Interview: Composer Tigran Mansurian reflects on his career and Armenian music on the eve of his 75th birthday

Posted by on Jan 25th, 2014 and filed under Leisure, News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry


Tigran Mansurian, though one of the great living composers of today, speaks with an unpretentious clarity that belies his stature. His voice, though a bit dry, is firm and youthfully emphatic. He gesticulates vigorously as he speaks, almost giving physical presence to the abstract ideas and concepts he is expressing. It is hard to resist the vitality that courses through him; a vitality made tangible in his stride, his physical manner, the lucidity and wisdom of his thoughts. Sitting just shy over a yard away from me at the offices of the Lark Music School in Glendale earlier this week, I could well believe that Mansurian is in his mid-fifties, only just beginning to sail into a glowing Indian Summer. He is turning 75 years old on January 27.

Mansurian, who has long been feted in Armenia as its greatest composer since the death of Aram Khachaturian, began building a reputation in Europe and the Americas in the 1970s. At the time, working as he did in the Soviet Union, the path to his unique musical aesthetic—combining pain and triumph, light and dark, the carnal and the ascetic, the ancient and the modern—was a difficult and hard-fought one.

The musical climate in Brezhnev’s USSR clamped down hard on composers who dared to venture their own way. Adaptations of folk music were encouraged, but only so long as they conformed with the tenets of “Soviet realism.” Mansurian’s is steeped in the folk music of Armenia; of its soulfully wailing duduks and the melancholy songs of its countryside. But in his student days, he breathed in deep the music of composers regarded as anathema by the Soviet musical establishment: Boulez, Stockhausen, Maderna and others of the Central European mid-20th century avant-garde. Their scores, which could often be difficult or impossible to obtain in the Soviet Union, were surreptitiously sent to Mansurian by a close friend who was connected to the Estonian National Library: the composer Arvo Pärt. Those echo of those European works still can be heard in Mansurian’s most recent works. Further drawing the suspicions of the Soviet establishment was his embrace of Armenia’s long tradition of liturgical music. Like the works of his friends and colleagues—composers like Alfred Schnittke, Andrei Volkonsky, Edison Denisov, Sofia Gubaidulina, Pärt—Mansurian’s music was censured, dangerous to perform. His extensive catalog of film music, which remains popular with Armenian audiences today, allowed the composer to eke by in difficult times.

When the Iron Curtain collapsed, Mansurian was finally free to follow his musical conscience and his global reputation grew exponentially. A crucial factor in the broadening appreciation of his music came in the late 1990s when ECM, a German record label specializing in contemporary music, began to record and release a series of CDs devoted to the works of the composer. Among the most successful of these is the recording by the Armenian Chamber Choir under the direction of Robert Mlkeyan of Mansurian’s choral work, Ars Poetica, considered to be among not only one of the composer’s finest pieces, but as one of the great masterpieces of the contemporary choral repertoire.

Ars Poetica was chosen to be the centerpiece of a program to be performed this Sunday afternoon, January 26 at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall. That concert will serve a dual purpose. On one hand, the program will be a celebration of the composer’s 75th birthday. But the concert will also serve as a seed that in time may blossom into a full-blown chair for Armenian music studies at the Westwood university.

That goal is one very dear to Movses Pogossian and Vatsche Barsoumian, who sit at opposite sides of the composer during the interview. Respectively they are artistic director and executive director of the Dilijan Chamber Series. Pogossian is heralded the world over for his artistry on the violin, which he also teaches at UCLA. He has been especially praised for the attention he has lavished on contemporary music, to which he brings his exacting musicianship and electrifying power. Barsoumian is Dilijan’s founder. He is also the founder of Lark, which has played an energetic role not only in the community of Armenian speakers, but in the musical community of Southern California at large.

Both men are also friends of Mansurian and have collaborated widely with him not only here in the United States, where he lives part of the year with his daughter, but in their homeland of Armenia.

