The Powerful Lyricism of Alan Semerdjian
Alan Semerdjian on his spoken word music album
May 21, 2020 | by Creative Armenia
Our Spark Grant recipient Alan Semerdjian released his spoken word music album The Serpent and The Crane, addressing the trauma of the Genocide from the modern standpoint.
CA: You are a poet and a musician. Tell us how one complements the other and whether you feel the presence of both perspectives when creating new work.
The words for songs are tethered to rhythm and other sonic elements of the composition. In poetry, the other side of the tether is anything in the universe. The door is left ajar...or perhaps there is no door.
I gravitate to songwriters who embrace this open-ness and proclivity towards abstraction that poetry offers. The tension, of course, is that songwriting often has a very public purpose and function whereas the poem works its magic in a very personal and internal way. I appreciate this type of tension, and I think it appears in my work.
My songs, which often display somewhat conventional melodic and harmonic sensibilities, often are idiosyncratic in some way. And my poems, which can lean hard on ambiguity and experimental traditions, get dramatic or lyrical at times the way a pop song might. This binary is at the heart of almost all my work, I suppose.
Now, in terms of instrumental music or the musical elements inside of a composition with words solely, we see poetry manifest as well. The symmetry of a line, for instance, or the tendency to make meaning through analogy and repetition, what’s unsaid, the gift of surprise, etc...these are all things we see in the art of great musicians. Aram Bajakian, my partner on this most recent project, has this in his guitar playing, as does Tigran Hamasyan in his piano playing, Angel Deradoorian in her singing, etc.
CA: As a Creative Armenia Network member, you received Spark Grant for your music album The Serpent and The Crane, which was just released. Tell us a little about the project.
AS: The Serpent and The Crane is ostensibly a spoken word album though the interplay between the voice and the music is one that is much more fluid and non-hierarchical than traditional spoken word collaborations where the music is there to sort of serve as a backdrop for the poetry or a canvas on which the poet paints.
Aram and I wanted to make something that honored our ancestry and connection to The Armenian Genocide as we both had family members who were survivors, and it made sense to bring other voices to the conversation. So the project involves my own poetry selected from my first full-length book, In the Architecture of Bone, as well as some new poems and work from two mentors — Peter Balakian and Diana Der Hovanessian — and Siamanto and Daniel Varoujan who were killed in the early deportations.
Although the research for preparation for the project took months, we recorded the album in one day in 2017 on an AGBU Performing Artists grant, and Mike Bloom mixed and mastered it the following year. We performed it once and received Creative Armenia’s grant to finish the project. At that point, I connected with Kevork Mourad, who did the artwork for the cover, and Steve Altan, who did the design of the digital booklet. The poems were translated by Sosy Mishoyan.
Currently, it’s self-released and getting some notable attention, but Aram and I are not averse to releasing it in partnership with the right label.
CA: In your spoken word album The Serpent and The Crane album you use poetry by Armenian poets and address the complexities of Genocide. What complexities are you addressing? Should we see this as an attempt to articulate the trauma of the Genocide?
AS: In his poem “The Aged Crane,” Daniel Varoujan imagines the final moments of this majestic bird, which is the trope for the Armenian people in a way, and “the vast sorrow of an exiled race.” What’s fascinating is not necessarily the death of the bird or the joy it has seen and the Romantic inclination of the poem to revere a more vibrant and prosperous time and the like. Rather, it’s the inclusion of “the lizard” that “coils around its dead neck” after it expires that’s of interest to me and the inspiration for the name of the project, actually.
What are we to make of this odd serpent and its intent to “revenge a grudge of olden days”? A dominant reading might consider it the stranglehold of waning denialism, weakened because of all the important international discourse and recognitions but alive still in this shadowy form. Or, perhaps through a more contemporary lens, it’s how time works—how it kills again and after the fact as we begin to forget any reference to Genocide becomes cliche or loses its dimension. Or maybe it might be the attempt to reconcile this sordid period of our history by us, the grandchildren of genocide and generations away from it or in the Diaspora even...what right do we have? And what form should our honoring take?
Beyond the articulation of the trauma of the Genocide, which is pulsing at the heart of our project, are these questions, which comprise, I think, its head.
CA: Tell us about your creative routine.
AS: In all honesty, the creative routine for me has no fixed system or method since my son was born. Parenting is a true joy, but basically partnership and familial responsibilities paired with my commitment to my students and school community forces me to make it in the in-between, so to speak, and in this weird fractured way. This is the antithesis of the long, tangential nights exploring an idea until sunrise of my more singular days of inventive freedom that sometimes comes with touring and travel and retreats, etc.
I read once that yoga shouldn’t only be practiced on the mat once a day for 25 minutes. There’s yoga in the walk, yoga in eating lunch, yoga in the conversation, the commute, etc. My present creative routine sort of encompasses this kind of thinking, which sometimes makes being present in the moment more challenging than it already is. I find myself vacillating between an idea or revision, or sliver of the song or a charged phrase and whatever work or interaction is in front of me.
Sometimes, an idea comes fully formed, and I’ve learned that the work that comes easiest to me somehow does the same for the reader or listener. But mostly my creative process involves working on an idea in many phases and over considerable time.
I tend to work better in collaboration as well. And with deadlines. Aram and I would not have made this album if we didn’t maximize what little time we had with each other in person and didn’t have deadlines.
CA: What is your long-term vision for your creative career?
AS: I’ve always said that I wanted my creative career to be all about entering and contributing meaningfully to important conversations about the human condition when all of this is said and done.
I’ve been blessed and lucky enough to have been a part of the making of a few things that have resonated for people near and far, and that has meant everything. More specifically, I have finished a second full-length manuscript of poetry that I’ve started sending out to presses and competitions. I’d love for that book to find a home.
I think that it is not out of the question for The Serpent and The Crane to see another manifestation somehow, though I’m not sure what that is yet. It’s a complete pleasure to work with Aram, and we match up well in terms of our aesthetic choices and tastes. There’s probably a live album of music too still in me made up of songs from my catalog that I’ll re-imagine with some friends at some point.
More than anything else, I’m hoping that my creative career is characterized by this inclination to always respect the intelligence of my audiences, to actually recognize that they are indeed integral in the process and function of art existing in the world, and that I’ve stuck to the goal of making something imaginative and true.