In 1988 Brian Eno returned from a visit to Moscow with news of an enthralling musical performance. While there, he had heard the music of the Armenian Duduk (a large reeded woodwind instrument indigenous to Armenia) through the playing of maestro Djivan Gasparyan. Before long, he tracked down a copy of Gasparyan’s album, I Will Not Be Sad In This World. Eno described the album as “without doubt, one of the most beautiful and soulful recordings I have ever heard.” Within a year he had arranged its release on his own label. The album’s seven haunting, ethereal tracks featured Gasparyan’s take on the pastoral traditions of Armenia and immediately gained wide critical acclaim.
Eventually, in 1993, Eno was able to bring Gasparyan to London with a small band of collaborators. Canadian Producer Michael Brook was brought into the project and Djivan Gasparyan’s second western release, Moon Shines At Night, was recorded.
In July this year, All Saints Records (the successor to Brian Eno’s Opal label) released a combined reissue of those classic Djivan Gasparyan albums. To mark the occasion, Folk Radio UK were lucky enough to secure an interview with Djivan Gasparyan, now in his 85th year, and planning a series of farewell concerts over the next 12 months.
For decades before Western music lovers were developing a taste for more esoteric listening, Djivan Gasparyan was already a musician, composer and musical scholar of note in his Armenian homeland and in The Soviet Union. His own introduction to the instrument came from one of that country’s most famous players, Margar Margaryan. He is credited with bringing the duduk from its pastoral roots to national attention in Armenia. I asked Djivan Gasparyan if he feels he’s continued that pioneering work in bringing the duduk to a worldwide audience. “Margaryan was one of the master musicians in 1920s, and he gave me my first duduk. Yes, I have continued not only Margar Margaryan’s work but other masters’ as well”.
During this period the duduk was transformed from an instrument of the fields, playing centuries old music, to an instrument of the stage and of the professional ensemble. Gasparyan’s introduction, at the age of six, was on hearing the music as an accompaniment to silent movies.
Some might argue that this change in use dilutes the authenticity of those traditions, but Gasparyan looks to the future as well as the past. “The Duduk sounded very simple, at its basic level, without the use of half-tones and sophisticated artistic techniques. Today it thrives with new musical connections, making it a universal instrument. I believe in freedom of expression. I am a supporter of a traditional culture but I am very open, my music has always reflected my people and country, where that music was born”.
Around the time Gasparyan started learning the duduk (in the 1930s / 40s) that development was encouraged by official bodies established to promote and encourage indigenous music. Was the 1980’s interest shown by Western musicians in traditional music from around the world a springboard to showcase the duduk to a world-wide audience? “It was a major factor. Maybe the new techniques developed for the duduk helped gain the attention of Western musicians. I had already been in tours to the US and Canada in 1956 as a cultural representative from Armenia, but I was very happy Brian Eno discovered and liked our music”.
There are two schools of duduk playing. A technically exacting, classical approach contrasts with a more liberal, inventive one, where tone and even innovation are more important than technique. Gasparyan’s career has softened the divide between these two disciplines, and it’s an important aspect in his success.
[pullquote]The most important thing for me is to create a sacred communion, an understanding with the audience[/pullquote]”My music is forever changing, taking the spirit of new times, adapting new sounds and techniques; but it’s always rooted in the rich traditions of my culture. I can improvise and keep the spirit of Armenian folk music, at the same time propelling the music in new directions. The most important thing for me is to create a sacred communion, an understanding with the audience”.
Since Brian Eno encouraged him to bring his music to a western audience, and find new voices with which the music could flourish; Gasparyna’s music has had a wide influence. The level of attention he received and the reactions to his music might have been bewildering, but Gasparyan seems to take all this in his stride.
“I have always been very happy to be appreciated by listeners as well as by musicians, producers and composers. It’s important to take time and stop, look back to see who you are and what you’ve achieved, why not learn from a few mistakes, and move forward toward higher accomplishments?
“I think fame loves those who are indifferent to it”.
This dual release of I Will Not Be Sad In This World & Moon Shines At Night is significant. Surely I Will Not Be Sad In This World, more than any other recording available, represents the soul of his music. “It surely does. It was my first CD released in the West and it includes all the traditional melodies in the pure and original sound of the duduk”. Moon Shines At Night provides a wonderful, and moving, contrast. The sound is more elaborate, making use of a full ensemble, songs and music written by Gasparyan, and his own vocals. The album was nonetheless recorded live in less than three hours. It seemed natural to retain a significant element of live performance. It’s an approach that’s still important in his work. “I have always performed live concerts and I think they sound more natural. As Peter Gabriel once mentioned “Great performances create great recordings””.
In addition to performing Armenian folk music, Gasparyan also composes music for the duduk and has a particular affinity with the poetry of poet, lyrist and public activist Vahan Derian (1885-1920). I wondered whether his international reputation helped or hindered the development of his personal repertoire. “I have composed five romances using the poetry of Paruir Sevak, Vahan Terian, Charents and my own lyrics.
“The audience helps me with my repertoire. When I am on stage I speak with the audience in the language of music and am inspired with new ideas”.
The re-release of these two great albums should help that personal repertoire, and his hereditary music find a new audience. Is there a message for that new audience to find within the music? “People say there is a deeply restorative power in my music. My music is about solitude and loneliness, about suffering and celebration. When the real music sounds from my soul, the music of understanding, I feel joy and fulfilment.
“I send the message of joy which achieves harmony through conflicts”.
I Will Not Be Sad In This World consists entirely of traditional music with Djivan’s duduk delivering the plaintive melodies and a second, omnipresent duduk drone; played by Vachagan Avakian. The opening track, A Cool Wind Blows, is instantly recognisable as the theme for Peter Gabriel’s The Feeling Begins from the music for Martin Scorcese’s film, The Last Temptation of Christ. The paradox of that wide, cinematic sound created by just two instruments, has captured the imagination of film makers ever since.
Moon Shines At Night was recorded four years later, and ten years after the original Soviet release of I Will Not Be Sad In This World. Although recorded in London, with a wider ensemble and with a western producer at the helm, the album still bears all the authenticity of Djivan’s roots. This must, in no small way, be down to the fact that the album was recorded live in the studio, with no over-dubs, in just three hours. For the first time, Djivan added a vocal to his recordings – 7th December 1988 deals with the Armenian earthquake of that year. In Djivan’s tribute to his 25,000 countrymen who died, the grief is tangible.
These two great albums compliment and contrast each other, and are the perfect way to mark that sacred communion with his audience that’s so central to Djivan Gasparyan’s music.
Interview by: Neil McFadyen
I Will Not Be Sad In This World + Moon Shines At Night Double CD is Out Now via All Saints Records
Order via: Amazon
Official website of Djivan Gasparyan and his son: