Personal Background and Musical Identity

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I was born and lived for twenty-four years in Armenia, from where I gathered many musical impressions from our folk music culture. I started to play the piano when I was six. The music school was just outside our house, and I could spend hours standing outside, near the window of the classroom, listening to the sound of the piano. I could hardly look from the window to inside the room, but even though, the keyboard took my attention entirely, as well as the way that the keys worked when fingers touched them. I was profoundly fascinated. This was the beginning of my journey. One of the most vivid memories I have of childhood was when we had guests and I would always be asked to play for them. I played by ear, in addition to the compositions that I had learnt in music school. The most exciting moments were to get into the performance flow, to be transferred to another space with the sound, feeling the energy of the people who were listening. I can also recall memories from when my grandmother (from my mother’s side) would sometimes sing ashugh’s songs at family gatherings. She had a nice, raw voice with a deep and fairly dark timbre, and she would often use her voice’s lower register when singing.

Svetlana Haykyan (1941), my grandmother sings on my request “Dzakhord orery” by Ashugh Jivani, in 2016 - January 4th - when I visited her in Yerevan, Armenia.

Besides the perception and feeling of the Armenian folk music that came from childhood, I received my professional education as a classical pianist in the class of Docent Areg Sargsyan, at the Komitas State Conservatory in Yerevan, Armenia, performing European, Russian and Armenian classics throughout the years of studies - shaping my musical taste, skills, and personality. The Conservatory has strong pianistic traditions coming mainly from the Russian school, which has roots from the European pianistic school[1].

In 2012, I moved to Norway and studied under Professors Sveinung Bjelland and Tellef Juva at Agder University, thus coming into direct contact with Norwegian-European pianistic traditions too. After my intensive studies at Yerevan Conservatory, through the strong academic competence and established approaches - the mandatory program requirements and high discipline in the practicing routine that has shaped me to a great extent as a performer and which I greatly appreciate - continuing in the Norwegian-European musical environment felt, for me, perhaps as if I was given more personal space. I was able to use this flexibility with regard to repertoire and artistic choices, as well as in continuing my journey by delving deeper and finding out what truly excites me. I was able to explore more on my own and find my own way of performing, as well as the playing and the pianistic aspects of compositions. This transition naturally developed into something more specific in terms of musical freedom and artistic choices, as from 2015 when I entered into the fellowship of artistic research with Khachaturian’s piano compositions and started a broad exploration of how to perform his compositions, how to interpret them from my perspective, and how I understand his musical intentions by reading the scores. It has been important to me to develop an independence of artistic choices and to approach well known compositions from a new perspective.

During the years of the fellowship, the project evolved and also came to include further explorations of Armenian folk music and the music of Komitas. The development of the project became a personal search of emerging pianistic and interpretational possibilities. As a performer, I felt challenged (and excited) in many ways throughout my project. Many of the compositions, I must say, have been a real discovery for me as a pianist, even though I have listened to the music of Komitas and Khachaturian as far back as I can remember myself. The Armenian music is in my veins, at the core of my identity as a musician, and is an inseparable part of me.

In this photo from 1950, Hasmik Harutyunyan-Kharatyan holds a folk instrument called dap. She is the sister of my grandfather (from my father’s side), Levon Kharatyan, the third man from the left. Photo: Private

This photo from 1965 shows a group of Armenian boys with their teacher, holding the Armenian folk instruments tar, dhol, qyamancha. The first boy from the left is my uncle Hovhannes Kharatyan. Photo: Private

Photo of me, taken during a recording day in Kilden Concert House, in Kristiansand, 2018. Photo: Private

Classical Pianism

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Music lives within us, in our brain, in our consciousness, our emotions, our imagination; its “domicile” can be accurately established: it is our hearing. The instrument exists without us; it is a particle of the objective outside world and as such must be studied, must be mastered and made to comply with our inner world, and obey our creative will (Neuhaus, 1993, pp. 9-10).

As classical pianist performers, from an early age we are challenged to learn a particular way of playing, adjusting our pianistic skills of performing compositions from different musical periods and styles, and finding the tone and convincing artistic choices that could possibly express, in the best possible way, our understanding of each composer’s music and a particular period’s style. It takes years and years to learn and to find that special touch, articulation, and manner of performing, for example, in Mozart, and an entirely different pianism when playing the music of Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev.

Still, the individual pianist’s understanding or imagination of interpretation, can be a very different one than that of another musician who has a fundamentally different approach to the same composition and artistic choices for it. This understanding and imagination involve elements such as sound quality or musical expression that one finds musically convincing. The diversity and sometimes even radically different approaches to the interpretation of iconic classical works are indeed fascinating to explore in the enormous quantity of recordings that exists.

Nevertheless, despite the countless possibilities in interpretation, I, and numerous other performers, face the challenge of so-called “established perception” of how Mozart should sound, or Prokofiev, or Beethoven, or other iconic representatives of classical music; this is especially the case in international competitions, where the personality and individual approach to classical pianism is particularly strictly perceived.