When they speak of the composer, it is with a mixture of great personal warmth, but also profound reverence. Barsoumian, in the moments before the interview began, confided to me what makes Mansurian’s music so special to him.

It is music that has in the marrow of its bones the soul of Armenia,” he said, “yet it is universal. It speaks to people of all nationalities and ethnicities. This extraordinary feat was achieved because Mansurian has always been true to himself and to Armenian music. This is because of the example he keeps of [Vartapet] Komitas. He doesn’t do exactly what Komitas has done, but he walks along the same path that he has traveled. His music is rooted in the ancient modes that are the roots of Armenian music.”


Ted Ayala: One of the most distinctive characteristics of your music is its eschewing of polyphonic textures. To cite but two examples from your contemporary colleagues, the music of Alfred Schnittke and Rodion Shchedrin can often be richly polyphonic. Shchedrin, in fact, has spotlit his polyphonic technique in works such as the Twenty-Four Preludes and Fugues and Polyphonic Notebook for piano. Your music, however, embraces the concept of “monodia,” which pares down textures to its barest elements, often down to a single line. Is your pursuit of this aesthetic in reaction to the polyphonic and Austro-German tendencies of your contemporaries? Did you seek this path early on, or was it something you only became aware of as your career progressed?

Tigran Mansurian: The music that resulted from the very first flourishing of polyphonic music in the West was a reflection of the wider cosmological view of the society from which it was birthed. Consider the very sound of the organ, with its keys, stops, its ability to express a multitude of layers and textures. Such an instrument could only have been created in a society which conceived its view of the world and the universe in similar terms. But if we attempt to grasp and apply polyphony in those terms today, it would be virtually impossible. What we think and speak of “polyphony” today is something very different, removed from its original context; merely a tool in one’s musical arsenal. In my compositions, I value the principles of heterophony because the materials that I have inherited from my culture exist organically with this approach. These elements, in order for them not to sound false, must determine for themselves how to meet its goals. So when dealing with a unique monodic musical culture such as Armenia’s, which has spanned centuries, and then attempt to apply to it the techniques of the West, I have to remain careful. Anything accomplished in the West should not be slavishly imitated by others. For me—and for us as Armenian musicians—this is our cultural wealth, our legacy. One must tread carefully.

T. A.: In the immediate post-war era in the West, one of the aims of the mid-century avant-garde was to create an internationalist musical aesthetic. You hear that keenly in the works of, say, Pierre Boulez, Milton Babbitt, and the Darmstadt School—this idealism where modern music could dissolve national boundaries. However, the avant-garde of the former Soviet Union took a distinctly different approach. Though applying the techniques of the Western avant-garde, the music that sprang forth from those composers—and your music exemplifies this trend very eloquently—are immersed in their composers’ ethnic and religious identities. Why do you feel this was so?

T. M.: There was a time when the Soviet composers of the post-war—Schnittke, Edison Denisov, Andrei Volkonsky, Arvo Pärt, Sofia Gubaidulina, myself—actually followed this style, this strictly serial music. A few of those composers would follow that route for their whole career. But for others, a different solution was found. For them, they were able to synthesize their life experiences with the latest techniques from the West. That is what happened in my case. In my experience, when distancing yourself from this scholastic attitude towards composition, you suddenly find before you a musical possibilities that are alive. It was almost as if one were being guided by a sort of oral tradition. Generally speaking, I refuse to classify and segregate “serial,” “tonal,” “atonal,” “modal,” “dodecaphonic” musics and so on. Today, they all inhabit the same world! All of them co-exist. As a composer, one is always drawing from diverse and disparate influences. Therefore, one ought to envision one’s works with the utmost of freedom. Thinking this way, I can approach these aural influences grounded with my personal cultural background, which allows me to live within my music very freely and easily.

