Last week, Pope Francis made international headlines when he publicly recognized April 24 as a day of remembrance of the Armenian genocide. Historically, the date marks the eve of these atrocities, beginning with the arrest and execution of several hundred intellectuals, professionals, civic and religious leaders, editors and other notables. The Ottoman Turks, in an effort to stave off the crumbling of their empire during The Great War, began a widespread campaign and ensuing massacre of the Armenian Christians, whom they feared would ally themselves with the Russians. Between 1915–1917, nearly an entire generation of 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered. As a point of reference, there were fewer than 400,000 Armenians left by 1922, as compared to two million at the beginning of World War I. This year marks the centennial: 22 countries have acknowledged the Armenian holocaust, but Turkey is not among them.
On April 23, 1977, I attended the Los Angeles Armenian Symphonic Music Association’s Commemorative Concert at the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It was conducted by the prodigious Armenian-American composer, Alan Hovhaness, who performed his Symphony No. 27, Op. 285 and Symphony No. 28, Op. 286, dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Armenian genocide as well as ‘victims of all races who have suffered man’s inhumanity to man.’ This six-movement devotional work included extended vocal-style melodies based on traditional Armenian modes and themes, like many of Hovhaness’s other 50+ compositions. That night was a sold out house, and I found myself engulfed in a sea of 3,000 other attendees and their intense expressions of grief (crying, sobbing, beating of breasts). To this day, the memory of that concert still has a profoundly overwhelming effect upon me, in that I’d never experienced the collective sorrow of so many people. There were demonstrations outside, tables with books and other memorabilia relating to the Armenian genocide. At the time, I didn’t quite grasp the historical significance of what was happening around me, but it was extremely powerful and moving, and certainly something that I have never forgotten.
In 2007, I hosted the “Spirit of Armenia” at the Hollywood Bowl, which featured Djivan Gasparyan. Onstage that night, he retold the story of a previous visit to the Bowl in 1959, when in the midst of the Cold War, as part of the Armenian State Ensemble, he and a number of other artists from the former U.S.S.R. (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or Soviet Union) were invited to perform at the landmark LA venue as part of a five-day “Russian Festival of Music and Dance.” Featuring the Armenian State Dance Company, the Pyatnitsky Russian Folk Choir, the Kiev Ballet, the Kiev State Opera, the Bolshoi Theatre, Leningrad Ballet, as well as groups from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc., it was a reverse case of musical ambassadorship. Whereas top jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, and Quincy Jones were sent as America’s jazz ambassadors to Africa, the U.S.S.R., India, and Pakistan, the 1959 Hollywood Bowl show was an unusual exception, bringing Soviet artists to the U.S. for a change. I first discovered Djivan Gasparyan’s music when Brian Eno told me about a Melodya (Soviet Union official state record label) LP that he’d heard in Moscow apartment in the mid-1980s, describing it as the most soulful music he’d ever heard. When Brian Eno tells you something like that, you don’t forget it. Sure enough, Eno licensed the album and subsequently released it on his own Opal label in 1989.
I’m not sure what the original title was, but it was changed to I Will Not Be Sad in This World, in memory of the victims of the 1988 earthquake that devastated Armenia. The title, like the music, was both a prayer and an affirmation. Gasparyan plays the duduk, a 3,000-year-old double reed wind instrument made from apricot wood, similar to the oboe. It is the definitive Armenian instrument. Even if you haven’t ever heard of the duduk or Gasparyan, you’ve probably heard his music in major motion picture soundtracks including: Gladiator, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Russia House. His work was also sampled on rapper Me Phi Me’s ONE album. The duduk’s hauntingly beautiful voice has an extraordinary power to evoke human pathos and open the heart.
For those of you curious about this ancient instrument, the famed duduk maker, Karlen Matevosyan, lives in Glendale, CA, which is home to the world’s largest Armenian population outside of Armenia.
Djivan Gasparyan’s I Will Not Be Sad in This World.
Lévon Minassian’s plaintive “They Have Taken the One I Love” speaks powerfully to the suffering of the Armenian genocide.
Finally, one of the greatest duduk masters, Rouben Haroutunian, lives here in Glendale, CA. Here is his beautiful version of the spiritual “Amen Hayr Surb.”