As a classical pianist, it has been natural to me to explore and perform music from different eras and genres of classical music down the years - from the Baroque era to the Classical period, from Romantic music to Impressionism, Expressionism, Neoclassicism and Contemporary music among other musical periods. In addition to this, as an Armenian musician, a natural part of my musical self has been the classics of Armenian music, as well as our folklore music, medieval hymns, and sacred songs from Armenian traditional music.

Getting in touch with so many different layers of musical traditions - both Armenian and Classical/Western Music - a need emerged to find “my own” repertoire, a repertoire that feels most touching and speaks to me personally, and respectively can mirror different sides of my personality as a performer, my state of mind and emotions in various moments and at various stages of my life. As a soloist, I have often chosen to perform the music of Beethoven, Schubert, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Chopin, Grieg, Ravel, Prokofiev, Berg, as I have found the music and the pianism of performing of these composers closest to my heart.

Arthur Rubinstein spoke in one of his interviews (Gerstein, 2014) about the importance of the connection that the performer should have with the music played, and that the performer should not touch any piece which does not speak directly to his/her heart. To explore the music that is closest to my heart and my identity has led me to my artistic research project in which I have explored the music of Komitas and Khachaturian: the music from my homeland and childhood.

In the context of pianism and classical performance, I believe that the performer is a bridge between the composer and listener. Without performance, there is no music. As Christopher Small writes on the idea of “musicking”; “…since without performance there is no music. A score, as we have seen, is not music. What is at work here is once again reification, the taking of an abstraction to be more real than the reality it represents. The structure of a musical work is an abstraction of the actions of composition and performance” (Small, 1998, p. 164).

Heinrich Neuhaus valued highly the type of a performance in which the pianist is in communication with intuition and inspiration, and brings the composer’s music alive to the audience through

…the performance illumined by the penetrating rayes of intuition and inspiration; a contemporary, vivid performance, backed by unostentatious erudition, imbued with love for the composer that prompts the wealth and diversity of technical methods; a performance, the slogan of which is: " The composer is dead, but his music lives on!" or, if the composer is still alive: “And he shall go on living in the distant future too!” (Neuhaus, 1993, pp. 225-226).

I believe that the composition lives through the musicians who perform it and how they interpret it. As a pianist, I do not have access to the imagination of the composer (indeed there are no performers who do). That said, in rare cases, we can listen to the performances of composers, for example Rachmaninoff playing his own compositions. The personality of the performer naturally impacts upon the interpretation, and the performer creates this essential live communication, bringing the music to the listeners.

Leopold Godowsky believed that

The artist who is incapable of communicating his emotions to the keyboard or who must depend upon artifice to stimulate emotions rarely electrifies his audiences. (…) He must have some vital message to convey to his audience or else his entire performance will prove meaningless, soulless, worthless (Cooke, 1917, p. 139).

A performer’s search for interpretation is an artistic process, in addition to the pianistic and technical ones. I think it is also significant to profoundly reflect and explore the context and the ideas of the composer and the period in which he wrote the music, in order to come as close as possible to the work and its world. In this way, the interpretation reflects not only the personality, character, temperament and musical/artistic taste of the performer, but also the musical aesthetics of the time it was written: the performer should try to understand the work’s horizon, if we are to borrow the ideas of Hans-Georg Gadamer on the horizons of understanding; seeking a fusion of horizons by extending our knowledge about the composer’s and the work’s contexts (Gadamer, Truth and Method). I believe that, altogether, the different interpretations of compositions can bring out hidden aspects of musical works, the whole spectrum of colours and the musical expression of them, that each performer might discover from the departure point of their own identity, musical taste, knowledge, style, approaches, and life experience. Sharing this with the audience thus becomes the vital element in creating a bridge between time and space, between composer and audience, and between the score and music, breathing life into the composition.

Searching for New Interpretational Possibilities Through Artistic Research

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The journey of the artistic research project started when I strongly felt that I was missing something significant while listening to other recordings and interpretations of Khachaturian’s music. From this starting point, I felt this particularly to be the case with the piano concerto and the song-poem for violin and piano. The recordings of these compositions, in one way or another, did not resonate with my inner sense of how I hear or imagine them to be. This did not result from an analytical approach to these recordings, but rather intuitively - they did not correspond to my inner feeling with regard to those compositions. These two compositions were indeed the first “seeds” of my project, from where the idea sprang, and I started to question my own understanding of them. I needed to play them myself and to find out what I was missing. The importance of some ideas on timing and the resonance of folk traditions I had in my mind from the very beginning. Later, the process became more complex during the course of my explorations, as I found many other details of interpretation that I felt a strong need to work on. During the process of deeper explorations of Armenian folk music, besides the compositions of Khachaturian, I started to play Armenian folk dances and songs written down and arranged by Komitas. This really opened up new perspectives to my project and my understanding of artistic development work, and shed a new light on the whole project: it became clear to me that I was looking for the pianistic possibilities to interpret Komitas’ and Khachaturian’s music in light of Armenian folk music.

Internationally, the term artistic research is understood to mean research in and through the arts. It is the artist’s own experience and insight that are the point of departure for artistic research, unlike research on the arts, which is based on looking in from the outside. The Norwegian Artistic Research Fellowship Programme, which is funded by the Ministry of Education and Research, was established in 2003 in order to develop an art based alternative on a par with already established doctoral programmes (Malterud, 2012, p. 1).

