How did you start composing music for film?

When I took piano lessons as a child, I could only play a piece after having imagined a story to it, a shape, or a movement. Imagination played a big role, and sound was a natural extension of images in my mind, perhaps to cover the sounds and images of Beirut at that time, during the war. Composing music for film is a kind of a reverse action. And there’s some magic in it too, as music will inevitably alter the way we look at an image; not necessarily by illustrating what we already see on screen, but rather by creating parallel narratives that would either anticipate the action, raise the emotional quality, or work as a subtext to elevate the story.
In the early 90’s, when I studied theatre, I was asked by my professors to compose for their plays. This is how I initially began to connect music with stage works, or the aural with the visual. Gradually I moved from theatre to dance performances, documentaries, video installations, short features, long features, and for the past 10 years or so, I’ve been working on my own sound and music-related projects.

What brought you to work on “Tramontane”?

Vatché Boulghourjian and I had collaborated earlier in 2002 on his experimental documentary for which I had composed the music; he is familiar with my background as an artist and composer, and I know his work as a filmmaker. It was mutual appreciation and respect toward each other’s works that led to our second collaboration: his first feature film on which I supervised the music and composed the soundtrack.

The script revolves around music and an artist’s performance. How did this affect your creative process?

Composing a soundtrack for a film is like diving into someone else’s universe; A universe that has to speak to you, that invites you in and where you can offer something in return. I don’t think it is possible for a composer to contribute in any way to any movie if they don’t love the script, first and foremost.
“Tramontane” (Rabih in Arabic) is about a blind musician who sings in a choir and who discovers that his identity is fake. The film is about blindness, as much as it is about identity, territory, betrayal and forgiveness… major themes through which Rabih, the main character, navigates guided by sound. We wanted to stay away from the cinematic clichés about portraying the blinds’ auditory universe, and chose to highlight instead the character’s extraordinary musical abilities that the lead actor, Barakat Jabbour, truly has. Meeting Jabbour and working with him has been a blessing to us all. His knowledge of Arabic and popular music even inspired alterations in the script; scenes where he would be playing violin in quarter tones, and derbakkeh, were added. Since the main themes of the film are identity and territory, we decided to include traditional Arabic music that is rooted in the history of the land.
The question at that point was whether or not we needed to add score; There are many scenes in the film where Rabih either performs on stage, or improvises alone; In the end, the editing room determined the score’s necessity. We had to find the balance between the diegetic music and the composed score that included western sounds and instruments, including piano, prepared piano, string and wind instruments, to underline the universality of the story. At times, those sounds were weaved into the sound design that Rana Eid skillfully crafted.
The fact that I was involved from the early stages of “Tramontane” to the last stages of post-production with the final mix, played an important role in how the overall soundtrack was conceived and produced.

What’s your opinion on the actual state and future of the Lebanese cinema industry?

Over 10 Lebanese feature films will be released in Lebanon next year. I think that says a lot about recent film productions, the available resources, the possibilities, and the need to tell stories in a country that produced an average of one movie per year. We’re probably witnessing an unprecedented boom of an industry that has always been fickle because of political turmoil and insecurity. With this growth, new and diverse voices are emerging. Despite the film industry being an entertainment business, it can succeed where other institutions fail, namely by addressing urgent issues. This makes me very excited about the future!