PARIS: For Gabriel Yared, the award-winning Lebanese-French composer, withdrawing from the world was a personal choice he made long before the lockdowns and social distancing resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What composer would dare to complain about confinement when surrounded by his music books and piano?” he said. “He can work in peace, in total silence — no cars, no planes in the sky, birds singing in the background.
“I have chosen to withdraw from life for a very long time. Since I devoted my life to music, I spend a lot of time at home where I can compose and read. I feel privileged when I think of all these people stuck between four walls in a small space with children. I know that is very painful, without mentioning the economic and financial pressures caused by this pandemic.”
Yared left Lebanon, his homeland, at the age of 19 to pursue a career in music. In the five decades since then, he has written music for Francoise Hardy and Johnny Hallyday, and has also worked with Charles Aznavour, Mireille Matthieu and Gilbert Becaud, among other singers.
He has scored dozens of films, winning an Oscar and other prestigious international awards, including a Golden Globe, BAFTA and Grammy, for his soundtrack to director Anthony Minghella’s film “The English Patient.”
He is currently working on the score for an Italian film based on “The Life Ahead” an early novel by Romain Gary about a young Muslim boy in Paris being cared for by an elderly Jewish woman, Madame Rosa, who survived Auschwitz. It is directed by Eduardo Ponti, the son of Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti, and stars 84-year-old Loren as Rosa.
As much as Yared enjoys his self-imposed periods of isolation at home in Paris, however, the enforced confinement necessitated by the coronavirus crisis has its disadvantages and creates professional difficulties.
“I want to meet with the director, talk to him, let him hear things and gauge his initial reaction as we discuss the project,” he said. “For instance, as the wheel of life has stopped and airports closed, (Ponti) was not able to come to Paris as he was in Los Angeles.
“It was painful but, at the same time, the fact that everything has been suspended and frozen gave me more time to try, to take risks and make proposals. Now that I have finished the music, the problem is where to record it. Groups of more than 10 people are not allowed anywhere and an orchestra’s line-up is usually between 50 to 70 musicians.”
Last year, Yared also signed on to write the music for the Lebanese film “Broken Keys,” which is written and directed by Jimmy Keyrouz, a 30-year-old Lebanese filmmaker who graduated with a master’s degree in directing and screenwriting from Columbia University in New York. It tells the story of a young pianist living in a Syrian city controlled by fundamentalists who destroy his piano. He sets off on a quest to find the parts he needs to rebuild his piano so that he can perform a concert in the town square.
The film is produced by Antoun Sehnaoui, the Lebanese-French producer of Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult.” When he asked Yared to compose the score, the plan was for it to be recorded in London at the renowned Abbey Road Studios or Air Studios. The UK lockdown has prevented this, but Yared hopes to finally record it this month after the English musical union gives permission for more than 30 musicians to gather together.
“Broken Keys” is not the first film by a Lebanese director for which Yared has composed the music.
“Not at all,” he said. “At the very beginning of my career as a composer, after having written the music for Jean-Luc Godard’s (1980) film, ‘Every Man for Himself,’ I wrote the music for Maroun Bagdadi’s (1982) film ‘Little Wars.’”
Yared was born in in October 1949 to well-known Lebanese “bourgeois” parents who wanted their son to study law. Instead, he traveled to Paris to study music thanks to a scholarship from the Lebanese Ministry of Culture. In the French capital, he attended classes taught by one of the greatest composers, Henri Dutilleux.
“At that time I only knew how to read music and play the piano,” said Yared. “I had not learned the rules of musical composition. When I returned to Lebanon, my father insisted that I carry on with my law studies.”
Everything changed, however, when he met the director of the Brazilian Song Festival, Augusto Marzagao, who was the husband of a friend of his sister’s, who asked Yared to compose a song to represent Lebanon at the event.
“In 1970, at the age of 21, I went to Brazil for 15 days and ended up staying 18 months,” he said. “I decided to live there but destiny took me back to Paris.”
The one place that Yared knew he would never end up was his home country.
“When I left Lebanon I promised myself never to go back again as I had had a difficult time there,” he said. “I was born into a family with no artists or musicians and so I was the black sheep of the family.”
When he left Lebanon, he took with him an object dear to his heart: A book that had belonged to Ahmed Nami, a highly cultured person, who married Gabriel’s grandmother. The book was “Arab Music Conference in Cairo” and had taken place in 1932 during the reign of King Farouk.
Yared said he had never liked oriental music, as it reminded him of the unhappy days he had spent in a Jesuit boarding school between the ages of 4 and 14. When film director Maroun Bagdadi came to see him, however, Yared discovered in the book all the oriental scales and rhythms, along with a written record of oral knowledge of oriental music.
“I saw in oriental music an endless well of learning in which I could find my roots,” said Yared. “I explored this new path for Bagdadi’s film, ‘Little Wars,’ and a year later for Costa-Gavras’s film, ‘Hanna K’ and again for Youssef Chahine’s ‘Adieu Bonaparte,’ and later for ‘Azur et Asmar,’ a famous animated film by Michel Ocelot.
“I used oriental music in its most classical expression and mixed it with my knowledge of western music, though this is not just about layering two different cultures; it is more a matter of interweaving and intertwining them.”
Last year, Yared met Lebanese singer Yasmina Joumblatt, the great granddaughter of legendary Syrian singer Asmahan, who asked him to orchestrate one of her great grandmother’s songs.
“In a week after hearing her inspired singing of Asmahan’s song, ‘Ya Habibi Taala,’ I was able to compose in a way I never thought I could,” he said, adding that the song “begins in a way similar to Bach’s preludes, and the oriental instruments then progressively come in.”
Yared subsequently wrote six songs featuring Joumblatt’s lyrics, which proved to be a learning experience.
“My knowledge of oriental music really matured and I gradually returned to my roots,” he said. “I have learned so much in France, and this combined with my Lebanese roots can only be fruitful and right for me.”