Amid The Chaos Of War, Music As Documentary Observes The Homeless

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Mary Kouyoumdjian’s chamber orchestra work ‘Homeless,’ a world premiere, was the centerpiece of a recent New York Philharmonic concert. The work was accompanied by images from the devastating displacement in 2023 of more than 100,000 Armenians living in a border area claimed by Azerbaijan in a lightning offensive. (Concert photos courtesy New York Philharmonic)


NEW YORK — When 21st-century history is written, the impact of territory wars won’t be best conveyed in written chronicles, but in pieces such as Mary Kouyoumdjian’s ANDOUNI (Homeless), given its world premiere May 10 by the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center. Underreported amid wars in Ukraine and Israel, the displacement of 100,000 Artsakh-Armenians after Azerbaijan claimed a region of land late in 2023 has become another brutal instance of loss of home. That and the instinctual human need to protect family are the universal themes surfacing in Kouyoumdjian’s documentary-style fusion of photography, oral histories, and music.

Mary Kouyoumdjian, composer of ‘Homeless.’ (marykouyoumdjian.com)

ANDOUNI was a New York Philharmonic Project 19 commission. It was given at the intermissionless May 10 concert in David Geffen Hall, as part of the orchestra’s “Sound On” series. Canadian guest conductor Kwamé Ryan, who becomes music director of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in the 2024-25 season, led the musicians in works of chamber orchestra size (for 23 players or fewer) by Péter Eötvös, Michel van der Aa, and Hannah Kendall — all skillfully chosen with undercurrents that enabled overall continuity.

The concert’s main event was ANDOUNI. Kouyoumdjian is an emerging composer whose opera Adoration was seen at the January Prototype Festival. She was already working in Artsakh with photo journalist Scout Tufankjian on a more general project about cultural erasure when the exodus of Armenians reached crisis proportions. Both Brooklyn-based Armenian-Americans, the two pivoted to work on what became the current piece; signs of hasty assembly at its premiere (choppy editing, etc.) only added to the overall sense of ANDOUNI‘s veracity.

Scout Tufankjian’s images captured the bizarre nature of the contemporary evacuation: The soon-to-be refugees were relatively well-to-do Armenian citizens.

Tufankjian captured the veneer of normality that previously prevailed in Artsakh. These refugees weren’t the stereotypical huddled masses, rather children and parents who looked a lot like a casually dressed version of the audience at David Geffen Hall. Their cars weren’t the aging jalopies seen in MasterVoice’s April presentation of the Ricky Ian Gordon opera Grapes of Wrath, but modern compact cars, loaded up with household objects tied to the roof, and not seen in gritty black and white but in high-def color — all juxtaposed with the spoken oral histories.

Taking their bows: Composer Mary Kouyoumdjian, photo journalist Scout Tufankjian and conductor Kwamé Ryan.

Kouyoumdjian didn’t attempt to fashion the music to the specific inflections of the pre-recorded voices (this was not Steve Reich style); her orchestral writing was an intuitive response to the words at hand, turning up the heat on their overall meaning but letting the words speak directly for themselves. Kouyoumdjian is the master of the slow-building orchestral climax, of which there were several, all thunderous in different ways, and rather louder than one might expect with a small-ish orchestra. The catastrophic heat of the moment made motivic content hard to discern.

Trinidadian-Canadian conductor Kwame Ryan becomes music director of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra next season. (Zycopolis-Productions photo)

Other works on the program created provocative juxtapositions. While Kouyoumdjian‘s interviewees talk about losing track of days amid displacement, other pieces felt measured and mechanized, and for specific reasons.

Hannah Kendall’s 2022 shouting forever into the receiver was a collage with, among other things, a music box playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in a loop, plus voices in walkie-talkies quoting The Book of Revelations with a backdrop of static chords from harmonica. It’s a rather dazzling piece from this up-and-coming New York based British composer, and one suggesting the passive, random forces that shape our lives.

The other two works had a prominent metronome presence — perhaps in reference to Ligeti’s infamous Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes. The much-honored Dutch composer Michel van der Aa had a metronome interlude in his Mask (2008) amid much forward motion in the orchestral writing and little in the way of harmony. Interesting. Accomplished. No valence with my ears.

Written in 2022, Peter Eötvös’ Ligetidyll was coached by the composer over WhatsApp prior to his March 24 death: It was a fun Ligeti homage from one great Hungarian composer to another, and it had something resembling a metronome cadenza, as well as musicians chanting Ligeti’s name. Generally the piece bounced all over the place with a masterful sense of color that was more in the interest of giving the audience a wild ride than revealing some inner Ligetian vision. Both compositions existed in their own isolated bubbles — in contrast to the gaping-wound society rupture captured in ANDOUNI.

Was that the idea?