The traditional instruments used in Armenian music are a large field of research, and they have been widely used, evolving down the centuries. Variations and types of woodwind instruments in different sizes, shapes, tones, timbres, etc. made from reed, wood, animal bones and other materials have been well known and have been widely used in rituals, festivities and in everyday life events from the ancient times of Armenian culture until today. The folk instrument field presents a huge layer and an important key to any understanding of customs, traditions, musical development and the music’s versatile role in people’s lives throughout the centuries. It is difficult to give exact dates/centuries corresponding to when and where the first woodwind or percussive, drum-like instruments were made, not only in Armenian culture but also internationally in the culture of other nations as well. However, In Armenian music, the instruments duduk and blul are known as instruments that have thousands of years of historical background and are among most characteristic, typical instruments of Armenian traditional music.
In my short introductions to some of the Armenian folk instruments that are present in this chapter, I give general characteristics and the main peculiarities of the instrument without going into depth with regard to the historical evolution, size, shape and different varieties of the instruments; furthermore, I use the name of the instruments which are most commonly used today in Armenia.
According to musicologist and folklorist Aram Qocharyan (1903-1977), who carried out incredibly detailed research on traditional instruments, and especially on the family of percussive and wind, woodwind instruments, it is important to mention that each instrument presented here has other variations or similar versions of the same, and they have been widely used right up until today in Armenian culture. Similar to some of the instruments presented here can also be found in other national cultures, and these have impacted on their local musical cultures, though with other tunings, shapes, sizes, and peculiarities.
One interesting observation from A. Qocharyan describes the woodwind folk instruments, and here the local Armenian folk musicians (or any other nationality of folk musicians) would sound precisely as they would when playing their local instrument/music, which would then result in a significant impact on the instrument’s performative possibilities even when playing on a different version/variation of the similar instrument. For example, he refers to an Armenian woodwind (blul) player playing on a woodwind instrument from China, similar to Armenian blul.
(…) the intonational system of this or that folk instrument is highly impacted by the performer’s musical thinking. If an Armenian, or a Qurdish sring (blul) player tries to play a sring from China, they will produce the same tones as they produce in their own instruments, regardless of the tone system of Chinese sring. (…) It needs to be mentioned that the performer-musician is very inventive in this aspect. The same soundhole on folk woodwind instruments usually produces two tones - one when it is closed, the other when opened. For example, if the holes are completely closed, the sring gives us a C, but if opened – D: a whole tone difference. However, the performer is able to make the same closed soundhole open, for example 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, or 3/4, and thus will achieve such microtones that are beyond measurement or counting. This is why it is difficult with measurements to give this or that instrument’s precise image of sound/tonal/ system. To decide precisely is only possible based on melodies produced on the instrument (Qocharyan, 2008, p. 120, my translation from Armenian).
Thus, the musician’s ability to use the instrument’s tones, modes, and tetrachords are highly based on the musical culture, and the musical ear that each folk musician has and uses instinctively. I have experienced this interesting aspect live when Vigen Balasanyan (Armenian), and Albanian woodwind player Defrim Mala, held music sessions playing by ear and improvising together in my office in between our rehearsals: beside that it was fascinating to follow the spontaneous intercultural musicianship between these two highly gifted musicians, another fascinating thing for me I found that, when Vigen’s duduk was played by Defrim, I could not recognise the instrument that I used to hear. The ornaments, the sound, the microtones, and the way of intonating the instrument/the reverbs and the resonances, and the endings of the tones were completely different from Vigen’s playing, and it seems that the duduk did not sound Armenian - the sound I knew and associate with that “Armenian soul” in music – in the same way I heard when Vigen was playing: the sound bore Mala’s own, individual, instinctive musical abilities with it - those that came from his national identity, musical culture he was borned in and the musical ear that he possessed.
It is fact that Komitas had a specific interest in the Armenian ancient folk woodwind instruments and not only researched the specifics of them, but also played masterly himself on the blul, and on different versions of Armenian woodwind instruments.
