Author Archive

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[Listening to Armenia]: John Psathas’ A Cool Wind

July 27, 2010

By Daniele Faye Sourian Sahr

“I have always been drawn to the duduk because of its supreme ability to give voice to grief…‘crying through music’ but at the same time…comforts and soothes.” – John Psathas

New Zealand-based composer of Greek origin, John Psathas, was learning about the tragic events of 1915 when he wrote the piece, A Cool Wind, for string quartet. Despite the distance in time and geography, he was digesting the horrors of Armenian history, having also affected his Greek ancestors in the 1920s. The piece, whose sound is influenced by the Armenian wind instrument, the duduk, grew as a journey of personal, cultural, and national grief, both mourning the past and breathing life into the present.

Composer, John Psathas

John Psathas.jpg

Credit: Nina Pearson

The emotions provoked a creative process of pen to music staff in which he aimed to emulate the singing human qualities of the duduk while letting the essence of the composition lead him onto the next note, through the next rhythmic pattern, into the creation of the next measure, until the life of the piece, as he said, would “communicate to me what it wants to become.”

I happened upon the premiere of A Cool Wind like a stroke of unavoidable fate shared between two people with common history. Commissioned by Chamber Music New Zealand for the Takacs Quartet, the piece was premiered in the US at Carnegie Hall. I was there for the standard quartets of Schumann and Beethoven so thoughtfully and gently evoked by the Quartet’s famously mature and fluid sound. But nestled unexpectedly between two Western greats, A Cool Wind’s layered silky texture immediately pulled me into a different realm of mystery, question, and elusive answer.

The piece not only carries the duduk’s singing quality of elongated, thoughtful and sorrowful tones (Psathas was influenced by the mesmerizing aura of Djivan Gasparyian’s playing) but captures at the same time a feeling of forward movement. Listening, I felt the past as an entity always present, reminding us, like a wind wafting over and passing on, while always subtly propelling us forward.

“More than anything, this small piece of mine, so tiny in the scale of human experience, is an offering: of remembrance, of hope, of sadness and suffering but mostly of solace.” – John Psathas

Here is a midi rendition of the string quartet, A Cool Wind.

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[Listening to Armenia]: Here (The Story Sleeps) – An American Director in Armenia.

June 24, 2010

By Daniele Faye Sourian Sahr

Landscape obsession. That’s the name of the game in Here [The Story Sleeps], the first-ever American feature film set in Armenia. An American satellite-mapping engineer travels the country’s diverse mountainous regions, striving with a maniacal fixation to transfer the exact measurements of these natural lands into a digitally plotted geometric language.

But his frustrations mount as the magnificent untamed landscape becomes more of an emotional map rather than one easily filtered through a 21st century cartographer’s vision. The untouched terrain of Armenia’s beauteous peaks, crags, canyons, and valleys are overpowering and drive him to fall in love with an Armenian art photographer, Gadarine, rather than to fit the untamable into a rational grid of lines and numbers.

Here [The Story Sleeps] is Premiered at MoMA Film Screenings

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Credit: Scott Rudd / MoMa New York

The film, directed by Braden King, takes the viewer directly into the emotional plight of the main character as he experiences the sensations of the Armenian landscape with various enrapturing cinematic and visually artistic techniques.

Quick flashes of Gadarine’s magnetic postcard-like photographs speed by our eyes, turning us through views of Armenian lands, towns, and people as we experience someone else’s memories of a place and time.

The use of three separate screens allows for a variety of creative scenic views. We look from one screen to the next. The skip in our view adds a tension of at once seeing more yet concurrently missing what must connect the in-between – as if trying to plot the story ourselves.

Simple filming techniques, as a “backseat driver” in the couple’s van as they journey through Southern Armenia’s natural reserves, captures the main character’s raw yet humble struggle against a backdrop of lush green expanse through a half-open window.

A Scene from Here [The Story Sleeps]
Accompanied by the Boxhead Ensemble at MoMA

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Credit: Scott Rudd / MoMa New York

And an interlude that is filmed at the red rocky mountain range surrounding Noravank Monastery slowly transforms an overhead plane view into a moving computerized 3-D grid rendition of the grand dry peaks. We fly over a swarm of lines drawing the mountains out as they pass underneath as if inside the cartographer’s mind, seeing his idealized dream that remains forever unfulfilled, jumbled and chaotic.

The film’s premiere screening was held at the opening night of MoMA’s Creative Capital Exhibition on April 30, 2010 with live film score performed by the Boxhead Ensemble and composed by Michael Krassner.

