Kristina Arakelyan - Te Lucis Ante Terminum

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Growing up in Armenia, Kristina Arakelyan lived side-by-side with Orthodox liturgy. She talks to Matthew Power about its influences on the first of our New Music partnership commissions with King’s College London

Courtesy: Kristina Arakelyan

Coming to the UK as a child from her native Armenia, Kristina Arakelyan’s talent as a young musician soon won her a scholarship to the Purcell School, aged 12. ‘Being surrounded by other musical children was fantastic,’ she remembers. ‘At my previous school, I was practically the only musician in the class and not everyone shared my passion for music. So studying at the Purcell School was brilliant in that I was understood as a musician. To be honest though, I had two first studies – piano and composition – and that wasn’t easy; both were demanding. But I had access to great musicians and masterclasses, and I’m very grateful for that.’

Composition became her principal study at London’s Royal Academy of Music (RAM) and she followed that with a Master’s degree at Oxford, combined with a choral scholarship at St Peter’s College. ‘Every teacher gave me something special and unique to them. Now that I am a teacher myself, I think a lot about how we teach composition: the balance between helping your student while giving them the freedom to pursue their own creativity.’ She credits her fellow instrumental students too. ‘Just being able to message someone and ask, “does this passage work on the violin?” – that network of like-minded individuals at conservatoire was so strong.’

How did she find the academic environment at Oxford compared to the conservatoire experience offered by the RAM? Was it as easy to get her music performed? ‘There are affiliate ensembles that work with the composition department. As a Master’s student you could sign up to work with a symphony orchestra or a string quartet… and I was also able to mix with conductors and musicologists.’

Can she comment on the masterclasses she undertook with John Adams, Oliver Knussen and Peter Maxwell Davies – all quite different composers? ‘All of them allowed me a way into their world, their way of thinking about music. Listening to Oliver Knussen talk was a highlight for me. He was a wonderful conductor too, and that gave him a different insight which as a pianist I simply didn’t have. He discussed some seminal works which I thought I already knew, but he lent a completely new perspective, and it was really enlightening.’

Starting her composition studies early means that Arakelyan has written equally for genres including voice, choir, chamber and solo instruments, and several scores for full orchestra. I wonder if she has a favourite ensemble or genre. ‘I hope I won’t offend any ensembles by saying that voices, voices, voices are my favourite… and it’s not just because I’m talking to Choir & Organ! The voice is the original instrument. We all have a voice and there is something profoundly beautiful about a group of human beings singing together. The soundworld has so many possibilities; I have been in love with writing for voices ever since I can remember.’

Composed in just two weeks last summer is a new chamber opera, currently a piano version, soon to be expanded to a chamber ensemble to combine with its seven singers. As well as directing rehearsals and acting as repetiteur, Arakelyan provided all the administrative support for the production, from balancing spread sheets to ironing costumes. Seven ways to wait was premiered last September as part of the Grimeborn Opera Festival, now in its 15th season, hosted by the innovative east London-based Arcola Theatre.

‘The libretto is by Helen Eastman; it’s an exploration of seven women and how they are each waiting for something to happen, and what they are doing in the meantime. Helen writes: “The opera weaves its way through Greece, Ukraine, from 5BC to 16th-century witchcraft, a 1915 suffragettes meeting and a fitness workout” – there’s a lot going on within 40 minutes of music!’

Arakelyan’s academic training and her current PhD in Composition at King’s College London enables her to write freely with the rigour to underpin a musical technique. Is she conscious of scrutinising her stylistic identity, of not straying outside the parameters she sets herself? ‘On some level, but not consciously. I don’t think of my musical language as a static entity, it’s ever-evolving. I follow where my ear leads, generally a mixture of [the] modal, tonal and dissonant.’ What about the influence of other composers? ‘I would have to start with J.S. Bach. During the first UK lockdown, I played through all the Preludes & Fugues. Of course, there are all the great composers throughout musical history; in the 20th century I particularly love the Impressionists Debussy and Ravel, also Bartók, Stravinsky, then later on Lutosławski.’

We talk about national musical traits, and I ask if her Armenian background emerges. ‘I grew up singing in an Armenian Orthodox church choir and I adore the Eastern Orthodox Christian liturgies; they are very much on my mind, as is the Anglican liturgical tradition, which is also a part of my life. Those experiences are all part of my musical DNA. Cultural backgrounds can be interesting; such a great thing about being in London is its diversity: you meet people from all over the globe.’

Compline has undergone a resurgence in popularity in recent years. The hymn she has set for New Music, Te lucis ante terminum (Before the ending of the day), is both simple and profound and the KCL choir took to it quickly and sang it with warmth. Some passages will require singers to listen carefully for intonation. What can she say about the shifting harmonic language? ‘There are some dissonant moments and patterns within them. The idea throughout is of a single note at the top of the texture and shifting harmonies underneath and how they change the quality of that top note. For choirs, that changes the intonation of that note; the third of a chord will have to be tuned differently to a note which is the root. I find that fascinating.’ Any tips for choirs keen to get to grips with it? ‘When you are practising, isolate the melodic ideas from the accompanying ones. Because the rhythm is simple, try to hear the continuity between solo and tutti lines; look at the translation to see what is happening with the words.’

Some of Arakelyan’s music is inspired by her musicological research, as with her current PhD. I am curious to know what she is researching. ‘In essence, it’s about thematicism. I’m interested in the revival of thematicism in my music. Each of the seven pieces in my portfolio is inspired by something else; some are in homage to other composers. One orchestral piece takes the rondo theme from Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata and turns it into a reverse variation form, beginning with fragmented ideas and ending in a big flourish. Another piece is based on a play – The bald soprano by the French-Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco – where each player in the string quartet assumes a character from the play. So I am presenting two strands: technical thematicism, and extra-musical influences.’

And once all these years of study are complete, what are her aspirations for the immediate future? ‘Teaching is part of my life, so I’d like to continue that part-time alongside being a freelance composer and pianist. I would love to continue writing for voices in particular, and a dream would be to write more operas and see them on bigger stages.’

Watch the performance

Joseph Fort conducts the Choir of King's College London in a performance of Te Lucis Ante Terminum by Kristina Arakelyan.

Download the score

The score for Te lucis ante terminum, commissioned by Choir & Organ in partnership with King’s College London and supported by PRS for Music, was available to download and perform until 30 June 2023. Visit our New Music section to see our latest scores.

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