BY MEGHRIE BABIKIAN
“Despite some recent discussions on what Armenian music is supposed to sound like nowadays, and despite many people’s narrow-mindedness, there are composers who are talented enough to overcome all the obstacles that the musical education in my country is still imposing on their imagination. Akshelyan is definitely one of the brightest composers of his generation.” – Artur Avanesov.
In today’s modern music, our ears are well adjusted to hearing abstract sounds. We expect to hear either some sort of strange melodic line, or a completely “mathematical” composition. Some of the more common methods of modern composition are post-tonal writing, serialism, and maybe even some writing based cluster scales and cluster chords. Some composers will base their writing on the everyday sounds they hear, some will mimic bird songs, and some will choose their favorite interval. Others might even create a new series of sounds which may seem entirely random, but to them, it represents a specific idea or concept. Artur Akshelyan, an Armenian composer of today, is influenced not only by the common methods of modern composition, but also by revisiting ideas from the impressionistic period, all the way back to the eras of chants. Across a wide range of instrumentation and writing styles, Akshelyan successfully presents his understanding of the “modern Armenian” sound by revisiting traditional concepts from the art created before him and giving birth to incredible new sounds with his own unique voice.
Akshelyan was born in Yerevan in 1984. After moving to Greece with his family, where he spent most of his teenage years, he returned to Yerevan and began his studies at the Yerevan State Conservatory, graduating with honors in 2007. After this milestone, he traveled to Geneva, where he continued his education with world-renowned composer Michael Jarrell. Akshelyan is a prize-winner in many national and international competitions, including the Sayat-Nova Prize in Paris in 2007 and the Jurgenson Competition in Moscow in 2008. Most of his writing thus far is done for chamber ensembles. Among some of his works are at least eleven chamber pieces, all for a variety of chamber ensembles (the most interesting of which I find to be for oboe, bassoon, piano, dhol (Armenian traditional drum), and string quartet). He also has a couple of orchestral works, a choral work (set to text by a wildly famous Armenian poet Yeghishe Charents), vocals (one of which is set to a text by another famous Armenian author, Daniel Varujan), and a handful of solo piano pieces. His music has been performed in Armenia, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and California. I had the privilege of premiering his piano works Waves and Game in Chicago in December of 2017.
Between the years 2004 and 2006, Akshelyan composed two piano pieces (sometimes seen as a set), titled Waves and Game. These are two of his most well-known compositions, while also being two of the very few solo piano works Akshelyan has written so far. These pieces show Akshelyan’s full spectrum as a modern composer. He touches on styles from all musical time periods and tastefully merges one with another, presenting his own unique style. While successfully finding a blend between his many influences and his own style, Akshelyan manages to include many sounds that resemble, represent, and remind us of his Armenian culture.
In Waves, Akshelyan focuses on a more dramatic style, where he borrows ideas from the American minimalist style. He develops and recreates them in his own interpretive way. In Waves, Akshelyan successfully echoes the sounds of Ravel, John Adams, and father of Armenian music, Komitas. He achieves a seamless blend of these sounds and styles, while adding his own voice. The composition is written with no bar-lines, many fermatas, and lengthy pedal markings, implying extensive freedom in the length of the sound. The piece opens with big chords at a wide distance with a ff dynamic mark. Right away from this opening, we are reminded of bells, ringing endlessly in the ruins of an old cathedral built in a vast field atop a mountain resting near Lake Sevan, one of Armenia’s beautiful landmarks. The consonances of some sounds resemble a peaceful ringing inside the cathedral, contrasted by the sharper dissonant intervals still set in wide ranges, reminding us of the incredible struggle it must have been to build that very cathedral out of nothing but stones. The sharp and edgy soundscape created by these dissonant, wide intervals ring for a while (all while the pedal is blending every sound from the opening of the piece). Finally, the doors of the cathedral are opened and we are standing at the edge of the mountainside, looking over into the beautiful blue Lake Sevan, watching the waves crash one after another. Here, Akshelyan begins the consonant patterns representing the waves, giving us the feeling of flow. Every now and then we are reminded of the cathedral behind us and its bells, with a deep octave ringing in the bass, under the wave-like patterns in the right hand. Closer to the end of the piece, Akshelyan revisits the dissonances more and more, creating heavy crashing waves, eventually coming to the strong return of the chords from the opening. From here until the end, the piece unwinds and the waves come to a calmer flow, yet the bells in the background keep ringing. And eventually, along with the waves, the ringing disappears into nothingness.
