Overcoming cancer through music and faith: Interview with Edgar Gyanjumyan

While I was studying in China and living through one of the gloomiest chapters of my life, I came across a report about Edgar Gyanjumyan, a composer who had overcome cancer and now makes the world a better place with his music. The piece of music played at the start of the report had something so unique and fascinating about it that I decided to keep watching, despite my overwhelming academic workload. I learned that Gyanjumyan was not just another composer; he had composed some of my favorite songs! Songs such as “Siro erku tever,” “Yereko,” “Veradardz,” “Hayreniq,” “Dzyun,” “Chem karogh aprel aranc siro,” “Im Yerevan” and many others that were some of the most popular pieces of music in Armenia when I was around 10 years old were, it turned out, this humble person’s compositions. 

Through that report, I finally discovered the person behind these fascinating pieces, but I also found something else that would completely change my life. Gyanjumyan’s story of overcoming cancer through faith and finding his way back to light, as well as one of his songs, “Havata ev Aghotir [Believe and Pray],” had a significant impact on me, as if I too had refound my way back to light and life. It was perhaps the warmth of childhood memories, coupled with my rediscovery of God and faith, that transformed one of my gloomiest chapters into one of the most rewarding ones. After that day, my attitude toward my assignments changed, my grades started to improve drastically and my mental health felt so much more stable and secure that now, looking back, it all feels like a miracle, like a transformation that happens only in books and films. 

Another miracle, perhaps, is that I am currently collaborating with Gyamjumyan on a Christmas musical that has the potential to reach and fascinate audiences worldwide. In a heartwarming interview with the composer, we talked about his cancer survival journey, the inspirations behind his masterpieces, the mission of art and our upcoming musical. I hope this story will help those in need the way it helped me nearly six years ago. 

Milena Baghdasaryan (M.B.): How did your creative journey begin, and what brought you to music?

Edgar Gyanjumyan (E.G.): I have never been indifferent to the world, to life. I have always been very tender toward what I see, toward what I feel, what happens around me. I always appreciated things. Every day left an impact, a trace on me, and all those experiences, impressions, memories and expectations have been expressed in my musical language-thinking, as notes, as melodies. 

Since childhood, it has been my dream to create music that not only resonates with me but also touches others, something that stirs the soul and uplifts the spirit. Something that would make people’s lives move toward love. As I grew older and delved into the world of music, I realized that many great composers shared this same aspiration: to use their music not just for entertainment, but to inspire and enrich lives. If there is no such ambition to have a positive impact through music, to help people, to destroy the negative, then there is no mission in what you do. The superfunction of art is to serve, to help, not to harm. It should never harm but instead break the chains that hold us back, allowing us to connect with the harmony of the universe. Even if people don’t fully understand it consciously, there’s a subconscious longing to merge with the harmony of the universe, with something greater, something godly. 

The superfunction of art is to serve, to help, not to harm. It should never harm but instead break the chains that hold us back, allowing us to connect with the harmony of the universe.

M.B.: What inspires you, and what serves as a starting point for Edgar Gyanjumyan’s music?

E.G.: I get inspired by the fact that I live. It’s essential to grasp our own existence and live it to the fullest, embracing our entire essence. The understanding that we are part of something much larger – the universe – and reaching a state of self-transcendence where we realize our life extends beyond our physical form, resonates deeply with me. I also get inspired from love – from getting and receiving love, from noticing what’s beautiful and the anticipation of eternity that God has offered us. As a Christian and someone who studies the Bible, every time I realize what Christ has done for us, the liberation that He gave us, and the resulting eternity that awaits us, that’s where I get my inspiration from. I love the saying that, when we put God first in our lives, everything else falls into place. In the secular world of today, people often forget that our planet is not even a tiny dust particle compared to the wider universe. We may mistakenly believe that we are powerful on our own, yet a single vulnerability can shatter this illusion, revealing our true fragility. I firmly believe that our strength stems not from ourselves but from our love and faith in God, guiding us along His path each day, leading ultimately to eternity.

M.B.: Do you have a piece of work that you love the most, that is closest to your soul, and if so, what makes it so special for you?

E.G.: There is one piece of music that I think is the anthem of my worldview, of my life; it’s the song “Believe and Pray.” I myself am the author and the performer of the song. It fully describes how I think, what I live for, what makes me happy and what’s the meaning of my life.

M.B.: There is something very bright and vibrant in your works that seems to awaken in a person the vibration of living, loving and creating. Is it intentional for you to create music that awakens and uplifts people, or do you simply follow your heart in creating music, with the enlightening effect happening unintentionally?

