Alicia Terzian, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

My life in the composition field was born during my composition classes with Maestro Ginastera. I compose in a natural way as I speak, breath and live.

The greatest influence in my career has been my deep study of Armenian religious melodies, the pneumas and the microtones in its music which I have researched directly from the original religious texts of the IVth to Xth centuries with the musicologist Father Dr.Leoncio Dayan (master in Berlin) in the Catholic Mkhitarist Congregation en Saint Lazarus Island, Venice.

Likewise, to know and to analyse the music of the XXth century great composers who were the base of Ginastera’s teaching, who also introduced me in the new trends of the concrete and electronic music.

But the most important instruction I received in Argentina was the advice of my Maestro who usually told me: “If you have your own musical ideas that wish to be written down, remember that you must do it searching your inner self the technique that you consider best represents yourself as a composer. Never be a system of composition, be free in your choice“.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

My success was that my works – be it for soloists, chamber groups or orchestras –  were selected and conducted by great orchestra conductors in the whole world.

My only frustration happened when I was 20 years old and introduced my Violin Concerto opus 7 to an important Argentine orchestral conductor to premiere it. After listening to it he told me: “Extraordinary work Alicia…. shame you are so young… I cannot conduct such a long work (30 minutes) written by such a young composer”. I thanked him for his favourable opinion about my work, I was sorry that he refused to conduct it and I think he could have ruined my career… but he did not. I suffered for some days but later I realized I must continue composing and so did I.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

I love working with the musicians of orchestras, soloists, chamber ensembles… When I conduct and study the works with musicians I am in my world because it is a huge happiness to make music! It is my life, be it conducting or composing as well as giving lectures or teaching. I do everything with passion.

Of which works are you most proud?

I really love every one of my works because each one of them have given me much energy at the time of the creation. There is no work that I love more than any other.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

My compositional language spans 4 periods:

  1. from 1954 to 1968 – polytonal and microtonal. Microtonality emerges from my works in this stage as a result of my studies in 1962 of monodic religious Armenian music and continue till now. In this first stage I composed many piano works, especially my Toccata for piano. Also my Concerto for violin and orchestra (1954/55) premiered at the Colon Opera House in 1969
  2. My ‘Cosmic Era’ which I opened with ‘Shantiniketan’ (solo flute, recitation and dance or mimes) where I work the quarter tones. The next important work of this period is ‘Carmen criaturalis’ (1970) for horn, string orchestra and percussion, commissioned by Austrian composer and orchestra conductor Friederich Cerha for his introduction as conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Buenos Aires and premiered at the Colón Opera House.
  3. 1986 to 2003 was my ‘Space Age’ and one of my achievements was my work ‘Canto a mí misma’ (1985). In 1992 I composed ‘Off the edge’ for baritone and string orchestra commissioned by the Symphony Orchestra of Grenoble (France)
  4. My Mystic Period which began in 2004. During this stage I composed ‘Canto a Vahan’ (2004) for mezzo and chamber ensemble, inspired on a text written by the Armenian poetess Josrovatujt from the VIIIth century, premiered by the Grupo Encuentros in an Extraordinary concert in the Colon Opera House Big Hall.

How do you work?

I work at night from 10pm to 5-6am. First of all I open the piano to liberate the sounds and let them come to me, I drink a glass of French cognac and set myself to compose…. That moment is magical because my works are really inspired… I mean, before writting a single note on the pentagram I already know how it is going to be and I have just to do it.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

I have no favourite contemporary composers. I love composers from any time: Bach, Brahms, Schumann, Ligeti, Strawinsky.  I prefer to listen to historical composers, because I analyse, study and conduct composers of the present time. This is a way to get to know their style, but they are not my favourites.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Obviously, when I listened to my Violin Concerto that I composed at 18/20 years old…but 15 years later… it was the work that had more effect on me. Every one of the works that I composed for theatre, ballet, orchestra, ensembles or soloists, has its place in my heart… because I only compose when I have something to say….I compose with pleasure.

 What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I have been a teacher, I have had hundreds of students and many of them – young composers –  visit me to show me their works. I tell them “try to be yourself when you scompose……do not write anything that do not give you pleasure”… and above all I ask them to find out their own technique rather than be influenced by other contemporary composers’ techniques. They must commit themselves to know their own inner world when composing and there is not a single technique but many.  They must mix all the techniques they have studied and build their own. And always and above all, they must feel the need to say in sounds what there is in their hearts. If not… they must remain silent and await the so called ‘inspiration’.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

There is no perfect happiness… the world is made up of little moments we live in happiness and intensity and we must be intelligent enough to enjoy them.

What do you enjoy doing most?

My greatest happiness is to compose and conduct. When I conduct I integrate myself with the sounds and they make me happy….I may arrive sad to the rehearsal but when I lift my hand and my musicians play the first sounds…. sadness, frustration go away and happiness arrives in the hand of sounds.

I usually compose with eagerness and in a short time I finish one work. At the endpoint my inner self feels completely exhausted and I need to step away from the paper and find myself to go on living.

Alicia Terzian’s new Navona release OFF THE EDGE, an incredible journey into the heart of the string orchestra, is available now

Alicia Terzian (born 1 July 1934) is an Argentine conductor, musicologist and composer of Armenian descent.


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