Music that speaks: Interview with Ara Gevorgyan

There are people whom I feel honored to be their contemporary and compatriot. Ara Gevorgyan is one of those people. I remember walking as a child through Yerevan’s Vernissage with my father when I heard a very rare, very unique piece of music, and I turned to ask my father what it was. “It’s composed by Ara Gevorgyan, one of Armenia’s greatest artists,” he responded with a smile. It was only years later that I found out that he was the son of the beloved folk singer Valya Samvelyan. Coming from a family of musicians and being exposed to great music from a young age, Gevorgyan left a significant mark on the music world, not only in Armenia but also abroad. The award-winning composer, musical producer and inventor has multiple international collaborations and even invented a new musical instrument. Gevorgyan’s compositions are now played in the world’s most touristic destinations and popular stages. While he is not well-known in today’s YouTube and TikTok worlds, almost every Armenian living in Armenia or the diaspora has, at least once in their life, heard the name Ara Gevorgyan. Those few who might believe they haven’t, definitely have heard at least one of his compositions without knowing the author behind the masterpiece. 

I first had the chance to interview Gevorgyan for an Armenian TV program when I was 15. It felt like I had met a living legend, a person of immense talent, kindness and great love for his homeland. It was an honor for me to have the opportunity to speak with Gevorgyan again, in a more profound interview in which we delve into both happy and tragic chapters of the Armenian past, explore the layers, strengths and weaknesses of Armenian music today, and reflect on the power of art and music in world politics. I also encourage you to take the time to listen to Gevorgyan’s compositions; there, you will find colors of happiness and joy, loss and pain, belonging and home, hope, love and faith. Enjoy reading while listening! 

Milena Baghdasaryan (M.B.): Dear Ara Gevorgyan, you have a deep connection and love for Armenia, which is well expressed and reflected in your music. Sometimes it feels as if you use music as a means to achieve a higher purpose. To what extent is music a tool for you, and to what extent is it a goal in itself? Would you ever create music just for the sake of creating music?

Ara Gevorgyan (A.G.): I think that, if it is possible for you to have something to say through your music, it is a great success for any creator. I don’t like to write songs about the sun, flowers, autumn or the sea. My entire musical ideology is Armenian; we have many things to say that we don’t say. For example, if you list the names of my music, you will see that I have works named after our 12 capitals, and all my music is named after places. From one point of view, it is very original. I have always loved to be unique, to do something that others don’t do, and, as much as I search, thankfully I always find something unique and exceptional. From another point of view, the names are thought out so that I have something to say through every piece of music. I also have a video series. For example, during concerts when I play “Mush,” I show Mush; when I play “Ani,” I show the capital city of Ani. Every music has its own history. Those pieces of music that are sad, then the respective capital of the name of that piece of music is now located in Western Armenia. If the pieces of music are happier, then their corresponding cities are located in the territory of the Republic of Armenia.

One of my songs, “Adana,” dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide, was recorded in 20 languages and sung by singers of different nationalities, which is why “Adana” entered the Armenian Book of Records. On the 100th anniversary of the Genocide, I wrote a new song, the text of which is written by the American singer Daniel Decker, and performed by more than a thousand singers, approximately 20 choirs – Chile, Buenos Aires, Tehran, Los Angeles…Some of these singers were filmed for the music video in their own countries, and some of them came to Armenia to participate in the “My Armenia” festival. Using the occasion of that festival, I sent the song to those participating so that they could learn it, because that year was also the 100th anniversary of the Genocide, and something extraordinary had to be done. I suggested Hovhannes Chekijian, the great maestro and conductor of our national choir as well as the Armenian National Philharmonic Orchestra, and my favorite conductor Eduard Topchyan, and together we created that large-scale work, which also entered the Armenian Book of Records. 

