The singer-composer talks scoring new film about 1988 Armenian earthquake and why he’d like SOAD to release something “more grand” in the future
“It was a difficult film to do, because of the heavy topic and trying not to have the music be too heavy,” Tankian says. “The director, Aleksandr Kott, said, ‘I want requiem music.’ And I said, ‘Wow, that’s heavy. You’re talking about funeral music.’ But at the same time, we wanted to have hope for a little girl in the film who survives and is trapped. Her world needed to be more magical, so there’s that ethereal quality to some of the score, then the heavy scenes of the devastation of the city needed music that was darker in tone. It was an interesting balance.”
He settled on a blend of synthesized sounds and bell-like instruments, as well as live piano, strings, woodwinds and brass. He released a score album in November, and the film got a U.S. premiere earlier in December in Glendale, California. It’s one of many projects Tankian has been working on lately — including touring with System of a Down and producing a couple of films himself — but, he tells Rolling Stone, it’s the challenge of dreaming up music for a film like this that keeps him composing.
How hard is it for you, emotionally, to write what you describe as funereal music?
I’ve cried numerous times watching the footage of people trapped, and the death and destruction and hopelessness. But then trying to come up with a cue for it, you’re already there emotionally. Whatever you create is going to be emotionally entangling. Sometimes it’s the opposite: You have to step away and go, “This is too dark for this.” My problem is not adding emotion; it’s taking emotion away.
Do you have a personal connection to the earthquake?
My wife actually lived through the earthquake. She was in school when it happened, and luckily their building didn’t collapse. They were pretty close to the epicenter.
The years after the earthquake were the darkest days that Armenia had seen for a long time, because they were without power through heavy, cold winters. She’s told me stories of how they lit fires at school just to stay warm. Right after the earthquake, there were a lot of robberies, so crime went up. She has all these horrific stories of living without water or using only one hour of water a day. People would go, “Oh, shit, we just found out we’re going to have water in 20 minutes. Everyone run home.” You had to learn how to connect batteries so you could watch something on TV, ’cause there’s no power. My wife’s generation is unique. They know how to do everything.