Musician Michel Petrossian sittiing with his musical instruments and a musical score in his right hand

Keeping Composed

Michel Petrossian is on a quest to compose classical music for contemporary audiences

Imagine you are sitting in a renowned concert hall in Paris. You have come to see your first concert of contemporary classical music and you do not quite know what to expect. You recognize all the instruments on stage and hear all the notes, but the pieces sound nothing like the Bach and Mozart compositions you know and love. You sense that there is a deeper meaning to the arrangement of chords and cadences in the music you are hearing, but you cannot manage to understand it. At the end of the concert, you give the musicians a standing ovation with the rest of the audience, but ultimately leave the hall feeling puzzled, as though you have somehow missed the point.

Avoiding this all-too-common sense of bewilderment, says Michel Petrossian, is the responsibility of composers like him. An acclaimed contemporary classical composer trained at the prestigious Conservatoire de Paris, Petrossian sees the relevance and accessibility of his genre as one of the greatest challenges of the field today. “There was a time when composers weren’t worried about how their music was received by audiences, when composers wrote just for one another and for the critics, ignoring the universe beyond. There is no need for audiences to feel disconnected. Music is the place where fundamental social questions can be addressed. It must be written so that everyone can enjoy it and relate to it.” 

Male composer stands outside a Monastery talking to a group of people
Rehearsal for Petrossian’s oratorio “The Song of Arshak” at the Tatev Monastery in Armenia. Petrossian used bird and nature sounds as starting points for the melodies. Photo by Christophe ABRAMOWITZ.

In Petrossian’s eyes, a truly stellar composer must deal with universal themes that are of interest to audiences today. As much as he recognizes the genius of the Beethoven, Brahms and other giants of classical music, Petrossian believes that the work of composers of the past cannot fully reflect the issues that preoccupy people today. Whether it is the multiculturalism of modern society, the condition of human loneliness or the status of the individual, today’s composers—and artists more generally—have the potential to comment on these phenomena and illuminate them in a unique way for audiences. “We’re living in such a highly specialized world and, as a result, we can sometimes lose sight of the entire picture. I think an artist has the potential to link different aspects of our complicated, multifaceted lives and, in the process, reenchant the world by showing people that there are many more reasons to be joyful than disillusioned.” 

Music is the place where fundamental social questions can be addressed. It must be written so that everyone can enjoy it and relate to it.

One of the universal themes and sources of joy that Petrossian addresses in his own music is the multiple identities of the individual. Born in Armenia, but trained entirely in France, Petrossian is intrigued by the notion of multilayered identities like his own and has experimented with the theme in his compositions. In one such piece, “A Fiery Flame, A Flaming Fire,” premiered in Los Angeles in 2017, he asked to give a short introduction before the performance to help acquaint the audience members with the musical themes they were about to hear. “For this concert, I told them that I aimed to show the mobility and fluidity of identities through music. Having an excerpt from the composition played and explaining the meaning behind the musical narration helped the audience follow the piece during the performance. Not knowing what the sounds represent in a composition can be very alienating without cues. I’ve felt something similar myself. I love contemporary visual art, but if I don’t know the motivations behind the artwork, how can I be expected to easily enter the piece?”

Given his interest in the hybridity of identities, Petrossian has naturally been drawn to composers whose work exhibits a unique mélange of cultural influences. In particular, he cites Austrian composer Gustav Mahler and the effect of his Jewish heritage on his music as well as Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu and the impact of French impressionist music on his work. “These influences gave their music a sound that made them stand out from among their contemporaries. For Mahler, it was a certain dramatism in his compositions and for Takemitsu, it was a non-linear sense of time proper to the Far East. Their work epitomizes cultural fusion and represents the complexity of the world both then and now.”   

Petrossian believes that twenty-first-century contemporary classical music has been—and will continue to be—defined by a similar form of cultural fusion. In his recent compositions, he has chosen to draw on his own Armenian heritage as inspiration and meld it with the Western classical tradition in which he was trained. After seeing an exhibition in Paris on the relationship between human and animal language, Petrossian discovered a ninth-century Armenian monk named Stepanos of Tatev who had a similar aim: to connect bird sounds with modes of liturgical chanting. Here the idea for an oratorio—a musical work for orchestra and voice—was born, in collaboration with best-selling French writer Laurent Gaudé. “As I was composing, I listened to hundreds of hours of bird songs and nature sounds and studied many bird species from the region of Tatev, using them as starting points for certain melodies in the oratorio.” In the end, the piece, “The Song of Arshak,” was performed at the Tatev Monastery in Armenia, where Stepanos lived more than a millennium ago, and brought together a local Armenian children’s choir and a French youth choir for a performance that aired on Radio de France in November 2018. 

Male musician receives a bouquet of flowers at the conclusion of a concert
Petrossian (right) receives a bouquet of flowers at the conclusion of 100 Years of Memory: A Concert for Life.
Photo by Vincent PONTET.

Petrossian’s roots also led him to write an original composition for 100 Years of Memory: A Concert for Life, a high-profile concert on the centenary of the Armenian Genocide organized by AGBU France. Performed by the Armenian World Orchestra, Petrossian’s composition, “Ciel à vif,” sought to address the apparent absence of God during the Armenian Genocide by incorporating religious and secular texts and motifs in Armenian, English, French, Greek, Hebrew and Latin. “The AGBU organizers and I had exactly the same approach to the concert. We all believed that the event wasn’t a place to cry, but a place to demonstrate our vitality. I was so humbled to be chosen to take part in it and am grateful to the AGBU organizers, who took a risk by commissioning a contemporary classical piece.” Petrossian notes that this concert was the first time many of the 1,900 attendees had heard a composition from this genre, which has since been performed in Armenia and aired on French television. 

The success of the centenary concert brought about the emergence of an AGBU Performing Arts Department (PAD) in France. Reflecting on the impact of AGBU PAD France, Petrossian notes that it has already become a powerful driving force for Armenian art, particularly for composers. In recent years, Petrossian has been one of the judges of the AGBU Sayat Nova International Composition Competition, a biennial event that seeks to introduce Armenian traditions to a wider audience by having composers create pieces for an ensemble of Western classical and traditional Armenian instruments. “The initiative has become a great opportunity to showcase elements of Armenian culture and introduce them to creators and audiences, leading to collaborations between the Armenian and international cultural spheres.”

Petrossian has also been on the other side of the panel of judges, having won the preeminent Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium in 2013. Out of 141 compositions from around the world, Petrossian’s piece, “In the Wake of Ea,” was chosen as the winner, making him the very first composer of Armenian origin and only the second French composer to win in the competition’s more than seventy-year history. “It was an incredible experience and without a doubt my proudest accomplishment in my career so far,” he says.

There will certainly be countless more accomplishments to come in the musical life of this busy composer. Always in search of something new that inspires, Petrossian has recently turned his attention more and more to the United States, where he delights in seeing less separation between popular music and classical music than in Europe. In 2019, he will be premiering compositions in Los Angeles in March and at Notre Dame University in Indiana in April, each with the hope of exposing more people to the relevance and universality of contemporary classical music today.

Banner photo by Antoine Doyen.

Originally published in the December 2018 ​issue of AGBU Insider. end character

About the AGBU Insider

AGBU Insider profiles extraordinary AGBU program alumni across a diverse set of industries and passions. With exclusive interviews and photography, each issue reveals the Armenian impact on society, community, and industry.