T. A.: One of the most fascinating aspects of Armenian culture today is how its identity is firmly etched into so much of its cultural output. This despite having to contend with being in the shadows of more powerful neighboring nations such as Russia, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire. The last one sought to destroy the very concept of an Armenian people and culture within living memory. Yet Armenian culture has not only survived, but asserts itself powerfully today. What do you think has allowed it to withstand these influences and assaults over so many centuries?

T. M.: I think there are two factors that have played their roles in making our culture, our music so distinctive. One is the Armenian language itself; not only as a phonetic system, but also as a semantic system for its speakers to reflect on the universe. Recently, James Joyce’s Ulysses was translated into Armenian. Languages that can faithfully reproduce Joyce for non-English readers are few. Armenian is such a rich language—that it can render the prose and ideas of Ulysses is a testament to that. The language has a fundamental impact on the essence of Armenian music. The other decisive influence is the Armenian Apostolic Church. Here, all the values of the pre-Christian era have been synthesized, disseminated among its people, and preserved generation to generation. This has helped Armenian to remain organic, never descending into mere imitation of Western ideas. The first to fully understand this was Vardapet Komitas. Before him there were many Armenian singers who also happened to be songwriters, but these musicians existed as part of the medieval bardic tradition. It was only with Komitas that the concept of a truly modern “Armenian composer” as we understand it today was finally born.

T. A.: Your music certainly continues Komitas’ ideal. Your recent solo clarinet work Parable, which was played at the last Dilijan concert, is an example. The music sounds modern, universal. Yet the same way one can taste the soil in the fruits and vegetable one eats, so one can taste the Armenian culture from which your music grew. Did you consciously seek this direction in your music?

T. M.: [Laughing.] I can answer your question with an old Chinese proverb: “The longest journey begins with a single step!”

T. A.: A journey which you have pursued assiduously and has left a profound imprint on all your music. When speaking of “all” your music, there is not only your concert music to consider. There also is a large body of incidental music that you have composed for film, television, and theater. But even in those works, which are more populist in tone, it sounds like it could be the work of no other composer. Is it difficult to maintain integrity and a sense of self across such a widely divergent body of work?

T. M.: The sources that have fed my music have been many. I was born in Beirut, Lebanon which lies on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. And it is very likely that I have absorbed, directly and indirectly, the various cultures that live and thrive on its periphery. At six years old, I attended a French Catholic school, but lived among Arab people. Their music, their culture lives within me. Even now I can recall these songs. In 1947, shortly after war, my family immigrated to Armenia. I was nine years old. At the time, the peasants still gathered around the churches for festivals and feasts, especially in the springtime. Surveying all this from above, I could see the landscape dotted by churches—three, four, five, six, more of them. Across this entire swath of land, you could hear their singing, their music-making, their dancing. The earth itself resounded with music, it seemed to me. That, too, lives within me. Years later, I discovered and arranged songs from the Tagh. I was amazed by this rich vein of music, this timeless music that has been sung and listened to for over a thousand years in the East. These are the things that have made me who I am as a composer. It behooves me to remain true to them and never to reproach or falsify them for the sake of personal gain, whatever the work I am composing. I always try to remain honest in my music, to never lie.

T. A.: Speaking of your film music, for many people in the Armenian community, it is your work in film that is the best known. What was your experience composing for film like? Did you approach composing for film differently from your works for the concert hall?

T. M.: It was an absolutely fascinating and engrossing experience, one that allowed me to gain an enormous wealth of learning. Within film music, you know what is worth exactly what. If circumstances dictate it, a concert work can be put aside, stored in a drawer. With film music, though, you have to know where and when everything must go. That is why it is a very educational craft. Film gives you the possibility of creating something, getting paid for it, then allowing you to hear it played back. It was a great laboratory for trying out my experiments! Altogether, my work in film totals over a hundred soundtracks. This includes various small documentaries and art films, as well as major feature-length films.

