Perfect Sound Forever

Armenia Music Guide

Dick Barsamian, Ara Topouzian, Richard Hagopian
Images courtesy of Amercian Recording Productions, Hagopian photo courtesy of Smithsonian/Folkways

by Tom "Tearaway" Schulte
(February 2000)

In examining the rich music panoply of Armenian music, I see five divisions. First, there is the pure Armenian folk music string duo. This consists of oud (lute), kanuna (board zither) and often percussion from dombak. Also in the folk realm is a separate set of pure, aboriginal sounds. This is the lonesome and beautiful sounds of the duduc ensemble. Backed by a droning dam duduc and sometimes dombak percussion, the soloist on this apricot wood double-reed flute offers world ambient visions of an ancient, mountainous land. Then we have the rich body of Armenian liturgical works. This is among the oldest Christian traditions. The body of masses, sacred choirs and related works is powerful and moving. A Turkish invasion at the beginning of the Century and resulting Diaspora both brought outside influence into Armenia, but Armenian influence to a greater part of the world. A fourth grouping is oud and kunan ensembles featuring other instruments. This is often clarinet, violin or bouzouki. Such music is usually influenced by Turkey, Greece, nearby parts of Russia or other cultures. Many Armenians found themselves in European, American and Russian cultural centers. There they accrued an education in European Classical Music traditions but often worked in the familiar themes and melodies of their homeland. These Armenian-European symphonies and chamber works make a final set of Armenian music.

Arapian, Armand / Leterme, Vincent

Komitas: Armenian Songs And Dances

BMG/Scratch/Dinemec Classics, 17 Blvd. Helvetique, POB 3704, Geneva 3, Switzerland

The compositions of Armenian folk compiler and arranger Komitas Vardapet here rendered by baritone Arapian and pianist Leterme. Komitas learned the European Classical styles in Tifflis, capital of Georgia. He used this enduring musical framework in which to house the Armenian folk and sacred musics. This is a small selection of the 1200+ melodies surviving from Komitas' life work. Presented in the style of a vocalist-pianist recital, fans of European vocal traditions (operatic, etc.) will find much to be admired in the work of this Armenian musicologist. English, French and Armenian versions of the text are in the English and French liner notes. (2.5)

Armenian Choral Ensemble of Sofia

Armenian Liturgical Chants

This moving and spiritual collection leads with a beautiful soprano solo (Marie Krikorian). It is this soprano singing of the tenor solos that make the Jade recording so distinctive among Armenian liturgical recordings. These are the chants compiled by Ekmalian (1856-1905) and the most frequently sung in the Holy Apostolic Church of Armenia. This is from one of three extant versions, mixed choir in four parts. Ekmalian's Patarag liturgy was the first to introduce to the Church the powerful homophonic (simultaneous pronunciation) technique. Historical and musicological notes are provided with this superb recording. Komitas' mass, with bass solos, is available on ARMENIAN MASS BY KOMITAS (Disques DOM, DOM 1403). (both 4)

Armenian Song & Dance Ensemble

Armenian Festival

Monitor Records, 10 Fiske Pl., Mt. Vernon NY, 10550

The Armenian Song & Dance Ensemble joins various national folk, orchestral and choral groups in presenting a vibrant collection of folk chorales, songs and instrumentals. These large group arrangements of Armenian troubadour material lose none of their passion and cultural integrity in the magnification. There is plenty of duduc (double-reed wooden flute), tar (lute), kemanje (spike fiddle) and vocal solos. ARMENIAN FESTIVAL is a powerful and diverse presentation of this folk material. (2.5)

Barsamian, Dick & Topouzian, Ara

Near Eastern Ride

American Recording Productions, 28230 Orchard Lake Rd. #109, Farmington Hills MI, 48334

There are two main melodic instruments performing this collection of traditional and one original folk dances and songs. Barsamian on twelve-string oud (lute) and Topouzian on kanun (72-string board zither). A guitar supports while bass, dombak and tambourine accomplish the rhythm. The lead players' instrumental competence and the lively nature of the pieces make RIDE an irresistible invitation for dance and celebration. The one original piece, Barsamian's "Tak Bar" is an amazing, stunning seven-minute showcase piece for his skills. (3.5)

Barsamian, Dick & Topouzian, Ara

Stringed Tranquillity

American Recording Productions, 28230 Orchard Lake Rd. #109, Farmington Hills MI, 48334

