By Nestor Castiglione
YEREVAN — The milestone represented by the marking of one’s 80th birthday is doubtless a profound one, a token of the human activity — present and long past — which has unspooled before them over the decades, with its memories imprinting themselves upon the soul like static images burned onto a projector screen. But for an artist like Tigran Mansurian, who regards the act of composing as a spiritual confession, the occasion becomes a communal one; an anniversary in which artist, performer, and listener are threaded together by the composer’s compelling testimony, distilled into score after score which are simultaneously beautiful, timeless, yet bearing the wounds of an erstwhile century which remains burningly alive for many.
Born in Lebanon, Mansurian’s early childhood was darkened by the long shadow cast by the Armenian Genocide, which had taken the lives of several of his family members. His family later moved to Soviet Armenia while he was still a boy, eventually settling in Yerevan. A gifted musical student, Mansurian became a pioneering composer, becoming the first Armenian composer to write a 12-tone work. By the 1970s he emerged as one of the leading younger composers in the former Soviet Union, attracting attention from musicians within the Eastern Bloc, as well as in the West. However, he soon turned away from Western-style modernism, instead developing a personal idiom grounded in the music and lore of Armenia’s ancient history and refracted through the prism of the Western avant-garde. As with many Soviet composers of his generation, Mansurian was witness and victim of the censorious wrath of conservative musical bureaucrats of his era. Nevertheless, he managed to persevere, not only remaining true to his artistic beliefs, but forming close friendships and working relationships with other composers, writers, and film-makers.
Today Mansurian is recognized across the world for the integrity of his art: Delicately beautiful, touchingly humane and compassionate without a hint of pathos, with its architectural unity and pithy eloquence subtly intimating its creator’s inner strength.
Just a few days away from his 80th birthday, the composer agreed to an interview, reflecting on his music, friends, and the momentous times that he experienced.
Néstor Castiglione: Einojuhani Rautavaara once commented that with music no longer being dominated by a single or handful of stylistic trends, the composer of today was free to employ a “toy box” of diverse musical techniques and styles. Your art is renowned for its searching into the ancient melos of the Armenian soul, but venturing further back into your catalogue — your early works and film music come to mind — one finds a more sprawling, even eclectic approach to style. Were you ever conscious of having this “toy box” at your fingertips? If so, did it ever provoke a sense of unease or crisis? What inspired you to reject this eclecticism and, instead, embrace the musical roots of Armenia’s deep historical past?