The Norwegian programme of artistic research (kunstnerisk utviklingsarbeid) already has a history of about sixteen years in Norway, and in the “Norwegian model”, it is the artistic processes that are the focus:

What has happened over these 20 years, however, is that the designation is not random, based on the uniqueness of what we can call today “the Norwegian model”: That it is based entirely on art and the artistic activity of production and development, and that the documentation of the process and the result does not follow a prerequisite in the form of a thesis or the like, but has an expression that is closely related to the art that is presented. One might say that the formal results of this practice are produced through, and not alongside, practice. In this sense, one can say that the questions belonging to an art practice can be explored in detail and in ways that are idiomatic to the nature of the art field in question (Program for Kunstnerisk Utviklingsarbeid, 2017, p. 60, my translation from Norwegian).

Nina Malterud has been one of the main contributors to the development of the Norwegian programme, and she says of the definition of artistic research:

Artistic research is conducted on the basis of and through artistic practice, and it is thereby based on approaches and experiences that are specific to this perspective. One of the most important early references for the phenomenon is from 1994, when Christopher Frayling, then rector of the Royal College of Art, introduced a distinction between ‘research into art, research through art or research for art’ (Frayling, 1993/1994). Here, research into is understood as art history/theoretical research, research through as something the artist him or herself is in a position to engage in, and research for as technical development work in materials and tools. In research through art, it is the artist’s distinctive experience and reflection that is communicated. Recognising research through art challenges the traditional division of labour whereby artists produce art and art historians and other theoreticians talk and write about art and are those who engage in research (Malterud, 2012, p. 3).

In the field of artistic research in Norway, there have not yet been very many projects that have explored the context of classical interpretation. I will now mention a few projects from the Norwegian artistic research programme which are related to classical music and different aspects of interpretation and performance traditions, as well as some of those based on an inspiration from folk music: they are all highly individual, and each project rests on the specific perspective and personal inspiration of the musicians in question.

Classical pianist Sigurd Slåttebrekk’s project, “Chasing the Butterfly”, explored the romantic repertoire, performance traditions and recreated the recordings made in 1903 by Grieg, playing his own pieces. The aim for recreation was “to try to understand Grieg’s performance strategies on both the micro and macro levels, from the very tiniest turn of phrase or weight of note to the boldest sweep of musical line and narrative structure” (Slåttebrekk & Harrison, 2010).

These 9 acoustic recordings represent a link to performance rooted in the early part of the 19th century and now largely lost in present-day music making. They are real, physical and unambiguous examples of this great, otherwise forgotten, musical tradition. (…) One cannot fully master a style until the unmarked elements have become unmarked to us as performers as well. We have to understand first, but in order to make the marked into the unmarked, the cognitive processes have to be made into instinctive processes – the performance strategies have to be moved from the higher to the lower levels of our consciousness. Or to put it simpler: from head to body (Slåttebrekk & Harrison, 2010).

Pianist Ingfrid Breie Nyhus’ project, “A Play with Traditions”, is introduced in a CD trilogy and written reflections on the pianist’s personal inspiration from Norwegian folk music in a deep interplay between the classical, contemporary and folk music traditions. The project is of great artistic interest for me with regard to the inspiration and direct translation from folk music aesthetics into pianism/piano playing. Having the opportunity to work with Ingfrid as my supervisor allowed me to hear from her in person the understanding of such significant aspects and details of piano playing that had the potential to bring my playing closer to folk music aesthetics and expression, and of being aware of “habits”, patterns of romantic (classical) performance, so much rooted in every classical pianist’s body and mind consciously or subconsciously from an early age with their academic musical education.

The performance aesthetic of the romantic, virtuosic concert pianist is in strong contrast to the intimate and low voice of a folk musician. By all means, it is of course not that simple. But by imagining such exaggerated dichotomies, two contrasting maps of aesthetics are drawn out: the monumental versus the simple; the perpendicular versus the oblique; the wet versus the dry; the controlled versus the rough; the polished versus the unpolished; the even versus the uneven; the emotional versus the trivial. The first word of each of these pairs can be read as an extremity of the ideal classical performance, while the second in each pair can be read as an extremity of folk music performance ideals. That is, at least, the way it is filtered by my ears when I listen to slått playing that I like. (…) The pianism that I knew, the piano aesthetic I was educated in and which has therefore been incorporated in me, could it be expanded or moved towards another aesthetic, a folk musical aesthetic for the piano? Such a folk musical aesthetic would involve avoiding the romantic, trying to go in the direction of simplicity, pushing myself out of automated ways of playing (Nyhus, 2019).

The project, “The Reflective Musician”, was led by piano professor Håkon Austbø, including a team of several musician-researchers aiming to “build bridges between theory and practice by acknowledging the musician’s knowledge as empirical material” (Austbø & Crispin, 2016).

Our work will primarily investigate the interplay between analysis and interpretation, an interplay that in our opinion is almost totally ignored by musicological research. What the musician does treating his instrument is in our view not an occult, indefinable knowledge based on inspiration, but a knowledge that may be expressed both by words and by practical music making (Austbø & Crispin, 2016).