The sring or pogh, which is in some places called blul or dlul, is a shepherding national instrument. It is made from a reed, wood (especially apricot tree) and, even from a metal. People call the playing of the sring - pogh pchel. Pogh sounds even from the tiniest breath, but to make a tone is a bit difficult. The mouth should be closed half way on the left side, whilst on the right it should remain open: adjusting the lips and the instrument in a way right in the middle, so that, from the right side, it should not be closed, but left a little open. From this open place, the sound of pogh emerges, because the instrument is cylindrical, open from both ends and it does not have a reed (Komitas, cited in Qocharyan, 2008, p. 112, my translation from Armenian).
In the photo above, some of Komitas’ instruments are depicted: the first from the top is blul, also, as Komitas names it, sring or pogh; the second is a metallic flute-like instrument; the 3rd is a variety of blul. My photo, from Komitas Museum-Institute in Yerevan. Copyright: Komitas Institute-Museum
Ancient example of instrument sring, also called blul, shvi, pogh, etc. Found in one of the Armenian regions - Garni, near Yerevan. AD 3rd century, Garni. CC3 Attribution, non-commercial, Yerevan, Museum of National History of Armenia. Copyright: Vahagn Vardanyan
From left to right: two duduks and two bluls that belong to Vigen Balasanyan, taken by me during a rehearsal day in Yerevan, 2016. Photo: Private
Further to this, I will here present information about the folk instruments and their peculiarities that I gained through my meetings with folk musicians in Yerevan. Each of these musicians was a master of his/her own instrument and answered my questions and requests to be recorded with positivity and humbleness. Most of the recorded excerpts were made right before their rehearsals with the Gusanakan Folk Ensemble.
The duduk is an indigenous ancient Armenian woodwind instrument, dating more than 1500 years back in time. UNESCO proclaimed the Armenian duduk and its music as a Masterpiece of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005, and inscribed it in 2008. It is usually made from apricot tree, and has double reed, eight sound holes on the outward side and two on the opposite side. (The double reed preparing/making technique is completely different to that of the double reed of the zurna or other woodwind instruments, which gives the duduk a velvet timbre.) The duduk has a characteristically warm, sorrowful timbre of sound. It is usually played in pairs: while the first duduk plays the melody, the second plays a steady tone, the drone (dam- in the Armenian language). The two instruments’ sound make the performance haunting and rich in expression.
Vigen Balasanyan plays Le, Le, Yaman on duduk.
Blul is an ancient, traditional woodwind instrument; it has eight sound holes on the outward side and one on the opposite side. Blul has a gentle, pleasant timbre of sound. The characteristic sound is very “airy” and transparent in expression because of the microtones and overtones.
Vigen Balasanyan plays Khio, Khio on blul.
Zurna (pronounced “zoor-na”) is an ancient, traditional woodwind instrument, with double reed, with eight sound holes on outward side and one one the opposite side. Zurna has been widely used in Armenian folk music for centuries right up until the present. It has a sharp, loud, piercing, nasal sound and is generally played at festivities and important events, and in ancient times at massive or martial events, rituals, etc.
Vigen Balasanyan plays Alashkerti Qochari on zurna.
Pku is an ancient, traditional woodwind instrument. It is more seldom used nowadays and has a smaller size and shape then zurna - a reed on top and seven sound holes on the outward side and one sound hole on the opposite side. Pku has a piercing, loud, nasal sound and it is easy to hear the difference of timbres between the pku and zurna, besides the similar expression of sound.
Vigen Balasanyan plays Hovvergakan on pku.
Dhol, also named as tmbuk, is an Armenian drum-like instrument, in different shapes and variations widely used from ancient times in Armenian traditional music, rituals, various life festivities and events, etc. Usually, it is covered with a membrane on both sides and is played with the hands on the membrane or with drum sticks, called copal in Armenian. The resonators are usually made from walnut tree. Dhol and the varieties of it are widely used in ensembles of folk instruments.
