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Music

Both traditional folk music and classical music have fallen on hard times since 1991 with the reductions in state funding. Folk music can now most often be heard on national holidays but a more convenient option is to go to one of the Yerevan restaurants where a folk ensemble plays each evening. The oud is a 12 stringed (two strings for each note) ancestor of the lute and guitar with a distinctive bent neck. The tarr is another lute-like instrument but smaller than the oud. The kemenche is a three-stringed violin played with the instrument held vertically resting on the lap. The duduk makes the sound most often associated with Armenian music. It is a low-pitched woodwind instrument, with a large double reed, made from apricot wood. The shvi ('whistle') by contrast is a high-pitched woodwind instrument without a reed and with eight holes, seven for playing and a thumb hole. The dhol is a cylindrical drum with one membrane being thicker to give a low pitch and the other thinner to give a higher pitch. Other distinctive instruments which may be encountered include the zurna, a higher-pitched wind instrument than the duduk but also with a double reed and made from apricot wood; the kanun, a plucked box zither, trapezoid in shape, which is played resting on the players knee or on a table, the strings being plucked by plectra attached to the lingers; and the dumbeg which is an hourglass-shaped drum with a membrane made of lamb skin at only one end, the other end being open.

It was the Russian conquest in the 19th century which brought Western classical music to Armenia and the fusion of the folk-inspired Russian nationalistic composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin with the existing Armenian traditional music was to result in distinctively Armenian style. Full of bright colours and rhythms it is vigorous rather than cerebral, music of the heart rather than the head. The best-known Armenian composer outside the country is undoubtedly Aram Khachaturian (1903-78), though broadcasters frequently and incorrectly refer to him as Russian. In particular his violin and piano concerti are regularly encountered in concert and the ballets Spartacus and Gayaneh have often been staged outside Armenia. Most people would probably recognise the Sabre Dance from Gayaneh.

Armenian opera has made little impact abroad but in recent years there have been American stagings of Arshak II by Tigran Chukhadjian, first heard (incomplete) in Italian at Constantinople in 1868, and Anoush by Armen Tigranian which was first performed at Alexandropol (present-day Gyumri) in 1912. To make these acceptable to Stalinist censors both had to have their plots changed during Soviet times: the alterations required to Arshak II in 1945 at the end of the Great Patriotic War included changing the character of Arshak from that of a tyrannical leader to that of a virtuous and unselfish one, and changing the composers tragic ending into a hymn of rejoicing. Presumably this was in the hope that the audience would identify Stalin with the now virtuous, unselfish and victorious Arshak. Arshak II is considerably influenced by Verdi but Anoush aims at a fusion of classical Western music with distinctive Armenian melody and harmony. In Yerevan the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra gives regular concerts and opera and ballet are staged in the Opera and Ballet Theatre except during the summer break.

Another distinctive Armenian form is that of liturgical music. It is sung without instrumental accompaniment and is based on a so-called Phrygian scale rather than the major and minor scales familiar in Western music. The number of surviving compositions is considerable: more than 1,000 from the Middle Ages survive on parchment and the range is diverse, sometimes quick and sprightly, sometimes solemn, sometimes dramatic. Only later did composers start to write polyphonically. The best-known more recent composer is Komitas (1869-1935) who wrote many wonderful chants as well as other compositions in traditional Armenian style. To listen to this beautiful music in any of Armenia's churches on a Sunday morning is an experience which every visitor should seek out.

The country is most famous for its classical music, with several famous composers from the 20th century. The country’s two most famous composers are Aram Khatchaturian (1903–78) and Soghomon Soghomonian (better known as Komitas). Khatchaturian researched the country’s disappearing folk music tunes, then composed classical music for piano and orchestra. His works include several short pieces for piano, including the well-known “Sabre Dance” and the ballet Spartacus. The Christian monk Komitas was taken by the Turks to look at his dead compatriots in the great slaughter of 1915. After that he vowed never to write music again and went to a Paris hospital, where he died in 1939. Music is very important to Armenians, and every family except the most poor teaches its children at least one musical instrument, most commonly the piano. Folk music is popular, taking its tunes from a mixture of Russian, Iranian, and Turkish influences. Likewise, folk dances emulate the circular dances of these three nations and often include just one sex dancing at a time.

Armenian religious music’s mythically complex harmonies are partly lost, though there are many fine, melancholy choirs of the Armenian liturgy. The great composers of the 19th and 20th centuries include Komitas, whose works for choir and orchestra put Armenian music on an international stage, and Armen Tigranyan for his opera Anush. Aram Khachaturian is best known for his Sabre Dance and the ballet Spartacus. Sayat-Nova, oft considered the greatest singersongwriter in the Caucasus, began his career in the court of Erekle II of Georgia but was exiled for his forbidden love of the king’s daughter.

The country is still a centre for classical music, with a ballet theatre, an opera company, orchestras for chamber music and symphonies, and an active world of composers and performers. Folk music is alive and well in town troupes and late-night clubs and khoravats palaces. Spend a night at a popular venue like Ashtarak’s Ashtaraki Dzor complex and marvel at the range of talent. The duduk, a double-reed instrument made from apricot wood, will become the soundtrack to your journey in Armenia. Its inescapable trill features in traditional music and many modern pop tunes blaring from the speakers of taxi cabs.

For good traditional music try the RealWorld label, which has albums by duduk master Djivan Gasparian. Also try Parik Nazarian, Gevorg Dabagian and the album Minstrels and Folk Songs of Armenia by Parseghian Records. Current artists of note include Lilit Pipoyan, a Joni Mitchell–esque singer and songwriter, and Vahan Artsruni, a composer with folkguitar pickings who also rocks out in Yerevan’s small live-rock scene. Arto Tuncboyaciyan’s Armenian Navy Band mixes jazz and folk music on the albums Bzdik Zinvor (Little Soldier) and New Apricot. There are plenty of emerging young singers, including Hasmik Karapetyan, Armenia’s version of Celine Dion, and Hayko, the Armenian entry to the 2007 Eurovision song contest (he finished eighth). The diasporan music scene is highly varied – from the Los Angeles metal masters System of a Down, to Cher (Cheryl Sarkissian) and her groundbreaking gowns, to the timeless croonings of Charles Aznavour (‘mmm… come closer…eets nice to be like zees’). A concert featuring all three would really be something else.

Rabiz Party - Rabiz is a contraction of the Russian words ‘rabocheye isskusstvo’ (workers culture). It’s entertainment and it’s also a lifestyle – the guys in the silk shirts and gold chains driving too fast while smoking and talking on their mobile phones. If you ask a hip student, they’ll say that Armenian popular culture is divided between loud, showy, raucous rabiz culture on one hand and everything of good taste on the other. Rabiz also covers a lot of highly inventive slang. Rabiz music is marshrutka-driver (public minivan transport driver) music, a mix of brainless pop and over-the-top tragic ballads (girl has cancer, boy says he’ll kill himself before she dies) that strike a sentimental Middle Eastern chord in Armenian hearts. They want music that will make them cry, as well as impassioned love songs and arms-aloft dancing music. This kind of music booms from taxis in Greek, Russian, Turkish and Arabic. The Armenian variety comes from Los Angeles, Beirut and Moscow as well as Yerevan, where it plays in neighbourhood bars, clubs and khoravats (barbecued food) joints late into the night.


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