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Interview | Exploring Music and Identity With Composer Mary Kouyoumdjian

May 11, 2024


By Shahen Araboghlian


New Interview | Exploring Music and Identity With Composer Mary Kouyoumdjian

In the realm of contemporary music, Mary Kouyoumdjian is a force to be reckoned with. Known for her innovative compositions that seamlessly weave together personal narratives and socio-political commentary, Kouyoumdjian's work transcends mere musical expression.

I accidentally met Mary a year ago this time around.

A friend had asked me if I’d join her for a hike and if I could help organize it. I immediately agreed, because who doesn’t want a Sunday off in the hills of Lori? A day later, she told me some of her friends were in town from the US and they may join us, and I obviously didn’t object.

A shuttle was waiting for us on Komitas Avenue, Yerevan, and I was running exactly three minutes late, but everyone else was early. I met Mary there. We got talking in the shuttle on our way through the picturesque sceneries blurring in green through the windows. On the same day, I also met photojournalist Scout Tufankjian, and they were both together in Armenia on a mission: to create a piece dedicated to Artsakh, to be played by the New York Philharmonic. It’s called Andouni (Անտունի | Homeless).

I met with Mary again over Zoom two weeks ago to discuss her previous and future projects, aspirations, ambitions, and beyond. She was sitting in her sunny apartment living room, with her two dogs, Cooper and Alfie, in the background. Alfie is named after the song by Burt Bacharach (her favorite cover, though, is by Cher); they’re both rescue dogs. She giggles and tells me they’re her comic relief and subtle reminders to go on walks.

Kouyoumdjian and Tufankjian premiered their piece at the Lincoln Center yesterday night. The piece is a poignant reflection on the Artsakh Armenian community's struggles amidst adversity, especially in recent times.


Hello Mary, and thank you for agreeing to do this interview with h-pem. Tell me about your most recent piece on Artsakh with Scout Tufankjian, to be performed by the New York Philharmonic.

Back in 2019, the New York Philharmonic commissioned 19 women to write for the orchestra and for their organization [called Project19], and I was very lucky to be one of those 19. Between then and now, so much of the world has changed, including what has been happening in Artsakh and Armenia.

As all of these events were happening, especially after the 2020 war, it just felt very impossible to imagine writing a piece that was not centered on this topic and our Armenian community.

We wanted to write a piece about the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war and the impact of that war, the loss of cultural heritage sites, and how that impacts the community. But then the world really shifted in 2022 and 2023 in Artsakh, so our attention also shifted to the piece.

How was your experience documenting your current piece when you last visited Armenia in May 2023?

It was a surprising one. It wasn't what we had planned to do; we wanted to be in Artsakh and interview people there. But the results of not being there, the result of being in Armenia, and the timing of just who was there, including yourself; to meet you and others there, and to spend time in some villages that I hadn't on previous trips before… whenever I go to Armenia, I’d go for concerts, and I wouldn't have time to really invest in a village or in that community. It was nice to feel like I was getting to know communities.

It also was nice to see how much more volunteer work is being done, especially in these last ten years, to see all the schools that have developed. It's just really impressive, I was very impressed. It continues to make me want to invest my own energy and resources into Armenia. There's so much promise there, especially with the kids… we spent so much time with COAF and what those kids are doing… it's amazing. The other thing that was deeply felt was the tension of this conflict with Artsakh, even driving along the border just not knowing what could happen to those communities.

The question I want to ask applies to you both as an Armenian with the baggage that comes with… being Armenian, but also as a talented musician and an artist. You've received impressive commissions from prestigious organizations like the New York Phil, Carnegie Hall, the Met Museum… how have these collaborations influenced you?

That's a great question. Well, first, I think regardless of the commissioning opportunity, as an Armenian artist, whether I want to or not, the idea of cultural preservation of how I help push my heritage and artistic culture forward [is important]… Knowing that people before me were in a position in which they couldn’t express themselves without consequence, it became inevitable. When having an opportunity like a commission from Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the New York Philharmonic, it's very difficult not to also see these as opportunities that have large platforms. 

Having a commission from the New York Phil just seemed like a logistical opportunity to say something very big, to say something political, and to hopefully expose an audience that probably doesn't know anything about what was going on in Artsakh, what is currently happening… to sort of educate them and hope that they empathize with the people in Scout's photography and the interviewees in my piece and are more educated but also inclined to act directly.


You frequently integrate recorded testimonies or field recordings of different places. How do you think these elements contribute to humanizing complex experiences around social and political conflicts? Why do you do this? And why do you think it works?

It's exactly what you said in your question; having direct recordings of real people, for me, from my own experience is the most clear line of empathy between a speaker and a listener.

You often try to balance being a composer, documentarian, lecturer, and advocate for new music. What are the rewards or challenges you face in these different fields?

The challenge of doing all these is balance. I still don't have an answer for what is the right balance for the various interests in my life, and there isn't one particular balance throughout the trajectory of my life. I'm a composer, but I'm also a human being with complexities, and there are different interests that both can be fulfilling, but also draining in a way, too. Education and teaching composition, or teaching music history, is really rewarding because you're hearing perspectives and the way that different students receive the same music that I'm hearing. That's incredibly enriching. But also, especially with composition, students often have writer's block; it's my job to help them get out of it. Oftentimes, that means I don't have a lot of energy left for myself and my own creativity. Other composition teachers get really energized from it. I can, too, but it can also take away, so I have to kind of step away from certain interests to sustain others at times.

