Award-winning new-classical composer and pianist Steve Barakatt recorded his first solo album, Double Joie, when he was 14. It was released in Canada on November 11, 1987 and less than a week later the album was in the top 20 best-selling albums.
He has composed and produced numerous instrumental albums:
Audacity, Escape, Steve Barakatt LIVE, Quebec, Eternity, A Love Affair, All About Us, Someday, Somewhere and more recently Néoréalité. When he was 16, music composition, arranging and production fascinated him. He studied the new technology available and soon mastered all the intricacies of music programming. So much so that the Japanese firm Roland invited him to present their new products at the 1992.
In 2003, Barakatt was inspired to create a music work of a major scale, by composing and conceiving a symphonic work based on the sixteen stages of human experience. In 2005, the world premiere of “Ad Vitam Aeternam” was presented at the Grand Théâtre de Québec accompanied by Orchestre Symphonique de Québec. Barakatt’s compositions have been used in major TV sports programs including the FIFA World Cup 2002 in Japan (NHK) as well as for the F1 Grand Prix of Monaco.
On March 18, 2023, Steve Barakatt made his American debut earlier this year at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Barakatt performed music from his current album, “Néoréalité,” and some of his most-celebrated compositions and anthems, including his pivotal work, “Lullaby, The UNICEF Anthem,” which premiered on the International Space Station in 2009.
YRB Magazine’s Editor-in-chief Jonn Nubian has a conversation with Mr. Barakatt about his career, the process of composing and the DNA of music.
Editor’s note: This interview is a transcript from a video conference call. It has been edited for clarity.
Jonn Nubian: I wanted to start the interview by asking about your current album Néoréalité,”
What was your approach and how did you create it?
Steve Barakatt: My approach in making the album was a simplistic and very pure way. I think it was the right thing to do at this time of my life, both as a person musician. I needed to explore. So I was like, okay, there is a piano, there is a composer, who wants to explore the colors of that instrument. And I want to do it in a way that is authentic. In a way that music speaks by itself without too much Miracle Whip on top. (laughs) It’s also on a philosophical level, the themes of Néoréalité are quite philosophical, like the song Sarcastic World.
JN: Yes! I love that song, I want to dive into the specific songs, but tell me about the title itself of the album Where does the title Néoréalité come from?
Steve Barakatt: So the music itself is a mix of my history of music. I’m a classical trained musician, and I switched to jazz at the age of 13 or 14. So, of course, these elements are part of my DNA. So it’s why I use all these palettes of colors. When I compose as you experienced during the concert, I can go very kind of classic Eastern European, very melodic, and I also can open up to the jazz colors, and I try to make it in a way that it’s all together. It’s not like it’s in separate boxes.
JN: Is this more of a performance thing or is it more when you’re in the studio? Do your ideas come from when you’re performing?
Steve Barakatt: Both.
When I perform, I made a promise to myself- and it’s when I do a concert, I CREATE something.
It’s not just performing, It’s creating something. This is what Jazz brought me to my life. Because jazz is a structure. You have the base of music, and when you perform live, it becomes a new!
JN: I see.
Steve Barakatt: So all my music is basically done in an open structure. Of course, when I play with 75 musicians, I don’t have this freedom. I cannot say to the 75 people, let’s turn right. So it’s a strict kind of formula when you play with a symphony. But when I composed this album I knew I would perform it solo. So I explored a little bit more on that kind of open structure. So when you hear the recording, it’s only one of the versions that I created, and it’s the studio version. Of course, it leads to a lot of possibilities later. The way I wrote it is not the same as I would write an anthem, for example, where I know that 100 musicians will perform it.
JN: I understand, That goes back what you said about the DNA, It has a whole structure itself. The song Sarcastic World really struck me. After your performance, there were other people that I spoke to at the reception, and they also really liked that song.. Tell me how you came up with Sarcastic World.
Steve Barakatt: Well, it says what it says,it’s a reflection on this kind of…
…Sarcastic World is almost unreal when you listen to it.
I guess that’s what you probably felt. It’s very hard to express it by words, but the structure of the harmony and the melody is completely out of any pattern that we usually use in pop or jazz music., Basically, it’s a combination of chords that always make you feel like it’s unreal when you watch a movie that you realize that you are either in the sky or floating around. There is something silly also about it. That sarcastic world thing. It’s like I imagine a character of Charlie Chaplin type of person with the wrong place at the wrong time. I can imagine that because I feel like many of us, we are all sometimes at the wrong place at the wrong time because our work is quite silly at some point. The COVID thing was a bit silly as well. That you couldn’t go out of your home and walk outside because, I don’t know, you’re going to kill some truth or something. So that was my vision of that complete kind of nonsense. I mean, I think we saw a lot of nonsense, and I’m not blaming anyone for that. It’s just that we finally ended up in complete nonsense.
