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Spotlight on Mary Kouyoumdjian

Over the past decade, Mary Kouyoumdjian has explored music's power to respond to both historical and contemporary social and political realities both by evoking complex emotions through her unique musical aesthetic and also incorporating the sounds from history itself into that aesthetic: a kind of documentary music-making that bravely confronts conflict. 2015's Silent Cranes, for example, addresses the Armenian genocide that displaced her own family one hundred years earlier, by incorporating testimony by genocide survivors, as well as contemporaneous field recordings of Armenian folk songs.

Kouyoumdjian continues to explore the emotional, political, and cathartic possibilities of music's reaction to history with a set of ongoing collaborative projects that invent new ways for music to harness its communicative power. Adoration, an opera in development with Beth Morrison Projects, is an adaptation of the Atom Egoyan film of the same name. It tells the story of Simon, an orphaned high school student who, for a high school English assignment, appropriates the details of a terrorist attack as an explanation for his parents' death. When Simon's narrative goes viral online, he uses the fervor to highlight racism and bigotry within his own community and on the internet. Simon's late parents, a violin maker and a concert violinist, serve as a bridge between the libretto, written by Royce Fabric, and the music—a string quartet. Kouyoumdjian's writing for string quartet will incorporate electronics, sampled field recordings, and documentary audio footage, enveloping the audience in a multi-sensory environment. 

Kouyoumdjian's interest in multi-media narrative will also be explored in Paper Pianos, an ongoing project in collaboration with Alarm Will Sound. This evening-length work has grown out of interviews conducted by Kouyoumdjian with director Nigel Meister with four refugees and resettlement workers: the Afghan pianist Milad Yousufi, Getachew Bashir (Ethiopia), Hani Ali (Somalia), and Akil Aljaysh (Iraq). Kouyoumdjian's music incorporates audio from these interviews, and is also accompanied by live animation by Syrian artist Kevork Mourad. The piece takes its title from Milad Yousufi's story of creating a silent "paper piano" while in Afghanistan to avoid deadly punishment from the Taliban, and is a meditation on the power of music, community, and communication to respond to the inhumanity of war, displacement, and violence. 

Kouyoumdjian is also in residence this year at Buffalo String Works, which since 2014 has been offering musical education to refugee populations in the greater Buffalo area. Kouyoumdjian will compose a new work for over 85 students, bringing the emotive power of her music to young performers to experience as performers, as well as their families as audience members. 

Christopher Cerrone's "The Pieces that Fall to Earth" Released on New Amsterdam Records

Christopher Cerrone's long-awaited album, The Pieces that Fall to Earth, has recently been released on New Amsterdam Records. This new album collects three vocal cycles, all performed by the Los Angeles-based collective Wild UpThe Pieces that Fall to Earth, with soprano Lindsay Kesselman; The Naomi Songs, sung by vocalist Theo Bleckmann; and The Branch Will Not Break, sung by a chorus of eight vocalists. 

The three vocal cycles collected on The Pieces that Fall to Earth each draw their text from different contemporary poets: Kay Ryan, Bill Knott, and James Wright. In each cycle, Cerrone activates the subtle and powerful affective worlds created through his setting of these poems to music, marrying the modernist and avant-garde sound-worlds of composers such as Luciano Berio and Morton Feldman with more traditional strophic settings of lush and memorable vocal melodies. 

Cerrone notes, “These authors profoundly inspired the music that I wrote. I feel that by setting their disparate languages, I have composed three works that are kindred spirits, but whose differences are as profound as their similarities.”

The blog I Care if You Listen recently premiered a music video for "Swept Up Whole," from the album's titular vocal cycle, featuring soprano Lindsay Kesselman. As Cerrone writes,

In “Swept Up Whole,” the narrator sings “You aren’t / swept up whole, / however it / feels. You’re / atomized. The wind / passes. You / recongeal. It’s a surprise.” This film, conceived of by Evan Chapman and Kevin Eikenberg of Four/Ten Media, takes this poem and reimagines its themes visually and chronologically.

The Pieces that Fall to Earth has already been celebrated with an album release concert in Los Angeles; on August 2nd, the album will see another release event at New York's Areté, featuring Theo Bleckmann singing The Naomi Songs in an arrangement for piano and voice, accompanied by Timo Andres, who also wrote liner notes to the album. Rachel Lee Priday will perform Cerrone’s Sonata for Violin and Piano with Andres, and percussionist Andy Meyerson of The Living Earth Show will play a solo version of Cerrone’s meditative A Natural History of Vacant Lots." Cerrone will also accompany soprano Alexandra Smither in his work "I will learn to love a person."

FLUX Quartet Performs Michael Hersch's "Images from a Closed Ward" with Live Video Projection

The music of Michael Hersch often addresses some of the most intense of human emotions and events: loss, suffering, pain, and darkness, what frequent collaborator Patricia Kopatchinskaja calls "this dark side, this shadow and blood." Indeed, the work that inspired Kopatchinskaja to work with Hersch was his 2010 string quartet, Images from a Closed Ward, which emerged from Hersch's encounter with the visual art of Michael Mazur, whom Hersch met in 2000 at the American Academy of Rome. This 13-movement string quartet responds directly to Mazur's gripping series of etchings and lithographs that depict the lives of residents—many of whom were committed against their will—at a Rhode Island mental institution in the early 1960s. 

The isolation, pain, and sorrow of Mazur's work is directly evoked in this masterful string quartet's movements, which transition between what the New York Times has called "creeping dread and desperate urgency." Hersch's gestural language seamlessly moves through texture, timbre, and harmony, using the four instruments of the string quartet as an organic being that convulses and laments, both statically and dynamically. In evoking the pain of disabled people treated with injustice and violence from a broken institutional system, it also allows listeners to imagine possibilities for restitution, justice, and ultimately peace.

A Lithograph by Michael Mazur  A Lithograph by Michael Mazur 

Originally commissioned and premiered by the Blair String Quartet in 2012, Images from a Closed Ward was recently recorded by the FLUX Quartet and released on New Focus Recordings in 2018. In addition to this new recording, the FLUX Quartet has also performed Images from a Closed Ward with a new live video projection, designed by James Matthew Daniel, which superimposes images of Mazur's works, excerpts of poetry, documentary photographs from mental institutions in the mid-20th-century, and other documentation related to those institutions on the performing quartet. The result is an even more powerful event that combines Hersch's sonic language with the visual work and poetry to which it responds, contextualizing and placing the quartet in the middle of a multi-sensory field. 

This video, taken from a performance at Philadelphia's Icebox Project Space, documents the FLUX Quartet's masterful performance of Hersch's work, and serves both as a compliment to their recent recording and also as a standalone work with its own unique combination of audio-visual poetics. Watch the full performance below.

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