An interview with Omar Peracha, 2nd place winner in the 2018 Competition

Omar Peracha playing a Shakuhachi

Omar Peracha is a composer, performer, choral director and software developer based in London. He holds an MA in composition & acoustics research from the University of York. Omar has studied in London with Sinan Sava┼čkan and in York with Thomas Simaku, Roger Marsh, Martin Suckling and Ambrose Field. His work has been performed in the UK, USA, Brazil, Italy, South Korea, Japan, Cyprus and Taiwan, featuring in festivals such as SMC, NYCEMF, Leeds iFIMPaC, soundSCAPE New Music Festival, Roundhouse Rising, ISSTA Festival & Conference, MUSLAB International Festival of Electroacoustic Music and the Joint WOCMAT-IRCAM Forum Conference. Besides composing, Omar also directs and performs for London-based vocal ensemble, Vox London Collective. He has performed alongside popular musicians such as Jamie Cullum and Angelique Kidjo, at events including the BBC Proms, EFG London Jazz Festival and BBC Radio 2 Folk Music Awards.

His work Colour Etude I was chosen as the 2nd place winner in our 2018 International Composition Competition. We are delighted to share our conversation with Omar here. -Aaron Krister Johnson

UnTwelve: Omar, we are excited to interview you, and congrats on winning 2nd prize in our 2018 competition! Tell us a little bit more about yourself. As a musician and composer, what have been some of your core aesthetic principles?

Omar Peracha: Thanks guys, very grateful for my piece to have received the award from UnTwelve. As a composer I've always had a particular interest in harmony, right from when I was composing my first ever awful pastiches of Common Practice Era music as a teenager. You could say it was my entry point to composition - figuring out the harmonic trajectory of the music is what got me hooked on composition in the first place.

Later on when I was a little older and had started exploring contemporary music, harmony remained my foremost interest. While I've lived most of my life in the West, two highly developed microtonal musical traditions run through my blood: Those of the Middle East and of Northern India.

UnTwelve: What threads in Middle Eastern and Northern Indian music you feel are alive in and/or inform your creative work?

Omar Peracha: These days in particular, I'd say there's very little direct reference to either tradition anymore in my work. There was a time however when I specifically studied Arabic classical music with the intention of taking aspects of its harmonic frameworks and re-imagining them in a contemporary music context. I was 18 or 19 years old at that time. This informed my first microtonal pieces.

With Hindustani or North Indian Classical Music, it's a much less hands-on relationship that I have. The foundation is mostly from hearing music my dad and my grandparents were listening to when I grew up. I've never studied the harmony beyond a surface level, though I've dug into the rhythmic aspect a bit deeper. I think that's true of many Contemporary composers though, that they've studied Hindustani or Carnatic approaches to rhythm. If not directly, then certainly in second hand manner from the work of other composers, Messiaen being a prominent example.

UnTwelve: When did you first come to discovery alternative tuning systems and microtonality, and what attracted you to them?

Omar Peracha: It was very natural for me to start exploring music with alternative tuning systems; not only because any composer interested in harmony in the Contemporary Music landscape would soon find themselves exposed to microtonality, but also the sound of 24-TET (and more) was already well-established in my inner-ear.

Through time, as a student, I took a great interest in spectral music and the relationship between timbre and harmony - the research of William Sethares was particularly influential. I began conducting all kinds of spectral research of my own and using my results as the foundation for the harmony in much of my music, from fixed media to improvised chamber music.

These days, alongside composing, I work as a software engineer developing iOS applications and researching generative artificial intelligence for music composition. This is feeding into my personal music creation too, as I incorporate interactive technology into many of my pieces, and I'm exploring algorithmic composition in a new light.

UnTwelve: When did you discover the ideas of William Sethares, and how have you applied them to your work to date?

Omar Peracha: A few years ago when I was doing my Master's degree, my supervisor at the time, Ambrose Field, pointed me towards Sethares's writing. Ambrose knew I was interested in finding ways to create microtonal pitch hierarchies, and that I was considering a spectral approach, so he thought I could find inspiration in Sethares's ideas - and he was right! Broadly speaking, I've used these ideas to help generate as many aspects of a given piece as possible from just some given sounds (or even one sound!) related to the piece, and I've used them to try and control perceived consonance/dissonance throughout a piece of music.

UnTwelve: Tell us about the "generative artificial intelligence for composition" aspect of your work, a truly fascinating subject!

Omar Peracha: It's a pretty open book! The field of AI Music is still relatively new, especially if we refer specifically to deep learning. There's all sorts applications AI could have towards making music, so it's really a case of coming up with something I want to try and taking it from there. I might need to look at recent AI research to understand the feasibility of a given idea or get a head start and save myself some groundwork. Otherwise I may need to conduct some research myself, and often this ends up being the case at least at some phase in a project simply by virtue of there not being a ton of music-specific AI literature. This ties in well with my other life at Humtap, where I research AI for application to pop music. So far on the contemporary music side of things I've mostly explored generating music quite literally, in symbolic notated form, including pieces for beatboxer, piano and shakuhachi. I'm also interested in looking at generating/processing raw audio too - basically anything that makes the process of composing more fun, quick or interesting for me, or comes up with unexpected sounds/structures!