Mary Kouyoumdjian’s Music Renders Time Impotent

Having bumped into memory, time learns its impotence.
Joseph Brodsky

One of the many questions triggered by Silent Cranes: The Music of Mary Kouyoumdjian, Performed by Kronos Quartet and Hotel Elefant presented on May 12 in Roulette, is the fragility of the boundary between political art and overt political statement. A descendent of a family that went through the Armenian Genocide, Kouyoumdjian shares Sartre’s belief in committed art, and, as Sartre suggests, in her works she recovers this world “by giving it to be seen as it is.”

Striving to approach controversial issues through the arts is especially apt with respect to the difficult topic addressed by Kouyoumdjian. Indeed, it is more common to learn about a century-old tragedy of the Armenian genocide by experiencing the artworks created by the descendants of exiled Armenians, rather than by means of a history lesson. I did this with Ararat (2002), a film directed by an Armenian-Canadian Atom Egoyan, that shares many images and themes with Kouyoumdjian’s work: pomegranates, Arshile Gorky, Turkish soldier cutting the stomach of a pregnant woman, Hitler’s infamous inquiry, 1.5 million killed.

One of the great qualities of Kouyoumdjian’s music is the ability to transmit state of madness, exemplified in two portraits of genocide survivors – composer Komitas who suffered post-traumatic disorder after his deportation to a prison camp, and painter Gorky, who lost his mother to starvation. Sea of Two Colors (2011) transports the listener to the realm of a restless soul of Komitas; flowing piano trills of the sea can also be heard as dark sinister clouds that cover once clear mind of a legendary composer and, with a brief moment of transfiguration, dissolve into eternity. Gorky’s voice in Everlastingness (2015) sounds completely detached from the accompaniment (reminding of Schumann’s songs), as the protagonist, consumed by his memories, lives in a fever dream beyond the reality.

Photo by Dominica Eriksen

Gorky’s ruminations didn’t engulf me as strongly as the last piece performed by Hotel Elefant: This Should Feel Like Home (2013) indeed felt like contemporary Armenia the way I imagine it, with all the imprints of the past. Folk melodies, marching band, distant voices, Orthodox church singing returning time and again – these recorded sounds naturally blended with their own reflections on the piano, flutes, clarinets, and strings.

The title piece of the concert, a four-movement multimedia work performed and commissioned by Kronos Quartet, seemed somewhat less integrated. The first movement appropriately introduced some highlights of Armenian cultural heritage: projected images of beautiful rugs and ceramics, traditional costumes and architecture, an old recording of Komitas music and his portrait on the screen. In the following movements pomegranates decomposed into blood as my ears submerged into survivors’ testimonies, my heart pierced with every word. I felt that these words were too numerous and too literal, leaving the music no role other than an accompaniment to a documentary film. After so many atrocities copied from the reality and pasted into the piece, some of the conclusions in the last movement seemed redundant. Shocked by the work’s content, I felt imprisoned by the abundance of words. One of my inner voices resisted the idea that the facts, the images, the narrative and the conclusions were all thrown into my face so literally, leaving no room for interpretation.

Photo by Dominica Eriksen

I’ve always believed that in order to create a real work of art one should favor the figurative over the discursive, especially in the music; but further reflections on Kouyoumjian’s Silent Cranes proved that its case might be different. I realized that  the piece bears many similarities to Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw (1947) so heavily (and to my mind unfairly) criticized by Adorno for literal depiction of suffering. The subject in each piece is personal to both composers, both works are based on the reports of survivors (although Survivor has a fictional narrative and it is not clear whether any reports at all are quoted directly), and the text is clearly recited. Moreover, both works stress the role of memory, although, ironically, in Schoenberg’s, written right after the Holocaust, the narrator “cannot remember everything,” while Kouyoumjian digs a hundred years into the past to give voice to someone who “was young, but still remembers.” One more twist of irony: in 1915, The New York Times systematically reported on the mass murder of the Armenian people, while the atrocities of the Holocaust were not immediately disclosed. And what do we remember today? Perhaps the artists who talk about the events which political will is trying so hard to sink into oblivion, have a right to be fully committed (i.e. realistic) – this is the only way time can lose its battle to memory.

Erlena Dlu

©2015 by Extended Techniques. All Rights Reserved.

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