Members of the Naghash Ensemble of Armenia

A Spiritual Journey Musically Binds New World with Medieval Armenia

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YEREVAN  — The Naghash Ensemble of Armenia  for the first time is embarking on a North American tour and that is indeed a cause for celebration.

The ensemble’s music is hard to define: it is unmistakably Armenian and yet, it fits squarely in world music. It is religious and mystical and yet modern. It has the intimacy of folk music and the grandeur of Bach.

The Yerevan-based group is the brainchild of prolific composer and pianist John Hodian, a native of Philadelphia, who moved to Armenia in 2005. He has written music for the poems of the 15th-century poet, Mkrtich Naghash, performed by three vocalists as well as musicians playing dhol, duduk and oud, and himself on piano.

“Normally we tour in Europe. It’s the only place we have toured,” Hodian said in an interview this week from his Yerevan home.

The Naghash Ensemble is composed of Hasmik Baghdasaryan (soprano), Tatevik Movsesyan (soprano), Arpine Ter-Petrosyan (alto), Harutyun Chkolyan (duduk), Aramayis Nikoghosyan (oud), Tigran  Hovhannisyan (dhol) and Hodian (piano/composer).

Baghdasaryan is the singer whose voice was the impetus for Hodian forming the group. Hodian has said that he heard Baghdasaryan perform at the pagan temple of Garni in 2005, when he moved to Armenia, and was immediately captivated. He decided to create a project which would incorporate her voice.

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Baghdasaryan, interviewed at the same time from her home in Yerevan, explained that she would not consider herself an opera singer or operatic performer, but instead a chamber performer. “My voice is big, but I prefer to be a chamber performer, where the repertory is much deeper,” she explained. She also stressed that she loved performed spiritual works, sharagans, as well as works by Komitas and Naghash.

“After I heard Hasmik’s voice, I knew I really, really wanted to work with her. It took me a long time to find a text that resonated. If you write for work you have to find a text, right? I needed to find a text that worked for me,” he said.

He and a trusted circle of friends and colleagues, Hodian explained, searched for just the right text to be a vehicle for Baghdasaryan’s voice and Hodian’s melodies. Nothing clicked, he said. “There was a lot of wonderful stuff but nothing that was exactly right, until I found this little fragment of a Naghash poem. Naghash is not a well-known poet, even in Armenian literary circles.”

Members of the Naghash Ensemble

Medieval Poet Naghash

Mkrtich Naghash, the inspiration for this group, lived between 1394 and 1470 in Dikranakerd (Diyarbakir) and was a painter, poet and priest.

The 15 poems he left behind all deal with the theme of being a “ghareeb,” meaning someone in exile, or a stranger in a new land. All the poems, in Middle Armenian, have been recorded by the ensemble and released in three CDs, all named “Songs of Exile,” Volumes I-III.

“Roughly, about 3/4 of it, you can understand. There are a lot of Persian words, as well as Arabic,” Hodian explained about Middle Armenian.

Hodian himself is a ghareeb of sorts. “I still go to America sometimes and have a home, but I am hardly there.”

“It took me 12 years to set them all to music,” Hodian said. “A lot what struck me is the way he wrote about the problems of living life in exile. He was also a priest as well as a poet. While living in exile, he wrote these poems and in some ways they function as a way of summing up of all he had done in his life and his final words of advice to his flock, his followers.”

He added, “They [the poems] are really beautiful. Obviously the whole idea of living in exile and what is a homeland and so on and so forth are important to Armenians everywhere. I found the words very moving, plus the musicality of the language was incredible.”

“The melodies are not these abstract, crazy wild things. I love writing counterpoint and that’s my obsession with Bach and medieval polyphonic vocal music and not always doing the obvious harmonically. That’s what I spend a lot of my time doings working out harmonies and counterpoints,” he continued.

He added, “It’s all intuition. I just do what I feel like doing. I don’t consciously try to do something that sounds Armenian, or something that sounds like Bach or something that sounds like anything. I think about what the texts are, I mediate on the meaning. I have someone read them for me so I am always listening.”

Another part of the magic: “endless rewrites. I write very quickly, but it takes me a long, long time to finish a piece because it’s constantly changing.”

“It’s hard. It’s painful. It’s what Philip Roth says about writing: ‘Every morning I just come down and open up a vein.’ ,” he joked, adding, “It’s not always fun. Sometimes it’s miserable but the only thing that is worse is when I am not writing.”

He came to Armenia first in 2005. “It was lifechanging, like it is for many diasporans. I think up until that point, I spent a lot of time scoring films. I did a lot of film on television. I couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t have anything left to say in that medium.”

John Hodian

He said he had scored about 300 documentaries in 12 years.

“One day I completely stopped which coincided with me coming here. Once I heard Hasmik and started this ensemble…” he decided to take a different path in life.

He added, “I was very, very lucky with the rest of the ensemble. Hasmik is phenomenal but the other members are incredibly great.”

Hodian said he has worked with Armenian scholars around the world for the songs. Among those are Theo Van Lint of Oxford University, Peter Cowe of UCLA and Ronald Sony of the University of Michigan.

“I found out in Naghash’s time, his poems were meant to be sung, or chanted or performed somehow as opposed to a written art, so they did have an inherent musicality to them,” he noted.

While the Naghash Ensemble has run out of Naghash poems, its work is still not done. Therefore, Hodian is finding other ancient poets to explore.

“I began to search for another batch of texts,” he said. “Now, at this point though, I had various people, scholars, that were interested in what we were doing.”

With the help of Van Lint, he has found another muse for the ensemble: Kostandin Erznkats‘i, another Armenian medieval poet.  The former is the world’s foremost expert on the poet.

