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‘The Serpent and the Crane’: A different kind of animal(s) for raising genocide awareness

June 29, 2020

Interview

By Lilly Torosyan

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New ‘The Serpent and the Crane’: A different kind of animal(s) for raising genocide awareness

Throughout the past century, many artists, poets, and musicians have tackled the topic of the Armenian Genocide. Multidisciplinary writer and musician Alan Semerdjian and guitarist Aram Bajakian’s recent project, “The Serpent and the Crane,” processes trauma in a new light, while raising global awareness. Featuring artwork by Kevork Mourad (whom Semerdjian calls “a true visionary”) the spoken word album has achieved much praise and acclaim in the two months since its release. We had a chance to chat with Semerdjian about the record. Check it out below!
 

I first met poet-musician-educator Alan Semerdjian in 2016, long before a deadly virus turned live gigs into live streams. He was rocking out with one of Armenia’s most perennial and prolific bands, The Bambir, at Le Poisson Rouge (meaning “goldfish” in French)—one of the Big Apple’s coolest venues. Together, they jam-fused rock-folk-Americana sounds in a quintessentially New York space: small, diverse, and edgy. The audience were goldfish—with good taste and sense to end up in this fishbowl.

Before and since that concert, Semerdjian has been busy. Over two decades of making music has resulted in three solo albums. When he’s not creating, crafting, or performing, he’s teaching English to high schoolers in Long Island. Did we mention that he’s also an award-winning poet? His second manuscript, The Birds and Other Flying Things, is in the process of making its way through the publishing ring.

But his most recently launched animal-named project is a spoken word collaborative album with guitarist Aram Bajakian, where various poems—including several pieces from Semerdjian’s full-length poetry book, In the Architecture of Bone—are (re)imagined in a new space, time, and medium. Titled "The Serpent and the Crane," the abstract record commemorates the 105th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide by melding poetry and music. 

And it does it well. A few of the selected poems were penned by genocide victims (such as Daniel Varoujan and Siamanto), and others, by their descendants, like Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Peter Balakian and Semerdjian himself. The result is a reflection on the tension between the pain of the genocide and the subsequent beauty and resilience that arose from its ashes. Semerdjian sums it up to us with the line, “How can something so beautifully made, be about something so ugly and horrific?”

But even before hearing a single word or note, the album artwork reels you in. The striking cover image was crafted by Syrian-Armenian visual artist Kevork Mourad, a longtime friend of Semerdjian’s. The idea was born as a result of several late-night phone calls in the midst of this pandemic. Semerdjian tells us that it’s just one of many in Mourad’s quarantine series—an example of artists creating balm during distressing times. 

“The Serpent and the Crane” was released online, free of charge, on April 24—Armenian Genocide Commemoration Day. Almost immediately, it made tidal waves. Among its fans is Kim Kardashian, who tweeted out the album link to her 65+ million followers—an unexpected success for which, Semerdjian tells us, he was woefully unprepared. 

However, we are fortunate that the introspective writer was more than prepared to open up to us at h-pem. Check out our exclusive conversation below, then head over to amerge.bandcamp.com to download “The Serpent and The Crane”—”for free, or whatever you’d like to pay,” says Semerdjian—and the accompanying digital booklet with poems in English and Armenian and Mourad’s cover art.

***

Lilly Torosyan: When you set out to create this project, how did you envision these interplays—between poetry and music, pain (or trauma) and beauty, speaking and silence—in particular, towards your goal of addressing the complexities of the genocide?

Alan Semerdjian: Yes, the binary you mention seems integral to moving pieces of artful work that address difficult and traumatic subject matter (and perhaps the human condition itself, though that’s another story). I’m thinking of Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful,” for instance, or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or Komitas’ “Shushiki.” All evoke the same response when one is confronted with an artifact of beauty—remarkable and complex craft, the risking of sentiment, etc. How can something so beautifully made be about something so ugly and horrific? 


“When we set out to create the project, we knew we were walking into this field between beauty and pain. But we also knew that our contribution would be dressed up a bit differently and, perhaps, call upon traditions not typically associated with this topic. I’m thinking about abstraction here, in particular, free jazz and noise art, spoken word poetry.  
- Alan Semedjian

 

So, the result is different. It’s less linear and premeditated in its architectural design, so more textures seep in that might have otherwise been edited out. But it’s still attempting to make art out of, and through, the anguish. Thank you for the kind words, by the way. I’m not sure we were trying to make something beautiful, per se—[rather, we were] trying to enter a conversation in a new way. Maybe that’s part of its resonance, too.

