The Inception Podcast

Listening Your Way to the Oud and the Broadway Stage

November 20, 2021 George Abud & Huxley Westemeier with Akira Nakano Season 1 Episode 6
The Inception Podcast
Listening Your Way to the Oud and the Broadway Stage
Show Notes Transcript

Broadway actor George Abud brings his knowledge of Arabic music and the oud to the Inception Podcast. He is joined by Huxley Westemeier, a composer in the Inception Orchestra Young Composers Mentoring Program, who played George's son in the world premiere of August Rush. The interview discussing George's journey to Broadway and beyond is highlighted by a spectacular demo of George performing on the oud.

Hosted by Akira Nakano

Classical Saxophone Project
Javier Oviedo
Jean-Pierre Schmitt

Music for Lebanon

Mentions:
Charles Fernandez
Nathan Wang
Preston Scales

New Podcast:
Angela Urrecheaga
Elliana Escamilla
Aeralie Brighton


THE INCEPTION PODCAST
Episode 6 - George Abud & Huxley Westemeier
Recorded June 2021


AKIRA NAKANO
Hello, and welcome to the Inception Podcast, where we explore the Young Composers Mentoring Program of the Los Angeles Inception Orchestra. Today, we are going to speak with one of our all-time mentor favorites, Broadway actor, singer, and musician extraordinaire, George Abud. He'll be joined by one of our young composers, Huxley Westemeier, who co-starred with George in the world premiere of the musical version of August Rush. We will discuss George's pathway from classical violin to his love of Arabic music and playing the oud to the stage. And we will hear a brilliant demonstration of his work. 

But before we begin, we want to acknowledge the incredible partnership we have developed with our friends at the Classical Saxophone Project (CSP) out of New York. Maestri Javier Oviedo and Jean-Pierre Schmitt of CSP have been deeply moved by the precarious situation of the musicians in Lebanon, a country facing an unimaginable hardship since the tragic explosion of the Port of Beirut on August 4th, 2020. The goal of CSP’s project, “Music for Lebanon”, is to fill their mission in conjunction with the Lebanese Chamber Orchestra: promoting the Classical repertoire of the saxophone, recording and commissioning new pieces, in order to expand the repertoire of the instrument. CSP has organized a free concert at St. Joseph's Church in Beirut on January 8th, 2022 at 8:00 PM. This event will be videotaped and live-streamed, bringing a worldwide awareness of the resilience and artistry of these musicians, even in the midst of this unparalleled calamity affecting their nation. We will be posting their GoFundMe link in the show notes. So please consider supporting “Music for Lebanon”. 

And now we turn our attention to George Abud and Huxley Westemeier in a conversation recorded in June of 2021. 

It's great to have George Abud and Huxley Westemeier joining us tonight. I'm so excited to speak to you guys tonight. Welcome to the podcast. 

GEORGE ABUD
Thank you very much. Glad to be here.

HUXLEY WESTEMEIER
Thanks for having us.

AKIRA
George. You were in a few weeks ago as our mentor on the oud. It was so amazing. I have to say, we have talked about, on previous podcasts, who our favorite mentors are, and your name always comes up.

GEORGE
No way!

AKIRA
By many. Huxley, who were your three favorite mentors? Don't name George.

HUXLEY
My three favorite mentors are probably Charles Fernandez from ASMAC. He talked about storytelling, and that was a really great session. Nathan Wang came in and mentored us about animation scoring. And that was probably one of my favorite sessions. And then on the November 7th event that we had last year, I really loved a session that I had with Preston Scales, where he was getting me to expand my singing, and that was really fun.

 AKIRA
That's awesome. But you failed the test. You're supposed to actually name George.

 GEORGE
Name me three times.

HUXLEY
Well, you said not to.

AKIRA
George, you’re a Broadway actor. That's actually how I was introduced to you, as you sent me a recommendation letter for Huxley. Tell us a little bit about your career on Broadway and what you do, and then how you met Huxley, and we’ll  start talking about your play together.

