By Aram Arkun
BOSTON—The music of Armenian pianist and composer Tigran Hamasyan was the focus of the Berklee Middle Eastern Festival on March 8 at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston. Hamasyan, a crossover artist who composes in a wide range of genres, and often combines them in his works, so that he is not easily categorized, energetically sang and played the piano along with faculty and three student performance groups from Berklee. These groups were the Berklee Middle Eastern Fusion Ensemble and the Pletenitsa Balkan Choir, both founded by Berklee Associate Professor Christiane Karam, and the Berklee World Strings, conducted by Eugene Friesen, also a professor at Berklee. Hamasyan has a dedicated following in the world of jazz and fusion music, and among Armenians, so the event was sold out.
Karam later described Hamasyan’s work as unique. She said, “To me Tigran’s gift is that he does not follow. He is somebody who is very anchored in his own voice. He is very free in taking in what influences him and what means something to him what truly resonates to him and he just follows that. He does not respond to anything that is not absolutely true for him. He has that strength of saying yes to this and no to that.” Karam intended the Berklee festival to show as much aspects of Hamasyan’s work in the different stages of his career as possible.
Consequently the evening’s program was divided into three parts. The first set of compositions were pieces that were primarily in a jazz and progressive rock mode. The Middle Eastern Fusion Ensemble brought in non-Western instruments like kanun, duduk and laouto to join Western ones, while Hamasyan performed on the piano and sang. The Pletenitsa Balkan Choir sang in certain pieces. After the intermission, Hamasyan played a piano solo from his album “An Ancient Observer,” which will be released later this month on Nonesuch Records.
His “Luys I Luso Suite,” based on Armenian sacred music from the fifth century (Mashdots) to the twentieth (Gomidas), was next on the program, and it marked a shift in Hamasyan’s work toward classical music. It was very different in instrumentation and atmosphere from the earlier pieces. Released originally in 2015 on ECM Records, Hamasyan performed it in 50 concerts across the US and Europe. Following in the line of other Westernizers, he created polyphonic arrangements for melodies.
The evening closed with the world premiere of a new arrangement for strings and woodwinds of Hamasyan’s piece Lilac. It was only written at the end of January, so the Berklee musicians only had a short period of time to learn it.
Armenian folk music has developed over centuries, if not millennia, but has been made accessible to world audiences only after being processed and, in a sense, reformulated, by contemporary artists starting in the nineteenth century. Soghomon Soghomonian, better known as the priest Gomidas, was one of the major figures in this process. Today, Armenian folk music still serves as a source of inspiration for musicians working in various genres. Hamasyan is one of those who draws on the rich heritage of Armenian folk and minstrel music (e.g. Sayat Nova), as well as Armenian liturgical music, in his works, which may range from jazz or rock to classical in genre.
One of his many admirers among the student performers is Christina Azarian, pianist and composer, who is the daughter of Armenian jazz pianist David Azarian. She had transcribed and arranged a piece for the concert by Hamasyan called Kars. She declared at the event that when she first started at Berklee, she learned that many musicians she respected were studying Hamasyan’s music. She said, “That is because it is so intricate, and so complicated and incredible…I went home to my mom, and I told my mom, they are practicing Tigran Hamasyan’s music, and through that they are learning about Armenian culture and Armenian music. That is one aspect of it. You can learn so much from it. And then there is the other aspect of it, when you stop analyzing and just listen. And it speaks to your entire core.”
Azarian remarked that Friesen, during a practice session of Hamasyan’s Luys I Luso Suite, stopped for a second and exclaimed, “I just had a religious experience.” She said that “This music has that power — it has that power as a whole.” Karam too felt this. She later said, “It is so sacred, the content.” For this reason, and to respect Hamasyan’s creative vision, she and others at Berklee worked very carefully and were in constant touch with Hamasyan while transcribing and arranging his music for the Boston performance.
