The Musical Matrix
And other major discoveries with Alexandr Iradyan
January 27, 2020 | by Creative Armenia
Creative Armenia - AGBU Fellow Alexandr Iradyan is an internationally award-winning conductor and composer, based in Berlin, who performed his first piano concerto at the age of 16. He shares the secrets of his process, including how he learned by studying the hand-written ballets of Khatchaturian over and over.
CA: You started your professional career at a very young age. How did that come about?
AI: I was born in 1990 to a family of non-musicians. My father was a doctor of chemical sciences and my mother had a Ph.D. of organic chemistry. Yet, I was in love with music. My parents were always very liberal in their views on the future of their kids and so I went to music school at the age of 7 to study what I love the most. During my school years, I attended a musical theatre group called “Surprise.” These were the most joyful years of my childhood — I was singing on stage, I was acting, dancing, performing almost every week, in other words living the life of a young artist.
At the age of 14, I started learning orchestration, instrumentation and was burning with the desire to write a monumental ballet. At that time Aram Khachaturian was my idol of orchestral music. Every day after school I would run to the library of the National Opera Theatre, to a small room under the stage where all the scores of Khachatryan’s ballets were kept. I would spend hours just sitting there, learning the scores, trying to understand how he combined and orchestrated his music, how it all worked. Many of the scores were handwritten and I still remember that smell of paper and ink. That was not a score printed in 500 copies, it was someone who spent months copying that score by hand. Later in the evening, I would attend the performance of the piece I was looking through in the afternoon. This would give me a chance to compare what I have learned from the score to the actual sound. Thus I have attended Aram Khachaturian’s Gayaneh ballet performance 27 times. This was an unforgettable learning experience and I must say that it has affected the way I write music my entire life. Since then I never use a computer to write my scores. Having a paper and pen in front of me, feeling the smell of ink and the direct relation between me and writing is essential for me.
I was 16 years old when I got inspired by the idea of writing a piano concerto. I was working day and night writing the orchestration, composing farther elements and thinking the details through. Even New Year’s Eve and Christmas didn’t exist for me that year. When everybody was outside celebrating I was seated in my room scribbling my beloved score. The reward I got for more than a year of work was incredible. After looking through the score and hearing the story of a 16-year-old boy who dreamed of having his work performed by a big orchestra, the principal conductor and artistic director of the Armenian National Philharmonic orchestra agreed to include it in a concert program in June 2007. I was only 16 when I got on a stage with the ANPO and performed my piano concerto.
CA: You are a composer and conductor, playing two quite different roles in classical music. In what ways are they different, what changes in your artistic approach when you shift from one to the other?
AI: Some people are surprised to hear that in order to conduct my own music I have to spend as much time learning the score as I would if I conducted a score composed by someone else. But it is true.
These are two completely different professions and even though I had the music composed myself, which gives me some kind of extra certainty, the knowledge of the score requires another approach. When I am preparing to conduct a rehearsal my perspective to the music changes — I am a performer of the pieces, not the creator of it.
CA: Tell us about your daily creative routine.
AI: I think working on an idea can become a routine but not the creation of the idea of music itself. It is a road of excitement with occasional exclamations of ”Eureka!”.
I know that I look quite funny when I am working. I can walk around the table for 30-40 minutes talking and singing to myself then suddenly jump back on the chair and start writing or just stare at the blank paper. All of these might be very entertaining, so in order not to get caught I mostly work at night. Nighttime has a very special silence for my ears — there is less noise and movement around me.
My job as a conductor requires almost the same amount of concentration and time. When I prepare for a rehearsal I spend days just studying the score, getting to the essence and the concept of the composer and making a practical plan of how I am going to lead the rehearsal. Conducting is not only about you leading the performance, but also about going through a lot of logistics, planning, and preparation. I believe this is the component that makes this profession so difficult — a lot of decision making.
CA: Your approach to classical music is innovative and experimental in terms of technique. Tell us more about your innovative compositions.
AI: For more than 10 years I was developing my own vocabulary or, so to speak, musical-linguistic matrix. In this matrix, the musical material becomes the key to understanding the message behind it. This is some kind of musical recycling — different themes and components keep on appearing in all of my compositions not because I ran out of ideas, but because that is exactly the purpose: to create a non-verbal language and send a strong message. I always loved riddles and finding ways to encode a piece of information in my music. For people who are more or less familiar with my compositions, this is no surprise.
CA: Your career in music started in Armenia, continued in Belgium, and now in Germany. Are the practices of classical music different among the three countries?
AI: The aim of all the music institutions around the world is the same — to pass the experience of the older generation to the younger representatives of the musical world. But the approaches are different. Some of the institutions rely more on theoretical education of orchestral conducting, others are way more practical. As it is known, Komitas State Conservatory of Yerevan was one of the best in the Soviet Union and I got a chance to study with the legendary generation of professors of that time. This gave me the foundational knowledge that I put to practice later in other countries. Belgian Royal Conservatory was the first institution I attended in Europe. This period was very important for me in gaining my first conducting experience.
Concerning my education at the UdK (Universität der Künste) Berlin, I had two years of very intensive conducting courses that would include more than 85 conducting sessions with professional orchestras all around Germany. This was a completely new approach by UdK to the profession of conducting. It gave a chance for young conductors to gain as much experience as possible.
CA: Tell us something important you’ve learned from working with musicians and composers worldwide.
AI: I have worked with a lot of musicians from across the world. All of us are so different but there is one aspect that unites us — the passion for what we do. Meeting a composer allows me to experience new perspectives and approaches, especially when I am working as a conductor. I get a bigger insight into the compositions I am conducting right from the source and I find this process of revelation rather thrilling.
CA: Have you decided how you are going to use your Creative Armenia - AGBU Fellowship?
AI: I see in Creative Armenia - AGBU Fellowships a unique opportunity to advance my career and share my vision with the world. Whenever I get an award it is important for me to use the prize money to leave some emotional memories, something that will make me look back and remember this achievement. For a long time, I had an idea of releasing my first recording with the National Chamber Orchestra of Armenia and Hover Chamber Choir. This recording would be something to be very proud of and I have a good feeling that this fellowship will help make it a reality.
CA: What is your long-term vision for your creative career?
AI: At this moment I work as a freelancer, which means I am not bound to only one orchestra. I hope this will change in the upcoming two years. Sometimes guesting all around the world is less important than leading one orchestra and implementing your long-term vision with those great musicians. One of my aims is to get the public as close to the orchestral music as possible and I have a lot of plans for that. Innovation, creativity, and conceptualism are the keys. It is not only the choice of music but also the location, the ways of presentation, and the combination of different art forms that matter. Armenia is one of the countries where I plan to make a lot of changes by introducing new ideas and approaches.