GEORGE
Yes, I started out like a lot of these young kids, not as smart as them by any means, but from a musical family. And my whole family plays instruments together. My father and my two older brothers, and we played Arabic music together. Both sides of my family are Lebanese, and there's musicians in various spots of the family. But my father's side, there's four generations of Arabic musicians. And specifically on the oud, which is the instrument I play and the derbake, which is the Arabic drum. My eldest brother played the keyboard. My middle brother played the derbake, and I played the violin, and my father played the oud. And we had like a little family band. And we played weddings and church events and played in the church choir and family parties and community events. And you were introduced to performing that way. I kind of had this taste for performance and being in the spotlight and being a soloist and playing with a group and jamming and making music for a party and getting people dancing and keeping them going. And that was very exciting childhood. So I always love playing music. So music definitely was the core of me.

My grade school didn't really have any arts programs, so I just took private lessons that my parents encouraged me to go to. And they were classical lessons, of course, because we didn't know of any Arabic violinists in town until later that were teaching. So I'd take Classical lessons, but of course, up to this point, I had learned so much on the violin from just listening at the record player and playing by ear, that my teacher was a little bit horrified at me. So I was kind of dually learning to read sheet music and to play by ear. But, of course, I was like gravitating towards playing by ear and jamming and making that kind of music, and not caring as much about Bach and all of these Gavottes and Minuets and stuff. Though it was very helpful to learn about all that.

AKIRA
Of course. And you were playing both the violin and the together. You kind of learned them at the same time?

GEORGE
No, I did not. I learned the violin first when I was about seven. When I was eleven, so like several years into playing the violin and like understanding the Arabic music… at that point, I picked up my father's oud, and I started playing it. Oh, the specific way I was able to manipulate it is the violin is in fifths, but the Arabic violin is tuned G D G D. So there's a fourth in the middle. So that parallels the oud, which is in fourths and fretless. So once I started figuring out all the songs that I was playing already in fourths, in the middle of the Arabic violin, I was able to transition like exactly to the oud fingerboard, and it was the exact same fingering. And I just had to figure out how to manipulate the pick. And so I just started messing around and then really fell hard for the oud. And especially because it was more comfortable physically to play, because you don't have to put your neck and smash your shoulder in your face for hours and hours and hours. I kept up with it. And as I grew up, I started singing while I was playing. And that was a perk that you couldn't really do with the violin. And the oud was more, more self-sustaining. 

AKIRA
And you shared with us one of these samples where you were singing in class while playing with oud. So we're actually going to just give everybody a preview right here.


MUSIC [00:06:29]


AKIRA [00:07:36]  
And George, it was so amazing to hear you do this. And I think as you speak about the generational passed down, you actually were playing for us, your great grandfather’s oud, and it was, as I have said on previous podcasts, just a goosebump moment for many of us.

GEORGE
See, the thing is I feel the same way. I enjoy listening to the oud as much as I enjoy playing it. And as we talked about in our little mentoring class that day with the kids, all of music is listening. You have to devote so much time to literally just sitting and receiving and listening. It just gets into your bones, into your skin. And then when you're able to pick up the physical instrument, your fingers are able to sing into the wood, and then that comes out something beautiful because it's in you. And it's just being expressed now, instead of you hesitantly trying to mimic it. It's not a mimicking, it's literally an expressing because you've listened so much.

 AKIRA
Huxley Westemeier, did you hear me say something like that to you?

HUXLEY
That's a piece of advice that I've heard a lot from you. And listening is definitely at the central heart of music because music is an oral tradition, and the oud is passed down orally, right?

GEORGE
Yeah, definitely. At least in my family, it was.

AKIRA
Well, I think it's such a great lesson, George, for our kids. And I think, although I say it all the time, I think the fact that you were saying it while playing, which really show us how you got this amazing musical skill by listening. I mean, that was just example by true example, instead of  teacher just going, you've got to listen to these things.

