What is the national music, and what gives substance to the folk songs? Whether it’s proud mountains, deep canyons and valleys, the climate, a thousand and one historical events, the internal and external life of the people: yes, all of this, all of this creates the substance of national music - in one word, everything that impacts on that nation’s senses and mind (Komitas, 1941, p. 9, my translation from Armenian).

Ararat Valley in Armenia, 2017. Photo: Private

Komitas was an unusual phenomenon. (…) Like a tireless archeologist, or, rather as a restorative artist, he thoroughly “cleansed” the foreign layers accumulated down centuries to reveal the original essence of national music. The discovery of Armenian folk music’s large and valuable field - the peasant folklore - rightly belongs to Komitas. (…) In numerous notes of Komitas, the peasant song was introduced in a possible complete form, and was preserved from loss and irrevocable destruction (Gyodakyan, 2009, p. 73, my translation from Armenian).

Komitas | Copyright: Komitas Institute-Museum,

The art of Khachaturian included elements - melodic motives that became familiar, rhythmical formulas and colours that were traditionally implemented in Armenian music. Mainly because of this, the true national characteristic of his art, the connection with the national musical language-thinking becomes evident. These traditional and familiar elements radiated with a new and unusual, vital energy in the musical texture of Khachaturian’s compositions. As it seems the composer liberates their inner forces, gives them an exceptional activity (Gyodakyan, 2009, p. 121, my translation from Armenian).

Aram Khachaturian | Copyright: Aram Khachaturian House-Museum,

Listening and Response

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It was already one and half years since I had started my project, and I was still in search of my imagined articulation - that special timbre on piano when interpreting Khachaturian’s piano compositions - searching for the sound expression that could bring my playing closer to the folk aesthetics when playing his music. Besides searching for the literature and recordings available in Yerevan, I also wanted to have meetings with several folk musicians. I met with more than ten musicians playing on different folk instruments - with Vigen Balasanyan, who played masterfully on five folk instruments – these meetings became more frequent. During the January 2017, the idea came to my mind that I would experiment with playing excerpts from Khachaturian’s music on a folk instrument. This was a major turning point in the project, at which I not only went deeper in order to gain an understanding of the folk instruments’ timbres, their way of playing and their sounds directly from folk musicians, but also dared to combine playing the classical compositions of Khachaturian on piano together with a folk instrument.

To investigate this approach together with Vigen, we played the Lullaby from Khachaturian’s Gayaneh ballet. I chose this one because of the expression of the melody, which has closeness to the folk simplicity. Another piece by Khachaturian that we played was the Dance of the Girls with Tambourines. To me, this is one of the most vivid examples of deep roots in folk dance, as well as including an imitation of folk instrument dap, as the title of the piece suggests. To me, these pieces from Gayaneh ballet of Khachaturian in Villy Sargsyan’s arrangements for solo piano, breathed with the very atmosphere of Armenian folk music.

Lullaby from Gayaneh ballet in arrangement for solo piano by Villy Sargsyan, played on blul and piano.

The Girls Dance with Tambourines in arrangement for solo piano by Villy Sargsyan, played on blul and piano.

I wanted to add the sound of the melody played on a folk instrument to these piano arrangements: Professor Sargsyan responded very positively to this request, and with an artistic curiosity as to the outcome. Playing with the folk instrument blul was a choice of mine, because the sound of it, one of the oldest Armenian folk instruments, make a strong impression on me in the sense of evoking the folk sonority and folk expression of the music. The combination of the sound of blul and Khachaturian’s music felt natural to me. It felt like an organic fusion of traditions, in a way revealing the roots of the modes of these melodies, bringing them further away from the expression of “classical” that the piano - a European classical instrument - automatically gives the music, even if the music is strongly inspired by Armenian folk traditions. To my ears, the dissonances created by the natural overtones and raw tuning of blul played with the piano sounded natural ,and did not occur “out of tune and not perfectly well intonated together”. Quite the opposite, it in fact added more flavour - more of the folk expression and further away from the “classical”, to my musical taste and ears. Even though it would have been possible for me to head deeper down that particular path and to make more arrangements from Khachaturian’s compositions, including more folk instruments, for example dhol or dap, in addition to blul, or to imitate from blul more accurately the ornaments played on piano, I decided to be true to my principle of not modifying the scores of Khachaturian, but rather coming closer and deeper in my understanding of folk sonorities, and responding through the piano.

In his letters, Khachaturian referred to Komitas as one of his great teachers (Khachaturian, 2003, p. 48), as well as, many times, highlighting his deep roots in Armenian folk music. As folk music and dance were natural and integral part of people’s lives, playing the piano dances of Komitas and including his music within the same project as Khachaturian felt natural and reassuring to me.

