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.