The perfect way to relax after their fueled NEAR EASTERN RIDE title, STRINGED TRANQUILLITY is Topouzian and Barsamian performing as a duo intricate and fascinating, yet relaxing pieces. Without any other instrumentation is very easy to get right inside these arrangements and revel in the singularly Armenian flavor that arises from the 12-string oud (lute) and kunan (72-string board zither). (3.5)

Barsamian, Mel

Mystical Veil

American Recording Productions, 28230 Orchard Lake Rd. #109, Farmington Hills MI, 48334

Clarinet and oud (lute) are the lead instruments here. They are both played by New Englander Barsamian through a series of traditional belly dance songs arranged by Barsamian. Classically trained and rooted in tradition, Barsamian is both master technician and incarnater of these frisky and fun melodies. Also prominently featured is Ara Topouzian on the ornamenting kanun (72-string board zither). Percussionist Mike Gregian provides lively rhythm and masterful interludes on the darabukke goblet drum. This is a high-pitched hand drum. Popular East Coast dancer Phaedra provides the living dancer element through her zills (finger cymbals) to complete the vision of a lusty, charged evening. (4)

Danse Orientale Project

Gypsy Fever - Rom-Andolu

American Recording Productions, 28230 Orchard Lake Rd. #109, Farmington Hills MI, 48334

As with all Eurasian countries, Armenia has its share of influencing and interpreting Gypsies. This recording comprises two sessions recorded sixteen apart of trio improvisations and renditions of Gypsy melodies and similarly styled originals. Project leader Joe Zeytoonian gives us oud (lute) and vocals. Ken Kalajian plays lead acoustic guitar during both sessions which are intermixed on this album. There is a strong clarinet presence on both sessions (George Stathos) and fiery percussion comes from dombak, darabukke (goblet drum), tambourine, cymbals, and claves (wooden sticks). An interesting flavor added by these Armenian-Americans and their allies is the addition of harmonica, violin and electric bass. These neo-gypsy pieces are evocative and richly textured. (4)

Ekmalian, Makar

La Messe Armenienne De Makar Yekmalian (Armenian Mass By Ekmalian)

Disques DOM/ARB

This complete liturgical work is an excellent example of the musical traditions of the Holy Apostolic Church of Armenia. Armenia was the first country in 301 AD to become nationally Christian, but was excommunicated by the pope in the Sixth Century over theological difference. Beginning in the same place and sharing textual inspiration, the body of Armenian sacred music is remarkably similar to that of the Western, Catholic tradition. The chants in this late 19th Century mass are stunning and powerfully human examples of worship. Male solos and sacred choir are both represented. The liner notes are in French only. (4)

Gasparyan, Djivan

Apricots From Eden

Traditional Crossroads, POB 20320 Greeley Sq. Stn., NY NY, 10001-9992

Gasparyan is the acknowledged world master of Armenia's ancient wind instrument. On APRICOTS, he performs folk dances native to the Ararat plateau area. The instrumentation is a pair of the double-reed duduc pipes (wooden flutes) and a third player on the small, double-headed drum known as a d'hol. As leader of the ensemble, Gasaparyan is that part of the trio that performs all the solo. The other duduc player is responsible for a pedal point, tonic drone harmonic support. Known worldwide as the musician behind the distinctive sound of Peter Gabriel's LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST soundtrack, Gasparyan here into a warm and sublimely human garden paradise of poignant melodies from his apricot wood duduc. The excellent booklet provides many notes of a historical and musicological nature. (4.5)

Gasparyan, Djivan

Ask Me No Questions

Traditional Crossroads, POB 20320 Greeley Sq. Stn., NY NY, 10001-9992

Living master of one of the world's oldest wind instrument, Gasparyan disseminates contentment and serenity with his double-reed duduc, a sort of Armenian wooden folk flute. This virtuoso was four times recipient of a gold medal in UNESCO's woodwind competitions. Gasparyan began learning his repertoire of traditional Armenian folk material when he first picked up the instrument at age six. These tranquil melodies are very ancient. Most of the material is sacred instrumentals from early Christian and pre-Christian (pagan) Armenia. Warm and nearly nasal in tone this mellifluous example of elder world ambient audiophile music is the unparalleled solo ability of Gasparyan accompanied only by the subtle, tonic drone of a dam duduc. (5)

