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Monday, August 23, 2004

Arts & Letters

A Voice Emerging from Silence: Tigran Mansurian

At age 65, Tigran Mansurian, contemporary Armenia’s leading classical composer, is finally getting his due internationally. By turns quietly mystical and exuberantly passionate, he talks at length about simultaneously straddling three worlds: the temporal, twenty-first-century universe of his own life; the time of his hero, Komitas Vartabed (1869-1935), a priest who collected and notated more than 3,000 traditional Armenian tunes, and also wrote his own highly significant secular and sacred works that bridged medieval music and his own era; and medieval Armenia, which Mansurian and Komitas both evoke in their compositions.

Originally a student at the Yerevan Music Academy, Mansurian went on to take his doctorate and teach at the Komitas State Conservatory. He quickly became a leading composer in the Soviet Union, mentored by Shostakovich and counting among his colleagues fellow composers such as Valentin Silvestrov, Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke, and Sofia Gubaidulina. In the 1990s, Mansurian became the director of the Komitas conservatory, but in recent years he has turned his focus entirely toward composing.

Although Mansurian is identified as the consummate Armenian composer, he actually spent his early childhood in Beirut, where he was born. “In my childhood, I didn’t know much about being an Armenian,” he says. “All of the kids just played in the front yard of our house. I was talking to one in Armenian, one in Arabic, and it didn’t matter what language I was speaking.” It was only after the Second World War, Mansurian says, that ethnic lines were drawn. “We had a friend called Panagiôtês,” the composer recalls. “After the war was over, we were told Panagiôtês was going ‘home’ to Greece, and we said, ‘What home? Home is here.’”

Eventually, Mansurian’s family decided to leave Lebanon, too. Like many other émigré Armenians at the time, his parents chose to return to their homeland in 1947, eventually settling in Yerevan in 1956. “I can’t forget the Mediterranean,” Mansurian reminisces. “Really, I’m just a Mediterranean boy who likes to swim and who suddenly found himself in the mountains. Ironic, yes? When I read Irving Stone’s book about Jack London, Sailor on Horseback, it was like I was reading my biography. My home is somewhere else.” He continues, “Skin has its own consciousness. That sea gave me that consciousness of my skin. It’s still there. All those cold and warm streams of the Mediterranean, I still feel them on my body. But going to Armenia, it was snow, mountains and snow. For many, many years, these childhood swims were my source of life. After we repatriated to Armenia, for the next seven or eight years, before going to sleep, I had to do a telepathic experience of going to the sea to swim before falling asleep.”

Mansurian also says that repatriating shaped his artistic character, both as a composer and writer. “In going back to Armenia, I found my Armenian identity,” he muses. “I started to learn the alphabet and the language; it was a defining point for me and for my music. Starting in second grade, I wrote poetry in Armenian. Playing games with the alphabet and with words was my driving force. Then music took over, and I started to play with notes; but originally I began with words.” He continues: “I was writing poetry until the late 1960s. I never published any work and then I threw it away. Both writing literature and writing music are very difficult. If I’m giving my life to music and I spend my time in music, then I would like to be respectful of all other people who spend their time with words: that’s why I threw my poetry away.”

Despite his decision to turn away from writing, literature plays a viscerally important role in Mansurian’s life as a composer. “When I wrote my violin concerto, it was based on a sentence from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.” He takes a short breath, closes his eyes, and recites Faulkner from memory, in Russian. “That’s the start of Quentin Compson’s narration, before he commits suicide,” he says. “It fascinated me how a man can feel pain and be very aware of time simultaneously. That whole concept of time stayed with me.” The mystic aspect to Faulkner’s work had significant resonance for the young composer. “I started to go back to my roots, and I read the sixth-century philosopher David Anhaght, who was a mystic about numbers. He says that seven is a symbol of time. I felt the number was in that Faulkner passage as well.”

Mansurian says that after this discovery, he found mystical connections to numbers embedded in all kinds of works. “For example,” Mansurian remarks, “Komitas notated one folk song about tilling the earth during springtime. In this song, the men have brought their oxen and hoes to the field to prepare the earth. The men talk lovingly to their animals, asking them to be like brothers in helping with the work. It’s a song of sweat, and you hear not just the labor song, but also the sounds of the village women calling as they approach with food, and the men shouting back to these women. All of these sounds are in this song. When Komitas was thinking of notating this particular melody, it took him two years to even come close to being able to suggest not just the song, but its overall environment.” Mansurian then makes the numerological connection. “When Komitas transcribed this song for choir, he notated it in a 5/16 time signature. Everything suddenly fit into this number — all these sounds were one big five! Suddenly, Komitas realized that this number has a certain mystery itself that connects mystically to this song.” But, he cautions, “It’s one thing when you have certain numbers in your head that you try to fit into your life, and it’s another thing when those numbers come from life and reveal themselves. But realizing those truths is what I call the responsibility of an artist: confessing to that truth.”

The composer’s most recent trip to the United States was to participate in San Francisco’s Other Minds Festival, now in its tenth year and organized by composer and new-music advocate Charles Amirkhanian (who also happens to be of Armenian descent). Held in early March, the festival encompassed not just three evening-long concerts at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, but also a four-day intensive symposium, for all the participating composers, which preceded the performances. Alongside Mansurian and Amirkhanian were San Franciscans Mark Grey, Jon Raskin, and Joan Jeanrenaud (the former longtime cellist of the famed Kronos Quartet), Poland’s Hanna Kulenty, Japanese composer Keiko Harada, German composers Stefan Hussong and Werner Durand, France’s Francois Dhomont, Italy’s Amelia Cuni, and Brooklyn-based Panamanian jazz bass virtuoso Alex Blake.