Sahak Yanturyan plays on dhol.
Dap is a round instrument with one side membrane (frame) and has been widely used in Armenian traditional music for centuries. It plays as an important role in Armenian music as other drum like instruments. Unlike the tambourine, which consists of the frame and pairs of jingles, in some versions the dap and similar instruments in Armenia might also have jingles attached to the body. It is widely popular in many national musical cultures, and can be in various forms, sizes, materials and timbres.
Sahak Yanturyan plays on dap.
Tar is a string instrument which normally has 8 or 11 strings and is played by plucking the strings. In Armenia, the 11string tar which is made from the wood of the mulberry tree is widely used. Tar is widely popular also in Transcaucasia, Middle Asia, and in Iran.
David Grigoryan plays from Vladilen Balyan on tar.
Qyamancha is a string instrument; the body is round shaped, covered with a membrane, and is played on the knee, with a horse-hair bow that is tightened with the hand while playing. The instrument’s origins date back centuries and are widely known in variations of its shape, size and tuning in many countries of the Middle East. The Armenian version of qyamancha has four strings, and a pleasant and warm sound. Armenian Ashughs have used it as solo or accompanying instrument while singing, and it is also used in the ensemble of folk instruments. Among other outstanding qyamancha players, the Armenian Ashugh Sayat- Nova (1712-1795) is widely known in Armenia and abroad.
Ashot Vardanyan plays Sayat-Nova, Yes Qu Ghimedy Chim Gidi, on qyamancha.
The Armenian Ashugh Jivani (1846–1909) was known for playing on the qyamani, which is a string instrument, different in size and shape from the qyamancha, but also played with bow. In the video presented here, even though it is named the same (qyamani), however, there are major differences in shape and size in comparison to what Ashugh Jivani played.
Ashot Vardanyan plays Jivani, Dzakhord Orery on qyamani.
Qanon is a string instrument that is table shaped, and is covered by an animal skin membrane. It is played placed on the left knee, and the index fingers are used to pluck the strings. A special attribute called the “mediator” is made from a bone-material, and is attached to the index fingers while playing. Variations of qanon or qanon like instruments are largely used in the traditional music of Middle East and elsewhere. The Armenian qanon in most cases has 22 triple strings and 4 double strings. It has mandals and ears, and the tuning can be adjusted while playing. The Armenian folk musician Gusan Shahen (1909-1990) was a qanon player.
Astghik Snetsunts plays from Sayat-Nova on qanon.
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The Norwegian Programme for Artistic Research / The University of Agder
Main supervisor: Professor, Fil. dr., Dr. Phil. h.c. Per Kjetil Farstad, the University of Agder
Co-supervisor: Ph.D in Artistic Research, Ingfrid Breie Nyhus, the Norwegian Academy of Music
Committee: Professor emeritus of composition Bjørn Kruse, the Norwegian Academy of Music,
Professor Marianna Shirinyan, the Norwegian Academy of Music,
Professor Bjørn Ole Rasch, the University of Agder
Thank you to my supervisors Per Kjetil Farstad and Ingfrid Breie Nyhus for their knowledge, inspiring conversations, huge support and for patiently guiding throughout the whole project. Thanks to Professors Tellef Juva and Sveinung Bjelland for their interest and important advice, to Professors Mher Navoyan, Villy Sargsyan and Alina Pahlevanyan for the profound and influential conversations that I had in our meetings in Yerevan, to Docent Areg Sargsyan for playing together and for important conversations in Yerevan, to folk instrumentalist/musician Vigen Balasanyan for his engagement, creativity and irreplaceable role in the project. Thanks for the collaboration to violinist Adam Grüchot, cellist Leonardo Sesenna and clarinetist Stig Nordhagen from KSO, to sound engineers Simen Hefte and Eirik Mordal, to Jonas Sjøvaag. Thank you Vahagn, Peter, Timothy and Tone. Thanks to my family in Armenia.