The following two projects are not connected to classical pianism specifically, but I present them here as they contain musicians’ personal inspirations from folk traditions in the context of being at a crossroads of different musical traditions: bass guitarist Mattis Kleppen’s project, “Bassgriotism”, aimed “to make a personal synthesis based on a fusion of three different musical traditions: Norwegian traditional folk music, the traditional music of Mali and Senegambia in West-Africa, and the traditional blues of the Mississippi delta in the USA” (Kleppen, 2015). Andreas Aase’s "FolkImproV”, aimed at “developing folk-based chunks of musical material to replace my stock library of phrases from jazz, blues and rock. The aim was to come up with something that evokes Norwegian and Swedish folk music, perhaps slightly abstracted, mildly changing perceptions of ‘folk’” (Aase, 2015).

From my perspective, the four years of my project have not been only a possibility to conduct, but also to entirely immerse myself and engage in the process of artistic exploration. In this context, I do not see the project itself as a separate object, but instead something that has become part of me and my life as a performing artist with the possibility of four years available to explore not only the chosen area of my artistic research, but also within and through myself. My knowledge and performance experience of the classical field provides me with a solid fundament from which to delve even further in order to find new possibilities for the interpretation of numerous classical compositions of Armenian music. Through my project, I wish to present my interpretations of Komitas’ and Khachaturian’s compositions to the audience and the professional classical field by opening up new perspectives beyond the established approaches to interpreting them. The field of Armenian folk music, as well as the music of Komitas and Khachaturian, has been the subject of research by a number of musicologists, ethnomusicologists, and writers. Only a small amount of research has been carried out which reflects on performative or pianistic aspects of the compositions and interpretations of them. However, I could point out pianist Anna Ambakumyan’s article on the interpretation of Komitas’ folk dances, pianist Raffi Kharajanyan’s book about the piano compositions of Khachaturian, pianist Villy Sargsyan’s articles “Komitasian treasures” and “About artistic thinking principles of Komitas” (my translations), and pianist Areg Sargsyan’s article on Komitas’ Msho Shoror and the interpretation of it. So far there is no known - at least to my knowledge - artistic research that has been carried out by a pianist-performer where the object is to interpret the music of Komitas and Khachaturian in light of Armenian folk music, at least within one project in an organic unity. The chapters Fingerprints, Interpreting Komitas’ music and Interpreting Khachaturian’s music, will describe in detail different aspects of the artistic choices, processes and turning points of this project.

Meetings that Influenced Me

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With Mher Navoyan[2] on Armenian Modal Thinking

I had two conversations regarding Armenian music with Professor Navoyan: the first was a spontaneous discussion when he was visiting Kristiansand on a work trip on August 12, 2016; the other meeting was at my request at his office at Komitas State Conservatory in Yerevan on August 24, 2017.

To my question about the main difference between the Armenian modal system and modal thinking from the European, Professor Navoyan said the following:

M. N. The European modal system is based on octaves, constructed on two consecutive tetrachords, for example, c-d-e-f, g-a-h-c, (do-re-mi-fa, sol-la-si-do, in between those tetrachords is an interval of second, f-g). In the Armenian modal system, we do not have that interval of a second in between the tetrachords; our modal system is not based on octaves, it is based on the conjunction of tetrachords: for example, c-d-e-f, f-g-a-b, the last note of the previous tetrachords is functionally the first note of the following one. We know that when tetrachords have various functional relations, only then the tetrachords become a mode. Regarding the functional relations of the modes (modus), in European modes, the principal functions of the modes repeat in every octave; in Armenian music the functions of modes repeat within each tetrachord. An example: c-d-e-f, and f-g-a-b together create the Mixolydian major mode, and as musicologist Qushnaryan would call it, the C would be called Mixolydian C, even though the tetrachord c-d-e-f itself is an Ionian tetrachord. So, when we have two consecutive Ionian tetrachords, we have then the mode Ionian major, (the C major scale). If we conjunct together two Ionian tetrachords, then we have the Mixolydian major. If we create the tetrachord from D, d-e-f-g, Dorian tetrachord, and have consecutive to it another Dorian tetrachord, we would get the Dorian mode. If we conjunct two Dorian tetrachords, we have then Eolian mode. From E, the two consecutive Phrygian tetrachords create the mode Phrygian minor; if conjunct together, it is the Locrian minor mode, etc. The first person who started the musicological research on Armenian modal system, the conjunction of tetrachords and studying the specifics of complexity in the modal thinking in Armenian music, was Komitas, and then Qushnaryan, Atayan, Pashinyan, Gyodakyan, Stepanyan among other musicologists. Of course, it is not only in Armenian music that the tetrachords are conjunct together. The ancient Greeks used different conjunctions of tetrachords and had their own complex system of modes in their music. Each nation has tetrachords, and so-called ‘intonation language’ based on it that is used more often than one or another tetrachord, thus creating their own modal thinking. It is important to underline that there are no such thing as particular modes belonging to any particular nation. The music of various nations will contain tetrachords that we can find in music from elsewhere, but rather we can say that the music of some nations contains a more specific usage of certain modes in a distinct way, typical to only them, in their own intonational language based on those modes, thus creating distinct modal thinking in their music which makes it different to others. For more on the Armenian modal system and thinking, you should read the books of Qristapor Qushnaryan, Edward Pashinyan, Georgi Gyodakyan, Margarit Brutyan among others (Navoyan, personal communication, August 2017).

