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Deus Ex Musica is an ecumenical project that promotes the used of a scared music as a resource for learning, spiritual growth, and discipleship.

Filtering by Tag: new music

Composer Spotlight: Tatev Amiryan

Josh Rodriguez

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.

Young Tatev and the location of Armenia

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.

Between Stepanakert and Alaverdi, Alaverdi, Armenia. Photo by Alexandr Hovhannisyan.

Between Stepanakert and Alaverdi, Alaverdi, Armenia. Photo by Alexandr Hovhannisyan.

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.[1] 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.  

Etchmiadzin Cathedral: the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church, located in Etchmiadzin, Armenia, founded in AD 301.

Etchmiadzin Cathedral: the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church, located in Etchmiadzin, Armenia, founded in AD 301.

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.”[2] 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 photo of an Armenian woman kneeling beside dead child in field is said to have been taken around 1915 (Library of Congress).

This photo of an Armenian woman kneeling beside dead child in field is said to have been taken around 1915 (Library of Congress).

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 Tate’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: blog@deus-ex-musica.com

[1] Composer’s Note, Retro Non

[2] Composer’s Note, Waiting for the Dawn

Why New Music?

Josh Rodriguez

It’s a question that is so familiar to those of us involved in and passionate about new music. By “new music” I mean that genre of newly composed contemporary classical music made by living composers that seems to uproot and defy so many labels, so for now please accept this term as an oversimplified but necessary tool for discussion. And to be honest, we know: It is a fair question! New music is not always as “easy on the ears” as other genres. For Christians, the question compounds itself with moral concern. Should we be drawn to this type of music that can be strange, erratic, and harsh? Why would we stray from attractive sounds or traditionally ordered melodies and rhythms? ...Is it even right to do so?

Possible answers stretch past any one response, but perhaps I can offer a few from my own journey. As a pianist and a follower of Christ who fell in love with new music years ago, I find it not only worthwhile, but used by God in my life as a vocation and a calling. Here’s why:

1. It’s exciting and challenging.

I was not introduced to new music until well into my undergraduate studies, but once it happened I was taken immediately. To a young classical pianist laboring daily over appealing curves of melody, delicate shapes of phrase, and subtleties of dynamics (volume levels), here was an intriguing change of pace! Abrupt melodies, seemingly nonsensical phrases, and dynamic shifts I couldn’t predict! The technical challenges peaked my interest also. Extended techniques for the piano (those ways of playing, plucking, muting a piano’s strings, drumming its case or singing into its soundboard, to name a few) gave me a world of new ways I could use my instrument. Never before performed pieces, some impossibly difficult, sent me into new thrills of what was possible. By the time I entered my master’s degree, I knew I’d always be hooked.

2. It is the future of “classical” music.

My fascination with new music in no way separated me from my beloved Bach or Beethoven. On the contrary, it strengthened my affection for them by taking me back to their beginnings. I started to truly consider the creative process behind music’s inception and learn from composers around me. In doing so, I realized my part in extending the heritage of art music into the future. What new pieces would join this canon? How would any piece stand a chance if it weren’t promoted and performed? I grew excited to serve as ambassador for the music of living composers and champion the future of music for my instrument.

3. It is uniquely relevant to today.

New music is, well, music that is new. It is the music of the world as it currently is. The fact that classical music (“classical” defined broadly here), exists primarily from composers long deceased and usually European is an issue already at large, but the artistic implications are important here. When I play a piece composed by someone living or active within the last few decades, I have a much closer understanding to their perspective. But wait, you may say; surely art transcends time! And aren’t human elements universal? Yes. But. That never negates the reality that art, to create, must always be moving and seeking. (Just imagine the tragedy for us pianists if Chopin hadn’t strived to create past what he’d heard before!)

coffee-communication-compose-1498964.jpg

4. It impacts culture.  

A crucial aspect of art is its ability to reflect and provide commentary on culture. Culture wears the garb of the everyday, the here and now. When I work with a living composer, I know their culture, history, and time, intimately because it is also mine (even international composers are relatable more than ever before in our global age). Furthermore, if they are seeking to impact or comment on our culture, I can join that conversation easily. For Christians, this should stand out immediately. Are we not called to be working and making an impact in our culture as witnesses to the love of Christ? Today’s art composers have real questions, relevant ideas, and significant things to say. Shouldn’t we be joining this conversation?