(L-R) Aram Bajakian and Alan Semerdjian (Photo: Khach Turabian)(L-R) Aram Bajakian and Alan Semerdjian (Photo: Khach Turabian)
 
L.T.: How did the idea arise to collaborate with Aram Bajakian? Did you initially set out to create a spoken word album together
 
A.S.: Aram and I met each other through the Long Island City music scene here, in New York, and I immediately was really moved by his instincts as a player and thinker. We had a jam together early on in his apartment, when he was living in Queens. That laid some groundwork towards his recording for my last singer-songwriter collection “Quiet Songs for Loud Times,” and some performances together in support of the record. Along the way, we discussed our shared ancestry and our grandparents, who were survivors, and the desire to make something to increase awareness/recognition for the genocide, leading up to its centennial commemoration. 

We did a lo-fi “remote” collaboration around one of my poems, “Primer,” that two online publications graciously published (the Armenian Poetry Project and the Hye-Phen Magazine & Collective—you can hear that early version here). We then tried it out, live, during his residency at John Zorn’s “The Stone,” when it was located in the East Village. 

The AGBU gave us a grant that we used to make the record and Creative Armenia supported the last leg. We did a big show in Brooklyn in between and sort of fleshed out the vision. I suppose we didn’t know what it would look or sound like, but we knew we wanted it made.

 

L.T.: You say that the collection consists of “mostly extemporaneous and highly imaginative guitar compositions overdramatic readings of poems.” If I am understanding correctly, the poems were all selected beforehand, but the musical pieces by Bajakian were nearly all improvised? Is this that “gift of surprise” you alluded to great musicians possessing?

A.S.: Well, let me start by saying that I do not consider myself a great musician in most renderings of the definition. For me, music is a vehicle for that which needs to be said. I’m a writer first; I understand the “gift of surprise” more in that context and am trained to do so. The guitar, my singing, and the piano have always helped me make meaning of my world, but I personally know far too many extraordinary and highly-trained musicians to consider myself among their ranks as a player. 

Aram is a phenomenal musician and responsible for almost all of the music on “The Serpent and The Crane.” Some of the ideas were realized in the studio on the day of their recording, and some were sketches he brought in to be deconstructed and re-assembled, based on the words of the poems I chose and the way in which I delivered them. 

We attempted to subvert the typical way a spoken word album is constructed with the sonic elements in support of the poet who is on the microphone. Instead, we viewed the process as more of an egalitarian dance with no leader between all the elements involved: the music, my voice/delivery, and the poetry itself. 

 

If a hierarchical structure did exist, it was that the first two were in service of the last at all times. Thus, my voice and delivery became a kind of instrument too, entangled with Aram’s guitar.

 

An inside look at the record. (Image courtesy of Alan Semerdjian; All rights belong to the owners.)An inside look at the record. (Image courtesy of Alan Semerdjian; All rights belong to the owners.)

L.T.: Several of the tracks are lyrics taken from your 2009 chapbook of poems, An Improvised Device. Why did you select the specific pieces (and poets) that you did for this project? Were there any you originally had chosen and ended up omitting?

A.S.: An Improvised Device was a chapbook that poet Amy Ouzoonian helped bring to the world a while back when she was at A Gathering of the Tribes. Many of the poems in it appeared in 2009’s In the Architecture of Bone, which was my first and only (thus far) full-length collection. Some of the poems felt like they wanted to have a life outside of the page, so it made sense to see them in the context of our project. They’ve appeared in publications here and there. I’ve read them a bunch, and they’ve been translated and set to music. I suppose they’ve had their time and maybe "The Serpent and The Crane" is their curtain call of sorts. Who knows?

I selected them because of the terrain the pieces explore, which is a road that leads to the massive behemoth of genocide and its anti-humanity ghosts. Some of my original work selected are directly about their haunting and at least one poem (“Caesuras”) is more loosely related. Aram and I wanted a diverse representation of tones and styles and time periods in the works in the collection, which informed my research and choices for the other writers. Siamanto and Varoujan both perished in the genocide and have notably different voices, especially in the two poems that appear here. 

And we wanted to have two living writers who ostensibly represent the generation beforeus; writers who have more recognizable names and who have addressed the Armenian Genocide in their work. We ended up only having one, because the incredible Diana Der Hovanessian left our world before the album was released. I truly wish she could have heard it. Peter Balakian made sense (he’s been a friend and mentor for a long time, for many of us) on multiple levels, as well, and I was thankful for his support throughout the process of making the album. 

 

L.T.: The story behind the name of the album is fascinating. You describe a few different readings for what these two beings, the serpent and the crane, could represent. How do you envision the interplay between them—or the duality of time? Similarly, was it a conscious decision to place the “serpent” before the “crane,” even though it came after?

