An octet of performers will visit campus this weekend to perform Armenian music
By Natasha Chilingerian
April 01, 2004
Few are familiar with the culture and history of Armenia, a small Middle Eastern country surrounded by Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The Armenians have a past which was both successful and tragic — they produced original architecture, literature and inventions, but they were victimized during the Armenian Genocide of 1915, in which more than 1 million Armenians were killed by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. But through the area’s ups and downs, Armenians’ traditional folk music has persevered as a strong part of their culture.
The music of Armenia will arrive at Beall Hall on Sunday with the Shoghaken Ensemble, an octet of native Armenian performers who are committed to keeping their ancient folk tradition alive. Radio show host Gil Medovoy, who airs the group’s music regularly on his show “Crossing Continents” in Davis, Calif., said the group displays a high level of talent and knowledge.
“If they were put alongside the top Western classical musicians, they would all stand at the same level,” Medovoy said.
The most prominent instrument used in Armenian folk music is the somber double-reed flute called the duduk. Constructed from the trunk of an apricot tree, the duduk sounds melancholy, ancient, and/or biblical when played. New York City record producer Harold Hagopian, who records the Shoghaken Ensemble on his record label, Traditional Crossroads, said Armenians don’t always believe that the duduk sounds forlorn.
“To Western ears, the duduk is on the dark side,” Hagopian said. “But it sounds joyous to Armenians. (The Western world) often uses it to depict something tragic or sad, and Armenians respond to that with, ‘What? This song is about a birth!'”
Other instruments played by the Shoghaken Ensemble include the kamancheh, a fiddle which is bowed while resting on one knee, and the kanun, a 72-string harp that is played while resting on the lap. Armenian music employs a musical mode called “makam,” which is characterized by organized ascending and descending melodic lines and is typical throughout the Middle East. It generally uses a single melodic line but is sometimes accompanied by a background drone.
There are distinct differences between the music of Eastern and Western Armenia. The Eastern tradition, which the Shoghaken Ensemble follows, normally uses a 6/8 rhythm and focuses on the duduk, while the Western sound uses a 10/8 and features the ud (a short-necked plucked lute instrument).
Armenians traditionally play music specifically for an event , such as field plowing, funerals, baptisms and weddings. Wedding songs are especially important, as Armenian weddings follow an elaborate series of traditions, with a designated tune for each.
“Music is an integral part of their everyday life,” Hagopian said. “Hardly any activity in Armenia doesn’t have music.”
Medovoy said most Armenian folk music exists today thanks to the research of Komitas Vardapet, an ethnomusicologist who recorded and taught the traditional music in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“(Vardapet) saved the essence of folk music from back then, and the tradition is richer because of that,” he said. “He was able to capture things first-hand.”
University Assistant Professor Mark Levy, who chose the Shoghaken Ensemble as the third installment of the School of Music’s World Music Series, said the show will give spectators a chance to experience a culture most likely unknown to them.
“It will present beautiful music, and it will also be a geography lesson and a window to a culture that people are not familiar with at all,” he said.
The Shoghaken Ensemble will present historic music with all lyrics sung in Armenian. The members will be in traditional village costumes and will perform two lively folk dances. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets are only available at the door for $10 for general admission and $8 for students and seniors.