GEORGE
Exactly. And I really think, because I listened to Arabic music religiously for 25 years straight now. And before that, it was always around me, and it's always been around me regardless. But I just listened to it so much. And I really think to even wrap your head around the largeness of Arabic music or the songs, because some of these songs are epic lengths. They're like hour, hour-and-a-half masterpieces, and they're very complex, and they're very huge. And when I used to listen to them, when I was in high school, I would start sweating, ‘cause they were just exhausting. And you don't even know what, where it's going. You don't know where it's been. You don't know where you came from. You don't know where you’re at. You don't even know how to, what a phrase is. You don't know what a section is. You just feel like an overwhelming, like ocean of feeling. But as I listened for years and years, the songs started to make so much more sense. And you don't even need to know the language to love the music, which is something I loved so much like even playing for your class. There was no other Arabic kids in that class. And yet everyone had a connection to the instrument and the music coming out of it in a different way, which is something I love more than anything. And that's why music is such a great unifier.

AKIRA
Completely. Completely universal language. And I think what we experienced that day as what you, as a performer, and hopefully as a composer is what you're trying to achieve. You want to create an emotional connection. I love the statement that you made about how, when you were playing, your fingers are singing. George you'll be ashamed of me, but when I played piano, I mean, I'm like known as kind of a percentage player. I might get like 90% of the notes, but I want to convey the emotion. And I think people go on that emotional ride with me. 

GEORGE
That's number one, I think. 

AKIRA
Now how did your singing and the oud take you to the Broadway stage or take you into college? What was next in your journey? 

GEORGE
Well, the funny thing is they're related only in the development of the artist as a whole entity and not really connected. Because in high school, I fell in love with theater and with acting, but I was also playing in the orchestra in school. And I was also playing with my brother in a jazz quartet and playing Arabic music and studying that still, but as separate interests. But in high school, I made up my mind pretty quickly and definitively that I wanted to go into the theater because I loved it so much, and I felt it encompassed all of my heart instead of, and I don't want to say music didn't encompass my whole heart, but I was specifically thinking about how you study music in the States at a university. There was no oud programs and I didn't really play classical violin at all at any level where I would be considered not laughable in an orchestra. And so I was like, oh, theater will have both. Theater can have music tied into it. And that's exactly what it did when I went into college and studied acting and then moved to New York after that. And I'm from Detroit. And I went to school in Detroit at Wayne State University there. I did a lot of things at Wayne State University that merged music with my acting. And so I kind of learned there how to mess around with the two. Like I would conduct certain shows. I would music direct. I would compose for a lot of shows, write songs for texts like Bertolt Brecht text to music, set Shakespeare to music and also play some instruments in some shows. So I cut my teeth there. And then when I went to New York, they're always trying to find out who can do the most things. And you got to do the most things because there's so much competition. So it's like, oh, you can also play an instrument. That will be an asset to our show. So it opened up doors. So I considered my instrument playing keys to different doors that opened them up. And once you found better and better doors, and you got into better and better shows that were more thoughtful, they wove the music and the instrument playing in a more substantial and beautiful way. And so that led me to the great theater director, John Doyle, whom is also the director of August Rush where Huxley and I met. He was kind of, at least pegged lovingly and also mockingly, as the man who did actor/musician shows as we call them, which is musicals that you cut out the orchestra and every actor is also the instrumentalist and accompanies themselves as well as the rest of the cast and creates the whole orchestration on the stage. So it's like a physicalized orchestration, which if done well, I think is an even higher, cooler form of theater. And if done poorly, it's just horrible and very not fun to listen to. 

AKIRA
As a music director and a pianist in a show. I think as a participant, I don't really love that. But as an audience member, I think those shows are really brilliant. And I love going to.

GEORGE
See there's something there, Akira. Also that I think about... I'm always like there are certain shows that are enjoyable to be in, and there are certain shows that are enjoyable to view. 