Here Professor Navoyan mentions a complex matter: the modal system and thinking in Armenian music. Here is presented only the principal differences between Armenian and European modal thinking. The minor seconds in the tetrachords in Armenian modes in some cases can be augmented both from upper and below tones, opening complex intonational relations between tetrachords and modes in our traditional music, as well as in the professional music of composers. To broaden the picture to the reader, I add a quote from one of the musicologists mentioned by Navoyan.

The natural modes in Armenian music are also exposed (subjected) to chromatic modifications (modal alterations): the lower tones are flattened, and the upper tones are sharpened in the intervals of minor seconds, and the neighboring tones of the minor seconds from above and below, too, are flattened and sharpened. In order to construct various modes both natural and chromatically modified modal rows are used.

(…) It should be noted, that Armenian folk music has been monophonic. Polyphony, either harmonic or contrapuntal, has been manifested in composers’ professional music, since the beginning of the second half of 19th century. It stemmed from the rich expressive possibilities imbued in modes of folk song (Pashinyan, 1987, pp. 487-488, my translation from Armenian, parentheses also mine).

Score example 1

The principle of conjunction of the tetrachords in Armenian music, described earlier and presented here from E. Pashinyan’s Harmony, Part II, chapter 13 - “The Modes of Armenian Music and Some of Their Harmonic Specifics” (Pashinyan, 1987, p. 486, my translation from Armenian).

Score example 2

The augmented minor seconds in tetrachords from Pashinyan’s Harmony (Pashinyan, 1987, p. 487).

It is also important to mention here that Khachaturian, in his compositions, made a synthesis of European diatonic and chromatic scales and Armenian modes, thus creating his own unique idiom, as well as intonational and harmonic language about which musicologists G. Gyodakyan and D. Arutyunov, amongst others, have carried out detailed research into the topic.

(…) The specifics of the Armenian monody in Khachaturian’s art entered into an interplay with the principles of European major-minor (diatonic) and chromatic modal systems. As a result, the artistic experience of Khachaturian showed the possibility of the communion of Eastern monodic culture with the achievements of European classics and enriched the modal-tonal resources of both musical cultures (Arutyunov, 1983, p. 28, my translation from Russian).

On my question regarding the possible link between Khachaturian’s and Komitas’ music, Professor Navoyan said:

M. N. The connection between Komitas and Khachaturian is not a much-researched field; however, we can say that Komitas devoted considerable attention to peasant folklore and spiritual music, whilst Khachaturian’s was more to urban folk music and the music of troubadours (ashughs).

M. Kh.- “I believe that the strongest bond between Komitas’ and Khachaturian’s music is the imitation of folk instruments and the folk dance elements. How do you respond to this?”

M. N. In one of my most recent articles, I have reflected on the role of folk dances, the instrumental dance genre that strongly impacted the development of European classical music. Remember that the European Baroque suites, consisting of dances - allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue, also sometimes included other dances like the minuet, gavotte, passepied, etc. We could draw parallels to that here. Komitas, through his art and in his own way, developed our instrumental music, basing his piano dances Yot Par and Msho Shoror on traditional Armenian folk dances. Returning to your question about the link between Komitas and Khachaturian, I could say that their musical and compositional language is very different, but despite that, I agree that the dance genre in principle, and as a conceptual element, as well as the elements of folk instrument imitation, connects their art, or you could consider it a strong link that connects their art.

At the time I had this meeting with Professor Navoyan, my project was still entitled Interpretation Issues of Khachaturian’s Piano Compositions, even though I had already had the idea to include Komitas’ major works for piano in it. Even at that time, I was not yet sure about the current structure of the project. I was still searching. Professor Navoyan also mentioned back then that my current project title did not sufficiently reflect the whole content of my work and, following his advice, it has developed and the final title of the project emerged: ARMENIAN FINGERPRINTS - interpreting the piano music of Komitas and Khachaturian in light of Armenian folk music.

M. N.- As I can hear from what you say, describing your project, I can say that Komitas, as a founder of the national classical school, should be presented in your project as a point of departure - as the most significant reference - when discussing Khachaturian’s music regarding the folk dance genre and folk instrument imitation in music. Khachaturian himself considered Komitas as the greatest Armenian composer. Khachaturian’s music is a unique synthesis of traditions from Armenian National Music and Western Classical Music. In addition to this, he was educated and created his music within the Soviet reality. His art presents a unique synthesis of two worlds: East and West. When talking about the Armenian national music’s elements, such as imitation of folk instruments and folk dance elements in his music, and the importance of it regarding the performance aspects, Komitas emerges as the most significant source to explore, and with which to make parallels. Naturally, this opens up a great space in which to search for pianistic possibilities and, lastly, for insight when interpreting the music in the light of Armenian folk music. I must say again that this is not a much researched field in Armenian music in terms of possible parallels to Komitas’ and Khachaturian’s music. Many musicians/musicologists would disagree with you about finding an axis, or even presenting these two composers’ music within one project since there are also significant differences in their musical expression and compositional forms. Perhaps one of the most significant reasons as to why people so far have not perceived a connecting axis in their music - a possible strong relation - has been the contextual difference of the periods they lived and composed, the historical and political situation in which both lived their lives. Nevertheless, the existence of Armenian folk dance elements, the element of national folklore strongly anchored in both composers’ work, connects them as unexpectedly as it is for most people.