“It’s stunning how similar the works are to Naghash’s poems. I’ve since learned that there was so much happening in that area, in Anatolia in the medieval period. All of these poets, including Persian poets, Arabic poets, Rumi, they were all bouncing things off of each other. There was so much sharing, intermixing of languages and ideas and thoughts.”

“What’s fascinating about this time period is all these people were living together fairly harmoniously. You have Christians, Jews and Arabs and Armenians all inhabiting the same lands,” Hodian noted.

“It was still controlled by the Ottomans and we all know the history of the Armenians,” Hodian added.

A Vocal Powerhouse

“You don’t get what Hasmik has from training,” Hodian said, referring to her crystal clear voice.

Baghdasaryan said that she has been singing from childhood, and always gotten attention as a result. Her teachers and elders would say this is clearly not the typical singing of a child, she recalled.

“I had dreamed of being an archeologist but after finishing music school, the head of the program asked my parents to come in for a meeting. He begged them not to allow me to go into any other field than music because the culture would lose a great talent,” she recalled.

After that she said that she applied to the Komitas Conservatory and decided to major in singing spiritual hymns and her teacher said she not a specialist in that field,  and therefore would allow her to set her own agenda but help guide her in technique.

“This is your field and I can’t do much for you other than give you guidance on the side,” she recalled.

As for the Naghash Ensemble, she was delighted.

“It’s a very unique feeling,” Baghdasaryan said, to be the centerpiece of a project. “There are always composers who write for specific singers. When your voice becomes the centerpiece and foundation of this  of this giant, universal effort, I just think to myself it is exceptional — just exceptional.”

“This seems to be my present that I’ve been given in life,” she noted.

Both she and Hodian stressed that the other two singers and the musicians are vital to the success of the ensemble.

Baghdasaryan said she has other projects she has maintained for years, including the Luys Vocal Quintet, comprising five female singers, who sing spiritual songs.

She also works at the Komitas Institute Museum as a program director. “There are performances, music lessons for children newborn to 3,” but she said, “For me Naghash has first priority.”

Baghdasaryan said, “I wish Armenians ourselves could understand what incredible culture we have, what we have to preserve and why we are fighting to survive,” she said.

“For me it is very important that people understand my country and its culture,” she said. “Many don’t know us. For many we their first exposure to Armenian culture and form an opinion about Armenia. After our concerts many become interested in coming to Armenia and finding out more.”

From left, Hasmik Baghdasaryan (soprano), Tatevik Movsesyan (soprano), Arpine Ter-Petrosyan (alto)

From the US to Armenia

Life in Armenia, “especially in the last 5-6 years,” has been very different from what he had been expecting when he first moved to Armenia.

He was there to witness the Velvet Revolution. “It was very, very exciting. It was thrilling,” at home in downtown Yerevan. “Then, of course, Covid and the situation with Azerbaijan. Just horrific,” he recalled. “It still is. The situation with Artsakh,” he added.

The loss of Artsakh and the current blockade  He recalled that he would go to Artsakh often with his friend Narek Harutyunyan, who founded the Naregatsi Art Institute in Shushi, as well as Yerevan. “I would go and work with him there,” he said. “Last time I saw it, Aliyev was actually in the building.”

Hodian grew up outside Philadelphia, in a tight knit Armenian community. “My father only had Armenian records,” he said, such as Onik Dinkjian or Richard Hagopian. In addition, the music at church and weddings “that’s what I grew up in.”

He added that he didn’t do much else in terms of Armenian things, like camps and dances. “In some ways, I probably didn’t think it was that hip. What did I think was hip? Who knows. I was an idiot,” he added. “It wasn’t until years later when I came here that I discovered how hip Armenia actually is and how much depths and wonderfulness are in the culture.”

He recalled that he bought a lot of Komitas folk song transcriptions which could be found for a pittance at the Vernisage market. “I would play them, sight sing it first, then play it with my left hand, then right hand, and maybe harmonize it, then improvise. I didn’t know why I was doing it. It was my practice in the morning – it was kind of my ritual. .. Looking back on it now, I realize I was deepening some part of my education that I might have had if I had grown up here.”

As for the origins of Armenian music, he stressed, “If you know the roots, it’s all tied, like we were talking about the poetry of that time. In this medieval period of Anatolia, things were all mixed up.”

Baghdasaryan said that the music is melodic and pure, and falls on receptive ears in Europe. She gave a lot of credit to Komitas for finding pure Armenian folks mealies.

As for recording the music of Komitas, “I think Hasmik should record Komitas for sure. We had talked about doing it at one point.”

However, he said that the ensemble should not do it because there are good arrangements already.

He added, however, that Baghdasaryan should record his music, and he would happily produce it.

He joked, after one of the first concerts of Naghash, “A little old lady came up to me and said ‘thank you for keeping those ancient songs alive.’ And I said, ‘you’re welcome,’” Hodian said.

The tour started on March 2 in Los Angeles and will wrap up on March 18 in Santa Fe, NM. Indeed, there are two New Mexico stops, as well as two Colorado ones, in addition to the more traditional sites, such as New York, Montreal, Los Angeles, etc.

“Ain’t life weird?”, joked Hodian.

In addition, Hodian explained, the tour stops for the Naghash Ensemble generally tend to be at classical music or world music venues rather than Armenian ones. For example, in New York, they will perform at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

“We love it when Armenians come. But it’s not really aimed at just them,” he said. “I like that. One of the things I’m happiest about is we’re not just preaching to the converted. We’re not just Armenians for Armenia. We want the rest of the world to know there is some interesting stuff going on here.”

Several of the shows are sold out.

“We very much look forward to that,” he said.

For tickets and tour information, visit www.naghashensemble.com.

 

 

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