When Dan Yessian was growing up, he’d try to engage his grandparents in conversation about the Armenian genocide. Some 1.5 million Armenians were murdered in or expelled from Turkey between 1915 and 1922. Those conditions caused his Armenian paternal grandparents to flee Turkey when Yessian’s own father was only 2.
But they didn’t like to talk about it.
“They just shut down,” Yessian says in his documentary, An Armenian Trilogy, now available on Amazon. “It was almost like they left those memories on the other side of the world.
“I started to wonder, ‘Was this chapter in history just going to fade away?’”
It isn’t — not if Yessian can help it.
Back in 2013, the Rev. Garabed Kochakian, then pastor at St. John Armenian Church in Southfield, was researching the genocide in preparation for observing its centennial.
“I thought it would be great to have some kind of commemorative music … a wonderful hallmark of remembering the event,” recalls Kochakian, who has since retired. His wife suggested he ask Yessian, a member of the church, to create it. From that process, a documentary resulted.
Inspired by Music — and Heritage
An Armenian Trilogy follows the journey of the now-75-year-old Yessian, who built a successful career around creating music for advertising since founding the now-global Yessian Music and Sound Design in 1971 in Farmington Hills. Clients have included the likes of United Airlines, Ford Motor Co., and Mercedes-Benz, while the company has provided music for everything from Sunday Night Football to Sesame Street. There’s still a Farmington Hills office, but New York City is now headquarters, with additional locations in Los Angeles and Germany.
As the film shows, Yessian has always loved music, learning to play the clarinet around age 7 when a man from a music store near his Detroit home was going door to door offering lessons. Yessian turned out to be good at it, though he played by ear and learned by memorizing what his teacher played and then practicing until he got it right.
As a teen attending Cody High School, Yessian joined a band that played both Armenian and American music.
“They were popular with the Armenian customers because the bride and groom didn’t have to pay for two bands,” Yessian laughs. “It was a good deal.”
He moved on to play with other bands, including his own, while attending Wayne State University to become a teacher.
Eventually, his day job became teaching at Redford High School. But he was also creating and selling original music after being asked to make a jingle for National Bank and Trust of Traverse City. Hiring a band and vocalist, he cleared $500 on that first project and saw the financial potential.
Finally, he quit teaching and dove into the commercial music business full time — for decades. Then along came the priest posing that question at a church luncheon.
“I knew right away that my husband was going to delve into this,” says his wife, Kathy.
While Yessian initially seemed doubtful about taking it on, she says, “I saw the wheels turning already. We came home and he went right down to the piano.”
Documenting a Pilgrimage
What resulted was a classical composition in three movements.
“I’m kind of an emotional person, and there were places I was writing and I was weeping simultaneously,” Yessian says. “It was very interesting — you would hardly weep doing a Coca-Cola commercial.”
Because Yessian played by ear, he worked with arranger Kurt Schreitmueller of Detroit to put music to paper. Originating as a duet for violin and piano, it evolved into an orchestral score for 91 musicians.
Through Armenian philanthropist Paul Korian, a co-founder of Staples office supplies, Yessian was connected with the Armenian National Philharmonic Orchestra. They performed his trilogy on Oct. 14, 2017, at the Aran Khachaturian Concert Hall in the capital city of Yerevan.
Yessian attended — he’d never been to Armenia before — and also worked with the orchestra in advance. His wife, two sons, and other family members also went.
The trip prompted the idea for the film.
“The intent was never to make a documentary or a movie,” Yessian says. “But on the way back, I had given it some thought and [realized] perhaps this could be made into a little documentary because people might … want to know what this journey was for me.”
He turned to film editor Stewart Shevin, also from Detroit, for help. Like Shevin, Yessian’s nephew, Matthew Yessian, is credited as an associate producer. He handled photography in Armenia.
The film intersperses interviews with Yessian, his brother, his wife, Kochakian, Korian, and others with home movies, archival photos and newsreel footage of the genocide, and clips of the trilogy being performed in Armenia. His producer, Ohad Wilner, helped get it on Amazon.
All of the expenses — outside costs, archival fees, travel, etc. — came out of Yessian’s pocket.
“If you start asking people for money, whether it’s a GoFundMe or sponsors, or ally yourself to other people to invest, to me it gets a little grimy,” he says. “I didn’t want to touch that with a 10-foot pole.”
Instead, he was willing to fund what he describes as a “passion project” that changed his life.
“It’s something I wanted to bring to the forefront,” he says. “The fact of the matter is that this Armenian event is still rather obscure and not acknowledged by a lot of people because they don’t know that much about it.”
Kochakian says that what Yessian created is one remedy for that.
“To me, art and music tell stories,” says the priest, also an artist himself. “Everything about the genocide has been in writing and speaking and debates and discussions and so forth, but I think to capture a person’s attention, you must weave in the narrative visually and musically.
“That’s what he did.”