John Kameel Farah is a composer, pianist and visual artist, based between Toronto and Berlin. I heard a concert of him playing organ and synthesizers in a church during the EMAF (European Media Art Festival) in Osnabrück and was amazed by his devotion to music, and his sympathetic and authentic interactions with the audience (including that he came down from the pulpit to play the piano with socks on). Thanks to the literal push from my colleague who joined me at the concert, I interviewed him the following day.
I am not sure if I really know what happiness is, as the normal definition of 'happy' to me seems so extreme; when someone says they are happy, I imagine them to smile as hard as they can, every minute of every day, which is just unrealistic. There are always obstacles and irritations in life.
Aside from the universal idea of happiness, things like having good times with close friends and family, I think I am most happy when I am doing the things most important to me. When I am sharing my music with an audience, and when all good circumstances come together, that allow you to get into this head-space, those are the times that confirm why you wanted to be an artist in the first place.
And when I am composing. When you first sit down to compose, sometimes at first it’s not easy, but after a while, you lose yourself in it. In the middle of a composition, or when you are making an album, when you are really into a project, this is some of the most meaningful time in your life, but you’re often not even conscious of it. I am not walking around smiling, maybe I am not smiling at all, but I feel like this is what I am meant to do. I am doing, what I am supposed to be doing. Maybe you’re happy, but you don't notice it, you are just not thinking about happy, sad, anything. You are doing this thing that is the most interesting and stimulating to you. I think, the higher the percentage that I can have in my life of that is, the 'happier' that I would be. And I feel very lucky that I am able to do that at all.
When you are composing on your own, it happens in isolation, you are a hermit. You are completely alone. It is not a social job to me. It is very private, hearing your private thoughts. But later, when the music is communicated in concert, it is completely social, even intimate - and I get to meet people like this, sparkling and interesting personalities, all over the world. I feel really, really lucky to get to experience that.
Being with open people, with a sense of humour makes me feel at home. When I feel most at ease with an audience, is when there’s a kind of a relationship somehow, which allows me to be goofy on stage but also very serious.
I love traveling. When you're traveling, all this new possibilities open up for everything, new pathways in your brain, possibilities for your own thinking. At the same time, when I come home, I need huge amounts of down time, staying at home in my apartment for days on end, recharging myself. In order to be creative in my own way, I have to live at a different pace, sometimes very intense, other times quite empty and slow, and live my own slightly strange lifestyle – I just mean slightly strange, but what if I wanna watch Star Trek and eat cornflakes at 3 o'clock in the morning? Often I need to go at a slowly, to conserve energy, because at other times, composing or performing can be extremely intense, like an emotional supernova.
I noticed, when I don't feel at home is when I am with people whose concept of how you should live is very narrow. That you should have a certain kind of job, a certain kind of house, car, lifetsyle etc. All those things are fine, as long as you don't make a rule out of them.
I do feel at home in Berlin. Here, someone might ask: What do you do? And when you answer: I am a composer, usually the reaction is: What kind of music do you do? Tell me about your music! Instead of: How much money do you make? Or, can you afford a car? Or something immediately going to these financial questions.
Incidents, that shaped my life... First thing would be where I was born, more like a circumstance. I was born in this suburb of Toronto called Brampton, which has this reputation of being the most boring, desolate suburb in the world. When I meet someone else from Canada, that also comes from Brampton, it feels like meeting another prisoner that escaped from Alcatraz. An empty wasteland of parking lots, factories, fast food, car repairs and giant malls. And the Heavy Metal epicentre — everybody, including me, listened to Heavy Metal. This was quite formative.
Incidents, that shaped my life - This is very difficult for me to answer concretely. I have always stayed focused on what I want to do, which is to be an artist, both in visual art and composing. But it’s like navigating through a bunch of asteroids. You are always getting hit, going through life, trying to work towards something, as other things, distractions and obstacles are pushing you this way and that. But you still keep coming back. So on one hand, this goal can not be removed, and this makes it look like I am not influenced by anything. But I am actually heavily influenced by everything, maybe more than I should be. Maybe this is typical for artists, having really big 'antennas', so that you are very sensitive to not only the people that you meet, but also the whole atmosphere of the world, the atmosphere between countries, etc… This is constantly shaping me, in a big way. In a way that sometimes I think it would be much easier if I could turn it off, if I had a button I could press.
My mother had a great influence on me, by having this spirit of creativity. She wasn't officially an artist, not in the sense of showing your work to the public, but everything that she did, whether it was painting with watercolor, stained glass, her approach to cooking - was artistic in spirit, and really was an amazing example to follow.
Another formative element was the situation between Palestine and Israel, the situation in the middle east. You are born into that, like it or not. It constantly raises complex questions of complex identities, who and what you/we are. And you see through these labels, how these identities are just as superficial and temporal as they are deep, so that the only really reasonable way to identify is as a human being, or even stepping back from that, as a sentient life form. But unfortunately the reality of politics on Planet Earth doesn’t let you really subscribe to that in practicality, except in your own mind.
Ivo's question: What is your art?
I am an artist. There is this line from a Woody Allen film, Alan Alda says 'My life is my art'. It’s a beautiful idea, but in my case; my art is my art. However, if you took all of my art and music, I feel that it also, over time, over my life, makes one giant Gesamtkunstwerk. It is varied and broad. If you take everything altogether, it also makes a statement in itself. Most visual artists have ‘artist statements’. But they never ask you to make one as a musician; it's just not required, while the artist must.
But I feel that everything that I do; a viewer/listener has to stand back from it. And then stand further back and more further back, to see the whole thing, as it relates to other pieces, the interconnected ideas and themes, pondering life, history, cosmology, what came before and what might come after.
[John shows me some of his drawings, sketches, black dot work, forming into what reminds me of strings, tentacles, leaves, which are moving from an exact frame towards the middle and towards each other, creating vivid ornamental forms.]
Some of them have these ancient middle eastern themes, some remind me of biology, others more abstract. I feel my art is a mixture of history, a love of science and astronomy, the universe, and trying to understand our place in it. And I know, these questions are not answerable. But somehow, there is this element of reaching out to communicate, at least to ponder it. An effort towards fairness and justice is in there somehow; and trying to reconcile this East-West-problem, in a very abstract and very personal way.
However, it’s not like I am making the art to serve this agenda, this is kind of art and music I want to be making in the first place, and it’s a happy coincidence that all these interests come together in tandem. The art and music are tied in together with ancient history, astronomy and world issues. Interpersonally – the act of artistic creation is also another way to be intimate with people. It’s so incredibly intimate, because you are going straight to their deepest personal emotions, bypassing words, even though you’re not meeting them in person. To take ideas at the back of your mind (or heart) and bring them into reality, to deliver these ideas through your hands, and watch as the invisible sound waves leaving your instrument and go into people’s ears, and have them receive and react to these vibrations with emotions of their own, that’s a really beautiful process.
John's question: How do you respond to unexpected conflicts/difficult situations?
And how do you feel about being on the planet earth, a grain of sand in the middle of nowhere in the universe?