KARACHI: Not very often does one see the Aga Khan University auditorium burst at the seams. It happened on Thursday evening as music buffs came to catch sight of the young musician Usman Riaz. Though the event was part of the AKU special lecture series titled ‘Making Waves — Striking the Right Chords’, it turned out to be a gig of sorts which the audience enjoyed to the hilt.
Prof Shehnaz Ismail introduced the young man. She said he started playing the piano when he was six years old and learned to wield the guitar at 16. She talked about his achievements, including globetrotting for Ted Talks, and rounded off her introduction calling him the ‘face of positive change’. And positive change he did bring into the arena by playing a tune, Firefly, on the guitar.
Usman said Firefly was one of his first compositions. The performance immediately grabbed the audience’s attention, as the young man played the rhythm both by hitting the chords and by creating a beat cycle by beating the body of the instrument with his right hand. It was a catchy item.
Next up was a piece called Shimmer. It further showcased his artistry as a musician who likes to push the envelope with simple instrumentation. The observation was immediately vindicated by Usman when he, prior to the follow-up act, told the audience that while composing he did not bother much about technique; he saw images and turned them into musical bits. He supported his claim by performing his first piano piece of the evening, The Waves.
Then the gears were shifted and Usman showed a short film, Ruckus, that he had directed, preceded by an act where he produced percussive sounds through a series of coordinated foot tapping, finger snapping sounds. When the audience tried to join him every time he clapped, the young man played a few tricks, hinting that they couldn’t keep up with him.
The guitar came back into the equation as Bone Shaker was played. It was a gentle departure from his earlier guitar performances as melody was more pronounced in it.
To prove his versatility, in a humble way mind you, Usman reverted to show he had matured as a filmmaker by showing his second film, The Waves, based on the piano track which he had earlier presented. For sure, it was a better effort than Ruckus because of the use of the typewriter and piano as metaphors for heightened imagination. This meant that he returned to the piano for the final performance of the evening, The Creation of the Universe. However, that was not the end of the programme. Usman, with a fair degree of pride, screened a small film in which he is seen conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra for a composition that he wrote and presented at the request of the president of the Berklee College of Music. When the film ended, the audience gave him a standing ovation.
After that the floor was opened for a question-answer session. Replying to a query, Usman said 10 years from now he’d like to keep doing what he’s doing. On the issue of composing music at someone’s behest, he was honest enough to say that when someone asked him to do a piece, he presented to them a composition he had already worked on.
Published in Dawn, January 9th, 2015