“It was very interesting, this whole experience,” says Mansurian. “First of all, everyone was very talented…and they were so diverse. None of their music was like each other’s. Who were they, exactly, as musicians? Everyone who walks on this earth has his shadow. I was fascinated to see each composer’s shadow — how long or short it is, where it shifts….It was one of the most interesting things I’ve ever participated in. It enriched me very much.”

In recent years, as a result of his collaboration with the Armenian American violist Kim Kashkashian, who is one of ECM’s marquee artists, a great deal of Mansurian’s own work has centered on the viola. “Before I met her in 1995,” Mansurian recalls, “I knew her music very well, and it has always been art of the highest quality. I was always fascinated by her music. I have total admiration for her as a human being and a great artist.” Since their initial introduction, Mansurian and Kashkashian (who was also the viola soloist on the soundtrack of Theo Angelopoulos’s film, Ulysses’ Gaze) have worked together frequently; at the Other Minds Festival, they performed a series of Komitas’s songs arranged for viola and piano by the Armenian composer. Mansurian says that he finds this a very organic combination. “The connection between the viola, the human voice, and Armenian music is very strong,” he maintains. The viola, he states, is also a natural conduit for his artistic vision. “Sometimes, someone opens his mouth, and, before you hear him, you already can tell that he has been silent for the past three days. The viola, to me, is that sound of that man’s voice speaking for the first time after so long. It’s my favorite type of sound: one that deeply respects silence. And when he does speak, it comes out like a confession.”

“Silence,” he continues, “is at the center of my thinking. There are musicians who gather sounds, harmonize them, move them around — and that can be very dense. The notes get lost when they’re so low to the ground. They don’t relate to each other anymore. I always want to create relationships between the sounds, so that they live together everywhere in organic and natural relationships. But you can only test those relationships on the foundation of silence.”

“For me,” Mansurian observes, “there are two types of composers, one that creates music by adding notes, and the other that creates music by subtracting notes. Silence is the key point of creating music.” The composer says that his spare esthetic was inspired, in part, by other art forms. “Thirty years ago,” says Mansurian, “I saw an ikebana artist creating a composition from flowers. The guiding principle is how to reduce. When they cut the leaves off certain branches, you can see the childhood of those plants. From that emptiness, from those spaces, you create life for yourself. That whole theory and concept of taking things off, making beauty as you take things away, has been the fascination of the last three decades of my life, and that’s how I write music. That’s what fascinated me with Komitas’s music as well — that’s how he created.

“I feel like I owe Kim Kashkashian a lot,” Mansurian continues, saying that it was her advocacy that led him to Manfred Eicher, the celebrated founder and president of Germany’s ECM Records. “She presented my music to Manfred. He heard my violin concerto, then heard the viola concerto, which Kim performed in Munich. Then Manfred asked me to write more music.” So far, ECM has released two discs of Mansurian’s music: Hayren, released in 2003, which features some of the composer’s Komitas arrangements as well as original works for the duo of Kashkashian and percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky; and Monodia, a recently released two-CD set that features an all-star lineup of ECM artists, including Kashkashian (playing the viola concerto titled …and then I was in time again), saxophonist Jan Garbarek (Lachrymae, with Kashkashian), the vocal group called the Hilliard Ensemble (Confessing With Faith, again with Kashkashian), and violinist Leonidas Kavakos (performing Mansurian’s Violin Concerto).

Eicher is planning other recordings of Mansurian’s music. “Manfred is going to release a piece called Ars Poetica, a concerto for choir, which has already been recorded. Then we have to do two quartets with the Rosamunde Quartet, and Manfred offered to write an epilogue for these. I’m going to do it with lots of pleasure, and this will become another CD. These are very fulfilling plans.” Even though Mansurian’s lifework is finally reaching a wider public, his struggles as an Armenian — and as a prominent Armenian artist who has chosen, despite his country’s turbulence, to remain in Armenia — cannot be forgotten or brushed aside. Kashkashian quietly notes the challenges facing Mansurian and other Armenian artists. “When I first visited Armenia back in 1989, 1990, 1991,” she recalls, “we were confronted with the total lack of infrastructure, the deplorable lack of rules and regulations — law is a strange thing over there — and the loss of dignity, the loss of culture, for the survival of which everyone is fighting tooth and nail.”

She remembers, “In the first years I went to visit, I was told that there were only a few months during the year when it would be good for us to go: basically, the best of the fall and spring months, because in winter there was no heat, no running water, nothing, and summer was not good because no one had refrigeration, and so those of us unused to those conditions would have a lot of stomach problems. I went in the middle of winter anyway, and saw people schlepping water back and forth, and saw the joy on the one day in ten when the lights go on, the electricity works, or the water runs, and everybody gets to take a bath. It’s just extraordinary how much dignity and pride is still preserved. Getting to know someone like Mansurian, or any of the musicians who choose to live there and try to keep their light spreading, is an absolutely humbling experience. You can’t imagine what they’re fighting against.”

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a columnist for Billboard and also writes about music for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Gramophone, and Jazz Times. She can be heard regularly on NPR’s Weekend America and WNYC’s Soundcheck. More of her work is available at
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