Andi Roselund

Andi Roselund: An Armenian Composer in Korea

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YEREVAN / SEOUL — Andi Roselund is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, three-time iF Award-winning commercial sound designer, music educator and music director. He was born and raised in Los Angeles, to a Swedish-American father and Armenian-American mother. Since 1992 he has lived in South Korea.

In 1998 he received his B.A. from Music Composition, Yonsei University in Korea.

Since 2011, he has been the director of music at convergent media production company, Sangwha. Andi lives with his wife Nakyung Kim, who has participated in some of his pop project tracks as a singer.

Dear Andi, you live in Korea for 28 years – what is the experience of a Westerner to live and create in the country like that?

It has been very challenging, but also exciting. Being a small country with a rich but very difficult history (especially in the 20th century), South Korea is often overlooked and there are not nearly as many Westerners here as in Japan, for example. Koreans have a very deep-rooted social order based on neo-Confucianism, which dictates strong collectivism in society not only with adherence to family and friends, but also within any organization, school, or church, and is even built into the language. As such, it is hard to feel a part of any social body unless you speak the language, which is why I have felt that Westerners in general have trouble living in Korea in the long-term. I came to Korea learn the language and go to school to study music, so I got to experience first-hand many of these challenges, but it is very much now a part of my life, personality, and work in the music industry. In fact, I still work on music projects with my university classmates from over 25 years ago. In the same way, being a creative individual of any sort of art in Korean society requires you to find a balance between individual expression and association with your collective body. Some say this contributes to some limitations that both musicians and visual artists sense in Korea, but I have felt that it is also helpful for opening up more and more to diverse styles of expression within artistic communities.

How would you characterize the Korean music scene today?

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Thanks to K-pop’s greater acceptance on the world scene from about 2008 on to the present, it is by all means the most active Korean music scene from both an economic standpoint as well as a point of “soft power,” to increase tourism and cultural awareness. Unfortunately this also means that both the historic significance of traditional Korean music as well as the quality of excellent new material coming out of the very active independent music scene (jazz, hip-hop, alternative, crossover traditional, etc.) does not get as much attention or support from the government or the general populace, in the same way that K-pop does. That being said, there is a lot of creative synergy between different styles and live scenes, and places like the Hongdae neighborhood of Seoul has more new music being created and performed live every evening than ever.

Yes, due to PSY’s Gangnam Style and the boy band BTS Korean pop music has become quite known internationally. Andi, can we consider you a Korean composer or you are just an American musician who lives in Korea?

I am the latter. Just the same, even though I did my graduate studies in traditional Korean music theory and have lived here for nearly 30 years, I consider myself a composer without a national identity related to my music or background. One of my favorite things to do is studying the tone color of different (acoustic) instruments when blended, and seeing how musical modes and rhythmic cycles from different cultures sound when blending. Some examples are my love of reinterpreting folk music of the British Isles with traditional Korean instruments, and more recently, seeing how well I can express much-loved songs by Komitas in a Korean context as well. I was recently was so touched to hear from a gayageum player/classmate of mine from 20 years ago (presently a professor of music and cultural studies in the US), when she heard some of my recent work and said, “you are not taking music of other cultures and forcing it into another context with one culture over another; your diversity of expression is simply a part of your natural musical vocabulary.” It was something I have felt for a long while, and was so grateful to hear her opinion.

Are you acquainted with Armenian music?

Not nearly as much as I wish I could be. When I was younger we had occasionally have Armenian Teletime turned on the TV on Saturday mornings and sometimes listened to current pop music of the time (my grandmother Nelly would say that Eastern Armenian sounds “so beautifully high-class”), but it was just a point of fascination for my sister and I. I also was very interested in learning the Oud, and fellow Californian Richard Hagopian’s recordings were very important in my understanding of Armenian modes. And as hinted before, it is been wonderful to discover and immerse myself in the music of Komitas. Other than that, thanks to YouTube I regularly have anything from Sirusho to Tigran Petrosyan playing in the background at home, as I love all sorts of pop music. Currently I am working on arranging of two Komitas tracks for an upcoming recording. One is Sareri Hovin Mernem, to which I will be adding traditional Korean instruments along with duduk and qanun, and a wonderful Armenian singer here in Korea will sing the original lyrics. I also may have another version of Sareri Hovin Mernem done, translated into Korean and sung in jeongga, which is a type of traditional Korean court vocal method that is very slow and reserved. And among the tracks will be the final version of a composition I wrote called From Hadjin to Seoul, which traces the story of my grandmother’s journey down to my own here in Korea, starting sorrowfully with the duduk and ending with an inverted melody that uses traditional Korean instrumentation.

Topics: Music

In the year of the Armenian Genocide centennial you joined the “I am a descendant of a survivor of the Armenian Genocide” initiative on Facebook and put the photo of Dr. Armenag Haigazian (1870-1921).

That is a photograph I knew not of until my uncle James Constantian showed it to us at a Haigazian descendants’ reunion in Southern California a few years ago, and it was such a powerful image that is hard to forget after seeing it. You can see Dr. Haigazian’s blue eyes and stern but warm-hearted facial expression, with wife Matilda’s beauty hidden behind the difficulty in their transition from Northern Adana (Hadjin), and it is a look I have seen on pictures of my friends’ relatives as well: their faces speak such sorrow that so many of our grandparents and great grandparents in the Diaspora endured. It was most likely photographed in Konya in 1919 or 1920, before he had sent Matilda and his daughters to America.