As early as during the second year of my project (2016), I noticed that, as much as I explore in Khachaturian’s music in terms of pianism and finding new possibilities for interpretation, the idea to include the music of Komitas in the project (at that time presented as a Khachaturian project) emerged to an equal extent. In particular, it was interesting to find evidence in Khachaturian’s music that, beside the deep inspiration and improvisational timing that comes from ashughs art, a significant bond also connects the art of Khachaturian with Komitas at the crossover point of Armenian folk music. At first glance, the two composers’ music contrasted greatly, both from the choice of compositional form to the musical expression of it. The transparent, minimalistic, soft timbres and colours - the musical expression more often introvert - semplice, dolore and calmo in Komitas’ music, is very unlike Khachaturian, whose music is full of energetic, voluminous and virtuosic concert style. His musical thinking is more orchestral and extrovert - even in small chamber compositions – and is full of expressive emotional style, with dramatic and bright colours. Nevertheless, despite the contrasting differences of the musical expression and aesthetics of their music, I believe that two significant aspects firmly connect the music of Khachaturian and Komitas and the traditions of Armenian folk music:

In Khachaturian’s compositions, the traditions of the Armenian folk dance (and the composer’s great interest into the dance genre) and the imitation of the folk instrument’s’ sound is evident and vividly represented in solo pieces for piano, in chamber music, in transcriptions from ballets, and in the piano concerto in D flat major with the orchestra, even though the composer never marked this imitation specifically or named any folk instrument in scores.

However, though Khachaturian did not indicate it in the scores, he did mention certain timbral concepts and his inspiration from folk ensembles in his compositions, which we can hear, for example, in his trio for clarinet, violin and piano, where the classical instrument’s timbre is meant to evoke the sound of Armenian folk instruments, respectively - duduk, qyamancha, and dhol. The dissonance intervals of minor seconds too, so characteristic of Khachaturian’s music - have their roots in the sound and tuning of folk instruments that the composer was naturally inspired by and which became an inevitable part of his inner musical sense and identity:

Take for instance my passion for the interval of the second, major and minor: haven’t I had trouble enough with my conservatoire masters and music critics over it? This discordant interval haunting me comes from the trio of folk instruments consisting of the tar, kemancha and tambourine. I relish such sonorities and to my ear they are as natural as any consonance (Khachaturian, cited in Shneerson, 1959, pp. 33-34).

In my personal experience searching for distinct national modal-harmonic means, on more than one occasion I have proceeded from the imagination of a concrete sonority of the folk instruments, with their characteristic tuning and, following on from that, scales of overtones. I love very much, for example, the sonority of tar, from which the folk virtuosos are able to produce amazingly beautiful and deeply exciting harmonies: in them is enclosed a separate consistency of patterns, its own secret meaning (Khachaturian, 1972, p. 12, my translation from Russian).

On these crucial aspects of Khachaturian’s music - the inspiration and the imitation of folk instruments’ sound/timbre, and the folk dance elements in his compositions - a number of musicologists have already covered in their work. Here I must mention among others G. Khubov, G. Shneerson, R. Kharajanyan, V. Yuzefovich, and D. Arutyunov, whose books I consider not only to be great sources of knowledge, but also as solid anchors in terms of my search for interpretations of Khachaturian’s compositions.

The imitation of the sonority of folk instruments reveals itself in the chamber pieces of the composer as well. Remember the piano introduction to the Song-poem for violin and piano (imitation of the string-plucking instrument qanon), the beginning and the middle part of the toccata (imitation of respectively the daira and qanon), the trio (associations: with the duduk - clarinet; with the qyamancha - violin; with the Eastern people’s national percussive instruments, such as the daira, dap, and dhol, - piano) (Arutyunov, 1983, pp. 32-33, my translation from Russian).

Unlike Khachaturian, Komitas marked in the scores which folk instrument style should be performed each of the folk dances that he arranged for piano. Yot Par (Seven Dances) and Msho Shoror for solo piano presented for me a significant interest as unique sources in my search for pianistic tools of musical expression, opening new perspectives on finding articulation and timbre when imitating the folk instruments sound on the piano. Komitas, besides collecting and arranging Armenian Peasant Songs, also focused in particular on the instrumental music that was played during folk dances, creating his famous Seven Dances for piano and Msho Shoror, each a dance melody from a particular region of Armenia.

Two outstanding artists, so similar and yet so different. Komitas, who relied mainly on Armenian peasant folklore, Khachaturyan – on urban folklore; Komitas, who believed in the self-evident value of folk melodies; Khachaturyan, who considered them material from which to draw inspiration; Komitas, who epitomized extreme emotional restraint, Khachaturyan – a feast of emotions and colors. And yet, both had a common goal – to create a national, professional musical culture (Yuzefovich, 1985, p. 268).

As in every creative process, imagination can have a monumental effect. I consider it to be one of the most significant factors in the process of finding the colours, timbres, and tempos in specific musical patterns in the compositions, the character of the music, and in general in my playing. When encountering the score as a musician, perhaps the first thing that is activated in me is my imagination. The idea of how the piece should sound is connected with the details that I study in the scores, and this is first formed as an image or idea in my mind - only afterwards do they transform into sounds when I start playing the piano. I believe that the imagination is a bridge between the idea and creating the sound on the piano. When playing Komitas’ and Khachaturian’s compositions, some musical layers are more rooted in the imagination when trying to find my interpretations. First, it is the imagination of the Armenian folk instruments’ timbres on piano. For example, in the case of responding on piano, the timbre or the way of playing the dhol/dap (drums), the rhythmicality and the dry pedalling (or no pedal) can make the response more precise and clear for the listeners. In the case of my imagined sound of duduk, to imitate the warm, deep timbre, and the kind of vibrating sound that goes with it, I use my imagination, which impacts my pianistic touch. I try to create a timbre on piano with deep legatos, a rounded sound, and warmer shades of dynamics.