Hachig Kazarian & His Ensemble

Armenia, Armenia

Monitor Records, 10 Fiske Pl., Mt. Vernon NY, 10550

The Ensemble here is the spirited Hachig Kazarian & The Heytones supplemented by guest John Berberian on 12-stringed oud (lute). Witness his stellar performance on the "Oud Fantasy." Clarinetist Kazarian is an adept and lyrical master of his instrument. Piano, saxophones and bass add more texture to the arrangements. A flurry of percussionists keeps the rhythms dynamic and interesting. Roughly half the pieces are instrumentals in the unique 9/8, 5/4 and 7/8 meters. The balance of vocals provided by tenor S. Karougian and a headier tenor E. Arvangian. Along with being a fun and inviting introduction into the world of Armenian folk music, this classic collection contains a version of the Armenian, Greek and Arabic inspired "Miserlou" which found such fertile ground in popular music. (3.5)

Hagopian, Richard

Armenian Music Through The Ages

Smithsonian Folkways, Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies, 955 L'Enfant Plaza #2600, Wash. DC, 20560

The Smithsonian Institute preserves this Armenian-American National Heritage Award recipient singing and performing on the oud (lute) Armenian classical and folk material. The percussion is dombak. His son, Harold Hagopian a Julliard graduate, accompanies on kanun (72-string board zither) and violin, as well as penning the liner informative notes. Beside elucidating the material presented (including translations), a historical overview of Armenian and its music is provided along with a bibliography. THROUGH THE AGES is an excellent introduction to the body of Armenian folk music and the traditional trio lineup of oud, kanun and dombak. (3)

Hagopian, Richard

Best Of Armenian Folk Music

ARC Music America, POB 2453, Clearwater FL, 34617-2453

Famous Armenian folk composers are the staple of this traditional disc. Master oud (lute) player Richard Hagopian is backed by kunan (72-string board zither), violin and dombak percussion. Detailed liner notes written by Hagopian's son, Harold, the kunan and violin player, go into each member of the trio, the music and Armenia's history. The booklet provides translations for the text. Undoubtedly a master of the oud, Hagopian is a musical jinn bringing vibrancy and life into a dozen folk pieces. Additionally, there are two stunning solo oud improvisations. (3)

Khachaturian / Tjeknavorian (Armenian Philarmonic Orchestra)

The Valencia Widow - Suite, Gayaneh - Suite No. 2 / Danses Fatnastiques

Koch/Academy Sound and Vision Ltd.,179-181 North End Road, London, W14 9NL, UK

Khachaturian is an Armenian composer of Classical music that studied under Gnessin in Moscow in the 1920s. While rooted in Armenian folk lore and obviously ensconced in Soviet grandiose composition, Khachaturian also includes the folk traditions of countries that border on his home. The incidental Spanish-flavored music of "The Valencian Widow" shows only some folk inspiration, mostly in the "Comic Dance." The Gayaneh Suite ballet music is more traditional and more lighthearted. Based on the tale of an Armenian girl, the Fifth Movement shows strong Armenian inspiration as The Dance of an Old Man and Carpet Weavers is upheld by the Armenian doira drum. This is also the ballet that yielded his famous "Saber Dance." Vienna-studied Loris Tjeknavorian followed Khachaturian by a generation and scored his Armenian dances for three pianos, celeste (keyboard glockenspiel), timpani and a percussion septet. This ballet is unusual and singular as a European Classical lens on Armenian folk music. The APO is the national Armenian orchestra. Its players and conductors are Armenian born and raised. In 1989 Tjeknavorian was appointed to the post of APO Artistic Director and Principal Conductor. (Khachturian 3; Tjeknavorian 4)

Khachaturian (The South African Chamber Music Society)

Trio For Clarinet, Volin & Piano

Koch Discover International

Prokoviev mentored and Moscow trained Khachaturian produced an eclectic chamber piece evidencing folk inspiration in his TRIO. At times this peasant cum Classical pieces is the contrasting result of three folk bent instruments vying for attention. Thus, the Allegro is lively and exciting. The concluding Moderato supports a sublime clarinet melody. Along with the piano a gentle folk theme develops to close the piece. Khachaturian's TRIO is clever and inspired. Also on this recording are non-Armenian composers Kodaly (Hungary), Durufle (France) and Bolcom (USA). Liner notes are in English, German, and French. (Khachaturian 3.5)

