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The Music of Mary Kouyoumdjian

Mary Kouyoumdjian (b. 1983) describes herself both as a composer and a musical documentarian: someone who inhabits the established role of a composer of musical works, but who also goes beyond that category in order to address the social and political issues that drive her work and her life. A first-generation Armenian-American, Kouyoumdjian’s family was directly affected by the traumas of the Lebanese Civil War, and earlier, the Armenian Genocide. Both events have had multi-generational consequences, one of which is the creation of a large Lebanese diaspora outside of the Levant. Kouyoumdjian’s work addresses these traumas through the inclusion of field recordings, oral histories, multi-media presentations, and other experimental elements into works for ensembles of all sizes. 

As already discussed in our previous post on Kouyoumdjian, her 2014 string quartet, Bombs of Beirut, exemplifies the composer's unique approach to creating musical works that address issues of violence, trauma, injustice, and war. Commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, Bombs of Beirut incorporates audio recordings of testimony from survivors, as well as sonic documentation of bombings in Beirut, into the composition. 

A little over a year after the premiere of Bombs of Beirut marked the centennial of another monumentally tragic event: the Armenian Genocide, which claimed the lives of 1.5 million Armenians. For Kouyoumdjian's family, this meant a life in exile in their newly-adopted country of Lebanon—until the Lebanese civil war forced them to flee once again. Reaching back to this earlier trauma, Kouyoumdjian composed Silent Cranes, a string quartet with live electronic processing and pre-recorded audio of survivors, folk songs, and poetry. 

Kouyoumdjian writes: 

Silent Cranes is inspired by the Armenian folk song Groung (Crane) in which the singer calls out to the migratory bird, begging for word from their homeland, only to have the crane respond with silence and fly away. The first, second, and fourth movement titles quote directly from the folk song lyrics. Those who were lost during the genocide are cranes in their own way, unable to speak of the horrors that happened, and it is the responsibility of the living to give them a voice.

Silent Cranes was commissioned for and premiered by the Kronos Quartet, and also features projection designs by Laurie Olinder. Watch a performance of the work at Roulette Intermedia below: 

Issues of memory, trauma, darkness, and hope are present in much of Kouyoumdjian's work, even when it does not expressly address world-hisrtorical events. For example, The Vanishing Dark, for chamber ensemble and electronics, responds to a Nocturne podcast of the same name, addressing human reactions to, and fears of, darkness—and also the false sense of security that comes with artificial light. 

Bringing this sensibility to a personal level, Kouyoumdjian composed Dandelion [for Andie Tanning Springer], for the eponymous violnist. This work, for solo violin, electronics, and video projection, uses the image of a dandelion's floating seeds as a metaphor for the unpredictable pathway of an individual musician, incorporating home audio and video recordings to trace a lifetime of musical development. 

Kouyoumdjian's ability to paint sonic portraits is also illustrated in her "Children of Conflict" series, which responds to documentary photographs by American Pulitzer-nominated war photographer Chris Hondros. A Boy and a Makeshift Toy, for viola or cello and piano, is a response to Hondros's photograph of a young boy playing in an abandoned train station, full of Albanian refugees, waiting as he is about to be transported between refugee camps. 

We hope you enjoy exploring the music of Mary Kouyoumdjian!

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