Zela Margossian’s rocky road to the land of hope

When she composed Ceasefire, Zela Margossian didn’t have to imagine what it was like when the bombs stopped falling in a warzone. It was a vivid childhood memory from Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. The piece reflects the sheer joy of being able to leave the bunker to play soccer in the streets.

“Mum and dad could go and get bread or water, whatever we needed,” she recalls. “Then we’d hear them calling ‘Come back! Come back!’, and we’d go back down… I think the trauma that we have from the war is the trauma-transfer from my parents. As kids we felt their stress, we felt their anger. But I think when we were in the bunkers, although the world was hell outside, we kind of were having fun because we were kids… Then as teenagers you wondered, ‘Why is my country always in ruins?'”

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For Margossian, a Sydney-based composer and pianist, COVID-19 has only been a part of what she calls “a crazy year”. She watched the devastation from the gargantuan explosion in Beirut in August, and then, given that her family were in there in the 1990s as Armenian refugees from the war with Azerbaijan, she has had the distress of watching that conflict flare up again, with a family friend, an opera singer, killed in the fighting.

At 21 she went to Armenia for six years to continue her piano studies and immerse herself in the musical culture, which included hearing Armenian music fused with jazz. Prior to that she’d always loved what she calls jazz’s “colourful chords”, but had little time to pursue those ideas when consumed by a classical piano career.

The high-water mark of that career was performing a Prokofiev piano concerto with the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra when she was 26. “After that concert, although it went really well, I told myself that this not my profession,” she says. “I don’t want to spend my time really exhausting myself just to present a program which is 99 percent accurate, but which has none of my core emotions involved in it. It was like another person going on stage playing the music.”

Transitioning towards another sort of music, however, was further complicated by a move to Australia, where she knew no musicians. It was a few years before she heard about Sandy Evans’ women’s jazz workshops, run via the Sydney Improvised Music Association. “I was so nervous auditioning for that workshop,” Margossian says, “because I knew I wasn’t a jazz pianist, but I did my best, and I got in the workshop. I loved it so much, especially seeing women mentors being so giving and encouraging to us.”

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Subsequently she auditioned for the jazz course at Sydney Conservatorium, but, despite her prowess as a pianist, her command of the idiom was deemed insufficient. When she did get in, she was unfortunately obliged to withdraw for personal reasons. Nonetheless, in the time she was there she felt her knowledge and creativity expand, was encouraged to pursue her composing (with its unique slant fusing Armenian classical, Armenian folk and jazz harmony), and met local players, allowing her to assemble a quintet and record her 2018 debut album, appropriately entitled Transition.

For Margossian, music is more than a pleasure. She knows it can play a part in making life bearable for people in extremis. “We even see soldiers singing love songs to console each other,” she says. “So there’s always music, and in music there’s always hope.”