Komitas Vardapet

The Voice Of Komitas Vardapet

Traditional Crossroads, POB 20320 Greeley Sq. Stn., NY NY, 10001-9992

Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935) synthesized traditional Armenian chants and folk music into a nationally indicative vocal style. This 1912 recording captures the masterful vocalist performing his arrangements a cappella for five tracks. A lone cut finds Komitas in duet with V. Der Arakelian. The CD's second half (eight tracks) is given over to Komitas' student Armenak Shahmuradian, an accomplished Parisian tenor. Komtias accompanies his student on sparse, romantic piano. Powerful sonic technology makes these 90+ year-old recordings very listenable. Besides the obvious importance in Armenian musical culture, these recordings should prove fascinating to anyone interested in operatic and sacred vocal styles. Liner notes, which include photos of the musicians, are in Armenian and English. (5)

The George Mgrdichian Enesemble

The George Mgrdichian Enesemble

American Recording Productions, 28230 Orchard Lake Rd. #109, Farmington Hills MI, 48334

With a master's degree from Julliard in clarinet but self-taught on the twelve-string oud (lute) Mgrdichian proves mastery over this instrument here. It is no wonder he ended up being the first man to bring this instrument to play with a major symphony orchestra, the New York Philharmonic. Incorporating jazz improvisation techniques in interpreting traditional Armenian material, this disc is a stunning achievement. Mgrdichian gathered a talented array of musicians to back him on soprano saxophone, kanun (board zither), guitar, bass and darabukke (goblet drum). (4.5)

The Ara Topouzian Ensemble

For The Children Of Armenia

American Recording Productions, 28230 Orchard Lake Rd. #109, Farmington Hills MI, 48334

The trio of Topouzian on kanun (72-string board zither) and dombak, Mark Gavoor on oud (lute), and the tasteful of keyboards perform traditional Armenian folk music on this disc which raises funds for a prenatal clinic in Armenia and other charities located in that country. Largely joyous, FOR THE CHILDREN is an exemplary document of the melodic possibilities of the Armenian zither. In pieces kinetic and reflective, the unexpected keyboard provides the flavoring tonic drone so identified with folk pieces from this region. (3.5)

The Ara Topouzian Ensemble


American Recording Productions, 28230 Orchard Lake Rd. #109, Farmington Hills MI, 48334

The strident and remarkable playing of autodidactic clarinetist John Harotian gives this Michigan-based Armenian folk ensemble's album a Klezmer feel. Also featured is virtuoso Dick Barsamian on 12-string oud (lute) and, of course Topouzian on kanun (72-string board zither). Also present are dombak, acoustic guitar, electric bass and six-string bouzouki (lute). The instrumentation and material lend a distinctively Turkish-Grecian flavor to this energetic mix of vocal and instrumental pieces. (4)

Yardumian, Richard (Utah Symphony Orchestra)

Armenian Suite / Symphon No. 2

Phoenix Records

Armenian-American Yardumian's bases his tranquil Armenian Suite on the kernel of an American lullaby and the folk melodies sung by his immigrant Armenian parents. The result is a rich American-Armenian hybrid orchestral piece. The drone and simple variation characteristic of Armenian folk music survived into this work from Yarudmian's childhood impressions. An exegesis of the work by Bishop Torkom Manoogian in the notes identifies specifically which folk songs surface in the piece. Largely based on Psalm 130 and composed seventeen years later, the vocal parts of No. 2 were especially written for contralto Lili Chookasian. It is interesting to note that the conductor here is Armenian-American Varujan Kojian. (Armenian Suite 3; No. 2 3.5)COMPILATIONS IN ALPHA-ORDER **************************************

Armenian Folk Music

Dgivan Gasparian, Mkrtich Malkhasian, Sergei Karapetian, et al

Sounds of the World

This compilation explores the high art of Armenian folk music; that of the duduc ensembles. The highly developed expression and improvisation by the masters of the double-reed wooden flute is a peerless genre of ambient world music. These haunting, ethereal pieces bring to mind the harsh and ancient land of mountain peaks that Armenia is. This hour-long compilation is a good introduction to the beguiling and tranquil melodies available in the duduc repertoire. (4)