Karam, who grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, founded the Middle Eastern Festival nine years ago. Her goal for the festival was to “bring together cultures from the Middle East and neighboring regions with students here, from all over the world, and to educate people about these cultures, the meaning of the music and language, and many other things to which people are not exposed, especially in a time of conflict and prejudice.” Three years ago, she organized an Armenian themed festival. Being half Armenian, with grandparents from Urfa, she said, “I have a very strong connection to the music and culture.”
Karam had a student working on Hamasyan’s music for a year. After realizing that Hamasyan appeals to a lot of people, both students and the general public, she successfully convinced Hamasyan to participate in this year’s festival. The students and faculty worked hard from the beginning of the academic year to prepare for the concert, and held a rehearsal on Monday night, two nights before the event, with Hamasyan himself. The next day a recording with the students was done, and sound checks were held. Hamasyan also taught a master class while at Berklee, and gave students advice.
Hamasyan was born in Gyumri, Armenia in 1987 to a family that listened to a lot of music. Most of his ancestors were originally from Kars, and one was from Sepasdia (Sivas), but some were natives of Gyumri. By the time he was three years old, he began to play rock and jazz on the piano. His family moved to Yerevan when he was ten, and he studied classical jazz there under Vahag Hayrapetyan. In 1998 he performed at the First International Jazz Festival in Yerevan, and again in 2000, meeting jazz legends like Chick Corea.
Only 13 years old, he was booked by an Armenian promoter in European festivals, and began to win various piano competitions, such as the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2003, and later, the top prize of the Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano Competition and second place in the Martial Solal International Jazz Competition in Paris.
Hamasyan learned about Armenian folk music, and formally studied classical music in high school. His parents moved to Los Angeles when he was 16 to give their children more opportunities to develop their talents. After two months in high school, Hamasyan entered the University of Southern California, where he studied for two years while making contact with American jazz musicians. Soon he began his recording career (in 2006), and received critical acclaim in the jazz world. He incorporated Armenian folk elements and instruments into his work from the start. His CDs include “World Passion” (2006), “New Era” (2007); “Red Hail” (2009); “A Fable” (2011), “Shadow Theater” (2013); “Luys i Luso” (2015); and “Mockroot” (2015).
He won various awards such as the Paul Acket Award in 2015 at the North Sea Jazz Festival and the Echo Award of Germany in 2016 for the best international piano album of the year, “Mockroot.” After living briefly in New York City, he moved back to Armenia where he lives when not touring and traveling.
In a biography, “About Tigran,” published on his own website (tigranhamasyan.com), Hamasyan explains how he improvises: “When I improvise I use the musical vocabulary that comes from Armenia, but I learned the art of improvisation through bebop. I think the ability to improvise comes from whether the part of your brain has been activated to this state where you require a huge amount of knowledge and can carry this information in your brain to be executed when needed. It is the balance among knowledge, control and the unexpected new creation.”
When asked in an Armenian-language interview the day after the festival about what he found unique or valuable in Armenian music, Hamasyan replied, “Armenian music is very profound. It is possible to say it is a bottomless shore, where a person can always seek and find new things.” He added: “I think it is impossible to characterize Armenian music. Music in general can’t be characterized, except through music.”
Hamasyan’s devotion to Armenian music is great. He explained, “When you touch Armenian folk music, it is not that easy a thing, because you are dealing with something which has developed over centuries and has no need for further additions or improvement. It is already perfected. So, if you touch it, you must study it deeply and live it.” Elaborations to it must be born of the melody or rhythm of this folk music.
Alongside his ancestral musical roots, and major traditions like jazz, varieties of rock, and Western classical music, Hamasyan is open to inspiration from other world traditions. For example, he listens to Indian classical music and the music of Mali in Africa. However, he bewails the general status of music in the world today, saying, “They brainwash people and fill their souls with garbage. Many people do not even have the opportunity to have contact with jazz or classical music. It comes also from people’s families.”
Hamasyan is constantly working. He said that he has materials planned for four different new records. He composes at the piano when he can, but if not, he sings and records what he comes up with in his mind. He said, “I don’t try to compose something. If it comes, it comes.”
Hamasyan concluded, “Talent is given by God, but work is in man’s hands. You can easily waste that talent. You must develop it. I try every day to work when I am home.”