Forty years ago, Dan Yessian left the teaching profession to become a full-time composer.
He founded Yessian Music, based in Farmington HIlls. Since then, his company has composed commercial music for the likes of Coca-Cola, Ford, Ikea, Disney and even Sesame Street.
Last year, Yessian embarked on a different path, composing “An Armenian Trilogy.” The three-part piece which was written as Yessian puts it, “between hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet” spots, serves to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
It is set to have its world premiere Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Macomb Center for Performing Arts, and will be performed by Sonia Lee (violin) and Shawn MacDonald (piano).
Yessian's world premiere will be the opening act for the show "Hope Dies Last," which is also part of the commemoration of the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. "Hope Dies Last" combines a live performance by the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings with visuals by Detroit photographer Michelle Andonian.
Yessian recently chatted with Deadline's Karolina Powalka.
Deadline Detroit: This is very different from your typical work. Give me an overview of how you came to compose a classical piece on the genocide.
Dan Yessian: I was first asked by Fr. Garabard of St. John’s Armenian Church if I would be interest in creating a piece of music for the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. I said, “Yes” and started writing in January of this year.
I’m Armenian, born in America. I had no relationship to 1915, except from stories I was able to pressure out of my grandparents. My grandfather witnessed his wife being murdered in front of him, and my grandmother had to steal and carry ground meat under her breasts to try to feed the children. You conjure all this up in your head, while you’re trying to make sense of music that’s going to be reflective of a time of period.
I must say I cannot take all the credit. Kurt Schreimueller, who has been on staff at Yessian for the past 30 years, was very instrumental in pulling a lot of this out of my head. We sat there and went over and over, bar by bar creating the score. Then we brought in Sonia Lee, who is a very successful violinist and she recommended pianist Shawn MacDonald. They have really brought the work to life.
Deadline Detroit: Give me a sense of what the music is like.
Yessian: It has a sadness to it. I chose to use violin and piano. Armenian music tends to gravitate toward minor, or sad keys. I chose violin because it is an instrument that weeps and cries. Armenian music tends to gravitate toward sad keys. I tried to stay true to that while approaching from a western perspective that I thought would be appreciated by the American public. The question was, “How can I keep the attention of an American public that’s not totally aware of Armenian music?”
Deadline Detroit: There are three parts to the piece: Freedom, Fear and Faith. What are you hoping to portray in each of those parts?
Yessian: It’s been an interesting process visualizing what those people were going through in those times. Freedom explores a time that was happier before the slaughter. You hear the everyday activities of the people. In fear, you hear the approach of the Ottoman armies, galloping on their horses and people running away.
The last piece, the faith, I’ll often tell people, “This is a question of how can you, how can anybody in the face of some really severe, wicked, tragic moments find that you can still have a reliance on faith?” It’s a struggle. When anything bad happens to any of us, this question appears. It happens every day. When a woman experiences a miscarriage. That is the world for her. In this music, I wanted to do in this music is raise the spectre of the question combined with the emotion of what could possibly be going on in someone’s mind.
Deadline Detroit: Was there research involved while composing the piece?
Yessian: There wasn’t a lot of research during the composition of the piece. My research came at the age of 16 years old when I was playing in an Armenian band. Through that music, I got a handle of the emotion of what was going on during that time period. I did talk to my grandparents, but it was hard to eke out of them what they went through. So, my research came from Armenian music, my grandparents and later on, studying what actually happened.
Deadline Detroit: What are your future plans with this piece after October 29th?
Yessian: I have a great fondness for orchestration. I’m hoping that early next year, we’ll be looking at a performance with an orchestra. I can hear the stuff in my head, and it’ll just be a matter of being able to translate it.
Also, I was talking to Fran Victor who leads the charge at the Holocaust Center. She is a filmographer and asked to hear the piece. I played it for her and she said that she thinks it has great potential for a Jewish Holocaust Museum because they are trying to teach tolerance. Whether it’s for the sake of the Jews or any other group of people, I was encouraged by that.
Dan Yessian’s An Armenian Trilogy world premiere will be at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets and more information can be found at macombcenter.com. For more information on other work Yessian does, visit www.yessian.com.