Stephen L. Lamson

Stephen L. Lamson: ‘Ararat’s Shadow Hopes to Teach a Lesson in a Musical Manner’

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YEREVAN / MERCER ISLAND, Wash. —  My subject is American composer Stephen L. Lamson. Born in 1951 in Seattle, he grew up on Mercer Island, where he resides now. Throughout his childhood, music played a major role in his life. From the age 6 to 9, Lamson played drums, then began teaching himself piano.

Stephen, how would you describe how you compose?

I compose in a natural, more simplistic way, from the heart. My passion and emotions are the driving force.

When I read in January 3 issue of Mercer Island Reporter about you being a composer with Armenian roots, I immediately guessed you may be the grandson of Armenian-American physician and author Armenuhi Tashjian Lamson. Am I right?

Yes, that is correct. Armenuhi or Armenouhie, or Armani as we called her, was a well-known medical artist or medical illustrator (the first in the world, we heard) and would spend hours in the actual operating rooms doing incredibly detailed medical drawings (they looked like photographs) of organs and detailed medical procedures. She was also involved with many civic activities, charities and any Armenian cause. Her husband, Dr. Otis Lamson, was a surgeon and also one of the original founders of the Swedish Hospital in Seattle.

In 2020 I wrote a small article in Armenian introducing our readers to your amazing grandmother on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of her death. What memories do you have from Armenuhi Lamson?

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Armani was a very strong and usually a serious person. I was only a young boy as I got to know her. She thought I should study medicine, but at 6 years old I was far more interested in fishing (laughing). Armani was a very caring and compassionate person, and spent much of her time helping Armenians and Armenian causes all over the world. She authored two books, My Birth: The Autobiography of an Unborn Infant (1916) and How I Came to Be (1926).

When we would have large family dinners with our cousins and grandparents, when the talk became “adult time,” we kids would go play or have our own less serious and far more enjoyable conversations.

Her brother Souren Tashjian (Tashian) was also a physician (proctologist). He kept a diary about the period of the Armenian Genocide. He escaped from the Germans and the Turks twice in World War I. My brother, Dr. Robert D. Lamson, wrote a book based on this diary called The Monster on My Back, which is still available on Amazon I believe.

Nouvart Tashjian, was Souren’s and Armani’s sister, and quite an amazing person herself. She was a fine watercolor artist, and graduated from Columbia University with a degree in library sciences. She headed up the New York University Library for many years. She also wrote and published a book on Armenian lace making that is still being printed today.

By the way, my dear cousin Christine Lamson Gordon, has been doing a great deal of research on our Armenian family history.

Are there some tradition in your family which you would describe as “Armenian?”

We are very proud of our Armenian heritage, and aware of the atrocities, even those happening today. We still make dolma, some of us like my grandfather and father grew grapes for wine and used the leaves to make sarma and dolma. We also make the Armenian flat bread and various yogurts for dipping.

How much are you acquainted with Armenian music?

I have listened to a few great Armenian composers, like Aram Khachaturian and Alan Hovhaness, although I really pull from my own natural instincts and have developed a unique style by introducing a new or different style of music. My music is more of a conglomeration of styles set off by great feeling and emotion.

Armenuhi Tashjian Lamson

Last year you finished composing your second symphony, Ararat’s Shadow. Could you please tell us about it?

I poured my heart out composing Ararat’s Shadow. It is a musical journey into the history of genocides, allowing people a musical experience that tries to describe man’s inhumanity to man. At over 96 minutes in length, it is hardly a short work, but its four movements try and paint the picture of the condition of man, past and present. Beginning with the rumble of the bass drum and tympani opening the 1st movement, you know you are in for an adventure. Daunting, haunting and mysterious, Ararat’s Shadow hopes to teach a lesson in a musical manner. Hardly easy. It took me over a year to compose the piece, which encompasses 25 different original melodies, that aim to take the listener all over the world, as “genocides” occur anywhere, still today. Some not even reported, as for so long the Armenian Genocide was denied by many nations for over 100 years.

As one listens to the work they hopefully will be drawn into its sensitivities and heart-felt melodic episodes. Although there is much tension, sorrow and despair, the work also offers rests or plateaus of calming and peace. This is especially so in the 3rd and 4th Movements, where the “Promise of Forgiveness’ (featuring the Armenian Church Choir), and the “Awakening” carry us all to a better place, one of peaceful resolve, greater understanding and joy.

My hope is that people all over will enjoy the work, find insight and comfort in its timely message and enjoy the work for years to come. Al Cisneros, who recorded and edited the entire work is to be commended for his incredible sensitivity and dedication. This work would not have been completed without him. Al also played bass and electric guitar in the work.

Finally, I believe that if people listen to the work several times and take it in, they will receive something special from the soulful language of musical notes.

I wish your symphony would be performed both in Armenia and worldwide! Thanks a lot for interview, Stephen!

Thank you so much for the opportunity to discuss this heart-drawn work. My dream is that the work could one day be performed in Armenia, perhaps outside near the Eternal Flame monument in Yerevan, and as you say, perhaps worldwide.

Lamson group Eternal Flame that performed Ararat’s Shadow: Top left – Kurt Madsen (classical guitarist), next to him on top – Jack Reed (percussionist), next to him on top – Al Cisneros (bass, electric guitarist & recording editor/engineer), top right – Jeff Miller (trumpet player), bottom right – Myles Ricker (violin, viola, cello player), bottom left to him – Jennifer Rae Getz (vocalist), middle – Stephen L Lamson (composer & pianist, organ, and melodica player), next bottom left – Jim Malin (harmonica player), far bottom left – Denny Hancock (harmonica trumpet, baritone player).

NOTE: Armenuhi Tashjian (1882, Karin [Erzurum] – 1970, Seattle). After the family moved to Smyrna, she had the opportunity for schooling in Germany.  She attended a private girls’ boarding school in Dusseldorf and then obtained a teaching degree at Kaiserworth Teachers College in Dusseldorf.  She immigrated to the U.S. in 1908 and joined her older brother, Armen in Cleveland, Ohio.  Her first job was teaching German at a private school in Cleveland.  She was artistic and jumped at the opportunity to study anatomy and medical illustration at Johns Hopkins Medical School under Max Brödel, who is often referred to as “the Father of Medical Illustration”. Under Brödel, she mastered the meticulous carbon dust technique of medical illustration and became the first women medical illustrator. During her early years as a medical illustrator she worked closely with Dr. George W. Crile, founder of the Cleveland Clinic. After her marriage to Dr. Otis F. Lamson, she continued to do illustrations for journal articles and surgeries, but soon broadened her activities to include more writing and lecturing. She wrote and illustrated two books about pregnancy and the developing fetus. Armenuhi and Otis raised three children: Robert, Otis and Armene. Over the years she campaigned and assumed leadership roles on behalf of many philanthropic causes related to the cataclysmic events of World War I and World War II, often focusing on youngest victims of war and often inspired by her parents’ work of caring for Armenian children orphaned by the genocide. (I am thankful to Armenuhi Tashjian’s granddaughter, Christine Lamson, for providing information).

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