By Aram Arkun
BOSTON — Tigran Mansurian is one of the leading contemporary composers of Armenian classical music. One of his important works, Requiem, will premiere in Boston on October 18 as part of “Resilient Voices: 1915-2015,” a Friends of Armenian Culture Society (FACS) concert, in collaboration with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), in commemoration of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide.
The Harvard Radcliffe Collegium Musicum and the Boston University Marsh Chapel Choir will join with BMOP, led by the latter’s music director, Gil Rose.
Mansurian agreed to speak about his work and life via Skype on this occasion.
Mansurian spent around a decade trying to compose the Requiem. Requiems were originally masses offered for the repose of the souls of the deceased, and in music can refer in general to compositions concerning mourning and death. As the centennial of the Armenian Genocide approached, Mansurian said he felt motivated to work on this theme, and he was commissioned in 2009 by the Munich Chamber Orchestra to compose such a piece dedicated to those killed in the Armenian Genocide.
While he said that all his works are important to him, this one was special on several levels.
He said, “When you embark on such a delicate, sensitive and extremely solemn topic — you are asking for eternal peace — when you are relating to such words, you understand that you are in a very elevated situation. Your first condition must be to speak with truth on these things.”
Mansurian tried three times to compose a requiem but the efforts did not meet his standards. When he received the German proposal, he said he decided to start once more. He noted that he opted to synthesize the traditional Latin words of the requiem, used for the last four to five hundred years, with Armenian music. To prepare, Mansurian said he listened to different people’s requiems composed in various centuries.
Through the use of the Latin, Mansurian said his requiem would become accessible to non-Armenians. He said the work would be a place where contemporary musical thinking and the Armenian traditional approach would encounter one another. He said, “I am faithful to Armenian traditional music, but I also tried to have a contemporary viewpoint in music. It is important to synthesize.”
He worked closely with the Latin, down to the level of individual words. He compared artistic and literal translations of requiems, used dictionaries and compared differences in enunciation, stress and syllabication, which are important for music. For example, Ludwig von Beethoven in his Missa Solemnis (Mass in D Major) divided the word eleison [from the phrase kyrie eleison] into four syllables, while other composers only had three. Though used in a Latin text, this is a Greek word, thus Mansurian asked a knowledgeable Greek speaker for advice. He also made sure that words that were important would be sung at greater length, and used different techniques to express various emotions through music. For example, in the Dies Irae, (“Day of Wrath,” or Judgment Day), he studied how others convey the words of the hymn and separated the parts of the word so it symbolizes stuttering and fear. He said, “I did this so that human nature comes forth through it.”
To a certain degree, requiems, being rituals, must have a certain theatricality, but Mansurian noted that he did not want to enter someone else’s theater, so to speak, and perform it falsely. He found a way to be authentic by his fourth attempt.
He said, “It was very important to me to keep in my mind who the singers were [ideally] of this requiem. I saw that they were the same people depicted in our [Armenian] miniature paintings. It is these figures, and their truth and singing, that was very helpful. When they sing, they sing of the loss of their children. It is not us singing of our ancestors. This is the latter singing about future generations being lost.”
Mansurian added about the solemn and religious nature of this work of music that “I always say that my music is the music of a man making confession, no matter what I write. In this particular case, in the Requiem, it is even more so.”
Aside from the universal, there is also the personal. Though he has lived most of his life in Armenia, Mansurian was born in 1939 in Lebanon of parents who both were orphaned as a result of the Genocide. For them, especially for his mother from Marash, Mansurian said, “the force of personal feelings was very strong, and of course it was passed on. It all is with me….Of course it is personal, but it is communicable, and it is the connection with our music…in other words, it is not an ego alone.”
The Requiem has been performed in a variety of diverse countries by now, including South Korea, Poland, Mexico, Russia, Austria and Germany, and Mansurian, present on most occasions, finds that it has been well received. Furthermore, the events of 1915 are always recalled when this piece is performed. In Mexico, the Turkish embassy attempted to intervene for this reason, and it took the intervention of the Armenian ambassador to straighten things out.
Mansurian said, “whenever I travel, I always say that I am an Armenian composer.” He explained that he does not do this in a nationalist way, but because despite the globalization of culture, he relies on his heritage to be able to speak in an authentic voice. He noted that he lives with pieces of music going back centuries, like Mesrob Mashtots’s psalms. Furthermore, as Armenia lies between East and West culturally, this is provides a rich heritage for Armenian composers, he noted.
He continued, “I am required to rely on my genetic memory. It is very important for me to speak the truth. I make confessions. I do so from my depths, my roots, my true roots. Therefore I say that I am Armenian.” His music, he feels, is a type of post-modern fusion. He said, “When I join East to West, when I join Latin and Armenian, this too is a form of post-modernity. The post-modern has so many different expressions.”
Mansurian himself at times uses Armenian and Eastern modes, and sometimes will use one-quarter tones. He said that on this matter, “I greatly appreciate [the Armenian-American] composer Alan Hovhannes’s approach.” Interestingly, he pointed out that even Komitas used quarter tones while singing certain songs, but he was forced to use the notation of his time and thus did not include it in this form.
He is not a fan of turning music into numbers, though he finds there is great strength there too. He said he felt that “sometimes, the irrational is much more important. You must always accept the rational means, but leave some room for the non-rational. In other words, that place where you are nourished is much more profound.”
Mansurian wrote film music for some 20 years, until he stopped, with one later exception, in 1984. The best known of these films are the “Color of Pomegranates” (1969), “Mer mankutyan tangon” (1985) and “Camera Obscura” (2000). He said, “I stopped, because this was not my music. It was the music of the film.” The film work gave him security and an opportunity to experiment. At a young age, he otherwise would not have had access to various musical groups to play his music.
For “Color of Pomegranates,” Mansurian worked three months, 18 hours a day, with Sergei Paradjanov. Mansurian was already familiar with musique concrète, an avant-garde school of music promoted by Pierre Henri Marie Schaeffer, and the electronic music of the Darmstadt school. Mansurian said, “I listened to it, and it was very helpful. I tried to turn it into Armenian music, which was necessary for the film.”
Looking back on his rich career, Mansurian declared, “Talent is a gift of God, which gives meaning to life, which you must cross. But the path can be all sorts of things, rocky and difficult at times. Nonetheless, it is the greatest gift for me. Life in general is like this. I am thankful for it all. A child of 8 years who entered a different system, the Soviet Union, a hungry country…[led] a rich life.”
For more information on the forthcoming performance in Boston or tickets, see www.FACSBoston.org.