Composer Mary Kouyoumdjian Meets Discomfort with Empathy

In one of my favorite photos of composer and documentarian Mary Kouyoumdjian, she is seated on a stool, leaning slightly forward, palm extended, a recording device in hand. To me, this image perfectly summarizes her essence: first and foremost, she is an open and empathetic listener.

Mary is dedicated to letting people tell their own stories – especially when those stories are difficult or uncomfortable. As a first-generation Armenian-American whose family was directly affected by the Lebanese Civil War and Armenian Genocide, her works often center the voices of people affected by violence and displacement. This largely stems from her own experience: chasing information about her family, documenting their knowledge and memories, trying to fill in the holes of their story. In our recent video call, she shared that it’s a way of processing her own intergenerational trauma: “If I talk to someone who’s been displaced, I have a deeper understanding of my own family’s experiences.”

She doesn’t shy away from discomfort in her compositions, which often feature recorded interviews accompanied by her music. But ultimately, empathy and compassion are the heartbeat of her works. “[Documentary] is a very powerful medium to reach someone,” she explains. “When we hear a real person talking about something they’ve endured, we have a much stronger sense of empathy and understanding for their experience than if I set that text and have someone singing it. It causes a little bit of tension for me to make something so beautiful out of someone’s direct words.”

With this in mind, her approach to composition is incredibly selfless. She strives to have her music reflect her emotional connection with her interviewees, carefully orchestrating around each speaker’s vocal range and timbre so their words are never obscured. “I almost don’t really care if someone notices the music behind the story,” she says. “It’s a very film-scoring approach: in the best film scores, you don’t actually notice the music at all. In a concert hall, you notice the music because there are musicians playing, but it’s not the star for me… I’m never concerned if someone connects to the music I’m writing. It’s always, ‘Do they connect to the storyteller?’ and ‘Is the music doing its job so that you can connect to the storyteller?’”

Mary Kouyoumdjian -- Photo by Desmond White

Mary Kouyoumdjian — Photo by Desmond White

This mindset makes sense considering Mary’s compositional background. She completed an M.A. in Scoring for Film & Multimedia from New York University and relocated to Los Angeles for a few years to pursue a career in film music, but ended up moving back to New York in 2010. “It was such a vibrant time to be in New York,” she remembers. “There were all these new music ensembles and new music venues that had opened up.”

But despite all of the activity, Mary didn’t feel like she was part of the new music scene, so she looked to Bang on a Can for inspiration. In the same way that Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Michael Gordon created an ensemble to play their music, she teamed up with friend and composer Leaha Maria Villarreal to start a chamber ensemble – Hotel Elefant.

Mary had never had a paid commission, so receiving an American Composers Forum JFund award (now ACF | create) in 2011 was a pivotal moment. “I had nothing to my name; I just applied with an idea for a piece and the group that I wanted to write it for – a group that had no track record either, because we hadn’t had a concert yet. Somehow we got that grant, and that changed my life so much – just having that first ‘I believe in you’ kind of commission.”

A portion of the JFund grant went to Hotel Elefant for their 2012 debut at the DiMenna Center (Mary’s first critical review as a composer, covered by I CARE IF YOU LISTEN), but Mary put the majority of her commissioning fee toward a recording of her new piece, which “triggered another life-changing moment.” The recording was part of her application to Kronos Quartet’s “Under 30 Project,” and her participation in this program led to a long-term collaborative relationship with the ensemble spanning multiple commissions, including Bombs of Beirut and Silent Cranes.

Mary’s next interaction with American Composers Forum was in 2019 when she participated in ACF | connect, a commissioning program that provides opportunities for composers to build relationships with prominent new music ensembles. Mary was one of three composers selected to compose a new work for Roomful of Teeth,  “another opportunity to fall in love with the way that ACF supports artists at different stages of their career,” she says. The program came at a time in her life when she was having difficulty composing, and the prospect of writing for a vocal ensemble was exciting – especially for a group she “wouldn’t normally approach” with an experimental musical language she “wouldn’t normally use.”

Her final touchpoint with ACF was serving on the board of directors from 2020-2022. “When being asked to join the board, I loved the idea of supporting an organization that takes that chance on someone who doesn’t have the portfolio behind them, but has ideas and the curiosity,” Mary says. She added that while it’s crucial for individuals to advocate for change, it is still important to work with institutions, who often have the necessary power and resources to get the job done. “If there’s an organization that wants to create change, then I want to be a part of it.”

We sat down for our interview just after the world premiere run of her first opera, Adoration, which premiered in January at PROTOTYPE Festival. Featuring a libretto by Royce Vavrek, the work is an adaptation of Atom Egoyan’s film of the same name and explores the intersections of racism, intolerance, hate, and rejection. It was also announced in January that Mary had been selected as the inaugural recipient of the ASCAP Foundation Harold Adamson Prize, an unrestricted grant for mid-career composers and performers that is going to recording costs for Adoration.

Mary Kouyoumdjian in Armenia conducting field work -- Photo courtesy of the artist

Mary Kouyoumdjian in Armenia conducting field work — Photo courtesy of the artist

And she has some big performances on the horizon. On May 10, the New York Philharmonic will premiere her Project 19 commission, a collaboration with photojournalist Scout Tufankjian. The piece integrates Scout’s photography, Mary’s interviews, and field recordings from those displaced by the recent genocide of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. In June, Kronos Quartet will feature a new work by Mary written as part of their Kronos Five Decades commissions. The piece confronts grief head on – an admittedly difficult topic for Mary – but she is embracing the challenge.

Having recently received a “mid-career” award, and reflecting on her commissions from major arts institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Carnegie Hall, Mary still recognizes the importance of the early support she received from organizations like ACF and Kronos Quartet. “It’s incredibly important to have an organization, an institution, or an established ensemble – just people you look up to – saying, ‘We believe in what you’re making and the potential for you to continue to grow.’ We all need that vote of confidence – I know I do. I’m not secure enough where I can just be my own cheerleader all the time. I need to know that my music is connecting with someone and that it has a future beyond my own apartment.”


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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