With Villy Sargsyan[3] on Komitas and Colour

I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to have two meetings with Professor Villy Sargsyan, who is considered one of the outstanding Armenian pianists. Villy Sargsyan’s arrangements from Khachaturian’s ballets Gayaneh and Spartacus and arrangements of Komitas’ songs for solo piano have been a focus during my artistic research project. I have used nine of his arrangements of Komitas’ songs as a point of departure when performing those songs with folk instruments blul and duduk. As Villy Sargsyan said to me, to make these arrangements of Komitas songs for solo piano has been for him “as a duty of his soul”.

During one of the meetings, he hosted me on August 25, 2017, whilst the second was on July 29, 2018, both on hot summer afternoons at his flat in Yerevan, in a friendly and informal atmosphere. We spent hours talking, listening to recordings of Komitas and Khachaturian from my performances in Germany, and in Norway with KSO, and also we listened the recording of Villy Sargsyan himself playing Komitas in his arrangements for solo piano at a live concert in Yerevan that he played the same year. I could have listened to him for hours talking about the essence and specifics of Komitas’ art, and his reflections on Armenian music. I told him my ideas about performing his arrangements on the piano together with the folk instruments blul and duduk, and showed him my preliminary recordings of them. He was very positive to it and had comments in several places regarding the character of each song, the phrasing related to the lyrics, and also particularly with regard to choices of pedalling, since he could hear that my pedalling (including the middle pedal) creates effects of microtones/overtones and goes further than the pedal marks that are written into the scores.

V. S. -… he (Komitas) could achieve - in combining the pure specifics of the Armenian folk music, at the same time raising the folk material into the masterpieces, bringing new qualities into it - meanwhile without changing the original melody of the folk music.

When I talked about the parallels of Komitas’ and Khachaturian’s music and impressionism, containing some elements of similarity regarding the pianistic touch and sound aesthetics in my perception of it, Villi Sargsyan continued with this idea and mentioned that, indeed, Komitas had been inspired by impressionism - from Debussy and Ravel – and, as surprisingly it sounded to me, Komitas also admired Wagner’s music greatly. He brought an example to me from one of the songs of Komitas:

V. S. -Do you remember the piano introduction in Komitas’ “Kanche Krunk”? (Call, Crane). It’s pure Impressionism.

Indeed, in many of Komitas’ introduction parts to the songs, and further the piano accompaniments that he composed (It’s Spring, The Sky was Cloudy, Houseless, Cool Down, Moonlight Night) I hear impressionistic colours and I have an inner urge to create my sound with such a touch on the keyboard, as I would play for example with Debussy, or Ravel’s music. Similar moments also came up when playing Khachaturian: for example, in the first movement of the clarinet trio, I could strongly perceive parallels with impressionism and respectively adjust my touch on piano, becoming more sensitive and aiming for a more transparent, fragile sound and tender colours.

V. S. - One of principal and most essential characteristics of Komitas’ music is the delicate, sublime and transparently texturised piano sound. Without achieving this delicate touch, something will be missing that is essential in Komitas’ music. Let us not forget that folk music has its own unique and precious qualities, which are not a matter for discussion here. But when the composer crosses with it, and when folk music becomes a source for the composer, it is then that - through it - the composer brings new quality, by creating his own art. Komitas’ musical language is an exciting combination of two languages: the language of peasant folk music, and European (musical) language. He created a synthesis of these two. He used qualities from European music in his art, which not only did not affect or by any means disturb the uniqueness of his music or, in this case, the Armenian folk music, but made it even more vibrant, with exquisite colours.

As for the aim to give the reader more of a depth of understanding of Professor Sargsyan’s ideas about Komitas’ art, I find it essential to include this extract from my meetings and also to cite here from Professor Sargsyan’s article - About Komitas’ Artistic Thinking Principles, published in 1986, in which he reflects on what the uniqueness of Komitas’ art is, and in what ways it is expressed:

The remarkable feature of Komitas’ compositional method is expressed in the way that his art’s general basis is the traditional (peasant) music: the latter became a pervasive material for his creation. And, what is important, the implementation of the folklore within the individual composition here gains the meaning of the superior compositional method. We can say that the reality of giving a comprehensive character to that compositional principle already contains his extraordinary description. But in this case, it still does not entirely reveal the uniqueness of Komitas’ artistic thinking. It is defined by the character of the approach to folklore and its role for the composer’s art. In the uniqueness of the implementation of folklore, is manifested in the Komitasian method’s true singularity, and it’s here that the power of magic and inimitable impact of his music exists.