AKIRA
Tell me about August Rush. This was not your first show. I'm kind of like paging through your bio here. You have so many shows that you've been in. Tell me your highlights before we talk about August Rush.

GEORGE
My very first show in New York, which was called Allegro, which was a very early Rodgers and Hammerstein flop, which we did the first revival of back in 2014 at Classic Stage Company in New York. That was all actor/musicians. And it was unbelievable because it was the first instance where I worked with a full cast of actors, 12 actors, who also all played three to six instruments each, and they were amazing players. Like we could just be a band. We didn't even need to act. And I thought that was so impressive. And I met such good friends that way. And just learning about how storytelling in the theater could be heightened or extended or even more profound. Or go to farther depths or farther reaches by playing your own instrument and seeing that orchestration, it opened up so many possibilities. So that was a great show. And then my first Broadway show, which was called The Visit with the great Chita Rivera, who was the star.

AKIRA
Jealous. 

GEORGE
Yes, I would be jealous too, because I was jealous of myself, you know, you're just kind of an out-of-body experience watching yourself be a punk kid, just moving to New York a few years ago, and then sitting at the feet of Chita Rivera and all these masters. It's Kander Ebb's last show, Kander & Ebb who wrote Chicago and Cabaret, Kiss of the Spider Woman, all the greats for many, many decades. This was their final show. And John Kander himself was in the room. He was like, in his early nineties or very, very late eighties at the time. And he was still composing at the piano, writing new things for the show as we were working on it and rehearsing. You couldn't believe it. You just sit with your mouth on the floor, just watching them create, and just trying to catch up and be part of the magic like that,

August Rush is, my God, we did it over two years ago now, which is insane to say. And that's where I met Huxley. And I was like, this kid is little white me. I could not believe this kid. First of all, he told a Henny Youngman joke in the green room. I was like what is this person telling old man jokes from the Borscht Belt in the 40's. And he's like 10 years old. He was doing magic tricks every day. He was always playing music. He was so eager. He was so excited, and he was so charming. And we were just head over heels for Huxley. And going back to listening and everything. Huxley's definitely an age right now where he's honing his ability to share his love for his music. Now it's how do we bring that and open it up to other people. 

AKIRA
Huxley, we only talked to you on the podcast and talk to you in class. So I really don't know much about your arrival at August Rush. So tell me just a little bit about your theater journey, leading up to how you intersected with George.

HUXLEY
I
n 2015, I did a community theater production of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, where I was an Oompa Loompa. I thought it might be fun and little did I know that that would set me off on a path that would take up pretty much my entire life. In 2018. I was lucky enough to go on the Broadway First National Tour of School of Rock the Musical, and that was incredible. We were touring to a new city every week. I'd never been out of Minnesota before, so that was such a weird and unique experience that could never happen these days because of COVID. After that, there was a very long audition process for August Rush. I learned the guitar for it, but when I finally made it to New York, the first rehearsal was actually the day I turned 11. It wasn't actually in rehearsals. We were doing a lab where we were workshopping every day, there were new scenes, new lines, new songs even. And I remember sitting next to George, and he was playing... What was the instrument, George? I keep forgetting the name. 

GEORGE
It was the autoharp.

HUXLEY
And he was showing me... 

GEORGE
Horrifying.

HUXLEY
How it works. 

AKIRA
Put that on your resume George.

GEORGE
My resume needs to be deleted.

HUXLEY
So we were part of the process that was actually forming the play. That creative liberty to be able to make this show essentially was just really incredible. Some of the cast members played over 40 instruments...

AKIRA
That is incredible.

HUXLEY
Which is insane. 

GEORGE
The theater is so wonderfully ripe with deconstructive abilities, especially working on new material. You fit it like clothes to yourself. And that's what I love about certain types of music. And that's what I don't like about certain types of music. Anything that's rigid, or that has to be forced into like a box and you have to play it a certain way, not that you can't play anything, however you want, but some things are looked down upon if you deviate and it's like, well, what's the point then it's done. It's already been played. Why am I going to play it again? And that's why I love Arabic music. That's why I love jazz. It's like a custom fitted outfit. It's like somebody else made this outfit, but I'm going to tailor it to myself. 

