Mary Kouyoumdjian

Work by Composer Mary Kouyoumdjian Pulitzer Finalist

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NEW YORK — A work by composer Mary Kouyoumdjian was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize earlier this month. The work, “Paper Pianos,” a music-theatre hybrid, was described by the prize committee as a “socially urgent multimedia work that boldly melds music and audio documentary with first-person stories of refugees, exploring how music serves as solace and inspiration under conditions of displacement.”

“Paper Pianos” was specifically recognized by the prize committee for its music, which was composed by Mary Kouyoumdjian, a composer and documentarian with projects ranging from concert works to multimedia collaborations and film scores.

The Pulitzer Prize for Music went to Adagio (For Wadada Leo Smith), by Tyshawn Sorey.

Premiered at EMPAC (Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), Troy, N.Y. on February 25, 2023, “Paper Pianos” is a socially urgent multi-media work that boldly melds music and audio documentary with first-person stories of refugees, exploring how music serves as solace and inspiration under conditions of displacement.

The piece combines narratives from four refugees and resettlement workers: the Afghan pianist Milad Yousufi, Getachew Bashir (Ethiopia), Hani Ali (Somalia) and Akil Aljaysh (Iraq). Recordings of the protagonists from interviews conducted by creators Mary Kouyoumdjian (composer) and Nigel Maister (text and staging) are incorporated with the intricate hand-drawn animations of visual artist Kevork Mourad to vividly depict the dramatic emotional landscape of displacement and resettlement experienced by refugees throughout the world.

Kouyoumdjian’s score uses the recorded voices as integral compositional elements, and draws on folk-music and contemporary-music practices. She says: “I come from refugee parents forced to immigrate to the U.S. as a consequence of the Lebanese Civil War. And my parents come from refugee parents forced to escape to Lebanon from Turkey during the Armenian genocide of 1915. Experiences like Milad Yousufi’s resonate with me, and topics of wartime, genocide, and one’s relationship to ‘home’ have played a large role in my music.”

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Kouyoumdjian is a composer and documentarian with projects ranging from concert works to multimedia collaborations and film scores. As a first generation Armenian-American and having come from a family directly affected by the Lebanese Civil War and Armenian Genocide, she uses a sonic palette that draws on her heritage, interest in music as documentary, and background in experimental composition to progressively blend the old with the new. A strong believer in freedom of speech and the arts as an amplifier of expression, her compositional work often integrates recorded testimonies with resilient individuals and field recordings of place to invite empathy by humanizing complex experiences around social and political conflict. Kouyoumdjian has received commissions for such organizations as the New York Philharmonic, Kronos Quartet, Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Her music has been described as “eloquently scripted” and “emotionally wracking” by the New York Times.

Kouyoumdjian holds a D.M.A and M.A. in composition from Columbia University; an M.A. in Scoring for Film & Multimedia from New York University; and a B.A. in Music Composition from the University of California, San Diego. She has previously been on faculty at Columbia University, Boston Conservatory at Berklee, Brooklyn College’s Feirstein School of Cinema, Mannes Prep, and the New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers program.Music

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