E.G.: The willingness to help is what gives me the right vibrations for creating what my heart wants. A person should not live an artificial, insincere life. The art you produce should reflect your beliefs and lifestyle, rather than being a facade like a Venetian masquerade. It’s not that in my music I would say “be kind” and then live like a monster myself. You need to live and create without masks, so that the art you create is authentic. We should strive to live according to the principles we advocate for others.

M.B.: Very often, musicians and singers claim they produce low-quality music because the public demands it. How do you perceive this approach? Should musicians cater to what people demand, or should they create music that elevates them beyond their immediate expectations and apparent demands?

E.G.: There can be pastime music. I myself love animals; we have dogs and cats, and I used to have fish and parrots. But a person is different from animals. You shouldn’t reduce a person to an animal who merely lives by instincts. A song or piece of music can be solely for enjoyment, for amusement, for relaxation, but it shouldn’t degrade a person morally. It shouldn’t lead to unrestrained passions or self-destruction, nor should it encourage bad behavior. Even if it is amusement music, it should possess quality.

When considering the question of supply and demand, we can think of this metaphor: if you give someone a liquid made of sewage water from a young age and tell them it’s delicious and good for them, that’s what they will believe and become accustomed to. They will develop a preference for that liquid. Later, if you offer them fresh orange juice or apricot juice, they will likely not enjoy it as they are accustomed to something else. Perhaps this is a sharp comparison, but it illustrates how taste and personal preferences work. Taste can be formed and developed. That’s why artists bear a significant responsibility. 

There’s a notion of aesthetics, of aesthetic pleasure, the universal golden ratio rule, the rule of proportionality. There’s no ugly flower in nature, no ugly animal. They are all different, yet beautiful. Today, the world tends towards artificiality even in beauty standards, disrupting the harmony that was originally present in nature and in humans. Often, when my children watch a cartoon, I ask if they think this or that character is beautiful; the faces and bodies of the characters are often deformed, artificial and unnatural. It’s regrettable that our children grow up with such standards. Children frequently encounter various forms of art, and we must pay attention to what we expose them to, how we influence the development of their tastes and preferences. We must be responsible towards them, helping them understand what true beauty is, especially inner beauty. When a person’s inner world is beautiful and full of light, you can see the beauty in their eyes, in the way they speak and act. Then, you don’t scrutinize whether the nose is slightly longer or shorter than it ‘should be,’ or the volume of the lips, because inner beauty matters the most. What often shapes inner beauty is art itself. People who are willing to help and serve have a different facial expression, a different gaze. They know what is valuable and what is not. A ray of light shines through them, and art needs to contribute to that, to both inner and outer beauty. 

M.B.: You have also experienced a very difficult stage in your life when you faced cancer. Did you continue to create music during that period?

E.G.: Yes, I was making music, and it was a groundbreaking time for me and for my music. Things that used to be very important to me suddenly lost their significance. My definition of success changed. The centerpoint shifted. If the self is at the center, that self-centeredness itself is the cancer. But if you do things as someone who wants to serve, who wants to help and fulfill others’ needs constructively, that is joy. I understood many things during that time. I wrote the song “Believe and Pray” after I had already overcome cancer, and that was my expression of gratitude for my new, rebuilt life, for my reconstructed worldview. That perception, that worldview of life, we are now striving to ingrain in our children’s minds with my wife. And happiness lies in this, in knowing who you are, what you are for, where you come from and where you are headed.

Edgar Gyanjumyan

M.B.: What impact did that difficult stage leave on your creative expression? Has your music changed before and after cancer?

E.G.: The melodiousness has endured. I am a melodist composer. Melody is paramount for me. After some analysis, one would realize that songs built upon melodies as their foundation tend to endure. Reflecting on my musical creations retrospectively, I notice my aspiration for something higher, a striving towards light – as Hovhannes Tumanyan expressed in the phrase “Depi Ver [upwards].” Following my battle with cancer, this aspiration became even more steadfast, unyielding. I began composing a series of spiritual songs, drawing inspiration from Tumanyan and his spiritual works. His piece “Ընկերիս” (To My Friend) delves into reflections on life, emphasizing that we are not merely cosmic debris, and that life devoid of faith holds no significance in eternity. These sentiments resonated deeply within me, inspiring the creation of “To My Friend.” Additionally, I composed a suite titled “When the Lord is with Us,” celebrating the joy of daily communion with the divine through prayer. This composition, among others, has been performed by world-class symphony orchestras.

M.B.: You successfully overcame cancer, and one of the keys to that victory was your faith in God. What does faith mean to you? Is it a thought or a feeling? Does it originate from the brain or the heart?