During the artistic process, I noticed that often my fingers decide the fingerings in the compositions themselves. This is tacit knowledge - experience that is embedded in my body. The fingers react before I have time to think - which makes me consider Maurice Merlauy-Ponty’s idea on the primacy of perception (The Phenomenology of Perception), which underlines that our senses and our body know before our thinking does. After working for a long time on the compositions of Komitas and Khachaturian, it felt as if I owned the pieces in such a way that they have become a part of my body, like having them under my skin, so to speak. These kinds of bodily decisions and responses to music occur naturally. In compositions, when I feel the urgent need to create those “special” or “magical” musical moments, I notice that my fingertips become more focused; usually my whole palm searches closer to the keys, bringing my wrist lower, fingers in close contact with the keyboard, and producing the timbre that I imagine. Even though I try to adequately analyse the movements of my fingers, my arms and my whole body, the touch on the keyboard and the attempt to describe it in words always nonetheless leads to a great ambiguity with regard to what exactly the body does, and in what way the timbres and the tiniest shades and variations of atmosphere are created during the performance.

Pedalling and Dam

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While exploring Armenian folk music and the various peculiarities of it, I found it essential to make clear artistic choices regarding pedalling, which would make a significant difference to my interpretations of Komitas’ and Khachaturian’s compositions. My response to folk music had clear patterns of sound aesthetics that emerged with certain pedalling in music as a result. In the music of both composers, I discovered possibilities of a broad variety of pedalling, from using the left pedal to the right pedal in various combinations, such as half pedal, vibrating pedal, as well as specific places with no pedal and, not least, the use of the middle pedal which, as classical pianists, we most often neglect and almost never use in the classical repertoire. The emerging need that I encountered to use the middle pedal in both composers’ music has a direct connection to Armenian folk music and the musical tradition of long, sustained basses. These sustained basses are performed on the duduk, (sometimes two or more duduks) keeping the long basses, and thus accompanying the other duduk’s solo playing, or it could be played on zurna or on other folk instruments. It can be also played with a singer or in the compositions/improvisations of a folk instrument, or folk instrument ensemble, highly dependant on the music and the performance. The sustained basses in Armenian music are recognised as one of the main peculiarities of our folk tradition, and, in the Armenian language, are called dam. This could in fact be presented here as another parallel to the traditions of basso continuo and basso ostinato, as well as drone which in English could be a word used to describe the meaning of the Armenian word dam. To my ear, I was able to recognise/listen to the effects of the dam tradition in the music of both composers, even though neither Komitas nor Khachaturian marked to use a middle pedal or named the patterns containing sustained basses as dam in the scores.

As Alina Pahlevanyan put it, “Khachaturian’s music contains different types of dam: a pulsing dam, static/sustained dam, patterns that repeat as a dam, several different types of dam, all based on his musical thinking and strong connection to the aesthetics of Armenian Folk music” (Pahlevanyan, personal communication, August 2017).

As regards the evocations of the dam tradition so vividly present in Khachaturian’s compositions, R. Kharajanyan and D. Arutyunov have mentioned these in their books alongside other experts of Khachaturian’s art and underlined the importance of it in his musical idiom:

Already at the beginning of the “Poem”, it vividly brings about associations with sonority, which is characteristic to folk music making – the voices, moving in the opposite direction are lean on a deep, sustained bass, which completes the function of this so-called dam (Kharajanyan, 1973, p. 29, my translation from Russian).

The role of sustained basses in all possible ensembles of folk instruments is extremely important. These sustained basses, called dam and performed usually in these ensembles with percussion instruments (dhol, daira, dap) and woodwinds (zurna, duduk), are also amply imitated in Khachaturian’s orchestra (Arutyunov, 1972, p. 125, my translation from Russian).

In terms of my response to the folk aesthetics, I was curious as to how far I could go with pedalling choices, including the search to create my imagined dam effects in the compositions of Komitas and Khachaturian.

Komitas did not mention middle pedal or any specific way of pedalling that differs from the classical manner of marking pedalling that might help create these dam effects without mixing the different sound layers together, which occurs when using the (classical) right pedal, which is sometimes marked in the score. In my opinion, Komitas left rather many pedalling questions to the performer’s ear – so that he/she would have to find out about these pedalling choices individually. I could hear dam effects in Yot Par (Seven Dances), in Msho Shoror, in some of the folk songs (Hov Areq, Krunk, Antuni, Le, Le Yaman), that demanded exploration in my own pedalling with the aim of achieving my imagined sound layers.