HUXLEY
I mean, the thing about August Rush is there's something really powerful about being able to go onstage and simply just pick up an instrument and start playing and have the entire audience on the edge of their seat, waiting for what's going to happen.

GEORGE
Yeah. And through like the specific instruments. The instruments were their own characters. That's when actor/musician shows work the best. Instruments are almost another actor and they're representative of something like the instrument can be used to scare somebody or startle somebody or sooth somebody or excite somebody or unite everybody. It would not be the same effect. If the actor did not have the physical instrument in their own hands and was not able to play it to a certain degree and manipulate it in that way. It's actually another extension. There's a saying in the theater. I don't know if it's just a common saying across all the disciplines, but... When the emotion is too great to speak, then you sing about it. When the emotion is too great to sing about it, you dance. And I feel like, if the emotion is too great for all of those, you play. So therefore I think actor/musician stuff in the theater is the highest form of the musical structure if done well. And our wonderful director, John Doyle, invented the form and he mastered it and it was a blessing to be part of that show.

AKIRA
Okay. So now that Broadway's opening back up, I want you to call John Doyle and have him remount the show, so I can see it. 

GEORGE
Whoever's listening, throw a couple mil at whoever and get this show up before we all get too old. 

AKIRA
Huxley, you got to just stay young for a while. . 

GEORGE
No, I do too. I was playing Huxley's father, and we were supposed to be pretty young ourselves, which I choose to think I am still, he had very young parents.So I assume that the parents were supposed to be like mid- 20's, probably at the end of the show, but like 18 or 19 at the beginning of the show, which I was not at the beginning of the show or at the end. 

AKIRA
You're younger than me, George, so just shut up. 

GEORGE
You can't win with anyone older than you, so I rescind my comments.

AKIRA
It was really interesting. So Huxley applied to our program. And the first time I met Huxley in his interview, he pulled out the oud and started to show me all about the oud. So that was kind of a tribute to you, George. 

GEORGE
Yeah. I tell my father that Huxley is the great new ambassador for the oud to the Americans.

AKIRA
Great. When you're playing the oud it's just seems honest and present. 

GEORGE
It has to, or it's dead. You know what I mean? Like I always try to challenge myself. How can you be good at these people? Like, oh, how do you know all these songs? I say, cause I play them every day and after I know. I challenge them. I go, well what if I stretch this phrase here? What if I back phrase this? What if I double hit this? What if I double the word here? What if I take this word and put it over three beats here? Mess around with it, and you find gorgeous things, especially with tempo. There's so much you could be like, oh my God, this song changes completely. If it's half as fast.


MUSIC  [00:21:30] 


GEORGE
Can you hear that?


AKIRA
Yeah.


MUSIC [00:21:35] 


GEORGE
There's also a thing with Arabic music, like the great singers there would be, they would repeat the same line dozens of times, but the goal with Arabic music, unlike probably some Western music is not to repeat it or to do something precisely or exactly, but to see how many ways you can do it differently. Doing it differently, to try and evoke something out of the audience.So if I was doing like a little phrase that went…


MUSIC [00:22:07]


GEORGE
You know, that's like four different ways just off top of my head.


MUSIC [00:22:18]


GEORGE
But each one could spark you in a different way.


MUSIC [00:22:23]


GEORGE [00:24:13]
So that’s the part in there.


MUSIC [00:24:15]


GEORGE [00:24:20]

Where I go…


MUSIC [00:24:21]



GEORGE [00:24:39]
So you're like you're stretching, you're pushing it to its limits. You're finding new ways of dancing through the thing. 


MUSIC  [00:24:45]


GEORGE [00:24:55]
Do you hear how, like, it's hard since it's not like the music we hear all the time, but you hear how things are slightly different each time. 

