Could you describe the program you are presenting with Kronos Quartet and Hotel Elefant on Tuesday, May 12?
As an Armenian-American composer whose family went through the Armenian Genocide, a tragic event that led to the mass extermination of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks and was the first genocide of the 20th century, I felt an undeniable need to discuss this through my music and to dedicate this concert to the genocide’s 100th anniversary.
The program will include the U.S. premiere of a new multi-media work written for the Kronos Quartet entitled Silent Cranes, written specifically to commemorate the genocide centennial, with projection design by Laurie Olinder, poetry by Alternative Radio host and journalist David Barsamian, recorded testimonies of survivors, and folk songs recorded between 1912-1916.
Hotel Elefant will also perform works including This Should Feel Like Home (commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the ensemble) – a self-portrait of what it was like to visit Armenia for the first time, sampling field recordings from the city to villages; Dzov Yerku Kooynov [Sea of Two Colors] (commissioned by the American Composers Forum/JFund for Hotel Elefant) – a portrait of composer Komitas Vardapet, who survived the Armenian Genocide and suffered through 20 years of post-traumatic stress disorder; and a new work entitled Everlastingness, with lyrics by dear friend and librettist Royce Vavrek and special guest baritone Jeffrey Gavett – a portrait of painter Arshile Gorky, who survived the Armenian Genocide and lived through a series of tragic events upon his displacement to the States.
It’s a pretty heavy program, but genocide is also a severely heavy topic. I’m hoping the audience will be open to connecting with the topic and hearing why I feel it’s so important to talk about this moment of history a century later.
This Should Feel Like Home samples field recordings from Armenia “from the city to villages”. Could you describe how these recordings were collected and used as a compositional element in the piece?
In the summer of 2012, I visited Armenia for the first time. Much like tourists snap hundreds of photos on their trips, I did the same by gathering as many sonic memories and field recordings as possible. I brought a little handheld recorder with me everywhere and recorded moments, such as my first duduk (an Armenian double reed instrument) lesson in the Vernisage marketplace, a marching band going through the Republic Square, a thunderstorm at Noravank while exploring graves, people drinking holy water at Gerard, church bells and the choir at Etchmiadzin, conversations, a singing villager, folk musicians, the national anthem being sung, etc. These recordings comprise the electronic backing track that intertwines with the live ensemble, often in their raw form, and often processed, distorted, and manipulated. In a way, I’m presenting a sonic slideshow of my trip to the audience (though I hope the experience is a little more interesting)!
Both Dzov Yerku Kooynov [Sea of Two Colors] and Everlastingness are portraits of artists who survived the Armenian Genocide and faced subsequent challenges in their lives. Could you tell us more about their work? What drew you to these artists?
Dzov Yerku Kooynov [Sea of Two Colors] is a portrait of the priest and composer Komitas Vardapet, who was sort of like the Armenian Bartók in that he gathered and transcribed many of the Armenian folk songs that we still have today, in addition to contributing his own. One of the first intellectuals captured during the Armenian Genocide, he survived and then suffered the remaining years of his life with post-traumatic stress disorder, hopping from one psychiatric hospital to the next.
Everlastingness is a portrait of painter Arshile Gorky, who also went through the genocide, fled to the U.S., and then experienced a series of tragic events from marital troubles, temporary paralysis, his studio catching on fire, and ultimately his suicide. What fascinates me about these two is that they each went through unimaginable horrors, and, upon their survival, their lives continued to deconstruct in the aftermath of their unfathomable experiences. It may seem like an obvious observation that trauma would continue to haunt them even in safety, but their stories relate to why, even after 100 years, this event in history continues to have traumatic repercussions on the families of those affected.
The Armenian Genocide is a tragic and confounding event, yet – nearly one hundred years later – its formal recognition is still a controversial topic. Could you please contextualize the event for our readers? How does Silent Cranes address the centennial of the Armenian Genocide?
As an Armenian with family that went through the genocide, it’s difficult to understand why recognition of any crime against humanity is a controversial topic at all, but calling it a “genocide” has been an issue ever since Rafael Lempkin coined the word to describe these specific massacres. Currently over twenty countries and forty-three U.S. States have formally recognized the Armenian Genocide, but the U.S. as a nation and modern-day Turkey have yet to do so – Turkey even threatens imprisonment to those who push the topic within their borders. It’s a tragic event that most historians have agreed upon as an undeniable fact, but politicians are hesitant to label in order to keep ties with Turkey, who has become increasingly important as an ally in the Middle East and has been increasingly verbal about cutting off ties with nations who formally acknowledge the genocide as such.
Silent Cranes addresses the centennial by saying that, without resolution, these horrific occurrences to the Armenian people are just as fresh as they were 100 years ago. Until we can acknowledge the events that happened and have an open dialogue about it, how can we ever expect to prevent further genocides from happening?
“Kouyoumdjian is a firm believer that approaching such controversial topics through the Arts opens opportunities for a conversation with audiences when words become too difficult to say or hear.”
What is your compositional process? How do you approach writing music – often wordlessly — that explores such controversial topics?
I’m fascinated by the idea of music as documentary, and right now, I’m most interested in sharing the stories of real people who have experienced something that needs to be heard. I’m not actively seeking out controversial topics to explore for the sake of being controversial, but with my parents and brother having lived in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, and with my grandparents/great grandparents having lived in Turkey during the Armenian Genocide, topics that stem from war and conflict naturally resonate with me. I enjoy gathering field recordings, because it connects me to the land and space I am in, and I enjoy gathering interviews and testimonies, because it connects me to people, and ultimately what I enjoy most about music is connecting with others.
Your work seems interested in exploring and reconciling notions of identity. Could you tell us about your background? What drew you to composition?
I grew up playing classical piano and electone organ, and it wasn’t until I started taking jazz piano lessons in high school when I became interested in composition. I had just watched the movie Rudy and fell in love with Jerry Goldsmith’s score, after which my jazz teacher blew my mind by saying that one could actually grow up and be a film composer! So, I pursued composition by getting a wonderfully zany and experimental education at UC San Diego, then a film scoring degree at NYU, moved to LA for a few years to dive into “the industry,” realized I wasn’t as crazy about the industry as I dreamed I would be, missed writing concert music terribly, and moved back to NYC where a new wave of new music had sprouted with an incredibly supportive and open-minded community of musicians that I continue to be happy to be a part of.
As far as “identity,” there’s a really great quote by composer Tigran Mansurian: “You bring things from your roots that you can be honest with.” I think this is so true, and it was the moment when I started writing about concepts that were a little closer to home that I felt my music spoke with the most integrity.