With independent house concerts happening all over the country and orchestras like the LA Phil reinvigorating the concert hall, this is one of the most exciting times for classical art music in America! The variety of sounds, genres, and musicians working today is astonishing, and there are thousands of talented composers tirelessly honing their craft. One of the goals of Deus Ex Musica is to introduce new audiences to some of the exciting voices working today – both established and emerging artists! And we are particularly interested in celebrating the music of composers who both seek a rich spiritual life in Christ and actively explore their faith in their music.
The first musician we would like to introduce in this month’s Composer Spotlight series is Dr. Tatev Amiryan. She is an award-winning Armenian composer and pianist now living in San Francisco. Tatev’s music reflects a love of folk music and has been performed in the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East by such renowned ensembles and performers as, German Chamber Philharmonic of Bremen (Germany), CMEA Central Coast Honors Orchestra (USA), Carpe Diem String Quartet (USA), Ensemble Oktoplus (Germany), Metropolitan Choral of Kansas City (USA), pianists Jeffrey Jacob (USA), Hayk Melikyan (Armenia), and thereminist Thorwald Jørgensen (Netherlands).
Tatev, tell us about your journey into music. How did you begin?
Music was born with me. I was connected with it since the first days I can remember myself. Everything that involved music and sounds was attractive and fascinating to me. I have experienced all forms of musical art, including singing, dancing, playing an instrument, and composing music from very young age. I grew up in a very small rural town in Armenia. I started attending the community music school at the age of seven, where I studied piano, solfege, music history, and sang in the choir. Until I could have a piano, I had been playing on the floor and on hand-drawn “imaginary” cardboard keyboards, trying to imagine the real sound in my head and the keys under my fingers. When I was eight, I got my first piano, and it became the biggest joy in my life. I used to spend many hours in front of the instrument practicing and improvising. This is the time when I started writing music, and my first pieces for piano.
What’s your first memory of music?
My first experience of music was through my mother’s voice. She used to sing Armenian folk songs on my crib. Maybe that is the reason why I have such a strong and unique connection with music and especially with folk music, since it was the first music I heard.
How do you typically start writing a piece?
Every new piece appears first as a kind of “virtual” image or a character, or as an idea, which long dwells in my head, until I feel prepared to put it into “physical” shape. In general, for me composition involves a large amount of thinking, and every new work is usually preceded by long preparation process of improvising and examining different approaches and solutions.
Do you have a favorite sound?
I love silence. It encompasses so many undisclosed and fascinating sounds.
What is the role of silence in your music?
Silence occupies an equally important place in my compositions along with the music. It completes and complements the music, and sometimes it enables me to convey emotions that are difficult to express through sounds.
You have written a beautiful lyrical work for string quartet called Retro Non (Latin for “no repeat”). You describe this piece as an exploration of the “life-changing choices we have to make sometimes unwillingly. It’s about the places left behind where we can no longer return to because we are no longer a part of them, and because they are no longer the same. It’s about…the feelings and experiences of all the people who have been forced to leave their homeland for different reasons, and who are trying to create a new life on a foreign land. You’ve recently made San Francisco your home. As an Armenian composer living and creating far from home and family, what are the challenges you face?
Living in a foreign country, all alone, far from home and family is really a struggle. But for me as a composer, the biggest challenge is to live out of my cultural environment and far from the land in which I’m rooted. My homeland gives me a lot of strength and creative energy. When I’m away from my land I’m cut from all those supportive and nourishing sources which are essential for composing. Besides, living in a culturally and artistically extremely diverse environment I also have the challenge of preserving my national identity and staying true to myself as a composer.
In Retro Non, there is a section (4:50-6:10) that sounds like the beginning of a folk dance, but this music starts and stutters unable to truly coalesce into a dance. What is the significance of this moment? Where you trying to depict something extra-musical here?
Yes, with its rhythmic intonations it resembles Armenian folk music/dance, recalling home as something bright and joyful. Later it gradually gets distorted and its dance-like cheerful nature acquires ironic character eventually turning into a cry. This episode attempts to depict the suffering and severe emotions one can experience through homesickness.
