A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Tigran Mansurian / Photo courtesy of Movses Pogossian

The milestone represented by the marking of one’s 80th birthday is doubtless a profound one, a token of the human activity—present and long past—which has unspooled before them over the decades, with its memories imprinting themselves upon the soul like static images burned onto a projector screen. But for an artist like Tigran Mansurian, who regards the act of composing as a spiritual confession, the occasion becomes a communal one; an anniversary in which artist, performer and listener are threaded together by the composer’s compelling testimony, distilled into score after score which are simultaneously beautiful, timeless, yet bearing the wounds of an erstwhile century that remains burningly alive for many.

In honor of Mansurian’s birthday, Dilijan Chamber Music Series will present “Master,” a celebration concert featuring the composer’s Ars Poetica, Agnus Dei, Three Medieval Taghs and String Quartet No. 3 on Sunday, Jan. 27, at 3 p.m. at Zipper Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

Born in Lebanon, Mansurian’s early childhood was darkened by the long shadow cast by the Armenian Genocide (commonly referred to among its victims, survivors and descendents as Medz Yeghern or “The Great Crime”), which had taken the lives of several of his family members. His family later moved to Soviet Armenia while he was still a boy, eventually settling in Yerevan. A gifted musical student, Mansurian became a pioneering composer, becoming the first Armenian composer to write a 12-tone work. By the 1970s he emerged as one of the leading younger composers in the former Soviet Union, attracting attention from musicians within the Eastern Bloc, as well as in the West. However, he soon turned away from Western-style modernism, instead developing a personal idiom grounded in the music and lore of Armenia’s ancient history and refracted through the prism of the Western avant-garde. As with many Soviet composers of his generation, Mansurian was witness and victim of the censorious wrath of conservative musical bureaucrats of his era. Nevertheless, he managed to persevere, not only remaining true to his artistic beliefs, but forming close friendships and working relationships with other important composers, writers and filmmakers.

Today Mansurian is recognized across the world for the integrity of his art: Delicately beautiful, touchingly humane and compassionate without a hint of pathos, with its architectural unity and pithy eloquence subtly intimating its creator’s inner strength.

Just a few days away from his 80th birthday, the composer agreed to an interview, reflecting on his music, friends and the momentous times that he experienced.

Néstor Castiglione: Einojuhani Rautavaara once commented that with music no longer being dominated by a single or handful of stylistic trends, the composer of today was free to employ a “toy box” of diverse musical techniques and styles. Your art is renowned for its searching into the ancient melos of the Armenian soul, but venturing further back into your catalogue — your early works and film music come to mind — one finds a more sprawling, even eclectic approach to style. Were you ever conscious of having this “toy box” at your fingertips? If so, did it ever provoke a sense of unease or crisis? What inspired you to reject this eclecticism and, instead, embrace the musical roots of Armenia’s deep historical past?

Tigran Mansurian: The great Finnish composer, of course, [is correct], even though many may not agree with this criterion. As for myself, I must say that the greater part of my past [artistic] journey has been the road to independent study, acquiring on my own the rudimentary musical skills of notation, solfège, etc. From that moment and [later] through my time [as a student], when I was appropriating the great processes and advances of music, [my mind has] always been an open window. Needless to say that I am grateful to my teachers at the Komitas State Conservatory of Yerevan. My composition teacher was Ghazaros Saryan, who had studied with Dmitri Shostakovich. For that reason I also like to consider myself a “grandson” of Shostakovich.

A few times [in my career], however, I have had occasion to terminate various periods of [stylistic] interests, my trial periods. For instance, during the 1970s I had written a work titled Interior for string quartet, which in some unexpected way ended up in the hands of Pierre Boulez. Let me say that this score was markedly “Boulezian.” The French master had liked my work and had the Ensemble Intercontemporain perform it. After learning about the appreciation Boulez had shown for my work, I considered that the “Boulezian” chapter [of my career] was closed, allowing me to move forward.

