Shoghaken Ensemble brings a little Armenia to Spaulding

by Mignon Lamia | 5/3/04 5:00am

A good number of students and an even greater number of first-year parents here for the weekend braved the heat of a stifling, un-air-conditioned Spaulding Auditorium Friday night to take in what has been called the best of Armenian folk music. As part of their 20-city tour of the United States, the Shoghaken Ensemble visited Dartmouth for four days last week, with their visit culminating in Friday's performance.

When they first appeared on stage, there was something obviously different about their demeanor. They didn't smile at first and seemed strangely detached from the audience through the first song. Despite the lively rhythms and upbeat sound, the musicians' faces remained subdued throughout foreshadowing the possibility of a potential disappointing show for all who had gathered, but it was soon clear that the first few songs were just a settling in -- a warm-up of sorts.

Each new song was a little bit different from the one before. The slow mysterious macabre tones of a pair of duduks reminiscent of mirages in the desert blended into fast paced rhythms of the drums and lap harp.The duduk is a flute-like pipe made from apricot wood and is considered the Armenian national instrument. As they advanced from song to song they settled into their places and began to have fun with the music and each other. It slowly became apparent that they were performing, not just for the audience, but also for each other. The gathered crowd was just lucky enough to be watching from the sidelines.

To the ensemble's credit, the majority of audience members returned to the heat of Spaulding for the second half of the two-and-a-half-hour show during which 19 pieces were performed. As their manager announced after the intermission, the dances that brother and sister Aleksan and Hasmik Harutyunyan, members of the ensemble, performed were not choreographed for the stage. The siblings grew up in a family where the folk tradition had always been a part of their lives and they learned these dances from their grand mother. They dance on stage just as they would at home without an audience: naturally, comfortably, seemingly spontaneously and with smiles on their faces after all.

This is not to say the musicians are not professionals. In fact, every member of the group went to music school in Armenia; seven out of the eight were trained at the national conservatory and have been playing their instruments for anywhere from 25 to 30 years. Gevorg Dabaghyan, the group's founder and "one of Armenia's best living duduk players" brought the eight musicians together in 1991 after winning the grand prize at the international Eastern Traditional Instruments competition.

The members for the most part agree that they turned to folk music because its tradition was more important to them than that of any other art form. As Aleksan Harutyunan noted, the folk music he focuses on now is more important to him than the opera he was trained in because playing folk music is the way that they keep their nationality alive, passing it on through religion and family from generation to generation, just as his grandparents had passed it to him and his sister.

The fact that the music and dancing was part of a tradition based in community gatherings was apparent in all aspects of the show. The members of the ensemble were seated in a semicircle on stage, the audience placed as if it were another member of a smaller group seated in a round somewhere outside, the middle open for dancing when appropriate. When they weren't playing, they were watching each other play or listening intently to the music itself. It was clear that they were playing for one another.

This may have left the audience feeling somewhat excluded at first, unsure of when to clap with the rhythm or when to applaud their skillful passes on the , or the kanon, a traditionally Armenian lap harp. The audience was most certainly not comfortable enough to get up and dance. After intermission, though, smiles began to cross the Armenian language barrier of the vocals from stage to seats and the dancing became more joyful and the audience's clapping a little surer of itself.

The smiles that began to appear on the musicians' faces not only crossed the language barrier, assuring the audience's amusement, but they were also familiar in a sea of unfamiliar things; the music, the dress and the instruments being played. In addition to the kanon and the duduk, there was the kamancha, a vertical fiddle with a gourd base and three strings, different types of hand drums, as well as the shvi, ta shvi and other traditional shepherd's flutes. They also played the zurna, a double reed oboe with a shrill and piercing sound used in one song to amazingly imitate a variety of birdcalls, evoking breezy springtime even in the stiflingly hot auditorium.

The duduk players' cheeks looked like they had multiple compartments for air, as if their breath over the years had found every place it could go for storage, and they amazed us with their flawless circular breathing, which allowed them to carry on a single note throughout an entire piece without stopping.

By breathing through their nose while maintaining a constant stream of air out their mouths, they were able to achieve the ceaseless droning undertone that traditionally accompanies all duduk solos.

Multiple musicians from the audience asked how this breathing was done and where they could find a duduk to try it themselves.

While it is improbable that any audience member left with a newfound gift for breathing circularly, it is more than possible that the entire crowd left with a new appreciation for the ability and for the rich folk traditions the ensemble seeks to preserve.