A recurring dream that I’ve had for the last several years: My grandmother, a Syrian refugee who spent the last 15 years of her life in the grips of progressive dementia, shows me an attic accessible through a crawlspace in her bedroom closet. It contains a trove of books, journals, letters, and photographs from our family in Syria—everything I could possibly want to know about why and how her family left, and who among them remains. But, just as I’m shown the attic, I have to leave and I can never go back.

I didn’t plan on sharing this dream with Mary Kouyoumdjian, but it’s a metaphor she understands intuitively: Just as my grandmother escaped French Mandate Syria, her grandparents were survivors of the Armenian Genocide (1915-23). That family legacy has, for the last 20 years, been central to Kouyoumdjian’s work. Born in 1983 in California (where her parents relocated after escaping the 15-year Lebanese Civil War that began in 1975), Kouyoumdjian has established close bonds with other artists with a shared sense of trying to find the hidden attics of their grandparents and great-grandparents in order to make sense of the past. “They Will Take My Island” is Kouyoumdjian’s latest collaboration, this time produced with Armenian-Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (“The Sweet Hereafter”) and focusing on the works of Armenian visual artist Arshile Gorky. Originally scheduled to premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last March, the premiere will now be live streamed as part of MetLiveArts’s pivot to digital.

We discussed the work’s added resonance after last summer’s attacks on the Armenian province of Artsakh by Azerbaijan, as well as the art that comes out of intergenerational trauma. But first, brought on by new lockdown measures after almost a year of sheltering in place, we talked about the strange sensation of nesting.

VAN: I wonder if the sense of nesting is just something that those of us who come from that region of the diaspora have intuitively.

Mary Kouyoumdjian: You mean, of being ready to leave at any moment?

But also trying to plant roots and create a sense of home despite feeling like you’re ready to leave at any moment.

Yeah, the diaspora is so complex when it comes to possessions and sense of place and home. My parents have lived in the same house for nearly 40 years. I think for them that is because so much of their family had moved around. But I like not having a lot of things. And I think that comes from, Well, if you need to pick up and go somewhere really quickly… I’ve definitely told my therapist, “I want to have as few things as could fit in a really big van.” Minus the piano.

“They Will Take My Island” was supposed to premiere live at the Met Museum last March before it was rescheduled for this month’s digital premiere. That’s a familiar pattern for many musicians, but in your case the intervening months saw a war between Armenia and Turkish-backed Azerbaijan. Has that changed anything in the work?

In some ways, nothing; but in some ways, everything. The piece itself hasn’t changed—minus it being adapted to a virtual medium—in response to what happened in Artsakh and Armenia. But how Atom and I connect to the work and how audiences may connect to it has definitely changed. Before all this happened, Atom and I were really just re-exploring our relationship to Arshile Gorky as people who are descendants of the Armenian Genocide. It was reflection: Looking back, understanding, and processing how we got to where we are today; and who we are today because of the experiences of people like Gorky.

But, in the context of what has happened, I think that this piece is really now a call for attention to the Armenian community. That history has repeated itself 100 years later and has had so little reaction from the international community—just as the Armenian Genocide had so little reaction from the international community. It’s so unacceptable and unfathomable. Whereas before this piece wasn’t necessarily on the front a political piece, it has become that. We’re inviting people to experience it through that lens now.

Arshile Gorky, “They Will Take My Island” (1944)
Arshile Gorky, “They Will Take My Island” (1944)

You mentioned that your family moved around a lot.

Yeah, my grandparents—my grandfathers and my great-grandparents—were survivors of the Armenian Genocide. Most of my family was from western Armenia, now Turkey. The ones that survived went through Syria, and then ended up settling in Beirut. So most of my family is there still. And then my parents and my brother were refugees of the Lebanese Civil War, and they sort of accidentally settled in the San Francisco area. So we’re a couple of generations removed from Armenia.

I’ve read a lot of scholarship around intergenerational trauma and identity. There’s something about being the grandchild of trauma that leaves you more able to process what your parents weren’t able to, because you’re one more step removed. That seems to be a common theme for artists who are also grandchildren of recent genocides and diasporas.

My dissertation paper is on composers from the diaspora and Armenian and Middle Eastern region. How our music-making connects to our identity, but through the lens of survivor’s guilt. Because a lot of survivor’s guilt can also be constructive: My grandparents went through this horrific thing; I am safe and sound. So because I am safe and sound, and I have the freedom of expression where there aren’t life-threatening consequences to me in speaking out, then I have a responsibility—out of survivor’s guilt, essentially—to do so.

It can be a weight. My brother is seven years older [and was] born in Beirut. We have very different childhood experiences. He has no interest in our family history, or asking the elder members of our family to tell us what they know. And there’s quite an age gap between me and my older aunts that have passed away and were the people who would have known something. One of my greatest sadnesses is that I didn’t have the thought when I was a teenager to ask them the right questions. So whatever little bits and pieces that I can gather now…

Kouyoumdjian’s father and aunts in Lebanon • Photo courtesy of Mary Kouyoumdjian
Kouyoumdjian’s father and aunts in Lebanon • Photo courtesy of Mary Kouyoumdjian

How do you nurture those bits and pieces into something that becomes a full piece?