Sometimes, Khachaturian builds entire musical sections on the long bass note, or a bass chord, without marking any particular pedalling indications and, as mentioned earlier, never wrote down any indication of a middle pedal. As in Komitas’ music, in Khachaturian’s music too, despite no indications, I sometimes take the initiative to use the middle pedal, with the justification being the folk music aesthetic’s evident inspiration in Khachaturian’s music, responding to it through my pedalling choices. Besides searching for new ways to pedal, it is equally significant to follow the composer’s own indication of no pedal, amongst the other marks of pedalling, which creates contrasting musical layers in sound, in combination with the sections where various kinds of pedalling are used. The following examples illustrate such choices, and further to this, in the chapters on each composition I include several examples describing my pedalling choices in detail.

Oror[1] (Lullaby), Komitas/trad. Vigen Balasanyan,duduk.

Komitas’ Oror, in arrangement for piano by V. Sargsyan.

Khachaturian piano concerto, 3rd mov. Cadenza.

Khachaturian, Sonata, 2nd mov.

Impressionistic Touch as a Bridge Between Folk and Pianism

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The Impressionist seeks to translate and transpose into the vocabulary of lines and colours, volumes and sounds, not the external and realistic aspect of things, but the impressions aroused by them in our own sensibility. It means responding to their most secret language and most intimate confidences – capturing their irradiations and listening to their inner voices. For things see, things speak, things have soul… Impressionism is a mode of expression which more than any other can claim to illustrate this truth, since it can grasp it behind and beyond outward appearances… (Vuillermoz, cited in Jarocinski, 1976, p. 20).

In my search to find the pianistic touch that would enable me to produce my imagined sound on the piano and come closer to the folk origins of Komitas’ and Khachaturian’s music, I often landed upon a similar pianistic touch to that which I use to when performing the impressionistic music of Debussy and Ravel. Indeed, exploring more profoundly, it is possible to recognise such qualities of sonority as many shades of soft and calm dynamics - harmonics that would have been described as unusual, otherworldly, atmospheric, sonorously mysterious, and related to impressionistic expression in music - in many passages/parts of the compositions of Khachaturian’s music, and the soft patterns of accompaniment in the songs and dances for piano of Komitas.

In many songs by Komitas, and in some of the sections of his dances, I was able to sense transparent, impressionistic colours when playing, shadowed by slightly sorrowful tones, and a calm flow of the music. Often, the dynamic range of the entire miniature would be in the frame of ppp-mf, but with various shades of soft colours and timbres. In Khachaturian’s music, I felt as if on the cross point with impressionistic sonorities and musical expression in some parts of the poem for piano, in the first movement of the trio for clarinet, violin, and piano, in some sections of the piano concerto, for example in the first movement’s second theme in the introduction and in recapitulation, in the cadenzas of the first and third movements, some parts of the second movement, as well as in the song-poem for violin and piano. From the different sources of literature that I have explored, I came across facts that support the idea that, indeed, both Komitas and Khachaturian had a specific interest and, respectively, inspiration gleaned from the impressionistic music of Debussy and Ravel. But they had their own path, their own origins and the content of their music was certainly not related to impressionistic music at all. Debussy, Ravel, Komitas, and Khachaturian had principally and fundamentally different artistic paths, goals, and missions in music - each in own way, each in his own individual musical expression and musical world. Nevertheless, to me as a performer the impressionistic touch on the piano is a crossing point and evokes interesting pianistic aspects to explore when playing the music of Komitas and Khachaturian.

The impressionistic sound-writing of Debussy and, especially, Ravel, and the timbral and harmonic colourfulness of their music deeply resonates with the search of the young Khachaturian (Arutyunov, 1983, p. 16, my translation from Russian).

Khubov, in his monogram, says that Khachaturian, “investigating their (Ravel’s and the impressionists’) works, became amazed and fascinated with the richness of the bold and colourful harmonics, the grace of the rhythmical arrangements of themes, and the fine craftmanship of instrumentation” (Khubov, 1977, p. 62, my translation from Armenian, parentheses also mine).

There were things to learn, and what was found and learnt were successfully implemented in separate tasks, in solutions for ideas. It is quite possible to find meeting points with Ravel and the music of the impressionists in the violin sonata, and in the clarinet trio, and in the dance suite, not to mention the music written during the same years as the major works – the instrumental miniatures. But this was just a creative contiguity, if you will – a meeting at one of the “crossroads” of modern music, which fulfilled the impressions, knowledge and the accumulation of the experience of Khachaturian, but never distracted him from his own path… (Khubov, 1977, p. 62, my translation from Armenian).

A similar expression about being at his lifetime’s musical “crossroads”, but not being distracted from his own path, has also been referred to by Atayan with regard to Komitas’ art:

The connection of Komitas’ art with modern French music must be accepted only from the point of composer’s general aesthetic perceptions. After deep investigations and his relishing of that music, Komitas did not actually attempt at all to transfer the implementation of the expressions and methods into his music. Komitas had his own creative tasks, which arose from the aim to create the Armenian national compositional style, and develope the Armenian musical style in the course of that perspective (Atayan, 1982, p. 9, my translation from Armenian).