Armenian Folk Songs And Dances

Various choral and instrumental ensembles (Armenian State Chorus, Armenian Song and Dance Ensemble, Armenian Radio Orchestra of Folk Instruments, Armenian Radio Orchestra of Folk Instruments)

Monitor Records, 10 Fiske Pl., Mt. Vernon NY, 10550

Particularly impressive about this eclectic compilation is the rich choral treatment given folk dances by the Armenian State Chorus on eight of the two dozen tracks. Tenor and soprano portions of the chorus answer and support each other in expressive treatments of the simple melodies. The Armenian Radio Orchestra of Folk Instruments sounds small enough to fit into a typical radio broadcast booth. That is fortunate, for their four instrumental contributions sound like a talented village group playing spontaneously in the square, not anything as overwrought as the term "orchestra" may imply. This recording is a collage of native Armenian music that introduces the listener to the length and breadth of the folk song and dance spectrum. (3)

Armenians On 8th Avenue

Various Artists

Traditional Crossroads, POB 2320 Greeley Sq. Stn., NY NY, 10001-9992

All the material here, captured in New York's 1940s immigrant cabarets, is sung in Turkish. This is an excellent example of the Turkish-Armenian folk music which bears similarities to Greek and Yiddish (Klezmer) music. More geographic adjectives that could be applied with varying degrees of accuracy to these spirited songs are Anatolian and Ottoman. There is some remarkable vocal technique displayed by such natural masters as the dramatic Marko Melkon and the moving and melodious Madlen Araredian. Variations on the core Armenian folk trio of oud (lute), kunan (board zither) and dumbak include introduction of violin, clarinet and even piano. Encyclopedic liner notes include photos and the songs themselves in Turkish and English. (3.5)

The Art Of The Armenian Duduc

Dgivan Gasparian, Mkrtich Malkhasian, Sergei Karapetian, et al


The duduc is a double-reed wooden flute peculiar to Armenia and made from the apricot tree. Here are three duduc masters at their craft. A solo duduc player provides a languid, elongated melody to the coloring drone of an accompanying damkash duduc. Dgivan Gasparian is the acknowledged world master of the instrument. Two of the fourteen tracks include the bright hand percussion performed on the dool. The duduc pieces are forlorn and despairing compositions with such titles as "I am Outcast by You" and "Waiting." Pleasantly named pieces such as "Garden" are just as impressionistic and melancholy. Notes are in English and Russian. (4)

The Music Of Armenia

Celestial Harmonies, POB 30122, Tucson AZ, 85751

This seven-CD collection is truly beautiful, and truly eye-opening. Through Christianity, Armenia shares a common musical origin with Europe, especially in choral works. Due to geography, culture and the pre-Medieval split of the Armenia Church from the Roman Catholic, Armenia is foreign and nearly Eastern. The musical result is a treasure, at times an unearthed gem of familiarity and then siren calls of exotic charm. VOLUME ONE: SACRED MUSIC sounds right out of Gregorian songbook. The similarity cannot be denied. The exquisite production invites back to a Middle Ages monophone recital. Powerful and moving. VOLUME TWO: MEDIEVAL CHANT follows in the same vein. Here the Sharakan Early Music Ensemble backs a cavalcade of Armenia guest artists. Take note of the pure soprano that is Anna Mailan! With VOLUME THREE: DUDUC we first feel distinctly Armenia. The duduc is a double-reed wind instrument. The next in the series is VOLUME FOUR: KANON. A kunan is a zither-like folk instrument. With both CDs it was apparent the featured instruments were offering melodies ripe for vocalization. Indeed, each recording is composed entirely of transcriptions of vocal works. The results are addictively lyrical, giving each track life and strength. VOLUME ONE and VOLUME THREE are the CDs that moved me the most. They are touching, very human and emotional in delivery. Warm documents of a people rich in art. VOLUME FIVE is a double CD. One disc features The Shoghaken Folk Ensemble and the other The Sasun Folk Group. Here are songs for dancing and remembering, an evocative collection from a time when history was passed on lyrically. VOLUME SIX: NAGORNO-KARABAKH represents the contemporary form of Armenian folk music. These are mostly songs of grief. Nagorno-Karabakh is the region most torn by war and strife. The entire set is instantly open to the Western ear. A rewarding and singular musical experience. (5)

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