Musical Explorations With Serj Tankian

GRAMMY-winning frontman of System Of A Down discusses the composition and narrative of his first symphony and following his muse wherever it takes him
  • Photo: Robert Sebree
    Serj Tankian
June 21, 2013 -- 11:07 am PDT
By Bryan Reesman / GRAMMY.com

Some people really know how to make use of their time. Vocalist/composer Serj Tankian has been going full force since System Of A Down went on hiatus in 2006. He has released three solo albums, in addition to a live orchestral adaptation of his first solo album, Elect The Dead Symphony. He co-wrote the rock musical "Prometheus Bound" with Tony Award-winning playwright/lyricist Steven Sater. And now Tankian is about to unleash his first symphony, Orca Symphony No. 1, on June 25, and an eclectic jazz-inspired album, Jazz-iz Christ, which is due July 23. Additionally, following a U.S. date in Los Angeles on July 29, System Of A Down will launch a tour in Europe and Russia in August.

While it sounds like Tankian is spreading himself thin across numerous genres, each new project offers something fresh and genuinely engaging. In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Tankian discusses Orca Symphony No. 1, his musical philosophy and what other styles of music he would like to explore in the future.

It's easy to listen to different styles of music back-to-back, but I imagine it must be harder to compose them at the same time.
Not really. I've always worked on all different types of music, some with specific project goals and deadlines and some not. Sometimes I would write a piece of music that is almost like a film score or weird electro pieces, wherever the muse took me, and I still do that. I write music when I'm free and for no particular project in mind. With Jazz-iz Christ, I basically combined all of the jazz-oriented music that I had over the years and got some really cool soloists involved and made a full record.

Orca [Symphony No. 1] started by accident. I was working on [my 2010 solo album] Imperfect Harmonies, and instead of three- or four-minutes song [that] were orchestral based, I ended up with two nine-and-a-half-minute diatribes, which were piano- and orchestra-based. They were so melodic and long that I couldn't really think of putting vocals on them, so I just put them aside and thought they would be cool bonus tracks on Imperfect Harmonies. Then a journalist friend from TV3 in New Zealand listened to it and said, "Oh, you've written the first two acts of your symphony." I was like, "Symphony!" I kid you not, I looked up symphony on Wikipedia and asked how many of these f***ers do I need for a symphony? (laughs)

I imagine some members of the classical establishment will read this and roll their eyes.
I've worked with some great orchestras and amazing classical musicians, but I don't like the conceptualization of classical music as an elitist form of art.

What did Austrian conductor Werner Steinmetz think of a metal singer coming to him with an orchestral work?
I met him a few years ago because we had done the Elect The Dead Symphony tour in Europe, and it was really well-received. We did some amazing numbers, and we played in Linz, [Austria,] with members of the Bruckner Orchestra called the Das Karussell [Ensemble]. We've been keeping in touch, and he's been wanting me to go there and record with the orchestra. I like the idea of writing all sorts of different things. I've been writing some chamber pieces, and I want to write a really cool choral piece and do a cool piano sonata. But more than anything, I want to use my compositional skills that have gotten better over the years to do more scores. I've been doing a video game called "Morning Star," which is coming out this year, and I want to do more film scores, TV and video games.

While the name Orca invokes the image of the killer whale from the movies, you see it more as a metaphor for humanity. This is a very majestic piece of music with a bit of darkness, but it doesn't overwhelm the piece. Is there a narrative behind this musical work?
Yes and no. I thought of Orca because of its symbolism for humanity. The four different acts always reminded me of earth, sky, water, and underground. Four different zones of the world, not all necessarily inhabited by Orca, but definitely controlled by men.

You have a jazz-influenced album, Jazz-iz Christ, coming in July. Is there any other style of music that you'd like to explore?
I want to do a full-on electro dance record. I wouldn't mind doing a dub record because I've always been into dub — Bill Laswell and a lot of New York underground stuff. I'll put out records as I see fit, but to me putting out records is passé at this point, to be honest, even though I'm putting out two records right now. I think it's about creating a moment around a project that's beyond just the music itself that tells a story or is part of a bigger story or bigger picture. Whether it's [music embedded] paintings or scoring for films or being part of more multi-sensory exhibitions, I want to do some really cool things in that regard. Touring and putting out records is fun and cool, but I've been doing it for a long time.

(Bryan Reesman is a New York-based freelance writer.)

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