I find that those general aesthetics that meet at the crossroads of the impressionistic and the Armenian music in the works of Komitas and Khachaturian resonate in particular with aspects of pianistic touch and timbral aspirations on piano. To find that specific touch and to produce that timbre on the piano which I imagine to be an imitation of a folk instrument’s sound, I notice that I would have also used a similar touch when playing impressionistic music. What is that special touch on the piano and how can I explain this expression? In my opinion, the timbre - the sound produced on the piano - significantly changes when, as a performer, I control not only my touch on the keys with regard to the dynamics that correspond to my own imagination, but also the speed of the action from the moment I imagine the sound - to the moment when the fingers are touching the keys. A lot is happening within this space of time: the imagined sound and the moment when the fingers touch the keys. The crucial aspect is to find the speed when the hammer would not only hit the strings directly, but would also reduce the power of the hammers hitting, and come closer to that point at which the hammers are touching the strings, which would result in a production of the various shades of soft dynamics and timbres, and achieve transparency in the pianistic sonority. I believe that the impressionistic touch is the bridge over which the folk sonorities and the pianistic tools of expression cross over to one another, significantly influencing my perception of the sound without them conflicting with each other, but rather completing one another by opening up new pianistic possibilities in my playing.

Komitas, Es Gisher, Lusnak Gisher (This Night, Moonlight Night), rec. in October 2018.

Khachaturian, Song-Poem, excerpt from the recording in September 2018.

Improvisational Timing Inspired by Ashugh’s Art

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Khachaturyan was influenced by the art of the gusans and ashugs, with their own interpretation of old peasant songs and the less ancient urban folklore. The gusans were professional singers and storytellers in ancient, pre-feudal Armenia, preceding the ashugs. The latter sang and played various instruments, performed pantomime, recited, and danced. They survived despite the persecution by the church, despite centuries of oppression by foreign conquerers. Their art was charged with optimism (Yuzefovich, 1985, p. 259).

One of the significant aspects of interpretation of Khachaturian’s music that I have explored extensively among other things has been the musical timing. In all of his compositions that I have performed, at the very beginning of the process when analysing and learning the scores, I have always felt that there was much more behind the bars on the page than there is in trying to organise and place the music in perfectly ordered European forms of notation, within the precision of writing the rhythmical motives and ornaments, and the compositional form. To me, the musical texture of Khachaturian’s music involves breathing with rubato and sounds like an improvisation - the virtuosic passages, lyrical-melodic lines and motives requiring enormous flexibility in timing and creativity within the choice of tempos, and finding a balance between the musical freedom and one’s own vision of musical timing with a score that contains multiple markings from the composer, serving as a guide or a map for the performer.

Khachaturian expressed his great inspiration and roots derived from Armenian folklore, his childhood memories, and how he absorbed this folklore in his early years through his conversations, letters and memories.His inspiration from ashughs has been a key for me in my explorations of musical timing in his compositions.

Now that I am well along in years, I can say in all certainty that I got my love of music from my mother. She sang Armenian folk songs very expressively, with great feeling. They left a deep impression on me. (…) I loved to listen for hours on end to itinerant musicians, the ashugs and sazandars. Their songs and legends acclaimed freedom, brotherhood, love, and courage, and exposed evil, violence, and injustice. For this they were called in the East “the artistic conscience of the people.” In the simple but inspired improvisations of these poets and musicians I heard echoes of the folk songs my mother used to sing. But when sung by the ashughs these seemingly familiar melodies struck me as being much richer, more beautiful, enchanting one with their free, colorful interpretation and the magic of the rhythm found only in folk art. Greedily I absorbed this art, although there was a good deal that I did not understand at the time (Khachaturian, cited in Yuzefovich, 1985, pp. 7-8).

Ashughs and gusans are folk troubadours (minstrels, bards), widely recognised and appreciated for their art in Armenia through the centuries. This is a live musical tradition and has been present in our culture right up to the present. As musicologist Manuk Manukian writes “the art of Armenian Ashughs is a specifical branch in Armenian song art, in which both ancient and contemporary traditions continue and develop in the spirit of Folk Art (Manukian, 1981, p. 227, my translation from Armenian). An interesting observation also is presented by Manukian, regarding the term ashugh for Armenian folk troubadours, "as it is known, the term Ashugh is rooted in the Arabic language, and its used in the Armenian musical reality only started during the 18th century, (…) the term Gusan, (…) meanwhile, has been used among us from much earlier, starting from the early medieval centuries” (Manukian, 1981, p. 231, my translation from Armenian).

One interesting fact is that Komitas called Armenian Ashughs - Gusans in his article Hay Geghjuk Yerajshtutyun (Armenian Peasant Music, my translation from Armenian), and made a clear separation between educated and uneducated troubadours:

Armenian Gusans have their own school/tradition, separate from (peasant) folk music. Gusans schools there are two kinds of: the first belongs to the educated ones; the second to the uneducated. The latter (uneducated gusans) form a bridge between the original folklore and the educated gusans school (Komitas, 1941, p. 16, my translation from Armenian, parentheses also mine).