The music was not of Armenian influence, but it did add a dimension of poignant immediacy. Silent views of the landscape and the characters’ inner musings were accompanied by an ethereal aural atmosphere. And even the live music reacted to landscape just as the characters’ experiences did on screen.

Check out this video of the making of Here [The Story Sleeps]. As Diaspora Armenians, we get to have an unusual look at a non-Armenian artist’s perception of the land. It is a view innocently untouched by personal history or pre-conceived cultural notions. Either way, the vision is as stirring as our own.

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[Listening to Armenia]: Eurovision Tidbits.

May 28, 2010

By Daniele Faye Sourian Sahr

Yesterday, in the Eurovision semifinals, Eva Rivas wowed the audience with her talent and energy. Just when you think she reaches her pinnacle, she takes it to the next level!

It’s no wonder she’ll be performing tomorrow in the Finals. Here is a video of her ultra-successful May 27th performance from Oslo. (And, yes, those are apricot trees growing out of an apricot stone behind her at the end of the show!)

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[Listening to Armenia]: Hasmik Movsesian is Music of Armenia.

May 7, 2010

By Daniele Faye Sourian Sahr

Let’s say, you wanted to start a collection of Armenian music or decided it was time to attend some live events. Normally, it would take a lot of googling, youtubing, ituning, and the like. But there is one website which opens its elaborate doors onto a treasure of all you could hope to find. It’s called Music of Armenia: user-friendly one-stop searching when it comes to today’s (and some of yesterday’s) Armenian musicians, composers, and music.

Promoter extraordinaire, Hasmik Movsesian, has revolutionized the Armenian music business by creating this new company, and all from a Facebook page she devised in October 2008. Her PR know-how gleaned the possibility of greater realizations from these rudimentary beginnings, and, less than two years later, Music of Armenia is swiftly spreading the sounds of Armenian music across the globe.

Hasmik Movsesian, founder of Music of Armenia

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Credit: Isabella Panattoni

Her successes thus far speak for themselves. Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records recently picked up two talented artists through Music of Armenia. And on the evening of April 30th, she organized a highly successful concert called “The Voice of Duduk” featuring duduk player Tigran Aleksanyan and British multi-instrumentalist Andrew Cronshaw at St. Ethelburga’s Centre in London, where Ms Movsesian herself is based.

A Hasmik Movsesian is as crucial to the music world as any talented performer or songwriter. Without the kind of work she does to create a web of artists concentrated in one place, listeners would miss out on finding pleasurable experiences and gifted musicians would get lost in the media fray (or never make it into the fray at all!). And when it comes to Armenian musicians, especially, Music of Armenia is connecting them from all across the Diaspora and Hayastan, as if to play together in one room, behind a set of grand inviting doors, waiting to be opened by any curious listener.

Check out this Music of Armenia promotional video of Astghik Safaryan, one of Ms. Movsesian’s musical clients and the first pop rock female singer in Armenia. The song is entitled “Meghavor Es” (“You are Guilty”) and set in Yerevan.

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[Listening to Armenia]: Lucineh Hovanissian’s Eclectic Musical Mastery.

April 16, 2010

By Daniele Faye Sourian Sahr

Being a creator today means stacking up against the creativity of so many who’ve lived before. And if you love everything from 1000 years ago to yesterday, that’s a lot of eclectic influence to sift through. It’s no wonder many musicians and composers feel they have to choose a period or a style to focus upon, to quiet the clamor of the ages.

But, ultimately, why not enjoy it all? We’ve entered, afterall, the age of definition destruction and space compression (around the world in 180 days? more like hours!). That’s why I’ve enjoyed Lucineh Hovanissian’s performances and repertoire so much. She hasn’t restricted herself to choosing. She doesn’t even categorize herself, “I’m a singer, composer, and improviser.”

Lucineh Hovanissian

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Credit: Katariina Anttilla

In Lucineh’s world, Sayat Nova meets jazz piano joins folk expression and blends with scatting speeches. Singing at her piano, she’ll marry German and Italian song with her modern Soviet (jazz and classical) upbringing while touching the mystical middle ages on the side.  Not to mention, one performance will take you all across Armenia with songs from her ancestral homeland of Van to the far mountainous regions of Karabagh. And on the way back, you might end up stopping by Paris for a croon and tipping your hat at New York without missing a swinging beat.

