“Confessing With Music” Subject Shares Much

Photo by Ted AYALA Composer Tigran Mansurian, left, and film director Hayk Hambartsum answer questions from the audience after the U.S. premiere of Hambartsum’s documentary on the life of Mansurian, “Confessing with Music.”

U.S. premiere of ‘Confessing With Music’ at Brand Library Recital Hall screened for SRO crowd.


The sound of an ethereal choral lament can be heard in the background. The camera zooms in on the face of a man lost in contemplation, his face lined with experience and sorrow. As this grey haired man is carried aloft on the sounds of his own music, the camera focuses on an image in the background – a portrait of the father of Armenian music, Komitas.

In one single shot not only is the entire trajectory of Armenian musical history revealed but also how the alpha and omega of Armenian music both ruminated on the fate of its people in their respective times: Komitas’ awakening of musical nationalism in the twilight before the Armenian genocide and Tigran Mansurian’s meditations on the Armenian nation in the years after freedom from the Soviet Union and the devastating Nagorno-Karabakh War.

Watching this moment, I finally understood what Hayk Hambartsum – the director of the documentary film “Confessing with Music,” which peers into the life of acclaimed composer Tigran Mansurian – meant when he made a comment about Mansurian’s position in Armenian music.

“Lots of people think Aram Khachaturian was the greatest Armenian composer,” Hambartsum said. “But his music was very Westernized, very Russian. Tigran Mansurian is the true successor to Komitas. In his music one can really hear the soul of Armenia.”

Mansurian in the film confided that Komitas’ music was a magic thread that wove itself throughout his career. “Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartok, Schoenberg, Webern – and then I’ve had Boulez in me as well,” Mansurian declared. “But in all of them there has always been, more or less, the presence of Komitas.”

The Brand Library’s recital hall was the stage for the film’s U.S. premiere last Thursday night. It’s not often that the work of a contemporary classical composer gains wide renown these days. But the packed recital hall, where seats quickly disappeared and many people had to stand in the aisles, is a testament to the great respect and love audiences have for Mansurian’s music.

Hambartsum in his masterly documentary, just shy of being a half-hour in length, deftly captured Mansurian with all the nonchalance of a bedroom mirror. One never felt the medium of film between one’s self and the film’s subject. Throughout the entire film, one felt the presence of Mansurian like a close friend confiding his most personal thoughts.

Shot locally, including a few scenes at the Quizno’s and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in the Montrose Shopping Park, Mansurian
reflected on a vast assortment of topics. Speaking on his music remaining true to the Armenian national melos and its homophonic nature, he said, “My music comes from monodia. I’m a monodist. Monodia means one sound. My foundation – the foundations of [Armenia’s] national and spiritual music – is monodia.”

Much of Mansurian’s music, especially his later work, possesses a very intimate and confessional tone. Mansurian explained in the film: “In my music confessing has a very important place. I don’t know why. What feelings make me write the most? The feeling of guilt.”

When asked to elaborate on not only his own turn to a confessional tone of voice after years of musical experimentation, but also that of his former Soviet colleagues after the fall of the USSR, Mansurian explained, “Let me tell you a story. Back in the 1960s I attended a piano recital at the Warsaw Music Festival. Polish composers were given a lot more freedom to compose in whichever style they preferred than Soviet composers, so this was a great opportunity to hear what the Western musical world was doing. Soon after arriving at the recital hall, the pianist stepped onto the stage. She was a young lady dressed in a fencing mask and outfit. ‘What’s going on?,’ I thought. From a table next to the piano she pulled out a pair of timpani sticks and began beating the sound box and strings of the piano and played her composition. Now it made sense. The fencing outfit was to protect her from the snapped piano wires that leapt up as she smashed them with her sticks. This is the kind of crazy stuff that went on back then. We pushed and pushed the limits of what was possible from musical instruments. Finally it got to be too much. I can’t speak for my colleagues. But for myself, it was time to abandon these experiments and be true to who I was.”

Mansurian further elaborated. “I remember what my friend Alfred Schnittke said when he wrote his Piano Quintet and its orchestral arrangement ‘In Memoriam’ which he wrote after the death of his mother. ‘I wanted to write something my mother would have liked,’ he told me. Can you imagine a Western avant-garde composer ever saying such a thing?”

The film and its subject were warmly received; a triumph both for director Hambartsum and for composer Mansurian. But Mansurian is such a fascinating personality. One wished the film had been longer so as to better explore Mansurian’s music. But maybe it’s best that we’re only vouchsafed a brief glimpse into the mind of this composer of haunting, nocturnal, half-lit music.

As such, Hambartsum’s film is a fitting work to one of the musical giants of our time.