Master musician Armen Stepanyan performs sacred melodies of Armenia that embody the splendor of the land of Mount Ararat. This ancient meditative music is performed on a single acoustic duduk, the double-reeded wind instrument of old Armenia whose haunting melodies evoke the sigh of the human heart.
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Spa Song Duduk Essay by Marlene Lipson
A strong-limbed tree grows near the river, just outside the ancient stone city once known as Erebuni. A ripe apricot hangs low. The fruit is sweet, and its pit is bitter; but knowing what is at the center makes it no less satisfying. Leave the river, and head back to the stone city; pass the ruins of medieval villages, pass chapels and gravesites easily traced to the Seventeenth Century, the Ninth, the Fourth - in a land steeped in history, the past is never far away.
Nestled in a close embrace between the Middle East and Europe, Armenia has always existed in close proximity to the turbulence of the nations around it. The stone city now called Yerevan is both this country's capital and its cultural heart - all of its regional variety, its pride, its confidence tempered with contemplative longing, can be found there. The locals are resilient, yet not jaded. They joke that in Yerevan you will never need rose-colored glasses; only because the majority of its buildings use a pink-shaded, locally quarried stone called tufa. But above the pink glow of the city, which is most prominent at dawn, rises the glistening splendor of Mount Ararat. Two peaks bear a single name - Big Ararat gleams with perennial snow; Little Ararat is clothed in birch trees. While current politics designate Ararat's position as over the border in Turkey, the peaks still exert a powerful influence on the Armenian psyche. If one can say Yerevan is Armenia's heart - then Ararat resides in its soul.
Armenia as a nation was almost lost at several points during its stormy history over the centuries. Much of its music, which should have been passed on by oral tradition from previous generations, was almost lost as well. War and modernization took its toll. Nevertheless, the nation has persevered; and the beauty and brilliance of its historical music was rediscovered. It is perhaps even more treasured because it is tinged with loss.
The man largely responsible for the restoration of this music to its rightful place was Komitas Vartabed (1869-1935). Komitas collected more than 3,000 folk songs during his lifetime. Without him, they may have been lost forever. He devoted much of his life to traveling throughout the provinces, listening to and documenting folk songs and dances as well as liturgical music. His work in arranging and collating what he had collected over the years created a new public awareness of authentic Armenian music around the world.
Among the oldest composition types that Komitas documented was the tagh, which has a history that extends back to the Fourth Century. Tagh compositions are the work of generations of poet-musicians who have been compared to the troubadours of medieval Western Europe. The gusan is the folkloric tradition of recounting the deeds of heroes from the near and ancient past and has a fixed repertoire, mode, and melodic pattern.
Tagh has grown and become more sophisticated in many of its forms and motifs. In the modern concert setting, tagh expands in scale and approach - genuine classical artists take the structure in hand freely and dynamically, yet respectfully. This centuries-long development of musical expression that remains distinctly Armenian in character is a testament to this country's cultural heritage. There have been times when that heritage was obscured, but it has never been lost.
The taghs restored by Komitas are often presented on the Duduk, a double-reeded instrument dating back to Before the Common Era. It is occasionally likened to the oboe, although its range is only one octave. Within the Duduk's one octave lives a plethora of possibilities, as its dynamics are controlled by constantly adjusting lips and fingers. The double reed is highly pliable, creating an almost-human sigh. The wooden body is about 13-14 inches long, with nine holes that have no valves or finger pads. The simple mechanics of the Duduk allow the qualities of its natural materials and the touch of the artist to shine through.
This nation's citizens, so steadfast in the love of their land, take great delight in the fact that their local trees, and local reeds, are part of what makes the Duduk sound the way it does. The cane used to make the Duduk reed grows plentifully along the Arax River. The body of the instrument is hand-bored and polished apricot wood from their hilly groves. Many consider the Duduk to be the instrument that most touchingly expresses the bittersweet emotions of Armenian life. Other traditional instruments can be traced back to precursors from the Arabic world, but the Duduk is historically local. In the hearts of the Armenian people, the roots of the apricot tree run deep.
Armen Stepanyan was born in Yerevan to an entire family of accomplished musicians and teachers. He was never forced to follow the family vocation - he came to music by following his own heart. As a young man, he began his musical study in the piano department of the Haykanush Danieylyan School of Music.
As rewarding as he found the piano, Armen longed to discover more about music than the standard classical canon of Western Europe. Ten years after joining the Danieylyan School, Armen made a choice that helped usher in a new generation of traditional Armenian music. He entered the prestigious Komitas State Conservatory, specializing on the Duduk; he was a student under the tutelage of the undisputed virtuoso of the Duduk, Djivan Gasparyan.
After studying with Gasparyan and graduating with honors, Armen completed his master's degree in Armenian music. As of today, Armen has been performing for many years for audiences worldwide, and is considered one of the foremost interpreters of Komitas' music. Armen is also teaching in the folk instrument department of the Komitas State Conservatory; he is now creating his own legacy, side by side with his mentor.