It is obvious that each composer aspires to see the traces he has left behind in a single totality. These traces can emerge from a variety of [vantage points and] different points of origins. Therefore, the Armenian composer who is trying to assimilate the entirety of his footprints knows that he has under his possession one and a half millennia of spiritual academic music and theory, and this has no affinity, nor can it hope to have any association with the perception of the composer’s art in the West. Such a person who aspires to blend his creative output in one totality knows that the art of composing and its techniques have but a one and a half to two centuries worth of tradition within Armenian music. He also knows that the legacy reaching him today is working within the borderline of Eastern-Western musical interactions. There are also other conditions that are within the mastery of the Armenian composer.

So this “toy box” indeed permits the freedom enjoyed by the composers of today. However, for the Armenian musician, that “toy box” naturally does not only emerge as a result of mastering compositional trends, but also from the aforementioned multiplicity of the various sources he has to work with.

Therefore, the composer who is aspiring to create from his work a totality should have no reason to feel inappropriate [for utilizing this “toy box”], though I believe that the feeling of anxiety is a natural sensation for every creator. The author who deems that as a result of his experiences and explorations he was able to create a more or less perfect work, then the entirety of his various experiences encountered on his path will have achieved its goal.

N. C.: Serialism was officially censured for decades in the former Soviet Union, then later clandestinely disseminated by Filipp Gershkovich to the younger composers of your generation, and finally being adopted for a time by the most important ones among them. Yet by the 1970s, you, Alfred Schnittke and Arvo Pärt, for example, moved on in very different and original ways, each of you seeking inspiration from the past, albeit in a radical manner unimagined by the Romanticism-inclined Soviet cultural gatekeepers. What do you recall about the musical atmosphere in the Soviet Union of that time that drove your generation to view the past through the lens of the present?

T. M.: I remember with affection my contacts with Filipp Moïseyevich. I had been a guest in his home in Moscow and he at my home in Yerevan. During my student years I undertook organizing a series of lectures by him at the Yerevan Conservatory. My professor Saryan, who was the rector of the Conservatory during those years, encouraged [his students] to pursue the gaining of knowledge about Western modernist music, which diverged from that approved by the Soviet [cultural] “guardians,” as you say. During those years, I had succeeded in becoming on intimate terms with [Valentin] Silvestrov, Schnittke, [Andrei] Volkonsky, Pärt, and [Edison] Denisov. To answer your question about those years, I will speak about my memories of [Sofia] Gubaidulina. During one of my usual visits to Schnittke’s Moscow home, we listened together to Gubaidulina’s Offertorium. I remember the enormous effect that composition had upon us when we heard it for the first time. After listening for a while, [Schnittke] said, “Sonya (her friends referred to her by that nickname) does not come out of her house for days since she must save up money even for tram fare.”

I also remember that one time, when I saw Schnittke hurt and bitter (his music had once again been stoned in the press), I gifted him a Russian translation by Naum Grebnev of the Book of Lamentation by the 10th-century Armenian mystic, Gregory of Narek, which had just been published in Yerevan, believing it would console him. His acquaintance with that book bore fruit in one of his most famous works, the Concerto for Choir.
I became very close to Prince Andrei Volkonsky. During the last years of his life, I would visit him often in Aix-en-Provence. One day he told me, “During the 1960s, long before we met each other, I knew very well all of the hotels on the roads of Armenia, as well as the ancient churches spread throughout your country.”

The viewing of the past through the lens of the present has been woven into the creations of each of my friends’ works individually. We were all very impressed by a particular chamber work by Schnittke, wherein a peculiar combination of segments from his film music had been spun. This work was performed in Yerevan, and we all loved it. I remember, this work particularly became important for one of our friends, the pianist Alexei Lubimov. Equally unexpected was the creation of Silvestrov’s Quiet Songs for voice and piano. Arvo Pärt was also in this group of independents.

