Wael Binali's Theme and Variations

The musical life of a Qatari composer

Wael Binali Music / Facebook

Wael Binali is a Qatari composer based in Los-Angeles, known for his works for orchestra and film scores. While he has been commissioned to create pieces for remarkable occasions, such as the UN's climate change conference or Doha’s bid for the Olympics, he remains one of the very few classical composers from the Gulf. Ahead of the debut of his new, Russian fairy tale inspired work, “Baba Yaga,” we asked Wael to open up a bit about the path of his art and the influences behind his music.

I was born in London, but then grew up in Qatar until the age of eleven. While I could feel at home almost everywhere, some of my best memories are from Qatar and I have a strong spiritual connection to Doha. I miss the ocean, the Gulf, going into the desert. Those were some of my favorite things when I was growing up.

First and foremost, my dad is the reason I got into music and became a composer. I'm the oldest kid in my family, so I was expected to take over my dad's company, but he let me do what I was really leaning towards—music. He took the time to take me and my siblings to musicals, ballets, and operas outside of Qatar. After I saw Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky became my first love. I fell in love with the music of John Williams with Jaws, ET, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

My dad had a huge library of old Hollywood musicals and swashbuckling movies that we always watched. This is how I learned about some of my favorite film composers like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who wrote the music for Captain Blood, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, and The Seahawk; Max Steiner who did Gone With the Wind and Now, Voyager; Franz Waxman who did The Bride of Frankenstein; David Raksin who did Laura and Forever Amber in the 1940s. The latter one later was one of my teachers at University of Southern California, which was an unbelievable honor.

I love the medium of film, but I don't think nowadays the music in it is that great. You don't hear French horns, trumpets, trombones, and tuba anymore, you only hear the stock brass and you hardly ever hear woodwinds. Now a lot of composers prefer to use synth drums rather than actual percussion drums, because it sounds bigger. The delicacy and the colors have all gone. The only person who’s still doing it properly is John Williams because he writes for a real orchestra and not a synth one.

When you're writing for a film, or for a TV series, you're not supposed to speak, you're supposed to highlight what somebody else is saying. I have to bring out the emotions of the scene. But I can't be the emotion. And also you have to be ready to do twenty changes to the music for one scene. You have to leave your ego in check because it has nothing to do with the music. It just has to do with the scene not working and the only thing we can change at this moment is the music because it's the last thing that's done. Once I worked under a composer on a movie and at some point the music wasn't working because the actress was not delivering her line very well. So, the composer had to change it ten times and by the end he was practically crying.

The Philharmonia Orchestra rehearsing Wael Binali's piece “Earth (Plunder, Wound, Renewal, Hope),” for the United Nations COP 18 session for climate change

I'm very much a classical composer, but I love Arabic rhythms, so if I can put that into the percussion section sometimes that makes me a little bit of a different composer. Just the same way as Tōru Takemitsu in his post-impressionistic works, where his Debussy influences are so much threaded in with Asian themes, even though it's not purely orchestral. In much the same way, I love bringing in Middle Eastern themes when it's appropriate. Yet I acknowledge that it sounds Middle Eastern mostly to people in the West. For people in Qatar or Lebanon it might not seem authentic, because everybody's authenticity is different. But with film music it's a different story, so I can bring in an oud or tabla, or an Armenian duduk.

These days I work mostly with commissions, when someone’s hiring me with an orchestra. Whether it's “Niramaya” or a waltz I just did for an orchestra in Paris, called “La Lola,” or a piece I composed for UN’s COP18 session. Right now I’m working on a piece called “Baba Yaga,” which is the second half of a story about the death of Koschei the Deathless. It’s a great pleasure, as I was always heavily influenced by Russian classical music. Scheherazade and Capriccio Espagnol by Rimsky-Korsakov and Petrushka, Firebird, and The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky, the second symphony and second piano concerto of Rachmaninov, Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet by Prokoffiev; these are some of my favorite musical works. Hopefully with the premiere of “Baba Yaga” I’ll be finally able to visit the actual theaters of Bolshoi and Mariinsky after seeing them abroad numerous times, just go and absorb the countryside, the culture, the buildings, and everything which could highlight my senses to be able to create.

Wael Binali
Qatari orchestral and film music composer, based in West Hollywood, California.