You sign your videos as Mihran. Is this your artistic name?

I like to think of it that way, but also as a nod to the survival of our family: I gave myself this nickname because I loved how it sounded and because Mihr sounds very similar to a pure-Korean word for dragon, but the truth is it happens to be my mother’s paternal grandfather’s name. Mihran Constantian was the son of clergyman/bricklayer Avedis Constantian (who also helped translate the Bible into Ottoman Turkish in the late 1800s), who was from the Sisli neighborhood of Bolis. They escaped to America right before when the Hamidian massacres began, and ended up in Seattle, Washington. Mihran married Mary Tashkian in 1906, and my grandfather (another Avedis Constantian) was born in 1910. Like Dr. Haigazian safely sending his family away, I am grateful for my great-grandfather Mihran’s safe passage to America, and want to remember him in a name I can call my own.

It is interesting if you are aware of Armenians and other people of Armenian origin living in Korea. I know there are IT specialists from Armenia; what about culture?

Most Armenians that I know in Korea are fairly recent arrivals, coming here in the last 10 years. And in addition to highly educated IT specialists, there are chemical engineers, mathematicians, and numerous people learning Korean in order to translate and/or work in tourism. Unfortunately though, very little is understood by the local Korean population about Armenia, history, and culture. But thanks to Instagram, many of the Armenians in Korea have been very active to talk about Armenian culture even while basically blogging about local tourism, and we can hope for a greater collective awareness in the future. Among them Narine Haroyan (from AGBU Young Professionals, Seoul) has been a wonderful soul connecting other Armenians in Korea, and instrumental in helping everyone engage in cultural discussion. And all of them are very active on social media regarding the current war on Artsakh, posting extensively in Korean and helping locals understand the geographic and historic plight of Armenians, and our strong will to endure.

What kind of Armenian traditions does your family have?

I grew up as a half-Armenian kid (and equally half-odar, as I became known among more conservative Armenians from the old country!) living in one of smaller Armenian communities in Montebello, opposite Los Angeles from Glendale. Being third-generation and not able to speak the language, however, I tried to study Armenian. In 1995 I visited home and bought some Armenian textbooks from the Pasadena City College bookstore (they had an Armenian course), and brought them back to learn. Unfortunately, I was not able to learn anything more than the alphabet and basic phonetic reading, and with no audio resources to learn Armenian at the time, I lost hope and gave up studying.

The only Armenian tradition we shared at home was really good food. And although I deeply regret that I was not able to learn Armenian, I have no way to fully understand my late grandmother Nelly’s pain and sorrow that led to her and her sisters not wanting to pass on their distinctively Western Armenian culture to my mother’s generation: My great-grandmother Matilda and daughters arrived in Troy, New York in 1921 and had received a few letters from Dr. Haigazian, in which he spoke of getting ready to leave the Jenanian Institute before the Turks would arrive to continue the ethnic cleansing of the Anatolian Plateau, he planning to meet up with them in New York. But later that year when they received news that he had died from typhus after an 800-kilometer march to Kharpert, the family took it as difficultly as one might expect; Nelly was (above all) furious, and ripped up all of his letters, and Matilda apparently conveyed to her daughters something along the lines of “Now in losing your father, we have no home country, no culture. This is your new country; this is your new life.” Decades later, Nelly would speak Armenian with an extensive Turkish vocabulary to my grandfather Avedis (who grew up speaking Armenian at home), but she refused to have my mother and her siblings learn a single word. Sadly that is why food tradition is all that has been passed on to me, and not even church holidays were observed in the family. Nelly made it a priority to forget as much of the past as she could.

This reminded what you have written on your life in LA: “We would regularly drive up to a shop or two in Pasadena for lahmajoon, cheese, grape leaves (from Fresno!) for making sarma and yalanchi dolma at home, and pre-made frozen bulgur kufte (as kids, we called them “hand grenades”) filled with spiced lamb for stews.” I assume you miss such dishes in Korea.

I do miss the taste of home, as have not tasted anything in the world as good as my mother’s lamb sarma. So accordingly, every time I visit home I ask my mother to teach me a new meal to make, since I love cooking here in Korea and regularly make my own yalanchi dolma and lahmajoon, and of course serve it with familiar Middle Eastern sides like hummus, muhammara, and braided cheese with nigella seeds. It is also interesting to hear from my Armenian friends here how different Adana-Armenian cuisine I have learned from my mother can taste when compared to in Armenia, namely that my khorovatz and kuzu tandir-style lamb roasts always mainly rosemary and lemon juice (instead of oregano and pomegranate juice), a very different flavor profile from what they are used to!

Yes, there are slight differences between Armenia and Diaspora cuisines. I think it is time for you to come to your ancestors’ country and test not only that. And in general, it will be great to welcome you in Armenia and get acquainted with your compositions in live performance.

That would be absolutely wonderful. Thank you so much for giving me an opportunity to share and I hope to as well! Although the lineage of my mother’s parents were probably in Constantinople and Western Armenia for hundreds of years and likely had no association with Yerevan during the Ottoman era, it is a long-held dream of mine to one day visit Armenia: to first go to Tsitsernakaberd, and then places like Khor Virap, Garni, and of course Lake Sevan, to sit among nature and be still for a while. I am convinced that in just being there, I will hear ancient music and the enduring spirit of our forefathers in the land itself…

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