(…) Komitas, with an artist’s sensitive heart – one that was merged with its people - responded to the century’s vital requirements in a way that nobody else in Armenian art has. He was writing with two creative fundaments’ synthesis: the folkloristic and the individual: but it was such an unusual synthesis that the folklore, reaching unprecedented level, was meanwhile confirming its fundamental meaning; and the individual, penetrating into the folklore’s original nature, completely molded into the elements of folklore, which was nevertheless displayed in all its genius. Komitas, mirroring the pure truth of the peasant’s life, spoke on behalf of his people, expressing himself through their thoughts, feelings, words and silences, but all the while was lifting and bringing forward the content of the folklore to the meaning of a historically advanced national art. (…) In that music, the soul of the people is expressed with pureness and naturalness that is characteristic to it (Sargsyan, 1986, pp. 48-50, my translation from Armenian).

With Alina Pahlevanyan[4] on Khachaturian and Folklore

I took Armenian folklore classes with Professor Alina Pahlevanyan during my study years at the Conservatory in Yerevan, from 2005. After so many years, I felt that I should request a meeting with her regarding my project and ask the questions I wished to discuss with her. She kindly agreed, and we met at her office at the conservatory on a very hot summer day, August 28, 2017. During our conversation, I mentioned to her that the articles of Georgi Gyodakyan [5], about Khachaturian’s music, have been a particular focus and interest of mine. In his article “Aram Khachaturian and the music of the 20th century” (my translation from Armenian), Gyodakyan has written, “…About the intonation world of Khachaturian’s compositions. The sources of his melodic style, - says Konen, - take mainly to the Armenian Ashughs vocal art. The same notes also Asafev” (Gyodakyan, 2009, p. 123, my translation from Armenian).

This is, of course, not exact, in fact to be more precise, it is not exact at all. Perhaps it is the time to clarify this saying, opinion, which has gone from article to article, from book to book as a general opinion, presenting the ashugh’s art as the main source of Khachaturian’s musical style, and the composer himself as a composer-ashugh of our times. This is a deep delusion. The versatility and the scalability of Khachaturian’s music is just that it accumulated, included the Armenian musical culture’s whole, richest experience, going back into the depths of the centuries. Generally, it is very difficult to separate any field of folk music to which he had a preference. He profitted from Armenian peasant folklore, and also from urban folklore, as well as from Armenian instrumental folk-professional music. In my opinion, Khachaturian did not pass by the Armenian medieval spiritual monody (Gyodakyan, 2009, p. 123, my translation from Armenian).

Furthermore, Gyodakyan explains that he does not mean with this that Khachaturian used or cited from these different branches of folk music, but rather that the typical characteristics of this or that folk song - the intonation image of it - was just a starting point as a conscious or intuitive stimulant for his own melodies in creating his own musical character. Thus, in his approach, Gyodakyan makes an important clarification on the decades’ long misinterpretation of Khachaturian’s musical legacy.

I asked Alina Pahlevanyan’s opinion regarding this:

A. P. -You know, Aram Khachaturian grew up in Tbilisi in an Armenian environment where he, like a sponge, absorbed the folk music - music that his mother sang to him. Besides the folk music, he also knew very well and loved Armenian spiritual music. From childhood, every Sunday his mother dressed him up and they went to church to listen to the Armenian Liturgy. We can find modes and intonational phrases in Khachaturian’s music that are rooted in this medieval Armenian music. He was entirely absorbed by Armenian music, and it was already in the layers of his subconsciousness as a fundament for his art. Yet he rarely used original melodies from folklore in his art, with a few exceptions, such as the folk song Vorskan Aghper, one of the songs that his mother sang to him and later the composer used in his 2nd Symphony, and the theme of the 2nd movement of the piano concerto, which is an old folk song he heard in his childhood, as well as in the solo sonata for viola, where in the middle part we can hear the folk song Sari gyalin. So we can count on our fingers how many original folk songs Khachaturian used in his art. It was extremely seldom. So his music is filled with the intonations of Armenian music but without citations.

I am entirely absorbed by Armenian music, and I do not need citations from anywhere", Khachaturian said to me (to Alina Pahlevanyan) personally.

Martiros Saryan[6] said once, as a metaphor, that Aram Ilyich took the entirety of Armenian music, mixed and nourished it with thousands of ideas, prepared his own national “dish”, and offered it to the people. So the metaphor is that he worked like that - he did not need any citations, but the national fundament was there, he felt firmly under his feet.

In the later years of his life, Khachaturian was strongly offended when his art was referred to ashughs, and he had every reason to be so, since that statement narrowed the broad spectrum of his art, the massive scale of it. Yes, that’s true, he dedicated the Song-Poem to ashughs, being strongly inspired by their art[7] not only in Song-Poem: nevertheless, that does not mean that his music can be referred only to troubadours’ art, as it is usually presented: his art is much broader, including many aspects of the branches of Armenian music. The most significant element of inspiration from ashughs is the improvisational thinking, and the improvisational timing in the music.

