Mary Kouyoumdjian: 'Bombs of Beirut'
Mary Kouyoumdjian: 'Bombs of Beirut', a Kronos project, offers 'sonic picture' of daily turmoil.
Composer Mary Kouyoumdjian's grandparents and great-grandparents escaped the Armenian genocide around World War I, settling in the cosmopolitan city of Beirut. The family thrived there until the start of the long Lebanese Civil War in the mid-1970s, which forced many of Kouyoumdjian's folks to leave and start over again in America.
"Everyone has an aunt whose house got bombed. I have an uncle who lost a leg," says the rising young composer, who grew up in the East Bay burg of Pleasant Hill and now lives in Brooklyn.
The stories her family and friends told her about life in Lebanon not only inspired her new commissioned work for Kronos Quartet, "Bombs of Beirut," which the group premieres Feb. 6 and 7 at San Francisco's Z Space, but they're an essential part of it.
The taped voices of Kouyoumdjian's mother, cousins and friends, talking about their war-time experiences, intertwine through much of the three-part piece with music shaped to "underscore the emotions that the people telling the stories are feeling," the composer says.
Kouyoumdjian - who turns 31 in March but was 29 when she applied for the coveted Kronos Under 30 commission given to promising young composers - also includes, at the end of the middle section called "The War, " the sounds of missiles and exploding bombs. They were recorded by the late Hagop T. Bazerkanian, the father of a friend, from the balcony of his apartment in a residential neighborhood of Beirut from 1976-78.
Here, they're isolated from the sound of the voices and the quartet, for whom the composer has written Middle Eastern-flavored music that meshes with recorded sounds to provide "a sonic picture of what day-to-day life is like in a turbulent Middle East," Kouyoumdjian writes in her program note - "not filtered through the news and media, but through the real words of real people."
Kronos founding fiddler David Harrington writes that as the group narrowed the field of candidates, "we were looking for someone who seemed poised to write their breakthrough piece. And every time I came back to Mary's work, I was magnetized. She's an exceptional composer, incredibly creative, and her connection to her family's Armenian history has brought her sensibility into a very beautiful place."
Landing the gig was of course a big deal for Kouyoumdjian, who got her bachelor's at UC San Diego, a master's in Scoring for Film and Multimedia at NYU and has written a lot for the Los Angeles New Music Ensemble.
Most of the great contemporary string quartets "have been recorded by, if not commissioned by Kronos," she says. She still recalls the thrill of hearing the quartet play Steve Reich's "Different Trains" - a classic piece for string quartet and tape that Kronos introduced in '88 - at Reich's 70th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall in 2006. It was her first New York concert.
"Composers, especially young ones, apply for so many commissioning projects. So it's nice when it works out, especially with something like this," Kouyoumdjian says. She's writing another piece for the Bay Area's Friction Quartet, which opens the Feb 6. show for Kronos.
Prepping for this work, in which nostalgic passages will be lightly enhanced with electronic reverb, and others filtered to suggest something heard on '70s radio, she listened to the music Kronos recorded with the Balkan Gypsy band Taraf De Haidouks.
That Romany music shares elements with Lebanese music, says the composer, who was fascinated by how the quartet "accomplished that sound, how they did it with that much integrity. It doesn't sound like a watered-down Western version of the music."