Serj Tankian, who is best known as the spasmodic vocalist and surrealistic lyricist for art-metal group System of a Down, has always held a deep respect for film soundtracks. “When I’m exercising or driving, a lot of what I listen to is soundtracks,” he says. “I think it’s great that people are paying attention to the value of scores. It’s very important.”
He finally got the chance to write a soundtrack of his own last year for a film that addressed a subject near to him, the Armenian genocide. It’s a topic that Tankian has sung about going back to System of a Down’s first LP, on the song “P.L.U.C.K.” During World War I, Ottoman Turks executed some 1.5 million Armenians, an event that Turkey and several other countries refuse to acknowledge. The band played in Armenia for the first time ever last year to mark the genocide’s centenary.
The movie, 1915, takes place in the present as a theater director attempts to stage a play about the genocide, and the actors begin feeling a visceral, realistic connection to those who died a century earlier. Its tagline is “You can’t escape the past,” and it takes surrealistic turns accordingly. The music that Tankian composed is at once traditional, otherworldly and urgent. A soundtrack album, which contains bonus tracks and extended versions of the music, came out late last month around the 101st anniversary of the day the genocide began.
Tankian has spent a good portion of the past decade writing classical and classical-inspired music, when he wasn’t writing rock or jazz albums. He turned his 2007 solo debut, Elect the Dead, into the orchestral Elect the Dead Symphony and his 2013 release, Orca Symphony No. 1, was wholly classical. He scored the video game Midnight Star and now he has begun work on another score for a film called The Last Inhabitant, slated to come out in Armenia this year. It’s a discipline he says, during a lively interview with Rolling Stone, that has come naturally to him.
You’ve made rock, classical and jazz albums. Is making a soundtrack more challenging than your other albums?
No, it’s neither harder nor challenging. I’ve worked all my life, musically, on an open palette, on which I can create things from scratch, whether it’s writing rock songs or classical or jazz. You’re writing for yourself in a way. If you’re writing a rock record, you’re starting from the inspiration of a thought, a poem, an emotion or a political event that you’re inspired by. And you have to draw upon that and see where your hands go on the guitar or piano or whatever. You can go in any direction. Having a film to work with actually makes it easier, because you know what you’re going to use, whether it’s ethnic instruments or creepy sound design. Most film composers I know usually end up writing way more music than is actually used in a film, and that’s typical.