He was a great improvisator. You could give him any, absolutely any theme, and he would right away improvise on the piano on that theme. Even without one, he could play hours of improvisation. Not every composer can have improvisational thinking, skills and master them instantly within a specific compositional form when playing. This is called ‘genius’, and there is no other word than genius for Khachaturian. So now you understand the reason why he felt offended when he was called ashugh, and musicologists tied his art down with the reference to only ashughs art. It was mainly through the Soviet musicologists Asafev’s and Konen’s and also partly Khubov’s work that this statement went from source to source and remained the cliché of Khachaturian’s art. Gyodakyan’s remarks were in opposition to this, and he wanted people to know that, alongside the inspiration from ashughs, Khachaturian’s art and the sources of his musical thinking were much broader, anchored in Armenian music in its broader context.

M. Kh.- The aspects of improvisational timing in Khachaturian’s music and the elements of dam (sustained basses) tradition in it are highly interesting to me. I consider these to be particular aspects with which the performer can achieve a more profound understanding of Khachaturian’s music. The performance of it, in my opinion, should be firmly rooted in the traditions and aesthetics of Armenian music. Could you please tell me your opinion on this?

A. P. - In Khachaturian’s music, the marks of rubatos,ad libitums, agogics, and the expression of the whole musical timing, should be anchored to the aesthetics of Armenian music. Another important aspect is his rich rhythmical language, his poly-rhythm (bringing an example from the Sabre dance when, in the middle section, two different musical metres - rhythms pulse simultaneously). Khachaturian’s music also contains different types of dam. For example, we can hear pulsing dam, static/sustained dam, patterns that repeat as a dam, several different types of dam which are based on his musical thinking and a strong connection to the aesthetics of Armenian folk music.

I introduced my thoughts to Alina Pahlevanyan with regard to two aspects that I believe firmly connect Komitas’ and Khachaturian’s music: the folk instrument’s timbre/imitation on piano, and the Armenian folk dance elements. I was interested in her opinion regarding this.

A. P. - Yes, an essential element was that the Armenian dance rhythms, the elements of folk dance (dance genre in general) were Khachaturian’s world. Komitas, through his art, discovered for the world the Armenian peasant folklore, songs, and dances - the essence of Armenian music. Several generations of Armenian composers have been inspired, influenced and nourished in their art through the Armenian music that was introduced by Komitas’ art. Khachaturian’s music and Komitas’ music have entirely different musical expressions, but, for sure, those essential aspects of the Armenian folk dance and folk instruments timbres/imitations connect them.

  1. I mapped the roots of the transferred pianistic traditions from generation to generation: Areg Sargsyan, Villy Sargsyan, Ketti Malkhasyan, Konstantin Igumnov, Alexandr Zilotti. Zilotti’s teachers were Nikolai Zverev, then Nikolai Rubinstein and he (Zilotti) also went to Veimar and studied with Ferenc Liszt, who has studied with Carl Czerny and who was the student of L. V. Beethoven. ↩︎

  2. Mher Navoyan is a musicologist-medievalist, Doctor habil., Honored Worker of Art of RA, Professor, Head of the Folk Music Department of the Institute of Arts of the National Academy of Sciences of RA, Leading Researcher, Chairman of the Scientific Council of the Komitas Museum-Institute, Artistic Director of the Geghard Vocal Ensemble. Navoyan is the author of more than 50 articles and the following monographs: The Origin of the Tagh Genre and Free Musical Mentality in the Armenian Medieval Professional Song Art (2001), and Fragments from the History of Armenian Music (2009). His research is focused on Armenian medieval music, the eight-mode system in Armenian music, and on Armenian art music. ↩︎

  3. Villy Sargsyan is pianist, Honorary Artist of the Republic of Armenia and Professor at Komitas State Conservatory in Yerevan, Armenia. Sargsyan is author of articles on Komitas’ art, as well as have published his arrangements of Komitas songs for solo piano in two volumes, concert arrangements from Khachaturian’s ballets Spartacus and Gayaneh among other works. Sargsyan has held concerts and masterclasses for decades in Armenia and internationally. ↩︎

  4. Alina Pahlevanyan is ethnomusicologist, Doctor of Art, Professor, Honored Worker in Art of RA, the Head of the Chair of Armenian Folk Music Studies of the Komitas State Conservatory in Yerevan. Pahlevanyan has been a consultant on folklore at the State Ensemble of Armenian Song and Dance and at the State Committee of the Armenian Radio and TV. Pahlevanyan’s activity is focused on ethnographic fieldwork and the transcription of folk music. She is the author of music textbooks, editions of folk music collections, and numerous articles and monographs, including: Issues of Armenian Music Folklore, New Found Stories of “Celery Cross”. Pahlevanyan’s research refers mostly to Armenian folk music and its theoretical bases. ↩︎

  5. Georgi Gyodakyan (1928-2015) was a musicologist, music critic, expert on Komitas’ and Khachaturian’s art, Doctor of Art, Professor, Honored Worker in Art of RA, author of numerous musicological studies, articles, and books. Georgi Gyodakyan was Alina Pahlevanyan’s husband. I had this unique opportunity to check some of Georgi Gyodakyan’s ideas on Khachaturian’s music that I have referred to here directly with Alina Pahlevanyan. ↩︎

  6. Martiros Saryan (1880-1972) was the founder of the modern Armenian national school of painting. ↩︎

  7. More about this composition in the chapter Song-Poem. ↩︎