When one has built up one’s musical technique and talent to a point that it serves one rather than pigeon-holing by what it lacks, one is free. Lucineh’s unbridled expression lives through her voice and nimble fingers flying across the black and whites. She improvises on known works (she does a mean scatting Sabre Dance, for example), writes her very own, or simply interprets age-old songs and will perform all with fluidity and vigorous confidence.

Lucineh Hovanissian

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Credit: Festival Des Musiques Et Du Monde

I was taken by her jazz-cabaret style performance in New York City’s “unWINEd” where she engaged the audience with fascinating explanations of each work’s source or inspiration. Afterwards, I asked her what she would choose to say of her relationship to music in general. Lucineh’s response certainly rang true with what I’d experienced from her playing first hand: Fantasy & freedom have no other limits besides those one puts [on] him or herself. From this point of view, NYC is a special place for an artist!

Lucineh is from Yerevan but just as her music travels across the globe, so does she. Her next live performance will be in France. But you can listen to streaming clips of her work here. Check out the video below from her NYC performance featuring her own version of Humoresque, full of Gomidas references and Gershwin-like turns reminiscent of An American in Paris.

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[Listening to Armenia]: Eva Rivas’ Hayastan Nostalgia.

March 19, 2010

By Daniele Faye Sourian Sahr

What evokes Armenia more than the freshly picked apricot,
ripe and succulent? In the song “Apricot Stone,” Eva Rivas lovingly
sings of the Motherland and these precious
“kisses of the earth”; these “fruits of the sun.”

This year’s Eurovision contest is the stage
for Eva’s heartfelt homage to Hayastan.
Though Eva is born and raised in Russia,
like all Armenians, her spirit, when away, yearns to go home
or at least carry it close
and keep it alive, anywhere and everywhere.

“Apricot stone
Hidden in my hand
Given back to me
From the motherland

Apricot stone
I will drop it down
In the frozen ground
Let it, let it make its round”

Eva’s won a spot for Armenia in the contest’s semi-finals and will perform in May! I’ll keep you posted, here, at Listening to Armenia. In the meantime, check out a video of Eva singing “Apricot Stone.”

(Lyrics by Karen Kavaleryan, Music by Armen Martirosyan)

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[Listening to Armenia]: Garik’s Alternative Sound

February 1, 2010

By Daniele Faye Sourian Sahr

A culture, alive, must breathe life from the past, the present, and the future. Armenian music is no exception. Preservation of traditional folk songs must live alongside new creations and lead to unexpected future artistic developments. It’s easy to get lost, looking back over one’s shoulder to what came before. But you might find yourself tripping over what’s right in front of you, now.

Garik from Yerevan

Credit: Music of Armenia

There are groups of young musicians exploring their own expressions, lyrics, and talents through various musical mediums, popular today. The singer and guitarist Garik has put out the first alternative rock album in Armenians’ musical history. The song, “Qakhaqe Lav Giti” (“Knows the City Well”) is created in collaboration with Armenian rapper, Misho. The outcome? An enrapturing combination of yearning dissonant Seattle sound lyrically wound around verses in sharpened chanting rap expression.

Click here to watch the video of “Qakhage Lav Giti,” from Garik’s new album, Inquam.


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[Listening to Armenia]: A Musical Friendship

January 11, 2010

By Daniele Faye Sourian Sahr

“Going deep into each other’s past…is the best beginning for a friendship.” – Tigran Mansurian, Composer

A friendship in music can begin from a common past, but it lends itself even more beautifully to discovering that past together and fostering an engaging present. Tigran Mansurian, composer from Armenia, and Kim Kashkashian, violist born in Detroit, have cultivated such a relationship with the hearty ingredients, shared between them, of cultural connection, cultural passion, and cultural creativity.

Tigran Mansurian

Credit: Florian Schulte

Recently, these two collaborators brought their friendship to the stage, playing the historically influenced yet emotionally present works Mansurian wrote for Kashkashian’s famously lucid and receptive viola repertoire. They were joined by percussionist (or  “texture expert,” more aptly put), Robyn Schulkowsky, and traveled three cities, Boston, New York, and Washington, to feature works from two ECM New Series releases – Hayren (2003) and Neharot (2009).

Kim Kashkashian

Credit: Florian Schulte

I caught them at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. The music-club setting invites an inevitable clank of glasses and plates. But, undistracted, the audience was gripped by the mystically hypnotic creations on stage: Mansurian, at the piano, humbly offering his compositions and voice; Kashkashian, a narrator-like violist, spinning lyrically a silk melodic thread from one piece to another, reaching out to the listener while embracing her fellow musicians; and Schulkowsky, exploring the spaces in between, like a wizard in a percussionist’s lab mixing one element of sound with another.