5. It is Powerful.

After a recent concert, I was approached with refreshing honesty from an audience member. “It was wonderful, I loved it! But…” she trailed off, searching for the words she needed, “Some of it was annoying, and made me feel upset. But I still loved it... Does that make any sense?” I assured her that it did! Relieved to see me unoffended, she concluded smiling, “It was even, cathartic.” Cathartic. Isn’t that just what music should be? Somewhere along the line we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of music as purely “feel good” in function. We use it for entertainment, for lyrics, for background, for worship. These are great functionalities for music, but they close the door to listening to music for its own sake and on its own terms. Music is sound. New music challenges us to experience a range of sounds that often evoke emotions, when listened to actively. We may be pleasantly surprised. Or “annoyed,” like my friend. Either way, we’ll be met with a genuine response every time.

6. It Reflects His Work in Our Lives

God has always worked within our broken world. Making “beauty from ashes” (Is. 63:1), He steps into all that is wrong here and brings His beauty as Creator among it. The finest music has always reflected this attribute (intentionally or not, directly or indirectly), by seeking to do the same: to touch with healing beauty (art). Many Christians point to the example of so many classical composers who lived tragic lives yet created masterpieces that uplift us today. New music, if well crafted, does the same.

Whether looking outward to world events or inward to my personal life, struggle and chaos coexist alongside moments of peace and joy. Bringing new a score to life that has sharp turns of mood, at times chaotic, at times serene, feels quite familiar. It is vividly depicting where I am. But if the piece is artfully made, I know it won’t leave me there. It may never sound harmonious in the traditional sense, but it will offer deeper beauty in meaning. In so doing, it offers a picture of God’s work in us. Fellow believers know that while here on earth, the beauty He brings is not always the “pretty” of this world (a perfect life, miraculous healing, quick fixes), but something far better: Himself, Perfection, to walk alongside us and bring deeper meaning. New music may not always bring those “pretty” chord progressions that soothe the ear, but often enough if we’re listening, it enriches and warms our hearts by bringing art that meets us where we are.


Caitlin Frasure, Pianist & Co-Founder of “Ascending”

www.caitlinfrasure.com

If you are interested in contributing an article or would like to recommend a topic for exploration, please send an email to: blog@deus-ex-musica.com Photos from Pxhere.com

Discovering liturgy: ancient rituals and new music

Josh Rodriguez

In the long journey of my faith in Christ, I have mostly walked along a path set by leaders of what is termed Evangelicalism, and most of my central beliefs are centered around biblically based theology, rather than those based on tradition. However, in the last twenty years I have fallen in love with the liturgy as practiced by many of the main line protestant churches, as well as those used as the main structure of worship by the Anglican, Orthodox and Catholic denominations. I like its structure and its discipline, and love its language. I’ve found that, in the midst of a busy day, taking time out to read and pray the liturgical hours centers my focus back to God, instead of only being caught up in the typical hectic nature of my teaching days: ones that are long, very busy, and filled with the minutiae of academic bureaucracy.