E.G.: For me, faith is the relationship with God, our loving Father. It is the confidence that our lives are in trustworthy hands, that we are not alone in this immense universe. It is great to realize that we are not alone and that God gives meaning to our lives. My suite “When the Lord is with Us,” a part of which was performed by Jivan Gasparyan, conveys this sentiment and my perception of faith. Faith, to me, is not a series of formal steps; it is a living, lifeful, vibrant connection with God.

M.B.: Has that belief, that connection with God, always been with you, or has it developed over time?

E.G.: Before attending the conservatory, I graduated from the department of applied mathematics. I always liked to analyze phenomena, what happened around me, and I understood that all this world is the making of a powerful mind. Throughout, I maintained an upward aspiration, understanding that the dirtiness, the turmoil of the world did not belong to me, and I did not belong to it either. My pursuit has always been towards light and purity. The pivotal moment arrived after the cancer trial, when I decided to surrender my life entirely to God and His guidance. I believe it is a matter of choice.

M.B.: Music can impact a person both positively and negatively; it can induce peace or stir emotions. What type of music do you listen to, and what music would you recommend to others?

E.G.: Yes, music can stir, but that stirring isn’t necessarily negative. During those ‘waves,’ a person can understand something, change something, become more peaceful. I do not recommend listening to noisy and chaotic music, because chaos begets chaos. It is necessary to refer to the classics, modern meaningful songwriting, and not go after attractive vulgarity. Today, mainstream music tends to prioritize vulgarity, mistakenly equating it with popularity and widespread appeal; this is dangerous and detrimental. Just as we carefully select our food, avoiding expired or low-quality items, we must exercise discernment in choosing the music we consume, recognizing its potential impact on the mind. While consuming bad food may lead to physical discomfort and can be ‘expelled,’ the effects of detrimental music on the psyche are far more challenging to eradicate.

M.B.: What projects are you currently working on that you would like to share with readers?

E.G.: I am currently working on composing a piece using Tumanyan’s words, which I intend to have played during this jubilee year. Additionally, I am working on a project that has been on my mind for quite some time and which is very important to me, and I am very happy that we are working on this together. I am very happy with the way you grasped my vision and translated it into a beautiful and impactful story. This project revolves around a children’s Christmas musical full of Christian values, and I hope to present it to children during the Christmas season. This is a work with a lot to say, and I think that the songs played during the musical will also have a life on their own and spread. With consistent effort, I hope to soon bring this project to its premiere. 

M.B.: The themes of the musical are very universal. Is the musical intended only for the audience in Armenia, or is there also potential to showcase it in other countries?

E.G.: The musical is based on a newly written libretto and talks about universal themes such as friendship, the meaning of life and how to lead a fulfilling and meaningful existence. I believe that it will resonate widely, with both Armenian and non-Armenian audiences. In fact, I get pleasantly surprised when I receive requests for my notes from people in various parts of the world. For example, I found out that my composition “Believe and Pray” was performed, in the Armenian language, by a symphony orchestra in Sweden. I believe that, if executed correctly, our musical too has the potential to captivate audiences beyond Armenia. 

M.B.: What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and what is the best advice would you give to others?

E.G.: I have received the best advice from a rather diverse collective group. It happens that you understand the cosmic truth with guidance not from one person but a diverse group of people. The best advice is to understand and feel life. Life is not a meaningless thing; I sensed a profound resonance within me, urging me to grasp the essence of life entirely – to understand why I am, who I am, my purpose, responsibilities and ultimate destination. I would extend this advice to other musicians, urging them to understand that they aren’t mere accidents; they possess talents with a purpose. Let them embrace a mission that aims to make our world a better place. To live in such a manner that their uniqueness enriches the world around them. And to achieve this, one must love life.

Milena Baghdasaryan

Milena Baghdasaryan

Milena Baghdasaryan is a graduate from UWC Changshu China. Since the age of 11, she has been writing articles for a local newspaper named Kanch ('Call'). At the age of 18, she published her first novel on Granish.org and created her own blog, Taghandi Hetqerov ('In the Pursuit of Talent')—a portal devoted to interviewing young and talented Armenians all around the world. Baghdasaryan considers storytelling, traveling and learning new languages to be critical in helping one explore the world, connect with others, and discover oneself. After completing her bachelor's degree in Film and New Media at New York University in Abu Dhabi, Milena is currently enrolled in an advanced Master of Arts program in European Interdisciplinary Studies at the College of Europe in Natolin.
Milena Baghdasaryan

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