On the other side of the spectrum, the musical language of Game is completely different. While completely immersed with musical detail, Akshelyan works hard to create balance and stability between consonance and dissonance. This battle between the two can certainly resemble the constant battle and struggle we face as Armenians each and every day. While still having made an impact in the world today and having come very far as a group of people, we face our history of genocide and the loss of most of our motherland day in and day out. Akshelyan represents this in his music with the battle between consonance and dissonance, searching for a peace between the two. In this piece, each section transitions into the next without completely blurring the two concepts together. In the first half of Game, Akshelyan focuses on the consonance of the music, tying in the small folk elements from Armenian music, whereas in the second half (a more Bach invention-like), the dissonance comes out. It is based mostly on different intervallic relationships spread across different ranges on the keyboard and an abundance of symmetrical writing. By these two contrasting styles, we are reminded of our history and culture as a people through the first half, while we are proud of moving forward into a new world, shown through the second half.
Traditionally, Armenian folk music has a variety of markers. Akshelyan focuses on a few of these in the first half of the piece, while being completely modern in the second half. Interestingly enough, the folk elements are chosen in a way that compliments the second half of the piece. Our music dates back to medieval times of chant. With wide interval drones holding a common tone and the scalar following step-wise passages floating above, Akshelyan imitates this idea in his own voice in the first half of Game. These sounds also come from the historic tradition of Armenian monks singing in ancient cathedrals, where the acoustics amplify overtones and the sound bounces off the walls. The tradition is to carry out single tones or single musical ideas slowly and to wait for the sound to diminish naturally before proceeding to the next gesture.
Gestures are also a traditional aspect of Armenian folk music and continue to appear in classical music compositions and modern Armenian pop music. Gestural figures will usually resemble ornamentation in Western Classical music. There will be a single note around which the gesture is based on, and the gesture will be a stylistic approach into and out of the primary pitch. A lot of these gestures are improvisatory and usually not written out. In a lot of Armenian music, the gestures can be removed and the musical idea will still make sense and be complete. It is up to the judgement of the performer (within stylistic reason) to determine how the gesture will be made.
In Akshelyan’s Game the entire first section is gestural. Not only do the gestures make this music sound folk-like, but more so the intervals and the time and distances between the gestures are what really hit the heart of Armenian tradition. Augmented seconds and minor thirds are very common in our music, and we see them right away in the opening of Game. The length of these is all dependent on the feeling one chooses to take with the performance of the piece, leading Akshelyan to suggest an approximate wait time for each type of fermata appearing in this piece.
Most of the music in our culture has been passed down either aurally or orally, and even when written down, it has been represented through physical shapes, implying the actual soundscape or musical shape. These have always been very rough interpretations, never actually written down pitch for pitch, but Akshelyan’s gestures are a very accurate representation of these shapes in our music. He starts with two notes above the destination note, reaches one note below, and finally comes home to the pitch which is meant to complete the musical line. In other words, by removing the gesture, and only keeping the destination pitch, we can still maintain the goal of the musical line, much like an ornamentation or trill from the Western Classical Music world.
In the second section of Game, Akshelyan strays completely from the opening style, and we begin to see his fascination with symmetrical writing. This makes the music not only very interesting, but also quite simple to play, due to the symmetry. There is one figure which is introduced and developed in the second half of the piece. This same figure reappears throughout the piece, whether it is identical to the original, repeating with different intervallic distances between the two hands, or it is maintaining one hand and recreating the other. In contrast to the first half of the piece, which is calm and consonant, the second half takes flight and is almost like a computerized series of sounds. Sounding very mathematical and planned, it flurries to the end of the piece, and before we know it, it disappears (much like the ending of the first piece in the set).
In a way, it is clear to see the modern writing styles of Artur Akshelyan through these two pieces. Whether it be the symmetrical patterns between hands, the dissonant sounds, the blurring of bar-lines, comparing dissonance and consonance, or just simply looking at the score itself, we can hear and see the efforts made my Akshelyan to not only produce a successful set of contemporary writing, but to also create his own sound and style. While all of these details have become his own in this writing, what truly makes his style special is the representation of “Armenianness,” whether it be through sound directly (the gestures or the Augmented intervals), or through the soundscapes he creates that tell the story of our land. Though difficult to describe to one who may not necessarily feel these details within, it is clear to an Armenian ear that the beauty, the spirit, the sanctuary, and even the struggle of our culture, our people, and our land is very uniquely portrayed through Akshelyan’s compositional style.