HUXLEY
Yeah. Kind of taking a melody and then adding different embellishments to it over time. Then changing those embellishments.

GEORGE
Yes. The ornamentation and embellishment is its own ancient language. Even today, I was listening to a song I love that I found a new recording of, and this is probably like the sixth or seventh different version of this same song I heard. And the ending of it was 15 minutes longer than it usually is. And I just sat glued to it for like a half hour this morning, just watching the singer and the violinist just going over these same things I knew so well and seeing just, if they added one grace note, it sent shivers up your spine cause you knew it so much that you're like, oh wow. I wouldn't have thought to do that.

AKIRA
Well that's the other thing too, of listening to different versions of the same thing. I mean, how important is that? 

GEORGE
I think it's the most important,Akira. I always think this with jazz, like there's, and I'm sure you feel the same way. Like there's literally jazz songs. I go, oh, this song stinks. And then I'll hear somebody else's arrangement or how it fits in somebody else's voice. And I go, “Oh, it's the greatest song I've ever heard in my whole life.” Certain people have music. It's certain people's song. Like, I'll go, oh, that's that person's. Like that's Carmen McRae song, or that's Etta Jones's song or that Sarah Vaughn's song, but it's not the others. And of course they'll sing it, and they'll sing it and they'll execute it beautifully and brilliantly, but you will not be pricked the same way if it's not their heart. I'll listen to a Classical violinist. And I'll hear, I'm probably gonna get flogged for this. You know, I'll hear Itzhak Perlman play a more romantic piece, and he'll play it beautifully and he'll execute it brilliantly. And I will not be moved as if I heard somebody else play it or a darker piece because Itzhak Perlman's heart to me is a joyful, playful heart. So when I hear him play like Mozart Five I go, it can't be better than that because he knows in his heart. And that's why we think certain artists are great because there's so many people probably equally technically proficient. And even there's probably technicians that are greater than who we perceive as the greatest, but there's people we connect to because we go, oh, that's your, that's your song.

AKIRA
Absolutely. 

GEORGE
Yeah. 

AKIRA
George, I want to say how amazing this has been to have you on, to have you in class, to get this opportunity to speak with you again and to hear you play the oud in this private concert format for us, which everyone else will hear on this podcast. Thank you so much for being here. Both of you and Huxley tonight.

GEORGE
Well, thanks for having both of us. And I'm so glad to connect with you in this magical way. 

AKIRA
Super privileged to have met you and have learned from you, George. 

GEORGE
Thank you. And I'm grateful to have worked with those kids, which I was truly terrified of, but I was put at ease instantly by their capacity for learning and their enthusiasm. And it was very inspiring.

AKIRA
The whole staff was like, “Oh, bring him back!” 

HUXLEY
It's one of my favorite sessions actually. 

GEORGE
I'll come back whenever. I'd love to 

AKIRA
You're on the permanent roster for at least every year, George. You got to come to LA and perform with us sometime soon. 

GEORGE
Say that would be the ultimate, wouldn't it? That would be great. 

HUXLEY
That would be incredible... performing again. 

AKIRA
Amazing. All right guys, we're going to say good night. Thank you for listening to our podcast today with the incredible George Abud and Huxley Westemeier. 

On a personal note, I would like to announce that this is my final episode hosting the Inception Podcast, as I'm turning the reins over to one of our young composers, Angela Urrecheaga. So look out for Angela's premiere episode as she is joined by fellow composer, Elliana Escamilla, as they interview our fabulous Vice President of Vocal Performance and Performer Engagement, Aeralie Brighton. 

The Inception Orchestra Young Composers Mentoring Program in partnership with ASMAC, the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers, is funded by grants from organizations such as the Los Angeles, Central City Optimist Foundation, and generous donations from friends, family and listeners like you. Please check us out at www.inceptionorchestra.org. Thanks everybody.