Some of outstanding Armenian folk bards, called ashughs or gusans, were Sayat-Nova[2] (1712-1795), Jivani (1846-1909), Sheram (1857-1938), and Gusan Shahen (1909-1990), whose music is the closest to my heart amongst the other folk bards. All of them played a folk instrument while singing their songs. Without the aim of generalising here, I can nonetheless mention that a large tradition of music that forms the ashughs’ and gusans’ art is contained within Armenian culture and here I have only included a brief presentation of it, with links to some of the recordings, and first of all to singer Shara Talyan, who Khachaturian met in Moscow and whose singing and the performances of the Ashugh ensemble led by him inspired the composer. As Khachaturian recalled: “My song-poem ‘In Honor of the Ashughs’ was a gift as it were, to this talented group, whose performances I shall never forget” (Khachaturian, cited in Yuzefovich, 1985, p. 37).

Shara Talyan sings Dzakhord Orer by Ashugh Jivani (Tadevosyan, 2013).

Despite not having the aim to refer to Khachaturian’s music only in terms of ashughs’ and gusans’ art[3] , I must nonetheless mention that Khachaturian’s composition and inspirational sources included broader aspects of Armenian folk culture as mentioned in earlier chapters referring to the musicologist Gyodakyan: from peasant folklore, urban folklore, and ashughs’ and gusans’ art. However, the most significant aspect of my inspiration from ashughs’ and gusans’ art in the interplay with interpretations of Khachaturian’s compositions has been the freedom of musical timing, the flexibility, and the sensitive approach to the expression of music - its improvisational, sometimes almost declamatory expression.

Often during the process, I have wondered how the folk musician would play or sing the same melodic lines or the rhythmical patterns. In what way would it differ from the classical musician’s musical expression and timing? How could I translate my image of how this would sound, to the expression of my own piano playing?

To me one of the most significant aspects in performance is the natural flow of music. Sometimes when listening to other recordings, I have had a feeling that I can literally hear how the performer counts “aloud” during his/her playing, at which point I would rather have wished for a natural flow in non-symmetric rhythmical figures. Passages that might be meant to sound improvisational, sound instead as if they were bar-by-bar, rhythmical figures correctly “placed” within a bar, playing as if correctly learned. I would not say that I have always succeeded in such a difficult task as to make the flow of music sound as improvisational as possible and to build it into one organic whole, especially when playing in a duo, in trio or with an orchestra (which makes this aspect of improvisational timing even more complex), but I do believe that my inner feeling of musical timing, anchored to my bodily senses and insight gained in this artistic process has made me much more aware of this aspect than I have ever been earlier. Not less important has been to try to avoid the romanticised allargandos/ritenutos at the end of phrases, but instead to build them very freely, whilst at the same time also in a very straightforward manner. This insight has been significant not only in performances of Khachaturian’s music, but also when playing Komitas, about which I describe more in next chapter dealing with declamatory timing in folk songs.

In my observations, I believe that improvisational timing is one of the most characteristic aspects when playing Khachaturian’s compositions. In the scores, at some points the composer has marked rubato, but I believe that the rubato signs are not only for the particular sections in the compositions but, to some degree, for the whole piece, for example the song-poem for violin and piano breathes with rubatos, with the sense of improvisational timing of the music. Yet there is another aspect to this: in what way can one balance the flexibility and freedom of the musical timing that I have aimed for with the natural flow and development of the music, finding that subtle line where the improvisational, free and flexible timing does not become formless and anarchic, but remains true to the original inspiration and expressiveness of the folk musician’s art.

Khachaturian, Piano concerto, 3rd mov. Cadenza.

Declamatory Timing in Folk Songs

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The interplay between the declamation of Armenian lyrics in Komitas’ folk songs and the timing of the music opened up new possibilities for my piano playing. This interplay became a key for me to open the doors in to finding my interpretations of these songs. I have aimed to find possible ways of bringing this declamatory timing of the Komitas’ songs into my playing as naturally and as close to the folk aesthetics as possible through my response to the listening of recordings of original folk songs which has been an important source of inspiration to me.

In 1912, Komitas, together with tenor Armenak Shahmuradyan recorded several Armenian folk songs and sacred hymns in Paris. Some of the songs Komitas sang acapella, whilst others he played on the piano, accompanying tenor Armenak Shahmuradyan. The album is available on the Komitas Institute-museum’s webpage[4] and on Spotify[5], and includes both folk songs, epic medieval songs, and spiritual hymns. Even though the recordings were made over a century ago and the sound quality has a great deal of background noise and is not high definition - despite these technical aspects it is possible to hear the unique quality of Komitas’ voice, the way he intonates and uses vibrato while singing, his piano playing and the timing of the music. To me, it is fascinating to listen to the difference between Komitas’ and Armenak Shahmuradyan’s singing: Komitas used lots of microtones, sliding between whole and half tones to quarter tones or using a way of vocal intonation not possible to adequately describe in words, especially in the folk songs (for example on the folk agricultural labouring songs Loru Gutanerg or Kali erg), which have been passed down through centuries of peasants labouring in the fields, and transferred from generation to generation orally: these songs included some kinds of vibrations of the throat, exclamations to the working animals which we can hear in Komitas’ way of singing, which is not difficult to guess comes from the peasant singing manner that he listened to while collecting these particular gems. The way Komitas intonates his voice, and the manner and the aesthetics of his singing in all of the folk songs are to me to be perceived of as purely folk: incredibly expressive, but meanwhile with restraint; straightforward but incredibly flexible and supple; naturally flowing, and deeply emotional, but not in a romantic sense. Shahmuradyan’s manner of pronouncing the words is significantly different from Komitas, and as a native Armenian speaker, I hear this huge difference of articulation, accent and the pronunciation of the lyrics and perceive it in a whole different way than I do while listening to Komitas. Compared to operatic singers, Shahmuradyan’s singing still contains folk aesthetics and Armenian folk spirit, but to me it still sounds “academic” to some degree, with evenly tempered melodic lines, an expression and musical thinking which is significantly different from Komitas’ singing aesthetics and which, of course, is based on the fact that Shahmuradyan received vocal training and was an opera singer at the Paris Grand Opera.

