Penn Live Arts Blog

5 Questions with Kinan Azmeh

Posted May 2, 2024

Called “intensely soulful” and a “virtuoso” by The New York Times, Syrian-born and New York-based clarinetist Kinan Azmeh joins Germany’s preeminent jazz ensemble, the NDR Bigband, on our stage May 10. Part of our ListenHear series, the performance will feature music from their 2021 album, Flow with compositions by Azmeh. In today’s 5 Questions feature, we get to know Azmeh, the outlook and influences that shape his work and the projects he is preparing to share with the world.

1.) What first got you into music, and what is your earliest memory of hearing music?
I grew up in Damascus in a household that embraced everything cultural. Both of my parents listened to lots of music, and they both learned to play instruments again when they sent my sister and I to music lessons twice a week. Jamming together at dinner parties was something we enjoyed doing as a family. I started playing the clarinet at age seven, which back then was simply additional homework that I did not necessarily enjoy, but little by little, music crept into my soul, and I started to be moved by what I played.

My earliest memory of listening to music was “Night on Bald Mountain” by Mussorgsky. My father used to make my sister and I sit in the living room as toddlers while he pretended to be the conductor of our record player; we totally believed that his moves did change the music since he knew these pieces very well.

2.) What themes do you pursue in your work?
I feel that the themes I pursue in my music making are as diverse as life can be. Some works are autobiographical as they are reflections on life experiences and situations. And some are more abstract in nature and purely musically driven. But I continue to believe that creating them is an act of freedom, and this freedom allows us to experience emotions that are more complex than what life offers us, and they are certainly more complex than to be summarized in words.

3.) What projects are you working on currently?
I am working on several projects simultaneously. I am now revising my opera Songs for Days to Come which premiered in Germany two summers ago, so that it can be performed in the U.S. It is an opera that is fully sung in Arabic that celebrates Arabic language and contemporary Syrian poetry. I am also releasing a new record with my New York quartet, Kinan Azmeh CityBand, and working on a number of commissions: a piano trio work and my second clarinet concerto.

4.) Who are your biggest influences?
There is not enough space to list all the major influences that affected my musical life. Generally speaking, I look for inspiration outside of music: in nature, literature, sports, and also by simply observing ordinary people. But there are also individuals who continue to accompany me intellectually and emotionally; in today’s world, I have been going back to the writings and interviews of the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said.

5.) What role does the musician have in today’s world?
Some people suggest that the role of the artist is to reflect on the world around them, others argue that it is the artist’s role to recreate the world in the most ideal way according to them. My personal philosophy is that we create art to experience emotions that we don’t have the luxury of experiencing in real life, and also to encourage the audience to be more in touch with how they feel and how these feelings fit in and affect their own worlds.

Bonus question: What do you do to clear your head when you need to?
Playing football (soccer) continues to be a major factor in clearing up my mind. Every time I play, I immediately tap into my 10-year-old brain. :)