Name: Fahmi Alqhai
Occupation: Viola da Gamba player
Rayuela - Julio Cortázar
Les larmes d’Eros – Geroge Bataille
Taranta (Fuente Caudal) – Paco de Lucía
O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sunde gross, BWV 622 – J. S. Bach
Las hilanderas – Diego Velázquez
The fall of the rebel angels - Pieter Bruegel
If you enjoyed this interview with Fahmi Alqhai and would like to find out more about his work, visit his excellent personal homepage which offers deep information on his biography and recorded oeuvre. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
We also highly recommend the website of Accademia del Piacere, the renowned and forward thinking renaissance and baroque ensemble founded and led by Fahmi Alqhai.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I had my first experience with an instrument at the age of 8, in Siria. But my vocation for music started at the age of 13 with the electric guitar and heavy metal music.
I started playing the viola da gamba when I was 17 and it was absolutely a fortuitous finding. No romanticism in that meeting.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I started as a self-taught person and I always tried to copy all the music and the musicians I loved. So everything I do always starts at the soul.
I think that this makes you have a very distinctive way of feeling music and playing it. I would say it’s the most honest way of having an approach to art in general.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
For me it’s absolutely everything. I need to feel that the music I perform comes from my unique voice and recognize that this is me and not the voice of others.
I know that you have to copy to find your path in music, but I try to copy and to spend a lot of time after just finding what I really want of that piece or music.
What were some of your main challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
In the beginning I was very much focused on technique, spent lots of hours every day to become a virtuoso.
Now that I’m 44 I’m starting to really focus on expression, on the pure emotivity of my music, also on the understanding of my language as an artist … Not just playing crazy runs and notes as fast as I can!!
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first instrument?
I always tried to learn something from every good player I met “on the road”. I never thought that this particular technique or that way of playing was impossible or that it didn't fit my technique for the instrument. I always tried to include everything – and to decide later what to use or not.
Tell me about your instrument, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results, including your own performance?
The viola da gamba for me, after 27 years of playing, became a part of my arm. I can say that I can feel it as if it were a part of my body. I don’t have a romantic relationship with it because for me the most important thing is music and the instrument is just an instrument, nothing more. Good musicians can make wonderful music with a tin can … Obviously if you have a good instrument you’ll have a better result for your music, but I try always not to mythologize the instruments.
The gamba is a very good and versatile instrument because it is not a standardized instrument and gives you a lot of freedom to find your own path, not like violins or celli. For me this is the most important thing with my instruments.
Sometimes that does make everything a little bit more difficult because you cannot find the right strings for it, or the right bow, or even a good colophony. But the sense of freedom is so powerful and it's so nice to develop a personal way of approaching the music you play.
How would you describe your approach to interpretation? Where do you start and how do you develop your view on a piece, what are some of your principles and what constitutes a successful interpretation for you?
It depends on what I’m playing: If I’m making an interpretation of a Bach piece, for example, I have to understand the text and the context and I need to have played it a thousand times to feel comfortable with that piece.
Sometimes I listen to good musicians just to understand their points of view, but at the end of the day the most important thing for me is time: The more time you spend with the piece, the more convincing the result you can achieve will be, both for you as an artist and for the public.
On the other hand, if I’m creating new music, time always will send the muses to you. But eventually you have to build something on a foundation of inspiration - and that depends on lots of not controllable factors. So for me there is no formula for that!!
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
For me collaborations are the basis of my career, for my own growth and for my mental health. Bach is wonderful but I couldn’t play just Bach’s music my entire life, I need more. This is why I’m always trying to find good musicians in others musical fields.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I have no routines. Some days I play 10 hours per day and on days not at all. Sometimes I try to fix a schedule for my personal life, but I have two little girls, a wife and a cat …
My wife is a musician and my little girls are also playing cello and piano, so music is everywhere and all the time in our house. Sometimes I feel it is too much. So I'll open a beer and play with the cat!!
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
One of the most important revelation-discoveries I had was when I started making music with Flamenco performers. That feeling of not understanding what was happening the first months made me have a flashback to when I was very young and every step was very special. Somehow, it made me feel new and very excited for every note we played, and of course I learned a lot from all of them, not just in the sense of music but also in terms of life experience.
Flamenco has been always very important for me, and it has been with me every step I took in my life. But until 2008 I didn’t want to get involved in that field because I was very busy with my Marais, Forquerays and so on. I remember there was a promoter at the Granada Festival that pushed me and encouraged me to make “Las Idas y las vueltas” and that was an open window and new and a breath of fresh air to me. Very risky - but very satisfying.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
The most important factor for creativity is peace of mind and time, lots of time. If you don’t have the time you need, it is better not to create anything. It can only result in absolute failure.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I have lots of these experiences, of course. All my life is music. Probably I have a type of music for every step I've made and I have used music as a remedy in lots of moments in my life. Sometimes I've even used it like a poison. Music is very powerful in that sense.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
I think that’s very personal, these experiences very much depend on the person and their context. Probably the same piece of music can make me cry and make another person laugh.
I can associate a certain chord with the colour blue, and another person doesn´t feel any colour at all. So for me the most important thing with music is the way your brain processes the sound, the harmony, etc.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Art for me is a necessity, it's a must. I couldn’t wake up in the morning without music and art in general. I can definitely say it’s my life.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Everything you want her to express. Everything is in our minds but music can help bring it to the fore. It’s a very powerful tool. Sometimes too much so.