While listening to these recordings, it felt to me as Komitas was present in the room, the closeness of the balance of microphones transmitting the frequency and the specific raw natural timbre of Komitas’ voice: a truly breathtaking and highly valuable experience for me. It was also interesting to note that Komitas, in some songs, did not play the piano accompaniment of the songs as he had written them, but instead the piano sounded like a shadow of the voice; he would only play a tone or few notes just like a harmonic bass or a supporting dam to the vocals, for example in the pilgrim folk songs Krunk or Antuni, which reveals significantly that Komitas did not perceive the piano role in songs from the virtuosic, classical-romantic perspective, but rather as a means of fulfillment - a harmonic and timbral support to the vocal line. I consider this historical recording, made over a century ago, as a treasure in terms of discovering the aesthetics of Armenian folk traditions.

From the eleven folk songs by Komitas that I have worked on in my project, only five are available on this historical recording from 1912: Krunk, Garuna, Qele, qele, Antuni, and Hov areq sarer jan. These recordings have been a great point of departure for me, highly affected my understanding of musical timing in close union with lyrics and natural timing that comes from declamation especially. In my project, I decided to play four songs with duduk and seven with blul. The idea came to me naturally, as when listening to professional singers with perfectly refined vocals singing folk songs, a kind of disturbance left me with a feeling that I wanted to find another way of performing the songs. Working on Komitas’ songs with Vigen Balasanyan on duduk and blul became a major turning point in project. The natural overtones of the folk instruments playing the melody in unison with piano added, in my opinion, what I was missing: the folk element, the breath of folk aesthetics and the colours of the music.

The presence of the folk instrument’s sound transformed my playing on the piano, since I had to adjust my timing and dynamics to the specifics of folk instruments. The working process was intense and there were several periods of different approaches. Parallel to the explorations when playing with folk instruments, I have also performed the songs arranged for solo piano by Villy Sargsyan at concerts.

The live voice of Komitas, recorded in 1912, singing “Hov areq sarer” (Wallpapers & Pictures, 2014).


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In May 2018, while working in Oslo with Ingfrid Breie Nyhus on Komitas’ songs, I experienced another turning point. It had a substantial impact on my approach and led me to explore more how bodily movements affect my phrasing of music and my timing of music. Also, it led me to explore the ways in which the music would express itself in the sense of the archaic, and with serenity and transparent lucidity of sound with a minimum of bodily movements and without romantic exaggerations of phrasing. Sometimes, the body finds its way to the dance groove - the musical flow - and naturally chooses the tempos so that, when I consciously try to change them, there is some resistance. This means that there is a subconscious aspect of musicality in a sense within me, which vibrates with its own frequency, rhythm and metre. This resistance made it obvious to me that some bodily movements from the classical-romantic repertoire and performance manner are so rooted in me that they are not easy to change, and even a conscious approach to changing these habits did not allow them to be modified easily. I do not think that I was entirely able to modify the bodily movements, phrasing and timing, or musical expression rooted in classical-romantic style of performance during the course of the project: rather I would say that I have made a significant attempt to do this sometimes more successfully in some compositions than in others, and this interesting process will surely continue beyond the time frame of this project.

Sometimes the body can help me to solve musical problems; for example, when sitting slightly back, (most of the time) I notice that I create longer lines without disturbing with my energetic bodily movements. This helps me in particular when I try to create calm, soft musical patterns, creating various shades of softer dynamic colours, supported with the calmness of some bodily movements. So, therefore, sitting back and allowing my fingers and underarms to do the work helps me to create a natural shaping of the musical phrases.

