Get to know Silkroad Ensemble Cellist/Composer, Karen Ouzounian

Cellist/composer Karen Ouzonian joins Silkroad Ensemble at the Center on January 29 at 4 p.m.
Karen Ouzounian joins Silkroad Ensemble at the Center on January 29 at 4 p.m.

The GRAMMY Award-winning Silkroad Ensemble debuts their newest program Uplifted Voices at the Center for the Arts on January 29. This program highlights previously under-recognized voices from across the globe to change our perspective of the history and migration of music.

Through a stunning collaboration of global instrumentation and strings, Silkroad's newest project champions women and nonbinary members of the Silkroad Ensemble alongside special guest Tuscarora/Taíno musician Pura Fé to tell a musical journey that connects the music of indigenous North America to the World. Drawing inspiration from the folk and ancestral music of Japan, China, Armenia, Ireland, and the Hebrides, and native populations across North America, Uplifted Voices brings together this collection of distinctive and powerful musical origins within a contemporary musical tapestry.

This concert kicks off Silkroad Ensemble's three-year residency with the Center for the Arts, during which they will engage the community through a variety of events. On Monday, January 30, the ensemble will lead three residency events at Mason.

Get to know Silkroad member and cellist/composer Karen Ouzounian, whose playing The New York Times has described as “radiant” and “expressive.”


As a member of Silkroad Ensemble, what are some of the things you've enjoyed most about performing and collaborating with them?

The members of the Silkroad Ensemble are each so unique as musicians, and they each bring such an incredible level of creativity and energy to rehearsals and performances. We all are involved in many different types of music-making outside of the ensemble, but when we do get to play together, the joy of performing together is electrifying. 

As this will be the "Uplifted Voices" program's area premiere, what piece from the program are you looking forward to playing most? In what ways do you hope it will speak to our community?

There are so many pieces on this program I am looking forward to playing, but perhaps somewhat selfishly, I am particularly nervous and excited about a piece I wrote called "Der Zor." This is the first piece I’ve written for a Silkroad Ensemble live performance and it is a particularly meaningful one for me. It is based on archival recordings of an Armenian folk song (my family is Armenian) called "Der Zor Chollerende," a song sung in Turkish by the victims of the Armenian Genocide while on the forced marches into the Syrian desert of Der Zor. In 1915 and 1916, hundreds of thousands of Armenians were marched to their deaths in Der Zor by the Ottoman Turkish government. The principal recording I was inspired by was made by Armenians in 1939 in Fresno, California, but I subsequently found other recordings of the song made over the last 100 years from across the world, mapping out the spread of the Armenian diaspora. It’s a haunting and devastating song, but the fact that these recordings exist, and that we as musicians can share this music for you live, carries with it a hopeful message.

You've mentioned that you find great importance in supporting the next generation of artists which is a goal of Mason's Artist-in-Residence program, which Silkroad Ensemble is a part of in a three-year residency. What do you hope to bring to the table for students in Northern Virginia's local community?

One of the things I love most about our Uplifted Voices program is how it highlights the individual and particular creativity of each of the members of the ensemble, and it showcases all of us in different relationships with each other. There are full ensemble pieces as well as pieces for small groups and duos. We all take turns playing in lead and accompanying roles. Many of us have also written pieces for the program and we are each stretching ourselves and trying new things in one way or another. I hope that this program gives every student the inspiration and encouragement to explore and experiment with ways to express themselves artistically, in whatever medium they are drawn to. 

Tell us about your history with the cello. When did you discover your love for the instrument? What makes it stand out amongst other stringed instruments?

I began playing the cello around age 7 and felt like I connected with the instrument very early on. But growing up it was always a struggle to balance cello practice with school and everything else, so it wasn’t until I started studying at Juilliard that I had the chance to focus my life around the cello. I’m so grateful to have studied with my teacher there, Timothy Eddy—he’s a profound musician and thinker, a person with the utmost integrity, and he really opened the door to music, and essentially to life, to me. Playing the cello and studying music have given my life meaning and even the sense that life can feel limitless. 

You have many musical projects under your belt, including the GRAMMY-nominated Aizuri Quartet and an experimental theater work with director Joanna Settle. What is something you always try to feature and emphasize in projects you are involved in?

For me the success and joy of collaboration always comes down to the people. I am constantly looking for artists I not only see eye-to-eye with, but artists that I can learn from, who push me out of my comfort zones and help me grow. I also love projects that combine a sense of history and storytelling with a modern aesthetic and a contemporary sense of the world.

Collaboration is something you've noted to be important to you. If you could collaborate with any musician in the world, who would you choose and why?

This is a difficult question! I am at a stage in my career where I am thinking a lot both about creating work that is true to my identity as an artist, but also about continuing to learn new things. I am particularly interested in learning from and working with performers from the world of my ancestors: Armenia, Turkey, and the Arab world, artists ranging from oud players to jazz musicians like Tigran Hamasyan. 

Purchase your tickets now for Silkroad Ensemble at the Center for the Arts (1/29), and in the meantime, enjoy a video of Karen Ouzounianin action with the Greater Bridgeport Symphony.