T. A.: Your music, especially your more recent music, can sound like an intense meditation with yourself. It is music that can sound as if it inhabits a rarefied, distant dimension. Suffering and tragedy are carved deeply into the music. But it never feels as if it succumbs to them, as in much contemporary music. It is a remarkable contrast from, say, the late music of Dmitri Shostakovich, whose late music often sounds like a stark refusal of life. In its bleakest moments his music is utterly consumed by darkness. However, at the core of your music is an indomitable belief in the beauty of life. Is it difficult for you to bare your soul so honestly in your music, to expose its pain, transcend it, and finally transfigure it through your music?

T. M.: One must ask: when does the need spring forth from man to create music? It could be possible that music stems from humanity’s desire to find the paradise from which it had been cast out from; a striving to return to Eden. It could also be that it arises from the need to give voice to those that have preceded us into eternity. A third possibility yet exists. Think of a traditional Armenian woman. She cares for her family, her children, she tends to the home, she cooks. She bears upon her shoulders the hard work of an entire day. But her body is young. And she has, maybe, five or ten minutes to sit by the window, reflect, and look out into the world that teems around her. In that moment, within her, a melody sprouts from within and emerges from her lips. Life goes on, must go on for her. Music is that vehicle for her to cope, to endure. Music for me is that vehicle.

T. A.: Your analogy touches upon a quality that I deeply admire in your music—its sense of carnality. Which parallels the music of a very different composer, Anton Bruckner. Like Bruckner, your music is one firmly rooted in belief—belief in God, belief in Christ, belief in the Church, and belief that life extends beyond what we perceive in the everyday. Also like Bruckner, there exists a deeply sublimated, but very palpable streak of carnality, of sensuality, of reveling in being able to express one’s self through the flesh. This becomes very clear when comparing your music to Arvo Pärt, whose music is also deeply spiritual and Christian, but is ascetic in character. Does this sense of carnality in your music stem from tendencies germane to yourself, or is this an intrinsically Armenian quality which you have absorbed?

T. M.: Composition, at least for me, is like making cheese in the sense that one must allow the “bacteria” that surrounds us to live in one’s music. Only when these bacteria, these enzymes are allowed to flourish can the music be a living entity. Of course, I also love and admire music that is free of those bacteria! But for myself, I like those bacteria. But that quality you remarked upon is also something that lived, lives in the environment where I grew up in and still surrounds me. In that respect, it is a quality that is intrinsic to Armenian culture and it exists within my music. But also I recall how my mother would caution me against unhealthy habits, unhealthy impulses, which only lead us to becoming unhealthy people. This is something that I firmly believe in.

T. A.: If I may close with this two-part question. What does Armenian music mean to you and how do you perceive your role within it?

T. M.: The Soviet Union and Soviet realism were sources of extraordinary support for the existence of Armenian music. Conservatories were built, many musicians and composers went to Moscow for training and mentoring. But a question I always ask myself is: what if Armenians, instead of having been fostered under the Soviet system, had been allowed to follow their own organic culture and found strength in the example of Komitas? That question, of course, cannot be answered. The tradition that followed in the wake of the worldwide success of Aram Khachaturian decided our history; it is safer, easier to impress audiences with. But the aesthetic of Komitas I find to be more interesting, much more important. It was obvious to me from the beginning of my career that somebody had to till that soil. I ended up being that person. How can one be an Armenian composer and ignore our liturgical music? Armenian music is like a bird in that it needs both of its wings in order to soar into the sky. Folk music, liturgical music—each one is a wing of our people’s music. But rely on only one and you can never fly. It cannot happen. You need to have both. Komitas referred to folk and liturgical music as brother and sister in our culture. For obvious reasons, the Soviet regime had closed the door to the Church. But for myself, I have long resolved to follow the path that Komitas began. Whatever achievements of the Russian school I seize upon and try to make my own, I always view them first through the lens of Komitas’ music.


My deepest thanks to Vatsche Barsoumian and Movses Pogossian for setting up the interview as well as standing in as translators for Mansurian and myself.

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