By Raffi Shoubookian
It is believed that no other musical instrument is able to convey the emotions of the Armenian people so honestly and eloquently as the duduk, for it is purely Armenian, born in the early eons of Armenian history. And Djivan Gasparian is uncontestably the foremost dudukist of Armenia today.
Because of its evocative and colorful timbre and warm sound, the duduk, a woodwind instrument, has become part of everyday life in Armenia. Today, no festive occasion, wedding reception or family feast is complete without the duduk, and no state radio or television concert or public funeral for an eminent Armenian is conceivable without Gasparian playing it.
When William Saroyan heard him play in Fresno, the duduk’s mournful tone and Gasparian’s mastery moved him to remark: “This is not music; this is a prayer.” Brian Eno, the distinguished British musician and producer of such bands as U2 and Talking Heads, upon first hearing Gasparian’s album in Moscow in March 1988, said: “Without doubt, one of the most beautiful and soulful recordings I have ever heard.”
Eno immediately decided to release the album on his new Opal Records label, and through an agreement with Melodiya, the state-run recording commission in the Soviet Union which had originally recorded the album in 1983, work started on releasing it outside the Soviet Union.
The tragic earthquake shook Armenia while arrangements were under way. Subsequently, when “I Will Not Be Sad in This World” was finally released in the West in April 1989, Gasparian dedicated it to his lost countrymen, and Opal decided to funnel the proceeds to Life Aid Armenia.
The record immediately hit the charts in Europe and America. By June of last year, “I will Not Be Sad” appeared in Cash World Music Chart at number 33.
“It sounds like a woman mourning after the earthquake in Armenia,” a friend remarked to a music reviewer in Santa Cruz, California, after catching a moment or so of the record. What made the comment uncannily striking is that it was made without knowledge of the music or the performer’s background.
The emotional depth of the duduk’s doleful and quivering sound-its sense of loss, of timeless continuance-has taken over the distressed souls of homeland Armenians who have turned inward and become contemplative after the earthquake. “People nowadays prefer listening to duduk music rather than pop songs,” noted Gasparian, who was in Los Angeles for a brief stay in June. “Radio listeners predominantly request duduk music: the same on television and at wedding parties.”
During a morning interview at a friend’s house where he was staying, the television was turned on and a popular singer was wailing on a local Armenian television program. Gasparian was taken aback.
“How could this be presented as Armenian music?” he reacted. “One can commit murder listening to this music! Komitas spent his life purifying and gathering Armenian traditional songs; now these singers, and I can’t call them artists because they are more like musical hooligans, come on the scene and remorselessly undo his work.”
He recounted how a bride and groom had requested and danced to his duduk at a wedding reception he had attended the previous night. “This is how Armenians traditionally celebrated happy occasions. The duduk is a unified symphony of the human spirit: it gives voice to the lament of our bitter past in one instance, the song of our present happy life in another, and to the hymn of our faith and strength.”
As the only surviving master dudukist, Gasparian has now set himself on a mission to bring this Armenian instrument to the same international level that Gheorghe Zamfir has brought the Romanian pan-pipe. A soloist on Armenian radio and television, and director of musical instruments at Yerevan State Conservatory, Gasparian has prepared an army of 70 dudukists in which he has now placed his hope.
Gasparian started playing the duduk at the age of 6. “The duduk was the first instrument I learned, but I also play the zurna (flute-like instrument), shvi (whistle-like), tavu, and clarinet. “Music was not part of my general education at school, so I started by teaching myself. However, I did study at the conservatory, which meant I could go on to further education.” He eventually qualified at both Yerevan Polytechnic, from where he graduated as economist, and the Conservatory, from where the graduated as solo instrumentalist.
The jewels in the crown of his professional career come from the four gold medals he won at worldwide competitions fro woodwind instruments organized by UNESCO between 1957 and 1979.
Gasparian has the unique distinction of being the only musician to be given the honorary title of People’s Artist of Armenia by the Armenian Government (1n 1973). Three other giants of Armenian contemporary music have received that title – all singers: Ruben Matevosyan, Ophelia Hambardzumian and Hovhaness Patalian.
He is himself an accomplished singer in the folk tradition, performing occasionally on radio and television. In addition to his compositions for the duduk, he has also written love songs based on Vahan Derian poems or his own romantic lyrics.
Nor is he the only artist in the family. His wife is a dancer with the Armenian National Opera, and he has taught two of his three grandsons, ages seven and eleven, the art of playing the duduk and saxophone. The eldest also plays the piano.
At 62, Gasparian juggles a busy schedule of concerts, recordings and teaching. While in Los Angeles, he played with the L.A. Philharmonic Orchestra and recorded the duduk theme on the soundtrack of the upcoming Hollywood movie “The Russia House,” which stars Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, due for Christmas release.
In early July Gasparian was in Budapest, recording the score for an American-Hungarian co-production, “Storm & Sorrow,” which will premiere in late fall on the Lifetime cable television channel. On the soundtrack, Gasparian was asked to play Armenian traditional folk songs as well ass some of his compositions.
In August, Melodiya released his most recent recording in the Sovet Union.
“Musically, it is an instrument which ranges over one octave, and is very difficult to play,” stated Gasparian. “It is a matter of controlling the dynamics by means of lips, fingers and half-fingers. Essentially, it must be played from the heart – it all comers from the heart.”