Tigran Hamasyan coaxes sacred sounds from the Armenian darkness

The pianist believes God intervened during the recording of his new album. He talks faith, voices and the Armenian genocide

Tigran Hamasayan: “The tour was our way of saying that this music is still alive in Armenia and we’re bringing it back to its origins. People have been waiting for me to play in Turkey for a long time”

Tigran Hamasayan: “The tour was our way of saying that this music is still alive in Armenia and we’re bringing it back to its origins. People have been waiting for me to play in Turkey for a long time”

 

God, it is said, works in mysterious ways. Tigran Hamasyan certainly thinks so. In October last year, during the recording of the pianist’s latest album, Luys i Luso – a haunting fusion of piano improvisation and sacred music – the creator unexpectedly intervened.

“It was a crazy moment,” he says. “It was the last day of recording, and we had to record this very serious piece called New Flower. It’s a long, complicated piece, and as soon as we started recording, all the lights went off.”

Hamasyan and the 24-strong Yerevan State Chamber Choir were gathered in a studio in the Armenian capital to make the young pianist’s first recording for the prestigious label ECM. It was the culmination of three years’ work, arranging and revising sacred Armenian hymns, some more than 1,500 years old, and placing his delicate piano improvisations alongside. The project’s title translates as “light from light”, so the sudden power cut seemed like an omen.

“It was meant to happen,” he says. “Right around the corner there was an old, 17th-century church, and while we waited for the power to come back, the whole choir walked there, and some of the girls sang in the church. It was a spiritual moment. It was God saying that if you’re recording sacred music for four days, you’ve got to visit a church at least once. After that, everybody was different. It had a big impact on us.”

Hamasyan was born in 1987 in Gyumri, a small city in northwest Armenia near what is today the Turkish border. He began performing at 11, and at 18 won first prize at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Three years later, after relocating to the US, he won the prestigious Thelonius Monk piano competition in New York. He is still only 28, but already his virtuosity has attracted favourable comment from jazz royalty such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Brad Mehldau.

Profound engagement

Hamasyan’s previous recordings, such as Aratta Rebirth (2009) and A Fable (2011), have also evinced a passionate interest in the folk music of his homeland. But Luys i Luso is an altogether more profound engagement with the heritage of this ancient and culturally rich nation, traditionally regarded as the first country to adopt Christianity as an official religion.

“It was a great journey. Since the day I discovered Armenian sacred music, I knew I wanted to do something with it, but I didn’t dare because it is something that requires serious study. Then, three years ago, I started thinking about a specific repertoire and exactly which sharakans [fifth-century sacred chants] and hymns I was going to arrange.”

“I knew for sure it was going to involve voices,” he adds, “because those melodies have to be sung. And what I had to achieve was to combine the piano with voices. But not just classical voices – I was looking for singers that were able to sing like monks.”

The publicity surrounding the release of Luys i Luso never fails to mention that 2015 is the centenary of the Armenian genocide, when the Ottoman army systematically exterminated more than a million ethnic Armenians, a fact the Turkish government denies to this day. But for Hamasyan, the date is coincidental and the link to his homeland’s past is more subtle.

“What really ties Luys i Luso to the genocide is that 99 per cent of the music we are performing was written in monasteries in historical Armenia that are now in Turkey. It only became connected to the genocide after we did this pilgrimage tour in June to bring back this music to the places where it was born.”

Hamasyan had consistently refused to perform in Turkey, but when the opportunity came to present this music in towns that had been traditionally Armenian, he relented. “Before that, I couldn’t convince myself that I could go and stay in good shape emotionally. I can’t just go somewhere where people killed my great-grandfather and his sisters. I couldn’t convince myself that I’m going to go there just for money, to play in front of a crowd that still denies that they killed my family.

“The tour was our way of saying that this music is still alive in Armenia and we’re bringing it back to its origins. It got a lot of attention from the Turkish media. People have been waiting for me to play in Turkey for a long time, and there was a lot of good vibes. But there are also crazy threats. The mayor of Kars, where all our ancestry comes from, said some racist things about us, and extreme-right organisations were threatening us. There was one town where there are no Armenians but there’s a really beautiful old Armenian church. We were escorted into town by undercover cops, and basically there was more police cars during the concert than there was audience.”

With the record now garnering critical praise, Hamasyan and his choir have embarked on a 100-date tour, bringing Luys i Luso, appropriately, to sacred spaces around the world. On Saturday, the vaulted acoustics of Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral will resound to these ancient chants. And now, for the work’s creator, what began as a challenging musical project has brought him to a more profound understanding of his own spirituality.

“Music is an unexplainable way to connect with the universe, God, whatever you want to call it. Especially if you’re performing religious music, you have to be in that space. And the thing is that music brought me to that place. Armenian sacred music brought me to spirituality and religion.”

  • Tigran Hamasyan and the Yerevan State Chamber Choir perform Luys i Luso in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on Saturday, as part of the Waltons World Masters series. newschool.ie
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