplicably linked as a consequence to one another. A more recent twist in my career over the past few years has been the welcome addition of 'wearing the producer's hat' and producing my own work.
Malta has a very active and eclectic artistic landscape, especially when considering the size of the country. What do you think it is about Malta that has produced this?
There are several factors that contribute to Malta’s eclectic arts scene. I like to compare Malta’s cultural backdrop as a ‘mosaic’ of fragments from different cultures. What we call national identity is truly a montage: Neolithic temples, Semitic language, Baroque heritage, the Commonwealth, the European Union etc...The rich historical narrative of Malta offers an interesting tension with contemporary artistic expression. The historical icons often get in the way. I remember that in my teenage years I despised Baroque decor (especially the Maltese Cross) and championed minimalism – simply because in Malta, Baroque seems to be the aesthetic yardstick for everything, even one's own living room. In a country like Iceland, for example, contemporary artistic expression is depicted against a neutral historical backdrop. In Malta, on the other hand, contemporary expression has to elbow its way through a dense 5000 year old fabric.
There appears to be a strong sense of narrative structure and visual engagement in your works, suggested both in your choice of projects and the forms these take, for example Ħrejjef and Kirana . Is this an accurate representation and, if so, do you think this is something that has been influenced by your experiences as a composer for film? - Is your artistic process a visual one as much as it is musical?
Yes this is a very accurate observation. My artistic process is triggered by narrative structures and visual attributes. Over the past 15 years I've been channeling my music towards interdisciplinary production. Within this format I compose the music and I also direct the work. My professional experience in film music and passion for cinema certainly plays an important role in this interdisciplinary approach. My children's opera Kirana has been produced in 15 different countries by major opera houses and international festivals. The success of this project does not only rely on the music - it's a complex synergy between different artforms dominated by the narrative and visual impact.
Photo © Rodolphe Robin
You studied film music in Italy with Ennio Morricone, who sadly passed away in July of this year. What do you think was the most valuable lesson you learned from the renowned composer and what do you think his legacy will be for aspiring composers today and in the future?
One of the first lessons I learned from Morricone was that a film composer must be able to write any genre of music: classical, folk, pop, jazz etc. This can be a problem to musicians who have been sitting at the piano since they were four years old and who only listen to classical music. I started studying music at the age of 14 and I've always been a big rock / heavy metal fan. I'm always excited to discover new composers as well as new bands so shifting gears between different musical genres actually comes easy. The legacy of Morricone's film music will live on and inspire composers of every generation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has of course affected people across all industries and the creative economies particularly so. What have been your experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic both professionally and creatively?
All my local and international bookings between March and December 2020 were canceled or postponed. On the 20th of March 2020 I was about to premier a new production that was two years in the making. I had to cancel seven days before the launch because all theaters and public venues were under lockdown. My productions were also booked for festivals in Turkey, Italy, Germany, Norway, Ireland and Cyprus, all of which were canceled. On a positive note I could focus more on composition. Taking the time to reflect, study and develop strands of my art that I had been postponing for years.
As much as the pandemic has impacted people's physical health, it has arguably proven challenging to people's mental health as well, with increased rates of anxiety and depression widely reported in the media and especially amongst the younger generation. Do you believe the arts have a role to play in combating these damaging effects on mental health?
I really can't say. I don't view the arts as therapy but I know that some people do. I prefer to focus on the positive impact of the pandemic rather than the negative. During the COVID-19 months I reached out to fellow artists and friends all across the globe and I was delighted by the positive attitude. These are some of their comments that share a smile of positive energy:
“… The silver lining is that the Earth is having a chance to rest and breathe.” - Dana Ecelberger, Native Plant landscaping (USA);
“I hope that at the end of all this a new world will emerge, with new values and new priorities. In the meantime, we create, my friend, we create beauty and spread it to the world. "- Americo Cicolani, film maker (Italy);
“Who would have guessed that we would experience the plague in 2020! How lucky we are. What great inspiration. We'll have enough material to write about for decades to come. Every human disaster brings out unprecedented humanity and solidarity from each one of us. Nature knows this and guides us in this particular experience. ” - Carlo Muratori, musician and songwriter (Italy).
Congratulations on the recent Maltese premiere of your ensemble piece Taqbida as part of the 'Il-Kunċert tal-Indipendenza' Malta Philharmonic Orchestra online concert on 21 September, for which you held the post of Artistic Director. Do you have any further performances scheduled for 2020?
I have a concert in November together with my partner, pianist Tricia Dawn Williams, as part of The Three Palaces Festival. The festival will be adopting an online platform, but I curated the filming and editing of each piece as a video-art sequence rather than simply filming a live performance. The video cycle will include Pounding for piano and video; Alleluia for piano and backtrack; The Worms Crawl In for toy piano and backing track, as well as music by Ennio Morricone, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Erik Satie.
What can you tell us about your involvement with the Valletta Baroque Festival, now postponed until 2022?
Kenneth Zammit Tabona, the artistic director of the Valletta Baroque Festival, is also an avid lover and supporter of contemporary music. One of the concerts in the festival is entitled Inspired by Baroque , with a program of works from later periods that are, as the name implies, inspired by Baroque music. For each edition of the festival, Kenneth commissions an orchestral work by a Maltese composer. My composition is entitled Androgenous Tears , and will be premiered during the next edition of the Valletta Baroque Festival by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of conductor Philip Walsh. For this composition I quote the madrigal O Felici Occhi Mieiby Jacques Arcadelt, published in 1539. The score of this madrigal was reproduced by Caravaggio in his painting I Musici ('The Musicians'). The painting portrays a group of boys singing this particular madrigal and the eyes of the lute player, the principal figure, are moist with tears.
From 17 April - 11 May 2021 the EUFSC, led by its President, Konstantin Ishkhanov , in collaboration with the MPO will be holding the InClassica Malta International Music Festival at the MCC. The festival will feature six visiting international orchestras alongside the MPO and Malta Youth Orchestra, as well as an impressive roster of visiting soloists including Grigory Sokolov, Maxim Vengerov and Andreas Ottensamer. As a Maltese composer who has likely seen the local cultural landscape change significantly over the past ten years in particular, what is your opinion of this and of Malta's increasing cultural stance internationally?
I think it's wonderful that Maltese audiences have the opportunity to experience stellar performances by great soloists. Ten years ago I would never have imagined that Martha Argerich and Gidon Kremer would be performing in Malta. This phenomenon enhances the image of Malta in the international classical music scene.
A program of Ruben's works may be viewed online on Thursday 12 November 2020 at 20:35 as part of the Three Palaces Festival. For more information visit www.festivals.mt/out-of-the-cage , and for further details about Ruben and his work head to www.rubenzahra.com .
By James Cummings