Why did you choose music? When did you choose music? Who thought it was a good idea? And who didn't?

Oh, yeah, this is an embarrassing answer.

I can do it off the record if you don't want me to mention it!

It’s fine! I told plenty of people about this.

There were two moments in my life in which I felt like I chose music.

One was just being a kid and taking piano lessons, but that was ultimately chosen by my parents when I was five. But I enjoyed it!

The moment that I took it really seriously was when a boy I had a crush on in high school said, "you're really good at this,” as I was applying for colleges… "you're really good at this, don't major in biology." I had wanted to be a vet, I wanted to work in a zoo. "Don't major in biology, you should major in music" and this love-sick 17-year-old Mary said, "sure." Now, if I could go back and talk to that person, I would say "you're an idiot, don't do anything for a boy!” But it worked out well. Now music is where I'm meant to be; I express most honestly, through sound and music.”

I wouldn't say you listened to a boy and chose music, I think you subconsciously wanted an extra push to be able to pursue music instead of biology.

Well, when I was growing up, I didn't live in a major city. My parents, as immigrants from Beirut, came to the US and opened a sandwich shop… they weren't the most artistic people, they didn't know about artistic opportunities where I grew up. So growing up, I thought, if I'm going to be a musician, I can only be a piano teacher, I didn't know that there were other options for me. I didn't always love piano lessons, so I also didn't want to be a piano teacher. It took talking to this boy, for instance, or talking to other musicians to realize that there were other career paths and then I started to get excited about it.”

If you were to share some advice, perhaps to a five-year-old or your five-year-old self, what would you say?

That practice doesn't always make perfect, but practice should be fun. It's not so much the product that is important so much as your experience playing and getting to know the instrument.

You're a composer, but you've also worked as an orchestrator and as a music editor for film. How different are these experiences? Do you approach them differently? Do you prefer one over the other?

They're very different in my mind. My work in film, whether it's writing original music, orchestrating, or music editing, is ultimately at the surface of somebody else's vision. Whether that's the filmmaker, or if I'm orchestrating music for another composer, or music editing for the picture editor… it's their vision, and I'm using music to best support what they need. I'm trying to be a mediator between the music and the vision component of the project.

When I'm composing my own projects and I’m my own creative director, I'm making all the creative choices.

Tell me about Hotel Elefant.

I'm not a part of Hotel Elefant anymore, but I can tell you about it. When I moved to New York in 2010, I had shifted gears from being a film composer to a concert composer, but I didn't have anything to my name during that career switch; no one was playing my music. I started an ensemble here in New York with about 20 musicians who liked my music and other contemporary composers' works. That group put me on the map because it meant that my music was being performed in New York and I got recordings. That expanded to other opportunities.

How would you relate this to your experience with the New Music Gathering?

New Music Gathering was started with myself and a few other composer friends because we felt like there wasn't a place in our community to come together and talk about current ideas. There were tons of opportunities for other corners of music, but for living contemporary classical music… we wanted an informal, non-academic space for people to present new ideas around tech and music presentation and production and just... everything. That happens almost every year, and it's completely volunteer-run, and it's amazing.

Who’s your favorite composer of all time? And if it’s really hard, you can break it down into eras or maybe your top three.

Okay, I might break the definition of a capital C composer. The Beatles. They're amazing writers of music, not just in lyrics and song necessarily, but I think about their recording A Day in The Life and the organized chaos of it and the builds of it, and how much that has been influencing my music writing. I listened to that recording for the first time when I was 13 years old and it's just been in my ear the whole time.

How old are you now?

I am 41 years old now.

That's a long time of loving the Beatles and I completely get it. How about your favorite musical?

Oh, Jesus Christ Superstar. I'm not a big Andrew Lloyd Webber fan, but that one is technically not a musical, but a rock opera. The songs are really good. Nothing like Cats. I mean, it knocks all other Andrew Lloyd Webber shows way out. It doesn't even feel like the same person wrote it. He got blessed with some creativity in that one, and it still feels timeless. I don't even care about the story. It's just the rock operaness of it is so epic.

One musical memory from your childhood, aside from the Beatles, that felt like a defining moment. You heard something that made you go “Oh my God, I love music.”

When I was in fifth grade, hating my piano lessons, my piano teacher gave me Chopin's Nocturne in C sharp minor, and it was beautiful. It's such a short little piece, but it's beautiful, it's melancholic and dark. It was the first time I felt like I was connecting to and feeling music. Every time I think about that piece as an adult, all of these little chromatic falls that happen… I think about so much Armenian folk music that does the same thing. These almost cries and sighs and the melody that falls. That was the first time I really enjoyed playing music.

Final question, what’s next?

Um, well, I have another premiere in June for the Kronos Quartet for their 50th anniversary, and it's a piece that integrates texts by Gibran Khalil Gibran around life and love and how all of these things are intertwined.

I have an album coming out with the Kronos Quartet. It’s everything we've worked on in the past decade.

Next year, my opera based on Atom Egoyan's Adoration goes to the Los Angeles Opera.

Brilliant. Thank you for giving me the time, Mary. I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did. Apparently, a five-hour hike under the rain was not enough to get to know you.

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