In 1969, the Armenian film director Sergei Parajanov released his masterpiece Sayat-Nova. A world-cultural event, the film prompted Andrei Tarkovsky to deem Parajanov “a genius” and Michelangelo Antonioni to proclaim the film “of a stunningly perfect beauty… Parajanov, in my opinion, is one of best film directors in the world.” For Tigran Mansurian, the Armenian composer who scored the film and in so doing invented a new musical language, Sayat-Nova was “an extraordinary phenomenon of universal importance.” Based on the life of the eighteenth-century poet and musician Sayat-Nova (King of Song), the film was released in English under the title The Color of Pomegranates. In the following interview, which took place during the summer of 2006, Mansurian offers an intimate behind-the-scenes look at the processes of two truly original artists, how they interact with the world and as collaborators. “Parajanov lived through everything that characterizes his film,” Mansurian says, “and to be in his environment meant to be immersed in ‘Parajanovism,’ where the fragrance of the air, the torments of yearning and pain, the brilliance of irony and artistry had a peculiar element that only belonged to Parajanov.” This interview offers a unique point of inquiry to Parajanov’s creative world as well as his magnum opus. Music & Literature is grateful to Tigran Mansurian for the opportunity to present this conversation for the first time in English.
Translated from the Armenian by Chaghig Arzrouni-Chahinian
Nairi Galstanian: Sergei Parajanov’s Sayat-Nova (The Color of Pomegranates) is one of your first films as a composer. How did you first meet Parajanov and how did you start collaborating?
Tigran Mansurian: I met Parajanov in Yerevan. A meeting between him and other Armenian artists had been organized. I knew nothing about Parajanov before that evening. I was at the painter Martiros Saryan’s house. He had been invited to this gathering, and the three of us—Saryan, his son’s wife, and I—headed to the event from their house. I don’t know why, but the Saryans felt it was appropriate for me to be present at the gathering. That’s how I was introduced to Parajanov.
That day he made a lasting impression on me and, I’m sure, the entire audience. He talked from a stage with lively hand gestures about the film he was planning to make. His speech didn’t follow any traditional logic or plot, it was rather like separate snapshot episodes, raw material to be montaged. His speech, in general, was confusing—he jumped from one thought to another, sometimes without an obvious connection—but it all served the purpose of making an impression of an encounter with a very unusual world, a phenomenon called Parajanov. The stage was flooded with strangeness and originality. It was a one-man act, no less interesting than what would later become The Color of Pomegranates.
Shortly after this event, news spread in Yerevan that the filming of The Color of Pomegranates had begun. If artists gathered somewhere, you could be sure that their conversation would veer toward the making of The Color of Pomegranates. They talked about Parajanov’s eccentricities as a director—actually, there were many such stories. The newspapers considered it important to mention where in Armenia Parajanov had been filming the previous day. And, in general, the whole city was imbued with a Parajanovian atmosphere. It seemed as if we were witnessing not just the making of a film but an extraordinary phenomenon of universal importance.
One of his assistants, who soon began considering himself Parajanov’s right-hand man and started giving orders and making declarations on his behalf (he was soon dismissed from the film crew), visited me one day and told me that Parajanov wanted me to compose the music for his film. I was, of course, very happy. Some things changed after I received the news and it took a long time before this plan of collaboration was finally authorized. I started working on the film’s music on January 3, 1969, and it took me three months to finish it—three months of working from eight in the morning till eight in the evening every day. The film by then had already been shot and edited. I had been working on music scores for documentary films at HayFilm for five years, but, yes, this was my first feature film.
NG: You didn’t have to compose a new theme for The Color of Pomegranates but rather arrange and adapt an already-existing canvas—the sonic universe of the poet and musician Sayat-Nova. The instruments resounding in the film belong to Sayat-Nova’s musical universe, yet your style is perfectly recognizable in the synthesis between modern compositional techniques and a heritage deeply anchored in tradition. Can you articulate the relationship between these modern techniques and the old traditions?