The pianist Misha Alperin suggested that folk music is a need for people, rather than a wish, as is the case with Western arts (Nyhus, 2019). It has been the natural part of people’s lives for thousands of years. Folk music has served as a natural accompaniment to, or expression of, people’s lives, mirroring love, happiness, sorrow, anger, devastation, helplessness and the whole spectrum of human emotions and existence in songs and music. This approach to folk music has been significant for me, and is even more notable since it is in line with Komitas’ ideas on Peasant Folklore. In the article Singing: Peasants’ singing skills (my translation from Armenian) he says that,

People’s (peasants’) singing art has its own independent “school,” where everyone learns at any time and whenever feels the need. The peasant’s school, the teacher and the subject is the nature. They (peasants) gained all types of experiences, skills and abilities to vividly paint images of their own lives - happy and gloomy, heartful emotions from nature - through their lively and versatile songs. Every peasant knows local melodies and songs perfectly well as their own dialects. The singing skill, which is very developed and able to adjust instinctively, has been gained gradually down the centuries in a continuous process and with a sharp memory, carefully guided by listening (by ear). (…) People (peasants) do not know the artificial singing art: every song has its own place and its own time of creation and singing: labour songs during the labour in the fields, at home – songs related to the activities at home (lullabies, household working songs, lyric songs, love songs, etc.) (Komitas, 1941, pp. 29-30, my translation from Armenian, parentheses also mine).

Naturally, if you ask a peasant to sing a labour song in their home, they would refuse to do so and maybe even make a joke of it – why would they be asked to sing this since it is the wrong time and place for it? For the peasant, each song has own place, time and meaning in terms of when and where, which life situation or events or festivities at which it should be sung (Komitas, 1941, pp. 30-31). The details that Komitas underlines in his article on Hay Geghjuk Yerajshtutyun (Armenian Peasant Music, my translation from Armenian), which has been also published in Paris in 1907 were of particular interest to me: he described in detail the situation at a folk festivity of Vardavar, where many people came from villages for a pilgrimage to the Haritch church in 1905, and how he collected spontaneously created folk dance songs from a group of dancers, each of the dancers developing and modifying the initial melodic motive called Aman Telo in every verse in such a way that, by the end, Komitas wrote “… so that I logged in total 34 new songs” (Komitas, 1941, p. 24, my translation from Armenian). Another interesting detail is that the dancers did not acknowledges themselves to be the composers of the songs, but instead, the thought that exactly who created what variations on the melody, or new versions of it, was unimportant. They believed, however, that it belonged to all of them - to everyone (the group of dancers). It is important to underline that these statements of Komitas, as I understand them, do not refer to the other branches of folk music (such as the folk-professional ashughs/gusans art that includes different and more complex instrumental and vocal practices, differing from region to region and in historical period), but mean the peasant folklore (as the title of the article states) and the song art that is a natural, inseparable part of people’s lives as a means for expressing feelings, thoughts, and life events.

One gives the incident, the other – a motive, one creates the idea, the other formulates it and right there, under the impact from and impression of the moment, the word, and the sound, the lyrics and the music, like twin sisters, stems endlessly from the minds and hearts of the people, instinctively and without prior preparation. The one, who among them has the most subtle taste, gives shape and natural local musical “stamp” to the song, highlighting the peasant’s true soul (Komitas, 1941, p. 24, my translation from Armenian).

During one of my meetings with Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, she talked about folk music including not only the individual’s voice in the here and now, but all the generations before us as well: their voices should sing through the voice that sings today. The idea about letting the music speak for itself, without too much focus on the individual performer’s personality and emotions, opened up another perspective to me regarding the relationship between the interpretation and the performer. Komitas’ dances and songs, which are fundamentally based on Armenian folk music, contain in their very nature so many original, unique elements regarding the modes, intonations, ornaments, harmonic patterns, rhythmical patterns, sound layers and the whole spectrum of folk music aesthetics, that adding my personality and emotions on top of them was in a way to “harm” the natural flow of the folk music, as well as other precious aspects of it. For a while I literally had to force myself to practice sitting back, motionless, looking straight ahead with no movements of my head and body, which would normally come automatically as they were so rooted in my body during the years of playing the classical-romantic repertoire as well as based on my personality. It felt almost like being in a state of meditation, using less pedal - soft but steady, well-articulated sound - and trying to create that sense of archaic musical expression without the romantic exaggerations of diminuendos and crescendos, but in a more primitive, straightforward way, and with the serenity that creates this artistic simplicity and brings the performance closer to the folk music aesthetics. I discovered that sometimes the lack of emotional movements could express much stronger and deeper emotions than allowing the body to express emotions that comes from the subconscious movements and other performative “habits” rooted in body and mind. It is about relying on music as a sound, not as an emotion, more in a way from a distance.

Another key factor, I believe, is to play the music as you listen to it, and playing by ear and not as if learned. No less important an insight has been the fundamental difference folk music has from the European notation system with bar lines. In the declamatory folk songs, there are no bar lines even though we do now have them printed in European notation. The music of these songs flows naturally, entirely dependent on the words and exclamations, the sentences of the song’s lyrics. This aspect has been significant not only in the songs but also in all of my work on Komitas’ and Khachaturian’s compositions.

  1. On this recording I have as the point of departure scores of the arrangement from Komitas’ Oror for piano by Villy Sargsyan. ↩︎

  2. For more links to the music of Armenian folk bards - ashughs and gusans - see the Bibliography. ↩︎

  3. See Meetings that Influenced Me. ↩︎

  4. ↩︎

  5. See Links in Bibliography. ↩︎