I am always skeptical of what I would call “fusion” composition; I would briefly describe this as taking the harmonic language, rhythms, or instruments of some non-western culture, or the elements of a popular music genre, and unceremoniously shoving them into the context of western art music. This could perhaps be analogised as mixing water and oil; things that are, on their own, valuable, but which resist amalgamation. The result can often leave me wondering whether greater care could have been taken to present each separate element in its best light. It is a technique dangerously prone to superficiality.
However, more and more composers and projects are beginning to change my mind on the worth of this realm of composition, and John Kameel Farah’s Between Carthage and Rome may have completely won me over. Composed and performed by Farah, this album was an attempt to draw influences not only from the ancient world and the modern, but also an attempt to fuse elements of both Middle Eastern culture and European. A fugue on a theme by Renaissance Englishman William Byrd is directly followed by Sama’i Point, a piece centred around a Middle Eastern rhythmic pattern. The centuries old, tried-and-true piano is accompanied by EDM breakbeats and grimy synthesizers. More remarkably, however, there is never a moment where these elements seem to contradict each other; no awkward moments of transition or juxtaposition – just purely confident writing and bold, seamless execution. You will not wonder how someone could have written a piece about Surus, the only elephant to survive Hannibal’s one-tusked elephant and the only one to survive the famous crossing of the Alps. You will only hear the gentle sway of that huge creature.
Of a more technical nature, it is also a very well-balanced collection of works. In the art music world, not a whole lot of attention is generally paid to the “album” as a form in itself, seeing as works are composed for concert settings and their immortalisation on CD is often not available to singular composers looking to collect their works into some cohesive sequence. Perhaps Farah takes cues from the pop world, where this is given much greater consideration, as while any of these pieces could be separate concert pieces, it seems that great attention was paid to their sequencing on this album. The more exciting energetic pieces are carefully placed around downtempo, more calm ones, to create a satisfying contrast between works. I imagine Between Carthage and Rome has been presented to great effect in a concert setting in the form that it appears on the album, and if not, it really should be.
Masterfully balancing and synthesizing a variety of disparate elements, Between Carthage and Rome is exemplary from so many perspectives, it would be impossible to narrow down just one. It is an effective album as well as a strong collection of compositions. It’s a stunning display of virtuosity, and a calm display of restraint. Its harmony evokes several different cultures, and yet, the statements speak towards a more universal and pure musical aesthetic. It is as focused as it is eclectic. It’s a nod to tradition, with a hand on the pulse of the present, facing fearlessly to the future. Some purposeful vagueness has been exercised regarding the character and features of the works within, with the hope that I have piqued your interest into listening to this excellent album. 4 years in the making, this album proudly displays every minute of hard work put into it. Kudos to Farah for this excellent release!
Available for purchase at Bandcamp.