They Will Take My Island: Collective Memory and Preservation

They Will Take My Island is a multi-disciplinary collaboration between Armenian-American composer Mary Kouyoumdjian and Armenian-Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan. The 30-minute video premiered on January 26, 2021 with MetLiveArts and features Egoyan’s footage, interviews by Kouyoumdjian, and music performed by an amplified string octet consisting of JACK and Silvana Quartets. The work centers on the seemingly tragic life of painter and Armenian Genocide survivor Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) who is known for his influence on Abstract-Expressionism; but also integrates a wider array of dedications to Egoyan’s own family, and Armenians both living and passed-on who share this heritage of loss and survival.

Kouyoumdjian is no stranger to cross-discipline collaborations—her 2015 work Silent Cranes commissioned by Kronos Quartet features projection art by Laurie Olinder and poetry by David Barsamian, and also roots itself in the naming and remembrance of the Armenian Genocide. Too often, those with political power irresponsibly create and disseminate distorted, revisionist versions of history, while those whose history was “stolen” struggle to own their own narratives. Both this 2015 work and They Will Take My Island exhibit the ways in which artists can partake in the beautiful and powerful act of collective memory preservation and truth-telling. 

Mary Kouyoumdjian--Photo by Caroline Tompkins

Mary Kouyoumdjian–Photo by Caroline Tompkins

The video begins with a stark black and white photograph of a young Arshile Gorky and his mother paired with a brooding viola solo. Kouyoumdjian expertly punctuates the lonely viola melody with the entrance of the full ensemble and echoes of sampled audio from Egoyan’s films. The samples act as a ghostly texture, with trilling, melismatic voices floating beneath the octet. The film slowly zooms in on the eyes of the mother and son, as the music swells in dynamics, and the voices achieve more clarity within the sonic layers. Right away, we get an idea of how Kouyoumdjian and Egoyan’s cohesive visual and sonic storytelling coalesces.

An element of “collage” runs through the entirety of this project. The photograph from the opening dissolves into footage of an island overlaid with hands sewing buttons onto a garment. This image acts as a visual motif—it recurs in other moments of transition in order to thread the fragments together. There are highly personal excerpts of film by Egoyan and his wife Arsinée Khanjian who recite a letter to their son accompanied by a Romantic piano sample seamlessly blended beneath. String harmonics that float a melody above the darkness of the piano highlight Kouyoumdjian’s expertise in orchestration. The blurring of these different elements—film, composition, sampled audio, spoken dialogue—create overlays rich in texture, pulling the audience into emotional landscapes of memory that ebb and flow from harsh fact to sentimental recollection. 

Arshile Gorky (born Vostanik Adoian) and his mother, Shushanig der Marderosian, Van Vilayet, 1912. Unknown photographer.

Arshile Gorky (born Vostanik Adoian) and his mother, Shushanig der Marderosian, Van Vilayet, 1912. Unknown photographer.

The maximalist approach to experimental documentary can be overwhelming to take in. At times, it’s difficult to focus on the spoken interviews amidst the octet’s performance, audio samples, and occasional diegetic sound from Egoyan’s films. One would hope that a live screening or performance of this work would include subtitles/supertitles for accessibility—however this was easily solved by turning on Youtube’s closed-captioning feature. The music undoubtedly matches the intensity of the interviews. Kouyoumdjian nurtures rhythmically tense ostinati, pained portamentos, and folky melodies that move parallel to spoken dialogue in a way that feels almost at the point of breaking.

They Will Take My Island houses profound complexities of both style and narrative. For every moment of intensity, there is a pocket of unexpected, gentle beauty. Climatic dissonant build ups are met with the arrival of a single consonant harmony. It’s hard not to hold onto the more fiery elements of the score after experiencing them, especially the unforgettable violin-viola duet with each performer sawing away in two different tonal centers and rhythmic unity (paired with footage of reenacted warfare). One of the more quietly stunning moments occurs near the end, where a string canon weaving in and out of low drones is revealed to have been repurposed by Kouyoumdjian from diegetic guitar in one of Egoyan’s films that emerges shortly thereafter.

They Will Take My Island--Photo by Ego Film Arts

They Will Take My Island–Photo by Ego Film Arts

When the titular 1944 painting is discussed near the end of the video, it is shown to be an abstracted work that does not designate a singular evil or entity, but instead points to this erudite terrain of trauma and disillusionment experienced by Gorky and other victims of political violence. This project proves incredibly relevant in today’s climate rife with the 21st century’s exacerbated struggles against white supremacy and imperialism. While tied to a specific artist and history, Egoyan and Kouyoumdjan’s They Will Take My Island is an emotional preservation of the memory of a people, and the resilience of those who were thrust into the oblivion of genocide.


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