Thinking about these authors and their legacy, I cannot ignore the fact that all of them are united, in my opinion, by the vision of the Second Viennese School, as well as their subsequent attempts to master these elaborate musical techniques. I trust and have confidence in the compositional and auditory journeys these composers have tread upon, more than of those who do not have the experience of following this or that direction of contemporary music.

N. C.: Sibelius famously remarked that while his contemporaries presented exotic cocktails to their audience, he only served them pure ice water. Something of that quote comes to mind when listening to your music, which bears a discernible sense of economy and control, of saying only what needs to be said. These qualities are especially striking given that some of the most famous Armenian composers preceding you were noted for the lavishness and surface brilliance of their music. What do you believe accounts for this contrast between the flamboyance of Aram Khachaturian and Arno Babajanian, and the austerity of Komitas Vardapet or Armenian liturgical and folk music? How can such vastly divergent musical traditions be the product of the same culture? Do you regard one as being more “authentic?”

T. M.: Komitas played the most influential role in the incorporation of the strength and beauty of Armenian monody into the arena of Western classical composition. We know that he is the founder of the modern Armenian school of composition. Indeed, it is an interesting phenomenon that the establishing of a composing school applying the art of the European musical tradition [in Armenia] should have been built upon the millennial foundation of Armenian monody. Some may disagree, but I consider this to be the establishment of a new kind of “composership.” To make myself clearer, let me say that in today’s European music, for instance, the synthesis of Dufay and Wagner is not a road to the development of that art, but the succession of compositional styles. Time has created this succession. In the case of Komitas, the geographic factor has replaced time. If time is capable of giving birth to such different disciplines, then I believe that in the same manner it is a possibility to have a new discipline that traverses different geographical territories, which I would wish to name as the “new composership”: From the 15th-century Dufay to the 19th-century Wagner (development in time), from Armenian spiritual monody to Komitasian “composership” (development of Eastern and Western modes of musical thinking). It is my orientation to follow this Komitasian tradition, which I find essential, if I may say, to establish this “new composership” in relation with the newest European music making. This approach is sharply different from folklorism.

N. C.: You have long enjoyed a warm and productive relationship with Dilijan Chamber Music, as well as personally with Vatsche Barsoumian, Movses Pogossian and others associated with the group. What do you believe accounts for the closeness of this collaboration? What is it about the musicians of Dilijan and the Lark Musical Society that elicits your attention, admiration and respect? Please tell us a little bit also about the history of your relationship with Dilijan and Lark, how it came to be in the first place.

T. M.: For many years I have had close creative and human ties with the musicians of Lark Musical Society and Dilijan Chamber Series. I regard highly the artistic achievements of my friends Vatsche Barsoumian and Movses Pogossian. That Lark and Dilijan are a part of international musical processes while remaining faithful to Armenian musical traditions is admirable.

I have composed so many works at [their] request. I am happy that [through them] I have had occasion to enjoy the superior artistry of Kim Kashkashian, Rohan de Saram, Tony Arnold, Varty Manouelian and my other friends.

Vatsche Barsoumian is not only a marvelous conductor, educator, publisher and organizer, but, in my opinion, a skilled professional who fully commands his realm.

In the artistry of Movses Pogossian, the performance principles of Western classical and contemporary music are highly enriched. Precious to me are the broad intellectual horizons of my friends. I consider myself a member of the extensive Lark and Dilijan family.

—Néstor Castiglione, Culture Spot LA

Dilijan’s concert commemorating the 80th birthday of Tigran Mansurian will take place this Sunday, Jan. 27, at the Herbert Zipper Concert Hall (200 S. Grand Ave., LA 90012) at 3 p.m. Tickets are $35 for general admission and $20 for students. For tickets and more information, visit Dilijan’s website, or call (818) 500-9997.

(The author gratefully thanks Hovhannes Ayvazyan for transcribing Mansurian’s spoken answers and Sylva Natalie Manoogian, Ph.D. for translating those answers into English. Deepest gratitude is also owed to Movses Pogossian and Vatsche Barsoumian for arranging the interview.)