JN: Right. I agree 100%.
Steve Barakatt: I express that feeling with Sarcastic World, which is a very interesting combination of chords. And I play with these melody on one side and the chords that also kind of feel that they’re connected, but they are actually kind of disconnected. The melody in harmony is almost like separated. Yeah, kind of a disconnection between both. And it’s very hard to explain that structure, too, music wise, the harmony, it’s quite special.
JN: I think it’s a great song.
Steve Barakatt: It’s probably the most special on the album.
JN: Tell me about the more about the lead up to the album. is When things started opening up again and the album was released.. What was the tour prior to New York?
Steve Barakatt: Yes, in the beginning of the tour I played South Korea, Denmark, Serbia, and Romania.
JN: How was the reception when you played this new album for those audiences? Did you get a different reception in the different countries and did people perceive it differently than your other work?
Steve Barakatt: Well, it’s interesting because culturally it’s where I think my music has this kind of personality. If you watch the show I gave in Romania, even though it’s the same repertoire, it’s not the same vibe. But the reaction at the end is the same. The reaction is positive and people cannot describe the style. They don’t know if it’s pop or jazz or classical. I kind of receive the same comments, but it’s not expressed in the same way.
My music is not expressed in the same way as well. For some reason I feel the hall and I feel the culture. I went very dramatic in Romania when I played certain pieces like The Sursum Corda, a very classical drama. It’s not the same vibe because the people there, have a completely different historical background. The music resonates different for them, the harmony resonates different for them because they were raised in a completely different cultural environment. They grew up with Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.
While New York is eclectic, I could go more on the jazz side and do it completely naturally, but the reaction is the same.
JN: Tell me about the, I guess the lead up,and preparation for the Carnegie Hall show. In the show you mentioned that your father said when you’re small:
“One day if you get good enough, you can eventually play at Carnegie Hall”
What were you feelings like before the show and after finally doing it?
Steve Barakatt: The strange part is that Carnegie Hall was present in my life on several occasions, almost by coincidence. First of all, my father as a North American was raised at a time when Carnegie Hall represented the ultimate symbol of achievement in music, especially for classical or jazz musicians. So for sure the word Carnegie Hall was resonating in my childhood and my father said, “One day you will play at Carnegie Hall” So it stayed to me, though it was not an obsession.
I never been obsessed anyway in my life. I’m a type of person who does things, but I’m not obsessed with things. So I always said one day I will do it. And strangely, the first time I’ve been to Carnegie Hall was to see Tony Bennett.
JN: Oh, wow, tell me about that experience.
Steve Barakatt: I was invited by a THE publicist from Toronto. His name was Gino Empry.
(He passed away In 2006 at the age of 83 )
He said, “Steve, let’s meet in New York. I want to introduce you to the people I work with in the United States.”
So in March, 1990 I landed in New York City and went to Carnegie Hall to see Tony Bennett, during his his comeback, and I actually had dinner with him after the show.
JN: Wow. That’s great! What was that like?
Steve Barakatt: After the show, we went for a dinner and I actually ended up at Tony Bennett’s table and it was fantastic!
That was my first experience at Carnegie Hall as a listener and being in the audience. The second time, another strange story… my friend got appointed to produce the 125th anniversary Gala at Carnegie Hall which was in 2016. So he calls me, he said,
“Steve, come to Carnegie Hall. I’m producing the show. It’s going to be a fantastic show. You’re going to have VIP seats”
Lang Lang was there, Renee Fleming, and James Taylor, who is actually one of my favorite musicians.
Then I end up backstage with Richard Gere and I even met Henry Kissinger!
It was a fantastic evening!
JN: During your performance you spoke about the song you composed called A Night in New York City, but you had never played it in New York. What was it like, playing the song in Carnegie Hall?
Steve Barakatt: That was fantastic for me because the song A Night in New York City, like all my music, is a story. I composed it in New York City.. and as I explained to you, my inspiration is one thing, and when I compose it’s another step, which is not always related time wise. I composed it after my trip to New York, and then I traveled the World. I performed it on many occasions, even for concerts on television. I must have performed that song over 100 times,, but I never played it in New York.
When I actually played it there I felt some form accomplishment there. I offered the best of performance of the song to audience, because I had the chance to practice it a lot. (laughs)
JN: Let’s talk about Lullaby, The UNICEF Anthem.You are known for strong, famous anthems, and the one that I want to really talk about is the one for UNICEF and It’s premiere on The International Space Station.
Did you begin your career wanting to compose famous anthems?
