MARKING A GENOCIDE'S ANNIVERSARY BY CELEBRATING ARMENIAN COMPOSERS

KQED, California
March 30 2015

By Alice Daniel Mar 30, 2015

Five minutes before the Fresno State New Music Ensemble concert is
supposed to start, a speaker blows. And one of the pieces on the
program is purely electronic, so it's pretty vital the speaker gets
replaced.

It's the kind of thing that would rattle any program director, let
alone a 21-year-old senior who has organized the concert for his honors
project to observe the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. But
percussionist and composer Joseph Bohigian doesn't seem too worked up.

"It's out of my hands," he says.

And yet all around him, the sounds of stagehands trying to make sure
the problem gets resolved -- even as someone on the piano knocks out
some dissonant chords -- bring to mind a jarring, atonal composition.

The perfect setup for a contemporary or new music concert.

And then quickly, it all comes together. The doors open and
concertgoers head for their seats.

The concert is a diverse menu of sound from seven Armenian composers,
including Bohigian, whose piece debuts tonight. There's New York
composer Eve Beglarian. Her piece, "Waiting for Billy Floyd," has
an Americana feel with its many instruments, including a guitar,
violin and vibraphone.

"She recorded sounds when she was going down the Mississippi River
and used that sort of as the background for the piece," Bohigian says.

And there's Tigran Mansurian, the most well-known living Armenian
composer. "His piece is definitely influenced by very traditional
Armenian music," says Bohigian. "Much more so than all the other
composers."

Bohigian's piece, "In the Shadow of Ararat," is the only composition
written specifically for this concert. Mount Ararat is an iconic
symbol that looms over the Armenian capital, Yerevan. "I wrote it to
commemorate the anniversary, but I wouldn't say the piece is about the
genocide," he says. The piece uses traits common to Armenian music,
such as repetition of short motives and monophonic and heterophonic
textures.

Bohigian grew up hearing stories firsthand about the Armenian genocide,
which started in 1915. His great-grandmother was a little girl living
in the village of Tokat when the Ottoman government began its campaign
to deport and kill all Armenians.

"All of her family, except for her and her mother, were killed either
in Tokat or when they were marched down to the Syrian Desert," says
Bohigian. "She had, I think, five or six siblings, and they all died."

In the 1920s, she came to Fresno, where a large Armenian community
still exists. And she wrote a memoir with her son-in-law, Bob Der
Mugrdechian, called "Siranoosh, My Child."

"I knew my great-grandmother when I was little. I used to go to her
house to eat watermelon with her," he says. But he feels disconnected
in some ways from the genocide because it happened so long ago. He
decided to reread her memoir for inspiration when he wrote his
composition. And, he says, he wants this concert to focus on what
Armenians are doing today.

"We survived and we're creating all these great things still,"
he says. "So, I mean the goal was to get rid of Armenians, but it
didn't work."

Charles Amirkhanian's piece, "Dzarin Bess Ga Khorim," is completely
different from Eve Beglarian's. "It's purely electronics and uses
elementary Armenian phrases," says Bohigian.

Amirkhanian is the executive director of the contemporary music
organization Other Minds in San Francisco. His piece is a collage
of words. He says he wrote it after a friend told him he was taking
Armenian language classes. "And I said, 'Gee, I'd love to do a sound
poem in Armenian because it has such interesting, guttural sounds.' "

Charles Amirkhanian at age 9 with his sister and maternal
grandparents. The photo is from 1954 (Eleanor Amirkhanian)

He recorded the piece in Sweden decades ago and says he went through
the entire Stockholm phonebook trying to find an Armenian who could
help with the pronunciation. But he couldn't find one.

"So I just decided, 'Well, I can pronounce these words. I'll record
them myself,'" he says. "But I had no idea that I was mispronouncing
one of the key words in the piece." The word is khndzor for apple.

"And that word is repeated on and on and on for two minutes and,
of course, Armenians when they hear it just think it's ridiculous,"
he says.

Amirkhanian grew up in Fresno singing with his grandparents in the
Pilgrim Armenian Congregational Church. His maternal grandmother was
shot in the eye before she fled the genocide. "She had a glass eye
when I was growing up," he says.

When Armenia became independent in 1991, there was very little
electricity but lots of noise. Amirkhanian visited Yerevan a few
years later. Groups of artists, including his relatives, would get
together in the evenings and take turns performing by candlelight.

"They'd sing and dance all night," says Amirkhanian. "They simply were
so accustomed to being on stage or to performing music as amateurs,
if they weren't professionals. So wherever you find Armenians, you're
going to find music."

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