TM: As soon as I saw the film material I had a clear idea of what I’d like to do (speaking, of course, in general terms and with the bold self-confidence I had as a young man). I have never been able to logically articulate the relationship between image and music, and even less able to explain it in words. It’s pointless. The image usually shrugs off music when it is chosen on the basis of a logical reasoning or “cleverness.” It doesn’t need it. I have heard many interesting logical and “clever” solutions regarding how to musically “arrange” an image—great topics for conversation, but all have been categorically rejected by the image itself. In short, this is what I had to do: the film incorporated items of everyday life, the most ordinary objects placed on a pedestal and framed. Sometimes they were arranged in strange and beautiful compositions. I had to do the same: pull out the sounds of everyday life and put them on a pedestal, within a frame. And in the sequence of these sounds, the most unusual connections would acquire a very natural resonance, and they would be perceived as very natural and acceptable, becoming what the image demanded them to be. Even the most out-of-the-ordinary, different-natured sounds can, under the auspices of harmoniousness, find common ground and live side by side in peace and accord.
It is true that all the sounds in the film are derived from folk instruments. Sometimes these are distinct sounds, sometimes phrases, sometimes sound ornaments without the ensuing main sound. Indeed I have plucked the folk music “chicken” and selected one or two of the most beautiful feathers that are so far from their context that they are not even perceived as feathers anymore. You can hear the tar, but at the same time it’s not a tar; you hear the sound of drums, but they are not there for their rhythm. Even the most natural sounds—sounds with very concrete origins—have been reinterpreted… When writing the score, I was (metaphorically speaking) hanging on a metronomic string—as one hangs clothes on a line—separate pieces of sound or sound combinations. The dribbling tremolo of the tar, which seems to imitate the very sound of suffering, drops into a thick bell-ringing sound instead of reaching its end. This union of sounds is unusual but it does contain musical thought and, most importantly, it accurately corresponds to the image. I created other types of scores as well, and the principle of the “clothesline” is not the only one here. The cutout phrase sometimes bears more energy than when that same phrase reaches its logical end and fades. The arm that is absent from a man’s body has a much more striking presence than the arm that is actually there. Following this principle, I have cut out phrases as one might use scissors to cut the superfluous branches from an Ikebana arrangement, so that the required poetry can appear in all its expressive power in the open spaces of the shorn branches.
NG: Let’s discuss Gestalt theory in Parajanov… With Parajanov, the devotion is total, saturated, intensely present. There are close affinities between his art and the aesthetics of the Renaissance period, whereas yours is closer to Impressionism. There is an abundance of material in Parajanov, while your aesthetic approach, expressed through the extreme restraint and meticulous frugality of your musical language, has more affinities with the principles of Webern, Debussy, and Komitas. Could you talk about this contrast?
TM: When I started working on this project, I absolutely abided by what the film required: my task was very concrete. I couldn’t give myself the luxury of pondering over this relationship between Gestalt theory and Impressionism that you are suggesting; I can perhaps analyze the relationship now, from this distance of years. It is true that there are affinities with the aesthetics of the Renaissance in Parajanov, but that can also be perceived as a Tiflisian feature of being enraptured by demonstrative beauty. Let’s not forget that Armenian art was, for centuries, one of the great driving forces of the school of art in Tiflis. I am thinking of Sayat-Nova, the Hovnatanian family. This is where Rouben Mamoulian and Aram Khachaturian come from…
Of course, the sounds in the air and in nature, the sounds and the music living in open spaces, all have an important role in the film. For the Impressionists, this is one of the important conditions of creating the life of sounds. The Impressionists offered new content to the relationships of sound and air, sound and silence. But when I try to analyze what I did in this film, I’d rather not step into the world of “isms.” I still love Debussy’s music very much even today; I still feel the need to listen to him to return to the world of heavenly sounds of my youth. But I never considered myself to be an Impressionist, just as Komitas is not an Impressionist, although he ingeniously achieved the relationship between sound and air, sound and silence. I am someone at the crossroads of the music cultures of the East and the West. I believe that this circumstance has a much more determining role in the shaping of my musical thinking.
