Edward Manukyan: Jazz From Armenia
“ Well, in Armenia there's always been much enthusiasm for it [jazz]. Even our president Robert Kocharyan is a great jazz fan. ”
All About Jazz: How did it happen that you, being such an inspired jazzman, turned to classical music? And why did it happen as soon as you moved to live in the United States?
Edward Manukyan: I don't think I ever decided to quit jazz. And if you define jazz based on its improvisational, dynamic and harmonic character, then you can still say I'm a jazzman. Of course, I don't play pentatonic and other jazz scales very often and I swing very little too, but there's still much jazz in my music. After all, that's the music I started out with and naturally that's what I am at least partly based on.
AAJ: And how is jazz, the American music, accepted in the countries of former Soviet Union?
EM: Well, in Armenia there's always been much enthusiasm for it. Even our president Robert Kocharyan is a great jazz fan. And I know in Russia, Ukraine, Georgia too, it is very much respected.
AAJ: Now that you live here in the States, do you think it's much better for composers to be able to work in the atmosphere of complete freedom that this country offers? Of course, as far as art is concerned.
EM: I can't make myself give you a genuinely positive answer to that question. I am against the idea of complete freedom in anything; be it art, culture, political system or our day-to-day life in general. As long as we remain the poorly evolved mammals that we are, complete freedom will always be a complete disaster for any society. And as far as art is concerned, my suspicions are encouraged even more. If artists are going to spray some ink on paper and claim they have created masterpieces at glorious moments of their true inspiration, if composers are going to write as many notes as possible on a staff and call it modern and advanced music, if those rappers are going to curse the police in all the twenty tracks on their albums, then our freedom is not freedom any more. Then our freedom will turn into suppression, and we might not feel it, which is even worse.
AAJ: What can you say against freedom given by political system then?
EM: I'm not nostalgic about the cruelty the Soviet government had, and I won't make any comparisons in that regard, of course. But I believe that freedom is not when you can do all you want to do. It is when you, at present or potentially, have all you need. This is a very serious subject, and I don't think I can put it into the scope of our conversation.
AAJ: I guess I can understand you now. But if I was right out of high school and you said all this to me, believe me, you'd scare me to death!
EM: (laughs) Well, I know I speak somewhat bluntly, but the word "freedom is so hard to define. All I'm trying to point is that simply a different attitude towards the idea of freedom can make a positive difference.
AAJ: Besides music what else are you interested in these days?
EM: Cynicism as science.
EM: You asked and I answered! It may sound funny to you but I'm studying it very seriously. I think it's cynicism that has the secret of the absolute happiness people always dream about. But although I seek, I can't really find words to define it the way I understand it. It will just take a little time though. With one of my Armenian friends, who now is a professor in Yerevan, we are working on the substantial definition and the development of this idea; the idea of true cynicism. I hope we'll make a good theory out of it. (laughs)
AAJ: This is the most surprising thing I've heard in the past 10 years!
EM: Cynicism has always been looked at as something negative, anti-social. Maybe nobody ever tried to use it with good intentions.
AAJ: Do you know any cynic composer?
EM: (laughs) No, I want to be the first one!
AAJ: Ok, let's talk a little bit about music. I have this very, very serious question for you. I heard most of the composers who write symphonies, write for a solo instrument first and then orchestrate. Is that the way you work too?
EM: Not at all. I write directly into the score. It's true that writing for a solo instrument and orchestrating it is the most commonly used method, but sometimes you want to start with the most secondary elements. Those secondary elements may lead you to ideas your mind would never conceive. And it's very important to know what particular instrument is going to be used. But please don't be so serious any more!
AAJ: (laughs) Isn't it hard to learn to play the piano and compose without early formal training and do such a wonderful job? Are there any secrets you can tell us?
EM: Well, I don't think I'm a such a good composer and I think I'm even worse as a pianist. I have years to live to learn how to play and compose. Of course, I'm not trying to judge myself with hysterics of disapproval. I simply think I'm not mature yet. My style is not quite clear to me.
AAJ: How long does it usually take to start and finish a symphonic work; let's say 10 minutes of music?
EM: Oh, it depends on a number of factors like mood, inspiration, the composer's experience, and even the compositional technique that is used. Minimalist composers like Komitas made undying works of art and the free time they gained as a result of their minimalist technique was used to write more music than other composers. So, I can't even find an approximate answer to your question: it might take a couple of days, a couple of months or a couple of years just as well.
AAJ: Are there any compositional techniques in jazz?
EM: Yes, but they aren't well organized as they are in classical music. Jazz composers usually improvise and when they hear an interesting phrase they start developing it and they've got a piece. Classical composers have to be aware of their form and structure.
AAJ: Who are the jazz pianists you'd regard as the most important ones in the history?
EM: I'd start with Earl Hines, Thelonious Monk, and finish with Bill Evans and Chick Corea. They are to me the ones who are historically the most important; others like Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson are simply virtuoso jazz pianists.
AAJ: Who among the ones you mentioned was your main inspiration when you started out?
EM: All of them equally. If you still want me to single out a name for you, then I'll say Bill Evans.
AAJ: What's so special about Evans?
EM: Bill Evans was Russian and he was also a good classical performer. So his jazz improvisations combined classical delicacy. He also knew Khachaturian and Rachmaninoff very well and he even introduced Miles Davis to their music.
AAJ: How do you relate to the different statements out there regarding where jazz comes from?
EM: I absolutely agree with the popular claim that it started out as "black way of playing European classical music", but knowing that no genre ever developed from a single source, I can easily say it's totally Afro-American. Jazz is "their" music, regardless how many "Evanses" and "Brubecks" have been around.
AAJ: Why is the jazz played in Europe often so different from what we can hear in America?
EM: That may be what they call "ethno jazz". Most of the countries in Europe have very rich musical traditions of their own and their jazzmen don't forget their folk music when they play jazz.
AAJ: Well, let's hope that you will not forget it either. Thanks a lot for your time, Edward! I wish you all the best in your musical journey.
EM: Thank You.