Paper Pianos

Paper Pianos

About Paper Pianos

Paper Pianos explores the refugee experience through the life of pianist Milad Yousufi who was forced to flee Afghanistan to avoid persecution. Incorporating recorded dialogue from interviews with Mr. Yousufi as well as an animated film, the work vividly depicts the emotional plight of displacement and resettlement experienced by refugees throughout the world.

Mr. Yousufi recently fled to New York from Kabul, where he lived under Taliban threat for pursuing music. In interviews recorded by the composer, Mr. Yousufi describes growing up under the Taliban; the violence targeted at artists; how he painted piano keys on paper and silently taught himself how to play piano, quietly pressing his fingers to the papers to avoid being caught. These testimonies form the basis of a narrative playback track that is integrated into the live musical performance. In July 2016, Alarm Will Sound performed the first, ten-minute movement of Paper Pianos entitled “You are not a kid” at the Mizzou International Composers Festival in Columbia, MO.

Through musical documentary, Kouyoumdjian presents portraits of real people who have persevered through unimaginable circumstances. Using interviews and field recordings of the environment and folk music, she celebrates their respective cultures. Pulling from folk music and contemporary music practices, she aims to write uncensored pieces for people of various backgrounds and political stances, providing a live musical context in which an audience member feels the narrator is speaking naturally and intimately. As a result, a seemingly distant story such as Mr. Yousufi’s becomes close, revealed, and relatable through music.

Kouyoumdjian says: "I come from refugee parents forced to immigrate to the U.S. as a consequence of the Lebanese Civil War. And my parents come from refugee parents forced to escape to Lebanon from Turkey during the Armenian genocide of 1915. Experiences like Mr. Yousufi’s resonate with me, and topics of wartime, genocide, and one’s relationship to "home" have played a large role in my music."

Paper Pianos serves as an important vehicle not only for Mr. Yousufi's personal story, but also for the contemplation and discussion of important social issues. "Paper Pianos" validates the role of composers and performers to engage the audience, through a shared artistic experience, in the sometimes difficult, but absolutely necessary conversations that examine persistent global problems.

Videos about Paper Pianos

The artists

Mary Kouyoumdjian

Mary Kouyoumdjian (b. 1983) is a composer with projects ranging from concert works to multimedia collaborations and film scores. As a first generation Armenian-American and having come from a family directly affected by the Lebanese Civil War and Armenian Genocide, she uses a sonic palette that draws upon her heritage, interest in music as documentary, and background in experimental composition to progressively blend the old with the new.

Kouyoumdjian has received commissions from such organizations as the Kronos Quartet, Carnegie Hall, Alarm Will Sound, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Brooklyn Youth Chorus, the American Composers Forum/JFund, WQXR, REDSHIFT, Experiments in Opera, the Nouveau Classical Project, Music of Remembrance, Friction Quartet, Ensemble Oktoplus, and the Los Angeles New Music Ensemble. Her documentary work was recently presented by the 2016 New York Philharmonic Biennial and has also been performed internationally at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Barbican Centre, Cabrillo Festival, Big Ears Festival, 21C Music Festival, and Cal Performances. Her residencies include those with Alarm Will Sound/The Mizzou International Composers Festival, Roulette/The Jerome Foundation, Montalvo Arts Center, and Exploring the Metropolis. Her music has been described as “eloquently scripted" and "emotionally wracking” by The New York Times and as "the most harrowing moments on stage at any New York performance" by New York Music Daily.

Kouyoumdjian is a cofounder of the annual new music conference New Music Gathering, served as the founding Executive Director of contemporary music ensemble Hotel Elefant, and teaches composition at the New York Philharmonic's Very Young Composers Bridge Program.

Nigel Maister

Nigel Maister is a director, writer, designer and performer, in addition to being the Artistic Director of the International Theatre Program at the University of Rochester. His work as staging director for Alarm Will Sound has included Alarm Will Sound's 1969, Benedict Mason’s AWS/MILLER: the Fifth Music: Résumé with CPE Bach at Columbia’s Miller Theatre, the Odd Couples and A/Rhythmia concerts at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel auditorium (and elsewhere), as well as numerous smaller pieces in other Alarm Will Sound concerts (including Cal Performances, the Holland Festival, et al). With Alarm Will Sound, he also performed his text, Paper Trails (music by Stefan Freund) at the John Adams-curated In Your Ear Festival at Zankel Hall. Other performance credits include Rzewski’s Coming Together. Recent and noteworthy theatre productions include The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, King Lear, Hello Again, John Cage’s Song Books, his own multimedia adaptation of The Iliad, and the NY premières of W. David Hancock’s The Puzzle Locker, Andy Bragen’s The Hairy Dutchman, Manfred Karge’s Conquest of the South Pole, and his own translation of Bernard-Marie Koltès’s Roberto Zucco. A Drama League Fall Directing Fellow, he has worked as an assistant to, and actor for Giorgio Strehler at Il Piccolo Teatro di Milano, and interned with Richard Foreman and Peter Sellars (amongst others).


Paper Pianos was commissioned by Alarm Will Sound with additional funding from the MAP Foundation.

Member Spotlight

Stefan Freund

Stefan Freund

Stefan lives in Columbia, Missouri where he keeps busy as a professor of composition and music theory at the University of Missouri and as the music director of the Columbia Civic Orchestra. As a kid, he was composing even before he started playing the cello; now he does both with Alarm Will Sound. The group features his compositions quite often and Stefan loves writing for the ensemble because he can tailor the music to each person in the group.

Stefan went to Eastman for a MM and DMA in composition. He remembers meeting Alan on the 2nd floor promenade at Eastman and getting recruited to play with Ossia. Alarm Will Sound grew out of the Ossia ensemble and Stefan has been with the group ever since. His favorite Alarm Will Sound concert experience was at the University of South Carolina. He describes it as a wild concert with people lined up at the doors and standing ovations. Who knew classical music could be as exciting as a rock concert?

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