If the national bird of Armenia is the eagle, I think the national bird of the Diaspora should be the crane...

 

A.S.: With its storied migration patterns and idiosyncratic calls and stature, the crane is a peculiarly noble animal and always seemingly far from home. In addition, the word itself can function as a verb and carries with it duality’s charge. It had to come last in the title. It is the subject of the work, the Armenian people themselves scattered all over the world—and at home, still. The serpent, as I’ve said before, is characterized in such a wild and chilling mystery in the Varoujan poem, “The Aged Crane,” that it can mean many things in and of itself. I like that you bring up time, because it definitely has an impact on how and what we remember and can be, like in the poem, the final insult-to-injury death blow.

On his upcoming poetry manuscript, The Birds and Other Flying Things: “The more I think about it, the poems all seem to be about love, in some way, though perhaps it’s more appropriate to call it longing—longing for the ephemeral, for that which we had or cannot have, for that which is out of reach and that which we can never understand. Lots of introspective examinations of partnerships and community, meditations on place, fatherhood, mortality. The poems are less about Armenian things (familial, historical, etc.) than my work in the past, but that doesn’t mean that some previously traversed territory doesn’t pop up.” (Photo: Rob Goldman)On his upcoming poetry manuscript, The Birds and Other Flying Things: “The more I think about it, the poems all seem to be about love, in some way, though perhaps it’s more appropriate to call it longing—longing for the ephemeral, for that which we had or cannot have, for that which is out of reach and that which we can never understand. Lots of introspective examinations of partnerships and community, meditations on place, fatherhood, mortality. The poems are less about Armenian things (familial, historical, etc.) than my work in the past, but that doesn’t mean that some previously traversed territory doesn’t pop up.” (Photo: Rob Goldman)
L.T.: The response to this project has been phenomenal, garnering praise from the likes of Serj Tankian and Kim Kardashian. What do you make of the positive feedback? Any intention to create something similar in the future?

A.S.: I was really surprised and kind of blown away/unprepared for it, especially because of the niche and almost academic nature of the project.  I had reached out to some education organizations and literary journals to support its release and knew AGBU and Creative Armenia would do so, as well, but I was really glad to see it resonated for Kim and also for folks like Serj Tankian from System of a Down, whose work I greatly admire. The Kim thing is quite surreal, on a few levels: When she tweeted out our work (is that the way to phrase it?), I didn’t even have a Twitter account! A dear old friend had passed on a press release, sure, but I didn’t quite realize the implications of 65 million followers and what that means. 

I made a Twitter account shortly after the storm, in what may have been the most anticlimactic decision in recent memory. I’m thinking of writing an essay about it, actually. Like, the guy who shows up in costume to the Halloween get-together at 2 a.m., but the guests have all left and the hosts aren’t even answering the door. I think I have about 65 followers, as of this writing. 

 

It’s not that I don’t value social media. On the contrary, I have very active Facebook and Instagram accounts and need to for my music and writing and work as a teacher, too. I was just, well, late to that party, I guess.  

On his current work: “I’m writing all of this new work about the racial injustice coming to the surface again in America and around the world because it feels so imminent and pressing and timely, though it’s paired with this urgent need to, frankly, listen better and more. And listening also came to the surface during the diving inwards and quieting that came with the pandemic, which isn’t even fully put to bed yet. I have no clue how this new work will make its way into the next incarnation of the manuscript, if at all, but I know I’m contending with it now.” (Photo: Charles Steinberg)On his current work: “I’m writing all of this new work about the racial injustice coming to the surface again in America and around the world because it feels so imminent and pressing and timely, though it’s paired with this urgent need to, frankly, listen better and more. And listening also came to the surface during the diving inwards and quieting that came with the pandemic, which isn’t even fully put to bed yet. I have no clue how this new work will make its way into the next incarnation of the manuscript, if at all, but I know I’m contending with it now.” (Photo: Charles Steinberg)
 
More than anything else, however, I am glad to see that the work was heard more and got in front of more eyes, and in that way, consciousness was somehow raised. It was really nice of her and Serj and everyone else to do that. Get the work out there, the message. Any kind support is always amazing, but support for poetry and abstract, difficult-to-digest art about something as important as this is, is a different level. 

In terms of the future, I’d like to collaborate with other musicians and possibly artists in other mediums/disciplines. I’ve reached out to a few already. We’ll see...


“The Serpent and the Crane” is available for free download, though donations are encouraged. Check it out here

To follow Semerdjian, here are his social media accounts (including Twitter!): Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

 

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