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IDAGIO meets … Tigran Mansurian

To mark the release of "Con anima", the Armenian composer talks to IDAGIO about the album, working with tradition, and the inspirational figure of Komitas Vardipet.

Photo © Roberto Masotti / ECM Records

A new album from ECM, "Con anima", presents an overview of chamber music by Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian, released to celebrate his 80th birthday. The project was conceived by violinist Movses Pogossian and violist Kim Kashkashian and offers a representative glimpse of Mansurian's intense and evocative musical language – informed by early studies at the European avant garde but potently infused with the sounds of Armenian musical traditions.

To mark the release, Mansurian talks to IDAGIO about the album, his working with tradition, and the inspirational figure of composer, priest and choirmaster Komitas Vardipet (1869–1935). 

The pieces on the album cover a period of over 20 years, from 1993 to 2015. How would you say that your style has changed over that time?

I wouldn't say that my composing style has undergone noticeable changes. The only thing that I would like to say is that during these years the urge and need for enhanced transparency of textures, of sound combinations, has become stronger. So has also, maybe, the need to avoid, as much as possible, various compositional "ingenuities" when writing music.

You trained initially in a lot of the techniques of the European avant-garde. Which of those techniques have you found most useful and important as a composer?

I am reluctant to say which one has been more useful. I have been attentive to the systems of radically new composing techniques, but I have also trusted those systems that are synthetic in nature and which combine in them both the experience of Western schools of composing and the rich evolution of Eastern music.

Traditional Armenian music is at the heart of how you compose. How would you describe those traditions and sounds?

Armenian sacred and religious music has undergone a long path of evolution and development, which has seen the perfecting of a theoretical music system, which, in itself, is integral and interesting. The means of recitative arts, the symbolism of the religious, the means of expression that serve the church rituals, etc.: these all have their place in it. These works of sacred music that have lasted across many centuries of history still resound today, without ceasing to adhere to their initial traditions. Even now I could sing for you this or that tune created by our clergymen in the fifth century! 

How are folk music and sacred music in Armenia linked?

Komitas once said that Armenian sacred music and folk music are siblings. They follow the same structural principles of composition, especially in sung music as opposed to dance music. I love the original character of this music's modes, the restraint in its syntax, which sometimes approaches frugality; the freedom of prosodic forms. And they are all contained in extraordinarily firm forms and structures.

Photo © Samvel Mouradyants / ECM Records

The Sonata di Chiesa, included on the album, is dedicated to Komitas Vardapet. What does he mean to you as a composer?

I have devoted more attention and time to Komitas than to anyone else. By that, I mean to both his theoretical principles regarding music and the way he interlaced the art of composing in the West with our traditional music.

The new album features viola player Kim Kashkashian, and many of the pieces the viola plays a very prominent part. What is it you particularly like about the instrument?

The unusual mystical light that radiates through the sound of the viola is very dear to me. It is possible that this type of light is the best way to express certain layers and levels that exist in Armenian music. Sometimes it seems to me that both the viola and the duduk have been born out of the same "resounding light". Kim and her playing, in particular, have helped me get to know this special sound, this "resounding light" of the viola much better.  

"Con anima" is out on IDAGIO now.

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