/Q & A: Layale Chaker – Composer and Violinist

Q & A: Layale Chaker – Composer and Violinist

London-based composer and violinist Layale Chaker will be performing Inner Rhyme at St Marylebone Church with the Sarafand Ensemble. Here, Layale shares with us: what inspired her to compose Inner Rhyme, how her rich Lebanese heritage influenced her musical style, and her professional experience performing as member of the West-Divan Orchestra.

When did you realise becoming a violinist and/or a composer was your calling?

I’m not sure if it was ever a conscious decision, at any point. Because I began playing violin at such a young age, my music grew up with me and has always been part of who I am! I really feel that my instrument is the extension of my body. I have also always been very passionate about literature and poetry. Growing up, there were times where I thought I might become a writer as well. I studied literature and philosophy at university, but even then, I perceived these studies as a part of my musical – and human – education.

You recently completed an Artistic Residency with the Lebanese American University at your home city Beirut. How has your upbringing in Beirut inspired you musically?

Being brought up in Lebanon will always be both an invaluable richness and a complexity… I’m aware of the impact it has had on my music and on my life in general more and more. It may be something of a cliché, but Beirut – while having such a significant ancient history – is a melting pot of several cultures, and Beirut is a city that has always been a haven for artists in all of the Middle-East, especially nowadays when many Iraqi, Syrian and Palestinian artists and musicians have found refuge in Lebanon. Their presence contributes to the vibrant cultural life and this cosmopolitism is what makes a country like Lebanon flourish. Heritage and vanguardism cohabitate well, making me feel rooted, but also free and safe to venture forth into new things.

You have travelled all over the world with the West-Divan Orchestra and as a violin soloist. Do you have any favourite concerts or strange places, which you’ve enjoyed performing at?

I have more recently been to El Paso, where I held an Artistic Residency at the University of Texas at El Paso. It wasn’t a strange place in itself, but it was very strange, and very special, to be thousands of miles away from home, yet to discover so many social similarities, so many struggles related to daily life, politics, but also so much resilience, dignity, and sheer passion for music and for life despite these difficulties.

As a member of Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, what has it been like performing, alongside talented musicians from different parts of the globe and, for an orchestra with a strong political ethos to bring culturally diverse people together?

The Divan has been my greatest school for life so far. Touring for such long periods with the orchestra, learning such extensive repertoire, attending rehearsals lead by Maestro Barenboim, who has taught me the foundations of my orchestration technique – just by listening to him work with the different sections of the orchestra or explain a passage – always trying to give your best at every performance… It’s been an incredible challenge and it has really transformed my musicianship. Politically, The Divan is really a microcosm that embodies our societies. It’s always fascinating to witness social and political behaviors on such a micro-level, as it gives you a renewed understanding of relationships. We try to keep the dialogue alive within our bubble, on tour, despite everything that is going on with the world. It is, after all, the only place on earth where we can engage with others as equals, in all neutrality, away from the dynamics of the occupier and the occupied that don’t allow this kind of dialogue.

What inspired you to compose Inner Rhyme?

I’m very passionate about the Arabic language, prose, and poetry. Poetry in particular has a very strong presence in everyday life in the Arab world. People often recite verses, know entire poems by heart, use proverbs very frequently. At some point, I started to feel that I missed that presence in my music. Especially after studying literature in college, then traveling abroad to study music, there was a part of myself that I was much less in touch with. But language isn’t present in my music as I am an instrumentalist and I mostly compose instrumental music – and translations don’t quite convey the essence and beauty of the language itself. So I resorted to working on poetry in a different way; I focused instead on the way it sounds when recited or declaimed, on the shape and rhythm of the words and the verses.

Inner Rhyme is a combination of Arabic literature and poetry. Your compositions tend to be a fusion of Arabic music with contemporary and jazz aesthetics. Why is this fusion of elements important to you and your work? 

I don’t know if it is a fusion of elements that is pre-meditated. I think it is the spontaneous merging of the different musical elements that I have grown up listening to. It is, in a way, like an accent; I probably have an accent when I speak in English or French, which I don’t necessarily hear, but people around me do! I inevitably convey these different accents in my music, since music is also a language.

What should the audience attending your concert at St. Marylebone Church expect?

In this concert with my ensemble Sarafand, we will perform a set of compositions from Inner Rhyme, which is a project that I will be recording in July in New York and taking on tour next season.

Have you ever experienced any challenges on your journey to becoming a recognised musician? E.g. Learning certain difficult pieces, composing in general, studies at Conservatoire de Paris-CRR or Royal Academy of Music, London, etc.  

I think being a musician, and an artist in general, is one of the most challenging journeys one can choose. Studying in prestigious institutions such as the Paris Conservatory or Royal Academy of Music is without a doubt a tremendous learning experience, that made me who I am, but it is also very important to keep asking yourself the right questions, making sure you are not on this journey for the wrong reasons, and staying in your best shape technically and emotionally in order to keep on giving as generously as possible.

If you could give any advice to an aspiring classical musician, what would it be?

Know why you do what you do in order to find your individual voice, give yourself the tools to do it, and arm yourself with boundless patience.

Layale Chaker will be performing Inner Rhyme at St Marylebone Church (information here) with the Sarafand Ensemble on May 25 (2.30pm). For more information on Layale Charker, go to her website here. And follow on her on Instagram here.

(Header photo credit: Anna Rakhvalova.)