NG: What did Parajanov think about your experimental approach to Sayat-Nova’s music?
TM: Parajanov, of course, had his own considerations regarding music. In his script, he tried—at least theoretically—to juxtapose the agony of his hero with sound. For instance, at a turning point, the sound of the kamancha being tuned would change its course as a string would break. I had brought many musical instruments to the recording studio. Sometimes I felt bad for the musicians playing the instruments because they couldn’t understand what was asked of them, what was important in their playing and what was unusable. Indeed, the important and the unusable had been displaced completely in my thinking, but Parajanov’s suggestion (to create an impression of tension through a broken string) didn’t work. We broke many strings, but they were only able to create the impression of a fly’s buzz and didn’t have any force of tension in them and I had to let go of such ideas. It’s true that by amplifying the fly’s buzz we could have attained the desired impact, but that would have been exaggerated and therefore unfit for this film.
The musical need was so readily-developed in Parajanov’s images—in terms of image, composition, the content of the symbols in a given frame, and so on—that you could trust him and enter that space to snatch away the extant sounds.
Parajanov gave me the filmed material and left for Kiev the very next day. Before leaving, he said: “Send me a telegram when you are done and I’ll be back. I won’t be here until then.” He didn’t set forth any demands, any considerations, none at all. When he returned from Kiev and watched the film with the music score on he was quite satisfied. He sat a few rows in front of me in the screening room. When the screening was over and the lights hadn’t been turned on yet, Parajanov turned around toward me and held his thumb up. I too was pleased. After the screening, the staff who had watched the film shared positive remarks about the music, as if it existed separately from the images. That’s understandable: most of them had already been through the first wave of shock brought by the images, whereas the music was completely new, both inside the film and in general.
NG: Were you also responsible for the other components of the sound narrative, such as prayers, recited verses, songs, dialogues, and so forth?
TM: Yes, I worked with all the sounds. Some musical or sonic fragments that Parajanov himself had used for a certain image I kept. In the royal hunting scene, for example, the Georgian sacred polyphonic song was Parajanov’s idea and I left it as it was.
NG: Because of the intimate fusion of sounds and the absence of dialogue, the soundtrack of The Color of Pomegranates is a homogenous whole without the conventional distinctions between music, noise, and human voice. Sayat-Nova’s melodies have tightly integrated with the rest of the sonic material. Did you want this effect from the very beginning?
TM: In fact, this was the primary and basic principle of my work. As you know, the film doesn’t have any dialogue or verbal explanations. It also sometimes disrupts the conventional chain of cause-effect. If you have noticed, the eye—the camera—that looks at the image does not move; it is the units inside the shot (people, objects) that move. These are often images set in motion before the immobile eye. On the screen, in front of our eyes, is a still image; it is the episodes within the still image that are in motion. What I am trying to say is that this film came into existence through a path of self-restraint. This self-restraint (one that shrugs off all kinds of minor clarifications, transition providers, and so forth) conveys to the form of the film, on the one hand, the quality of crystal density and, on the other hand, open spaces that have been freed from detail, silences aimed at our insight, suggestions aimed at our ability to resolve “secrets,” all of which create a tense emotional state for the audience—something that we often experience when encountering poetry. Besides, there is also the dynamism of the sign. The translation of all this into music would have to redefine the approach to the sound. I had to remove minor characterizations of belonging from the sound and bring it to the density of the sign. It was necessary to create the sound of Parajanov’s poetic world, and this so-called “sound” would naturally include conversation, noise, noise-music, music—sometimes mere shreds of it. The difference in quality between these sounds, naturally, had to be eliminated, and they all became raw material to be handled. Where does noise end and music begin? These boundaries were wiped-off, as required by the image. The image had an aim: to present the world in a poetic form. The sound had to do the same thing. The actual physical sound suggested by the image was not always the best solution for dressing an image with sound. In this regard, every shot required its own solution. Needless to say, this task of transforming each and every sound took a great deal of time and energy.
