By Ted AYALA
Tonight, Thursday, April 7, the Brand Library (1601 W. Mountain St.) will be a screening the American premiere of a documentary film that explores the life of feted composer Tigran Mansurian.
Mansurian (born 1939) has long been lauded in Central Europe and his native Armenia, though his work is still not as well known in North America. His musical language, facing away from the colorful nationalism of his colleagues Aram Khachaturian and Arno Babajanian, embraced the avant garde sound of the major European composers of the latter half of the 20th century like Gyorgy Ligeti, Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez. Mansurian currently lives in Germany, though he comes to the Los Angeles area to visit his daughter. It was on one of those trips that Hayk Hambartsum, the 27-year-old director of “Confessing with Music,” was able to come into contact with the composer.
“I knew of his music before I ever even knew his name,” reminisced Hambartsum. “His music is well known in Armenia because he scored so many of the soundtracks for the most famous Armenian films of the 1960s and 1970s. But I came to meet Mansurian personally through working with [local musician Vatche Barsoumian’s] music school. Back in 2006, Barsoumian organized a retrospective of Mansurian’s work which the composer himself would be in attendance and asked me to tape it. It was a big deal for me to meet Mansurian. I felt like a teenage girl meeting N’Sync.”
Hambartsum wasn’t directly inspired to make a documentary from this incident. But through continuous meetings with the composer, he thought up the idea of following Mansurian around with a camera. “I told him that I would like to speak with him and whether he‘d let me film him once a week,” explained Hambartsum. “Almost as a joke, he agreed to do it and said it would be a good idea. I only had a vague idea of what to do at first. All I did was turn on the camera, press record and let Mansurian talk. He would call me and invite me for tea. Wherever we would go, I had my camera with me.”
The threads leading him to the creation of “Confessing with Music” began to tie together after Hambartsum graduated from his film school. “After graduating I went on a four month trip to Armenia. Everything I had taped with Mansurian I threw into a hard drive. After awhile, I started looking at it. That’s when I started piecing it together and started making an actual film.”
It has been a protracted process making this film explained the director. “I started taping this in 2006,” he said. “In 2007 I started actually looking at my material and piecing it together. The film wasn’t finished until spring of 2009.”
In the film, Mansurian reminisces and talked about a wide set of subjects: about friends and colleagues like Russian composers Alfred Schnittke and Andrei Volkonsky; the fall of the former Soviet Union (which Armenia had been a part of); exchanges with Italian composer Luciano Berio and his wife soprano, Cathy Berberian; the nature of music and sound.
Many documentary directors often have a difficult time with the subject of their film. Hambartsum, fortunately, had no such problem with Mansurian. “He was never stiff on camera,” commented the director. “Sometimes I would ask him a question about, say, one of Beethoven’s late string quartets, for example. He would start talking and elaborate his answer. Soon this would become a general reflection and explanation on Beethoven’s late period music. From there he would start talking about Beethoven’s influence on Schubert and Mahler. Eventually, he would just go on about the purpose and meaning of music itself. But there never were any set of questions I had to ask. Maybe just one or two questions that would trigger him into leading to other subjects and tangents. There wasn’t really too much for me to do. Mansurian knows so much – about literature, painting, music, etc. His tastes are elitist in the best sense.”
“Confessing with Music” has already been screened once in Armenia and had been received very warmly. The screening at the Brand tonight will be the first outside of Armenia. Hambartsum was proud of his film. “It’s my first film outside of film school,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve publicly screened anything outside of my student work.”
Ruminating on the impact of the film, he was asked what he wanted to inspire in audiences that view the film. “Just one clear thing – to listen to Mansurian’s music.”
“Confessing with Music” will be screened at the Brand Library’s Recital Hall at 7 p.m. A recording of Tigran Mansurian’s “String Quartet No.3” will be played after the film. Following this will be a symposium with Tigran Mansurian and Hayk Hambartsum. More information can be found by calling the Brand Library at (818)548-2051 or by going online at www.brandlibrary.org.