“Composing is in my blood”

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Suad Bushnaq shares her approach to writing music, the influence of her family and the importance of giving back. She spoke with Meaghan Brittini.

At a studio recording session in McGill University studios
At a studio recording session in McGill University studios

It is a quiet, mundane morning at home as I prepare to talk with composer Suad Bushnaq. Yet I am finding it hard not to be moved by the intense emotion emanating from her recorded pieces, the sounds of which have completely transformed the air in my flat.

Based in the art-loving city of Montréal, Canada, Suad’s music has been performed throughout North America and in parts of the Middle East. Of mixed Syrian-Palestinian and Bosnian descent, (and dual Jordanian-Canadian nationality), she was born and raised in Amman, Jordan, where she began composing at the age of nine.

It was during her teenage years when she knew she wanted to seriously pursue her passion as a career. “I used to listen a lot to Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor, one of my all-time favourite works now. Back then, I was listening to it on a daily basis and analysing the sounds in my head. I had already been composing, but it was at that time in my life during these evenings of listening that I grew more attached to the idea of becoming a music composer.”

With the support of her parents, Suad left traditional school to begin a home-study programme with a tutor, in order to concentrate full-time on her musical dream.

It is that same support from her family that continues to play a major role in her progress as a composer. “My dad’s massive classical music collection, and growing up in a house that nurtured the arts, definitely played a huge part in this inspiration. Today my father is my number-one fan, and just seeing him listen to my works with pride and attentiveness, in addition to hearing his wise comments, helps keep me going.”

Receiving the Personality of the Year award for music composition from the Arab Canadian Business Council. Pictured with her father, Saher. Photo by Karim Shalaby
Receiving the Personality of the Year award for music composition from the Arab Canadian Business Council. Pictured with her father, Saher. Photo by Karim Shalaby

Suad also remembers her mother’s encouragement. “When I was about ten years old, I wanted to stop taking piano lessons. I loved sitting at the piano and improvising, but I absolutely hated having to take piano lessons, practising pieces that someone else composed and sitting for piano exams.”

Her mother, however, refused to let the piano become relegated to home décor.

It was her mother, too, who insisted that she record her first album professionally in the fall of 2006. Suad complied, recording her debut, Thoughts, on her mother’s birthday. Little did she know that this album would become a loving memory of her mother, who passed away only a few months later.

She went on to earn diplomas from music schools in France, the Middle East and the UK, leading to a bachelor’s degree in music composition. Today she remains the only Arab woman ever awarded an entrance scholarship to the world-renowned Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montréal, where she obtained her bachelor’s degree.

In fact, Suad is one of only a few female Arab composers of her time – a fact that she says played a role in her original motivation to pursue music as her profession.

“I was very inspired by the music of Marcel Khalife and Omar Khairat, two Arab composers whose works are universal. I always wondered, though, how it is that there are no female Arab composers. This made me more determined to become a pioneer in this field.”

But she insists that her attraction to music runs deeper than the desire to break down gender barriers as a trailblazer. “It wasn’t the sole reason that made me become a composer. Had there been 100 women composers at the time I still would’ve wanted to become one because, for me, composing is in my blood and is a major source of happiness and gratification in my life – something I cannot live without pursuing.”

While composing may be her innate talent, it is also blending the musical influences from her Arab-European heritage with her love of Western styles that she claims “comes naturally and sounds cohesive” to her. Jazz, Arabic maqam (scales) and the occasional Bosnian folk tune are all found in her compositions, depending on her particular inspirations.

Performing at Oscar Peterson Hall in Montréal at the Through the Eyes of Palestine benefit concert
Performing at Oscar Peterson Hall in Montréal at the Through the Eyes of Palestine benefit concert

“Sometimes I’m sitting at the piano, and I improvise something. At other times, I would have a melody come to my mind and then imagine it orchestrated,” she says, adding, “At other times, composing is like a puzzle. I would have no idea what I’m going to compose, but I start on a blank slate and things develop as I am writing.

“What’s amazing is that some of my best pieces have been a spur of the moment kind of thing, something I composed from beginning to end in less than a day.” But more often, creating a piece she is happy with can be a labour of love lasting several days. Orchestral compositions, she says, “take a lot of time, trial and error, and decision-making”.

While pursuing her musical dreams, she has used her talents to support causes she cares about. “I think as a musician, I feel a need to contribute to society as much as I can because, unlike doctors for example, I am not saving lives.”

Photo by Karim Shalaby
Photo by Karim Shalaby

Suad admits she feels deeply that giving back is part-and-parcel of having been blessed with a God-given talent. Throughout her career she has performed in benefit concerts such as Through the Eyes of Palestine. Some of her pieces were composed specifically for the soundtracks of documentaries covering the issues of war or poverty.

“Such projects give invaluable energy and meaning to my work; they make me feel grounded.” Suad also donates all of the proceeds from Thoughts to breast cancer research.

Music is also proving to be an opportunity for her to peacefully bridge the distance between cultures – specifically between those of her heritage and the West, where she now lives.

“I am currently working on a suite for orchestra entitled Hakawaty, which means ‘The Storyteller’. It is essentially musical ‘stories’ from the Levant that capture the beauty and rich heritage of this part of the world.” Composed to be performed in front of a live audience, the suite is Suad’s reaction to consistently negative media portrayals of the region.

With a lot on her plate, including composing for some upcoming Arabic-language documentaries and scoring the music for a Jordanian feature film, where does she hope her music will bring her in the coming years?

“The cherry on the cake would be an Oscar for Best Original Score. Now that would be delicious!”

 

Listen to more music by Suad Bushnaq at SoundCloud or follow her on Facebook

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 Ramadan issue of Aquila Style magazine. For a superior and interactive reading experience, you can get the entire issue, free of charge, on your iPad or iPhone at the Apple Newsstand, or on your Android tablet or smartphone at Google Play

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