Therefore, when asked by the violin-piano duo Ascending to write them a new work, I thought that I would try and compose for them a sacred work, since they are also both Christians as well. Because they had also asked for a piece that incorporated extended techniques for both piano and violin, I thought for many months what a sacred piece that encompassed those sorts of things would look and sound like. Eventually, the idea of a ‘liturgy of the hours’ emerged, both as a means of writing a multi-movement piece, but to also bring focus to the whole: a period of time defined by the individual hours of prayer and worship over the course of a day. Typically, during the course of a day’s liturgy, the prayers begin at midnight, with Matins -- dawn begins with Lauds, moving through the morning and afternoon with Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and moving into the evening with Vespers and finally, Compline. Each prayer is about three hours apart from each other, and depending on which church’s tradition you follow, will have a set of readings, hymns, psalms, and prayers which are read, sung, or prayed. This piece is loosely based on some of those readings. psalms, and prayers, with a verse or fragment of those hours listed below. The individual movements contain some shared musical material between movements but is unlike a typical violin sonata in that the violin is not always the principal instrumentalist – indeed, most of the time, the foregrounded music is an amalgamation of both instruments. The musical language, while accessible, is contemporary to the late 20th and early 21st centuries and takes advantage of scordatura violin writing (that is, an alternative tuning of the violin), modes of limited transposition, and inside the piano techniques popularized by Olivier Messiaen, George Crumb, Henry Cowell, Charles Ives and others. This piece reflects the impressions of these hours made upon me while working on it; when reading/praying the liturgical hours, I made similar connections between the texts and scripture listed below (taken from a single day’s breviary texts) and the music as it was being written.

Matins – “Lord, open our lips and we shall praise your name” – opening invocation
Lauds – “It is good to praise the Lord and to sing psalms to your name, O Most High….” - Psalm 92:1
Prime – “When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which     you set into place, what is man that you should take thought of him?” – Psalm 8:3
Terce – Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. “Listen O God, to my voice; keep me safe from fear of the    enemy. Protect me from the crowd of those who do evil.” – Psalm 64:1
Sext – “This is the song I shall sing in your name, forever and ever.” – Psalm 61:8
None - Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. “If the Lord does not build the house, its builder labors in       vain… It is vain for you to rise before the dawn and go late to your rest, eating the bread          of your toil – to those He loves, the Lord gives sleep.” - Psalm 127:1-2
Vespers – “Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.” – Psalm 116:7
Compline – “The Lord grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.” – closing benediction

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Life in a monastery also informed the final part of the process of composition; Instead of using computer technology for preparing the score, I sat for many silent hours in my own scriptorium, writing with pen, ruler, and making my own lined manuscript paper to create this piece.  In so doing, I felt my spirit become more peaceful and reach out to Christ and engage in a kind of worship that was (to me) so much more fundamentally organic than if I had used the now usual tools of my trade (computer, MIDI keyboard, software instruments, and printer) to complete the work.  This was an excellent lesson for me, echoed by the text of the hours of Sext, Vespers and Compline listed above – indeed, “Lord, grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.”

The works of my musical brothers and sisters in Christ are multifaceted, well-crafted, and in many, many styles and genre – some are simple, and others are incredibly opaque and complex.  Indeed, each of them speak in their own language and every listener understands this music by their own multilingual abilities (or not, as the case may be!), but I am overjoyed to experience a facet of those scriptures that declare

… that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:10-11 NIV)

I specifically aspire to be a multi-lingual composer, one who writes simply and direct one day, and who can change my musical language to speak to a differing audience the next.  To be a composer of both secular and sacred music; to write for the concert hall as well as the church; for recording and for live performance, for the world, or just for myself… or only for God.  Thankfully, we now all live in a time where this is possible, and musicians and audiences can really pick and choose how, and to what they wish to listen.  This kind of diversity in our Spotify world allows us all to become speakers and listeners of many languages, and my hope is that all who listen to music might develop into multi-lingual listeners, especially those who believe that music is vital to the life of discipleship.  The music of God is not just for the inside of the church building (although it may arise there, eh Johann Sebastian?), but can be realized or initially be presented from a concert hall, an art gallery, a theatre, a garage, an experimental multimedia laboratory… 

Or a modern scriptorium.

Gratia Deo – soli Deo Gloria!

Frank Felice, Associate Professor, Composition, Electronic Music

If you haven’t already, please take a moment to listen to A Liturgy of the Hours, a work that invites the listener into both serene meditation and exuberant celebration. Photography: The first image is taken from the last movement of Felice’s score; the second (courtesy of Pixabay) is from a monastic retreat in Gloucestershire, UK. If you are interested in contributing an article or would like to recommend a topic for exploration, please send an email to: blog@deus-ex-musica.com