The Hayren Ensemble on Tour

Credit: Florian Schulte

The Mansurian and Kashkashian musical friendship has initiated an extraordinary dichotomy of preserving while creating. His compositions in tandem with her fresh timely interpretations not only transport one back to Armenian lands and memories but bring them rushing forward to find us, here and now. The work Three Medieval Taghs inspired by ancient Armenian songs does not sound like a modern reinterpretation but instead plays like a discovery, as if having come across an exquisite manuscript illuminated centuries ago but unearthed by a set of 21st century hands.

Watching this kind of relationship unfold between two friends – two musicians – gives the listener a privileged place in experiencing a rich intimacy. Kashkashian and Mansurian do not lose this secret subtlety by infusing it with generosity towards an audience. Listening to their rendition of Gomidas’ “Hoy, Nazan” with Mansurian’s transparent voice, quiet, beside Kashkashian’s honest earthly tone, we feel like the beloved Nazan, ourselves:

“Nazan, you are welcome here
You have come from the green mountains
You have come from the deep valleys”

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[Listening to Armenia]: The Magic Kanoun Carpet

December 11, 2009

By Daniele Faye Sourian Sahr

Take one grand piano, shrink it to a tenth the size, take off the top, lose the keys, and place it on your lap – you are about to play the Kanoun. But it won’t be easy to master this Caucasian/Middle Eastern zither instrument. Keeping your fingers moving quickly across about 70 strings, which you must tune with your left while playing the melody with the right, gives new meaning to the word multi-tasking. At times, you might have to tune your ear to quarter tones (that’s an even smaller degree of note than the Western musician is typically used to). Multi-tasking, tonal detail, and physical balance – women often cross their legs under the flat instrument – are the least demanded of you.

A student at FAR’s Octet Music School in Gyumri
Performs on the Kanoun

Credit: Daniele Faye Sourian Sahr

To listen and watch takes less effort, however, and easily dazzles eyes and ears. A vibrating metallic sound cascading in waves across a melody and filling in the lines of syncopated rhythms makes the music of one player match that of several. While watching the spectacle (if not engaged already in a desire to dance), one starts to imagine the relation to another renowned talent of the region – one of silence but with an equal outcome of mesmerizing color. The musician plays the Kanoun like a loom, as if the strings were threads creating beautiful patterns of sound – a tonal carpet of reds, greens, purples, and blues all intertwined in an intricate song of unique pleasure.

Click on the video below of a virtuosic Armenian Kanoun player performing in traditional dress to experience the music and instrument for yourself.

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[FAR New York]: Developing Through Art – The Cafesjian Center for the Arts

December 1, 2009

By Daniele Faye Sourian Sahr

A Botero in Armenia?? I was really surprised to come across The Cat set outside the Cafesjian Art Center on my second day in Yerevan. This was my first time in the country, and I knew I’d be seeing plenty of old Armenian art and architecture. In fact, I thoroughly looked forward to it! But when our tour guide stood us in front of this familiar Colombian artist’s sculpture, I had a feeling of excitement I hadn’t expected to experience on this trip – something bridging Armenian cultural life with contemporary Western art.

The Cafesjian Art Center just had its grand opening this month in Yerevan, and it seems to represent an unusual niche in Armenia’s development. Awkwardly grand (and terribly expensive), the Center makes a stark contrast to the basic necessities still lacking a majority of the country’s population. Nevertheless, it also represents new international possibilities. Diaspora Armenians, like myself, have many reasons to get excited about the country and to want to go there to see their ancient roots. But it can be freeing, especially for younger generations of Armenians, to have creative doors opening that, for instance, display art exhibits of non-Armenian artists, just as other nations around the world provide for their citizens.

Access to art is a wonderful way to pave for greater things in all arenas, art-related or otherwise. It brings together unexpected groups of people and academics from around the world and provides a venue for new ideas and creative thinking. Armenia has a right to this opportunity as much as any other country.

After my trip was over, I returned to New York City and, one evening, while walking through the Time Warner Center, found myself stopped in front of the Botero couple set in the shopping mall’s entrance. I smiled as they towered over me – Oh yes, I’ve seen your kind in Yerevan, too.

Fernando Botero’s “The Cat” Sculpture in Yerevan

Credit:  Daniele Faye Sourian Sahr