Kemal Yusuf, composer & pianist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

In a sense, music was always there, at the core, and so everything I’ve been doing since I first discovered how to make music at the age of 7 has been music related. I haven’t stopped, because it’s there there all the time. It sits in my dreams, and at the end of the bed waiting for me to wake up in the morning.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Self acceptance. It’s easy to believe I should be this or that. To fit myself into a certain niche, like contemporary classical music, vocal work, as a jazz pianist or any other iteration of my musical expression. The fact is, those things are all, and will continue to be, as true to my output as anything else I do. Accepting that has been immensely difficult, but now it’s free flowing.

As a composer, how would you describe your musical/compositional language?

It’s dense, jumpy, loud, and sometimes spacey. Ethereal. It isn’t music that sits back for a long period of time. It looks to the loudness and vibrancy of life.

Who or what are your most significant influences?

It’s interesting where influences come from. I think that most things feed their way into our subconscious, and that then gets translated and morphed into the art. Personally, there have been two people who have had more influence on me than anyone else – Peter Maxwell Davies and Robert Lefever. Max taught me how to take music to town, as it were. To go further, to not sit down. He also accepted me for what I was at a time when I was up against so much. Robert, I’m in touch with regularly, and he taught me how to really be myself. He’s a composer, counsellor and writer, and seems to feel at ease in all of his practices. Which is no surprise, because both artistic and psychological practices are about a deep connection to self and creativity. He helped me to essentially re-wire my brain after it was shattered from trauma about a year ago. I see the two relationships as linked, somehow. I may well write a piece on it one day.

How do you work?

White heat. When I get an idea, it’s like I’ve been shot up to the stratosphere. Everything after that is about getting it down on paper, or DAW, or video, or whatever else I’m working with.

Tell us more about your album The Key Crack Chronicles……

About 4 years ago I’d just finished a piece for the Norfolk and Norwich festival. It was a big thing to do, writing for 150 musicians and soloists and, after its premiere, my response was to head into isolation. I began playing and improvising alone in my studio. I recorded nearly every session in that room, and there’s about 700 of those recordings. What’s remarkable is that the music seems to have a mind of its own. There’s a language and sonority that runs through the tracks and this album captures that. I’ve just released the first single, Bother My Soul – it’s a prelude to the full thing. The next track will be released in the next few weeks.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

We need to break down barriers. There is so much culturally and institutionally that gets in our way. People believe that classical music is stuffy, prejudiced and elite. Why do they think that? Do we think that maybe they have a point? We don’t know more than the audience, and they don’t need educating (I’ve heard this said before). We need to be real, genuine, and open. And we need to be honest about our own industry’s issues. Institutional bias and racism are at the core of why classical music faces the challenges it does. We don’t stand a chance unless we deal with that.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

There are so many! Probably hearing Hans Abrahamsen’s Let Me Tell You a few years ago at the Royal Albert Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra and Simon Rattle. I felt like I was transported to another dimension. I also once heard Robert Grasper and guests at the iTunes festival. That concert taught me how shared the power and experience of music is and can be.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Putting out things that I’m happy with, and that will make an impact.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Keep being yourself. There’s nothing else you can be. Listen to advice, of course, but you don’t always have to take it, no matter who it comes from. Ultimately, you’re the judge, and you know deep down what you want to do.

What is your present state of mind?

Connected.

Since the age of seven, Kemal has been constructing sounds on whatever instruments lay to hand. Initially self-taught, he progressed to the Royal Academy of Music where he studied with Simon Bainbridge. He gravitated towards the natural drama and theatre within music.

He was then closely mentored by the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who became one of his biggest sonic inspirations.

Kemal’s unique ear and non-rigid approach to genre has seen him work successfully in musical theatre, jazz, filmscores, large-scale orchestral works, TikTok mashups, Instagram live improvisations, an album of chamber music, and a series of piano improvisations titled ‘The Key Crack Chronicles’.

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