Something that has been useful for me is to explore people where there is a lot of documentation around them, and Gorky is one of those people. He came to New York at a time in which there was a lot of excitement around his work, so there’s a lot of documentation from the art world. We’re also lucky enough that his granddaughters are alive and are dedicated to his legacy. Saskia Spender, one of his grandchildren, is one of the people that I interviewed for this piece. She’s the head of the Arshile Gorky Foundation, in addition to being a very accomplished, wonderful artist. So she’s also living in these two worlds.

There’s also the contribution of Atom Egoyan, and the work that he has done in researching and understanding Gorky, both in terms of biography and impact, but also perspective and purpose. That is such a treasure for me, not only in being able to create this piece, but also in understanding an experience that perhaps my own family had gone through as well.

Can you say more about reaching that understanding?

A lot of my pieces integrate documentary with these interviews—either interviews that I’ve conducted or that I’ve licensed. That is so that these voices are very present in a direct way for audiences; so that we’re not hearing their words through, say, an opera singer. I like that direct connection. But also, there’s something in it for me when I’m editing these interviews and I hear them over and over and over again. Every time I hear them, I have more understanding of my own place in this world, and the context of my family in it as well.

How do they affect the experience for the listener compared to, say, an opera singer?

Hearing human voices speak in an informal kind of context really invites empathy in a way that I don’t think sung word does. Obviously, songs have power. But feeling like someone is sitting across from you and just talking to you, I think that that invites a lot of space for empathy. And then that hopefully creates space, too, for an audience member or listener to actually care about the political or social context that surrounds the piece, and then maybe to continue talking about it… You need discomfort. Because if it’s just comfortable, no one’s going to talk after.

How do you approach setting interview footage?

My first step is editing the interviews and creating a rough outline of the pacing of the story, like a boring podcast, because there’s more space than there needs to be between certain ideas. Then, when I’m writing the music, it’s almost like scoring a film. Except the things that I’m thinking about when I’m scoring [interviews] range from intent of communication to technical considerations.

How do I best support what the speaker is trying to say? How do I convey the right message emotionally, or follow the imagined psychological trajectory of what the speaker might be going through? Are things too dense in order to understand the text? That invites moments of pause between speaking, so the music can also carry some of the weight of the storytelling.

Working with Atom Egoyan for this project, are there any similarities to your previous work in film scoring?

This essentially has become a film in its final state. One of my pet peeves in working in film has been that I get the final picture lock with a temp track. And I have to sort of knockoff what the temp track is, so there isn’t a lot of creative agency. But the way this worked was: I created the piece, I created the music, I did all of the interviews, I edited everything. [Egoyan] gave me some of his films to sample audio from, and then he edited the picture to the music, which I’ve never experienced before. It’s a reminder of how wonderful it is to collaborate with people outside of your discipline—especially in exploring the same topic, like Arshile Gorky and the Armenian Genocide, from two very different perspectives.

It would be nice to see more of that agency in traditional film scores. Whenever I see something set in the Middle East, it always feels like the scores are all cribbing from the same Fairuz song.

When I think of music from Middle Eastern regions, I think about the weight that the music does carry, because it is music that’s so informed by history. Like the sound of walking in Lebanon and hearing the sound of the prayers echoing off the buildings—they are being sung to project over miles of the city. That emptying of the soul through performance is truly what I identify Middle Eastern music as.… and there’s so much music that tries to emulate such sacred music.

Photo © Desmond White
Photo © Desmond White

Is there an aspect of Middle Eastern music that is most central to your work?

Honestly, I could be so happy just writing for strings for the rest of my life because of the microtonal in-betweens. The grit of the bow on the string, that really does capture a sense of folk playing and communal playing. It’s a sound that blends with so many others. Or the looseness to a performance. When I think of going to a restaurant in Beirut and hearing a bunch of performers over drinks, just playing—there’s a looseness to it that I love trying to get to. It’s hard with classically-trained players, but I love trying to pull that in.

You mentioned earlier the cyclical nature of history and how it factors into your work. There are also composers who write pieces that are very direct responses to current events—I’m not thinking of John Adams specifically in this context, but I am reminded of the phrase “CNN opera.” How do you view the difference between those two types of works?

The things that I write about are things that have happened for a really long time and continue to happen, so there becomes this universality. For instance, a piece like “Bombs of Beirut” … I don’t actually talk about what’s really happening politically, because the focus is really on just the experience of: What is it like to be a person during war? What is it like to be a person during genocide? That leaves things open enough where they can feel very applicable to what’s happening now.

I’m trying to just focus on the human experience. That in a way removes this pressure of keeping up with the times. And I think that that’s really the core of it, too, because if we’re understanding these conflicts as human experiences, it’s not just like: This is the conflict of 2020. This is the conflict of 2021. Instead, it’s: This always happens, and why?  ¶