March 9, 2010

Studen Artist Spotlight: Maurice Chammah and Oikos

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This past Sunday, Maurice Chammah ’10 and his band, Oikos, performed three songs with the Cornell Orchestra. Oikos mixes classical music with indie sensibilities, creating an enchanting sound.A renaissance man, Maurice is heavily involved on the Cornell campus. Between his extra-curricular activities (including writing for The Sun), and his plethora of musical projects, Maurice is one busy guy. Luckily, he made some time to speak with me, and describe some of the wonderful music he has been making.

Sun: Where are you from?Maurice: I grew up in Austin, Texas.Sun: Austin has a great music scene! How did this cultural environment contribute to your music?Maurice: Austin is a really perfect place when it comes to music because it has the critical mass of people who are “into” cultural things like New York or LA, but it’s not as big as those other places, and so audiences are generally friendly and open to experimentation. Also, there are just tons of musicians everywhere, and most coffee shops and restaurants double as venues, so one starts to think of music, live and public, as part of life.Sun: That sounds great, I really want to check out the Austin music scene in the near future. When did you start playing music?Maurice: I was five when I started violin. I did the really traditional classical education until high school, when I stopped thinking I might go to a conservatory and just played the pieces that seemed like fun. In high school I started piano and guitar and began to play in bands. Sun: Wow, impressive — I couldn’t even master the piano. What is your favorite instrument to play?Maurice: Violin is really first and foremost my thing. It’s the instrument I feel most comfortable improvising and writing on. The thing is that because I’m so comfortable with it, I end up going for things that are more difficult than on a less familiar instruments like piano or guitar, and so I am generally more nervous of making mistakes on violin. I think this represents a broader trend, especially with bands like Okkervil River and my friends in Austin, to push the absolute limits of your voice. I do that too, but there the mistakes are kind of part of the deal, whereas with violin there is still this tremendous pressure, because the mistakes often sound pretty terrible.Sun: Let’s talk more specifically about the music you recently performed here on campus. Tell me about your band, Oikos: Who is in the band, and how long have you guys been together?Maurice: My band is a pretty nebulous mix of musicians, and almost every show has been different, as I’ve floated between Austin, where I’m from, and Ithaca, where I go to school. That said, Isabelle Cutting has played cello with me since freshman year. Last year we had a pretty steady lineup with her, Lauren Meador on viola and Kevin Harper on violin. Before that Stephanie Jenkins used to come in on banjo, bass and vocals. Benj Gilman often comes in on trumpet. Wren Albertson-Rogers played drums back in the day. Oikos is a new name for the constantly rotating lineup that has existed since I had a trio with Stephanie and Isabelle freshman year. Now the focus is so much more on recording that it’s been really focused on Kevin and I, and we bring in other musicians as it seems to make sense for a given song. In Austin, I’ve been lucky to be backed up by most of the members of Mother Falcon.Sun: How would you describe the music you are creating? What influences your musical aesthetic?Maurice: My music has been for me a way of working through the three biggest influences in my life musically: classical music, Arabic music and pop rock. I never thought the three could merge until I heard the creative stuff Sufjan Stevens, Beirut and Jon Brion were doing. In addition, in high school I played a lot with this local composer in Austin named Graham Reynolds, whose band Golden Arm Trio mixes classical and hard-hitting jazz. Later on, I played in Santa Fe with a 20-piece band/orchestra called the Apple Miner Colony. All of this led me to see that “composing” and “song-writing” didn’t have to be mutually exclusive approaches to making music; I could think about them together. That wouldn’t have been possible without the local influences of friends’ music, as well as just how open-minded Austin tends to be. It also allows me to feel like violin is still my main approach, even if I only play piano and guitar in a given show. At the same time, living in Texas and loving bands like Okkervil River and the Apple Miner Colony (my friends from Santa Fe), I developed an attachment to really melodramatic, almost naively emotional singing. Sometimes I feel like I don’t sound “cool” in the sense of that kind of distanced, aloof style of singing that has come into vogue. Then again, it’s hard to imagine really doing something different from what I’ve done so far. Sun: Do you have any other musical projects going on, in addition to Oikos?Maurice: At Cornell, my main other band is this motown cover band, The Everybody’s Gettin’ Laid Tonights, that my roommates and I started in order to play parties. In Austin, I play with a bunch of bands, and all of my friends and I just weave in and out of each others’ projects. Every band’s membership, it seems, is pretty fluid. I continue to play with Tristero, my more rocking, guitar-based band from high school. I also play with Mother Falcon, this tremendously talented group of classical musicians, fronted by my friend Nick, who play pop music with big groups of strings and winds. The other crazy thing is that I’m way older than most of the band; most are freshmen and sophomores at UT Austin. Mother Falcon, without me (as I’m up here most of the time) have managed to gain a big following in Austin, which has led them to play SXSW this year. I’ll be joining them for that, and I’m just really excited to be along for the ride. Sun: You have a lot going on! Playing at SXSW will be an amazing experience. Hypothetically, if you could play with any artists, dead or alive, who would they be?Maurice: More than anything I’d want to collaborate with someone who is really creative when it comes to arrangements. Jon Brion, who produced Fiona Apple and does a lot of soundtracks, would be really fulfilling. Sufjan Stevens and Chris Thile also come to mind. In the classical world, a composer who might not be my absolute favorite, but who I think would be the coolest collaborator is John Adams.Sun: I have been to a few of your shows, and have always really enjoyed your acoustic versions of the pop hits “Umbrella” and “Paper Planes.” What’s the story behind these?Maurice: I mean, playing stripped down acoustic versions of pop songs started as a joke, where I thought it would just sell people who might not be into the rest of the music. I actively played up the humor part. One day a friend of mine said “be careful, you’re going to get famous doing that and hate your life,” and of course I was a little embarrassed but now I just do it occasionally. It’s also a good juxtaposition to the louder, more minor-key stuff that some people might find overly melodramatic or whatever.Sun: Unfortunately, your time at Cornell is drawing to a close. What mark do you hope to leave on the Cornell campus?Maurice: I don’t think I can really leave a mark on Cornell, because music just inevitably fades away. I’d rather think that Cornell has left me with a lot of experience trying to put things together under circumstances very different from how other places would have treated me. The professional culture of Cornel

l on the one hand makes it harder to think about being a musician, but on the other hand forces you to take music, if you’re going to do it, more seriously because spare time is so rare here.Sun: It has been great to talk to you about your music, Maurice. Good luck at SXSW, and with the rest of your semester!

Original Author: Marisa Breall