Steve Barakatt: It’s more like this, (frankly speaking)
I composed music that ended up being anthems in the beginning. I guess it’s the way I write, the way I pay attention to the melody, the harmony and the impact of the story line so I think my music has this kind of “anthemish“ feel. For example my music was used to open the Formula One Grand Prix of Monaco on television, then it was FIFA World Cup. This is before I started doing official anthems. in 2002, when Brazil won the World Cup in Japan, the network NHK used my song Eternity which was originally recorded with the Russian Army Choir. I never thought it would become an anthem. Also the KTX train in Korea, my music has been used for every station for ages. I never pushed for that. I never asked for that, but it happens and then it can be so funny.
Steve Barakatt: Then when Samsung launched their mobile phone, I think in 1996 ,
(the flip phone era), they embedded my music as one of the ringtones.. It was my third trip to Korea and I’m hearing my music everywhere, I’m like what going on here???
JN: That’s incredible. it’s like your music is everywhere.
Steve Barakatt: It then becomes part of music education, because if you go on Youtube you might see more people playing my music than ME playing my music. So actually for me it’s the nicest gesture.
I’m very proud when a young musician decides to play my music. It’s a big statement to say:
“I’m learning his music because I like it.”
It’s hard to find better proof of respect or love or whatever you call it.
JN: Yes. I agree.
Steve Barakatt: But to answer you question about UNICEF, it started like this…..I did this 400th anniversary of Quebec, called Quebec 400. That was my first official anthem I composed it in 2008.
My godfather of UNICEF was Roger Moore. My wife and I were the first couple to be appointed UNICEF Ambassadors in history of UNICEF. It was the recommendation of Roger Moore that we became ambassadors after he visited Canada for a James Bond event that I produced.
2 years later, I met Harry Belafonte in Quebec at a breakfast for UNICEF and he said:
“Steve, I know you’re a composer and I know that you do many thing, why don’t you put all your efforts to write like I did with We Are the World.. But this time, the World for the World. Why don’t you do an anthem for UNICEF?”
He said the most difficult will be to start and to gain attention. Once you will get a few like We Are the World it’s going to be the snowball effect. I told him I live in Quebec, I know all about snow!! He also said: “If I ever need help, I will be there”.
I called him when I needed support in launching the campaign. Harry played a big role in that. It became the official anthem. The choral symphony was premiered on November 20th, 2009 on five continents and on the International Space Station to mark the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most rapidly and widely ratified international human rights treaty in history.
JN: What an incredible story.
Steve Barakatt: From there I got commissioned to more and more and more, including provinces, governments, including the royal representative of Queen Elizabeth in Canada, who commissioned me for an anthem for six royal golf clubs around the world. So then it became more like, okay, he’s the guy to call when we need an anthem.
JN: Tell me about the song Cedars of Lebanon.
Steve Barakatt: Well, when I visited Lebanon for the first time, it was such a shock for me , because all my life I heard about Lebanon. My father and grandfather were almost crying when they talked about Lebanon, but they never saw it.
The very strange part of the story, is we love Lebanon because we heard about Lebanon from our Great Grandfather who had no choice and was forced to leave Lebanon. It was terrible situation. He was young and his father was already dead. I remember that every Sunday we were cooking Lebanese food at my grandfather’s place and time he was always talking about Lebanon, showing us the map. It’s very strange, that culture is inside of you sometimes.
Even though he never saw it, he heard about it from his father.
He would say:
“Lebanon is amazing!, the food, the music….”
and we were listening! So when I visited for the first time I was overwhelmed because all the stories I heard growing up. My friend brought me to his village. Almost no , one is from Beirut, it’s always from which village. By the village, we know the recipes of the food are different and we also know the religion because usually, depending from where you are from, you have more chance to be either on the Christian side or the Muslim side depending on the village.
I felt at home, it also felt like I saw every member of the family there. The way they were sitting, the way they were talking, the way they was preparing the food in the kitchen. It’s exactly how my family was when I was young. Even though they never been to Lebanon. That’s the scary part.
JN: Does that mean that the culture is in the DNA?
Steve Barakatt: Yes. Cedars of Lebanon was written during my first trip. These cedars are more than 5000 years old. Nobody knows how they survive because they are on the top of the mountain. There’s no other trees around and suddenly, boom, there is a forest of cedars.
JN: Yeah, I read about them, it’s incredible.
Steve Barakatt: These trees are magnificent and they’ are powerful I love sitting by the trees, it’s amazing energy. In the Bible, Jesus talks about the Cedars of Lebanon because he walked there. Basically they are the same trees That’s how it inspired me. I play it in scales that are mostly written with a combination of jazz and an Arabic kind of structure. This music is very meaningful to me. it’s actually my most streamed song in China.
JN: That’s awesome. Before I wrap up, What’s next for Néoréalité World Tour?
Steve Barakatt: The next stop is China, then Morocco, and Portugal.
In October, 2023 I return to Spain
JN: Thank you Steve!
Photos by: Alex Musin