NG: Silence has an extensive place in the soundtrack, both quantitatively and qualitatively. This is even more striking because Parajanov’s previous film, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, on the contrary, was based on an uninterrupted, continuous sound-flow. As a consequence of this silence (in The Color of Pomegranates), we have a scarcity—there are fewer sounds, they seem to function in simple bodies, short musical modules that are easy to recognize and remember. In this case, articulations and variations (repetitions, interruptions, reprises, waits, changes in sound volume) acquire great importance and leave an impression of work done by a sound director and sound modulator as, for example, in concrete music. How did this type of structure emerge?
TM: The sound in Parajanov’s previous film, in my opinion, had been wrongly resolved, so I knew what not to do.
While silence plays an important role in The Color of Pomegranates, no part of the film was abandoned to mechanical silence—all silences had been worked on. They were author-ized silences, if you will. For example, there are two palace scenes—Parajanov called one the “Red Palace” and the other the “Blue Palace.” I have hung the image of each palace against the corresponding background of silence. The first palace has a red background, and its sound starts from the Armenian consonant շ or “sh.” The image of the “Blue Palace” is hung on a background of blue silence, and that silence originates from the consonant u or “s.” Neither of these consonants, which form a sonic background, stretch in mechanical immobility; each breathes and thus participates in the amplification or reduction of tension in the shot. The viewer, of course, doesn’t need to be aware of these subtleties. But when these silences work inside the form(ation)al system, they become a distinct element of an entire language-mentality and leave their impact on the viewer. When these silences are personified or acquire a psychological nuance (as is each of the silent backgrounds of the palaces), they contribute to the sensitivity of emergent sounds. For example, I’ve happened to overhear two people having a tense conversation in the silence of the night under my window. I was unable to understand a word from their dialogue; the subject of their argument was unintelligible. But the sounds they produced (whispered, at times) lent themselves wonderfully to the silence, sometimes breaking out of that silence in short bursts. I listened with delight to their unintelligible conversation, imbued with eccentricities, paradox and absurdity—a conversation that had more depth and content than if I were able to follow its verbal content. The sounds lacked semantic detail and, through the power of their abstraction, were disposed to becoming signs—signs of midnight conversation and fury.
I think sound-symbols affect our psyche as forcefully as image-symbols do. Indeed, the sounds in The Color of Pomegranates have a continual tendency to turn into symbols. When they work in the right direction, these symbols leave a powerful impression on the viewer. I put two types of percussions in a scene where a woman of worldly pleasures wipes a hand-mirror on the back of her dress. The scene is accompanied by the oriental dap with its free flow of unregulated rhythm. The beats are diminutive, the energy that produces the rhythm is moderate, the wiping of the mirror and the playing of the dap is tepid. The sound itself is heard from a close distance, something that suggests safety. Fused with the image, the sound made by the dap is prone to become a symbol of vulgar pleasures. In the following scene, we see the poet standing by the rugs flapping in the wind. We hear the drums, their forceful sound entering the scene from the high mountains and deep canyons outside the frame. The wind from afar, made visible through the movement of the rugs, acquires volume and depth precisely due to the drums and seems to turn into the poet’s cry of revolt. Both percussion instruments are folk instruments but they can turn into symbols of opposing phenomena. Once turned into sign, it has no space to expand and unfold—either in terms of plot or psychological oscillation.
NG: What changes did the music and soundtrack of the film undergo after the edits—first by Parajanov himself, then by Sergei Yutkevich?
