Paper Pianos is an evening-length multimedia work exploring the dislocation, longing, and optimism of refugees. The piece combines narratives from four refugees and resettlement workers: the Afghan pianist Milad Yousufi, Getachew Bashir (Ethiopia), Hani Ali (Somalia), and Akil Aljaysh (Iraq). Recordings of the protagonists from interviews conducted by creators Mary Kouyoumdjian (composer) and Nigel Maister (text and staging) are incorporated with the intricate hand-drawn animations of visual artist Kervork Mourad to vividly depict the dramatic emotional landscape of displacement and resettlement experienced by refugees throughout the world.
Milad Yousufi fled to New York from Kabul, where he lived under the Taliban’s threat for pursuing music. His story of painting piano keys on paper to teach himself to play in silence, thus avoiding life-threatening censure from the authorities, gives the piece its name. Getachew Bashir, a high-ranking judge in Ethiopia, left his country when the judiciary and his independence threatened to become co-opted by the regime. Hani Ali was a child of the refugee experience, born on the run and coming of age as a young girl negotiating the terrors of being stateless in a displacement camp. Akil Aljaysh—from a prominent family—fled Iraq after being tortured, and worked his way through Syria and Lebanon to the US. The testimonies of these men and women, recounted to Kouyoumdjian and Maister in field recordings they made in New York and Rochester, form the basis of a narrative that is integrated into the live musical performance. Paper Pianos further incorporates the extraordinary hand drawings of Kevork Mourad which animate the narrative, evoke the journeys of the participants, and serve as a physical element with which Alarm Will Sound’s musicians interact.
Kouyoumdjian’s score uses the recorded voices as integral compositional elements, and draws on folk-music and contemporary-music practices. She 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 Milad Yousufi’s resonate with me, and topics of wartime, genocide, and one’s relationship to ‘home’ have played a large role in my music.”
In July 2016, Alarm Will Sound performed a first, ten-minute movement of Paper Pianos entitled “You are not a kid” at the Mizzou International Composers Festival in Columbia, MO.
Paper Pianos is a vivid, compelling and evocative contemplation of global issues expressed through individual stories of loss and transcendence. The live performance of narrative, music, theatricality and visual gesture engages audiences viscerally in one of the pressing problems of today’s world, distilled down to the heartfelt immediacy of real-life experience.