Classical composition is still a male-dominated profession, what’s your experience been like as a woman in this field?
Woman composer is an extraordinary, totally unique kind of category. Being a woman composer is a constant “battle.” In addition to facing the challenges of being a composer, you also have to constantly prove to the world that you are equally as capable as male composers. Women strive to earn an equal space in the musical field, which, unfortunately, still continues to be hugely misbalanced and show little attention and appreciation to women’s work in music. This is a kind of a “burden” that makes it extra-difficult for us to pursue a career in composition – a “burden” which we will carry throughout our entire musical career – but which at the same time creates a unique position for us in the musical world.
Your piano piece, Waiting for the Dawn, was inspired by a poem called "Unceasing Belfry" by 20th century Armenian poet Paruyr Sevak. The poem features the life of remarkable Armenian composer Komitas. In your program notes, you recount that he “suffered a psychotic breakdown after witnessing the atrocities of the Armenian Genocide in 1915 and spent the rest of his life in psychiatric hospital in Paris. In the poem, Komitas represents the always ringing church bells as a symbol of the anguished Armenian people.” Instead of the “expected sentiment for a martyr of 20th century’s first Genocide,” you’ve written a lyrical work focused on a belfry. Could you unpack the significance of this imagery?
Associated with the church in the history of the Armenian nation, the belfry is a kind of symbol of life and everlastingness, a living proof of the endurance and perseverance of Armenian people who, in spite of many hardships and tragedies throughout the long history of their existence, could survive, continue to live and thrive, building schools and churches, preserve their culture and religion, and keep their Christian traditions alive. Unlike Komitas’s prevalent image where he’s seen as a symbol and martyr of the Armenian Genocide, in my piece he is depicted as a lyrical character who rises high above the pain as a true beacon of light, similar to the toll of a time-defying belfry, a reminder of the Armenian people’s most archetypal features: perseverance, strong belief, and an optimistic approach to life.
This piece contains a quotation from Komitas’s song. What is the purpose of this quotation? Do you often use quotation in your music?
In the piece, I have quoted Komitas's well-known song “Andouni” (meaning = homeless), which is about homesickness and exile, to build a bridge to Komitas’s own compositional language and to draw his image through his own music. I don’t use quotation in my works often, but most of my pieces resemble rhythmic and melodic intonations from Armenian folk songs/dances.
Can you tell us about the inspiration for Echoes From Childhood?
The piece echoes my childhood in war-torn Armenia in early 1990’s (the results of the Armenia-Azerbaijan territorial conflict). The piece depicts the emotions of the children living through war-time, when there is no gas, electricity, and food, and life is a struggle, but children can still find joy in life and things to be happy about. It aims to show how being hungry and cold and living in the darkness feels like to a child, how a child can cope with struggles, and how the light of a child’s soul can strike through the darkness of a sad reality.
Does your Christian faith shape your music? If so, how?
My Christian background has played an important role in shaping my mentality and world-perspective as a person, which is somewhat reflected in my music; the strength, the positive attitude to life, the compassion and care to others, the love of the light, the beautiful and the human, those are some qualities that are coming partly from my Christian upbringing.
Are there aspects of your faith that have been influenced by your work in music?
Music developed in me more sensitivity and care towards the living world. It helped me achieve a deeper connection with the spiritual, and to find harmony within myself and with the world I live in.
Interview with Tatev Amiryan conducted by Josh Rodriguez via email between July 31-August 8, 2019
To hear more of Tatev’s music, please visit: https://www.tatevamiryan.com/
Personal photos provided by composer and used with permission. Headshot by Sonia Bagdasarian. Other photos taken from Library of Congress and Unsplash.com. If you are interested in contributing an article or would like to recommend a topic for exploration, please send an email to: email@example.com
 Composer’s Note, Retro Non
 Composer’s Note, Waiting for the Dawn