TM: Parajanov was in Yerevan and I found out from him that the film had been edited by Yutkevich in Moscow to make it more “accessible” to the viewer. As he put it: “Yutkevich got involved in this to have his name next to mine.” He said this in a very low voice. I had no idea what the Moscow director had done. Later, when I saw the changes he had made, I was horrified. In some segments, he had moved the music from one place to another in such an incomprehensible way that I kept repeating to myself, “Why? What right did he have?” I had an exhaustive justification for every bit of sound and its corresponding image. There were no accidental or arbitrary arrangements in my work. I had not hung pretty little bells over the image for the purpose of decoration. That was precisely what the Moscow director had done by moving segments of music from one place to another: he had turned the music into a jingling bell. Perhaps the “aesthetic” of jingling bells was going to make the film, in Yutkevich’s opinion, more accessible to the viewer. Yet all attempts to make The Color of Pomegranates “accessible” were bound to fail because Parajanov had already created the most accessible version!
I am not sure if Parajanov re-edited the film. To my knowledge, he did not retouch the film after his final version. He had done some extensive experimental shots before starting the actual filming and these, from what I know, are lost. They were very striking and no less—maybe even more—valuable than what he shot later.
NG: Parajanov used to say that the only thing he didn’t know how to do was to compose music and that he truly envied the composer… Can you talk about him as a creator of “music” in the sense that his juxtaposition of images—especially in The Color of Pomegranates, but also in his collages—make reference to the unique way they were created, their plastic structure and distinctive rhythm.
TM: I have never heard Parajanov speaking about musicians in a particular way. For him, people in general were not representatives of their professions and he didn’t divide them according to professions. There was a type of people he didn’t like—people with strict and dry minds who constrained his delight and pleasure in play, his joy of turning life into a game. Not only did he dislike this kind of people but he was also somehow afraid of them. This type of people also restrained Parajanov’s eagerness to take initiative, and he was always in the process of taking initiatives, especially when he was not alone. In all places and at all times he was a film director.
Of course, musicality plays an important role in the aesthetic time in his films. The plasticity of the actor’s performance, body movements—of which he was the sole and complete “choreographer”—is imbued with musicality. He was not interested in films based on social or political material.
Saghmosavank is a beautiful monastery perched on the edge of a ravine not far away from Yerevan. One of our Soviet film directors was shooting a scene inside this church. It was a film about the lives of people who shoot from guns. A group of men shooting from guns infested the church, climbing the walls like monkeys. The beautiful church had turned into a humiliated and dishonored body. The first thing that crossed my mind when I saw a few scenes from this film was: “This is how vulgar the pole opposite to Parajanov’s aesthetic can be and it exists within the same film studio.” In all of Parajanov’s films, even the tiniest object passes through Parajanov’s admiring and exalting gaze. I have witnessed, on numerous occasions, his ability to tremble in front of something beautiful.
NG: The idea of Parajanov as creator of music is especially interesting to me in regards to Pasolini’s “cinema of poetry.” In terms of cinematographic language, does The Color of Pomegranates come to a linguistic border where the poetical “sways” toward the musical?
TM: It is possible. But any more or less abstract phenomenon that has an aesthetic dimension has been compared to music, and so often that, for example, Picasso rebelled against this tendency. I am more in favor of this kind of approach.
NG: But Parajanov’s art is absolutely not abstract. It is even very tensely, hypnotically concrete…
TM: Yes, that’s possible. But I would rather call it “Parajanovism” instead of calling it “music.”
Parajanov lived through everything that characterizes his film, and to be in his environment meant to be immersed in “Parajanovism,” where the fragrance of the air, the torments of yearning and pain, the brilliance of irony and artistry had a peculiar element that only belonged to Parajanov. He truly created magic, a magical circle around him, and if you found yourself in it, you became part of that magnetic field. More than musicality, it is this magnetism that is inscribed in his films, although it could also be called musicality.
This interview first appeared in French in Cyril Béghin and Nairi Galstanian’s monograph Parajanov (Paris, 2006). It appeared in Armenian in Azg Daily on December 19, 2009.