My records also include the music video “Yerevan” with 230 kanuns, in which the kanuns together ‘write’ the word Yerevan in a drone shot. Added to that was the performance with musicians from different countries, who played my piece “Սիրեցեք զմիմեանս” (“Love Each Other”). I composed and arranged that piece in a way so that all 14 countries’ musical instruments and music styles are represented and fused in one harmonic performance. I’m sure you won’t find anything like that anywhere else, because I looked for it myself and didn’t find anything like that. I started that composition in 2001 and finished it in 2007, with 43 musicians from 14 countries playing together, a very complex work, which also entered the list of records. Also, dedicated to Jivan Gasparyan’s 90th birthday, I decided to collect 90 duduks and congratulate Jivan that way. I invited 90 duduk players, but as many as 112 came. This work was also registered among the records. 

The “Artsakh” composition was played in different countries, performed during three Olympic Games, included in PlayStation 3 games, and is played at the main fountains of Dubai, the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas and many other renowned and highly visited places in the world.

M.B.: Not only do you create high-quality music, but you also invest a significant amount of effort and resources into presenting that music in the best possible way. I would like us to speak about the broader relationship between content and form, and whether, in your opinion, good music would still succeed without expensive video clips or extensive marketing efforts.

A.G.: The video clip itself helps the creator to present what they want graphically. For example, I can describe the music of “Artsakh” in words, but every person will imagine it differently. So when I present it in a video clip, it creates a much more consistent perception. For example, let me tell you about the “Artsakh” music in words. The ominous opening notes mean we are under attack, then when the symphonic orchestra enters in its slow, mellow way, it means we have bad news. When the dhols enter, it represents our people who stand up. The pieces where dhols and symphonic music compete against each other, in a question-and-answer fashion, is the war part. The part with the duduk means that we had casualties in the war. And the finale is victory. See, I was able to tell you about the “Artsakh” music in words. But some works become much more accessible to the audience by showing it to them.

I can say the same about the work “Kanq u Klinenq” (the English version is called “Remember”), the video of which sends shivers through your body when you watch it, because, in addition to the music and text, you also see actual footage of the Genocide. Sure, it makes it more horrific, but it also makes it more compelling and impactful. The premiere of that music took place at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, which is where the Oscars are held. The next day after the Oscars were presented, the first performance of my song took place during the concert of Vardan Gevorgyan’s dance group. Here, I need to mention that I am very, very grateful for all of my friends who live in the diaspora. It is thanks to those friends that I can record the “Adana” song in 20 languages. Not only do you need to find those singers, but you also need to translate the lyrics in all these languages, and it is a very difficult task. It becomes even more difficult with the topic of the Genocide. Of course, it is easy to convince a singer to come and sing about peace or to participate in some charity project, but in the case of Genocide, performing that piece of music means condemning, and it was not easy to find 20 singers from different nationalities who would agree to sing that song and come to Armenia and sing standing around the eternal flame at the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial in Yerevan. I managed to create that record with the help of my friends, and for that, I am very grateful. 

Milena, I will now tell you a very important story that shows the power of music. At Tsitsernakaberd, the recording of the “Adana” song in different languages was played on April 24. When I was on my way to Tsitsernakaberd on April 24, I met Hayk Demoyan, the director of The Armenian Genocide Museum-institute. He pulled me aside and told me a fascinating story. He said that around eight o’clock in the morning, a Finnish man came to his office and said that he wanted to apologize. When Demoyan asked who he was and why he wanted to apologize, he answered that he heard a song condemning the Armenian Genocide in Finnish, which was played in Tsitsernakaberd. After listening to that song, he was very moved and realized that while all of Finland is on Armenia’s side, he is an agent sent from Turkey. He said that he was ashamed and came to apologize. I don’t know what happened to him next, but I just want you to imagine the power of music.

Another story. The Czech singer Daniel Hůlka, who came to Armenia to be filmed in our music video, was asked by a journalist why the Czech Republic does not recognize the Armenian Genocide. He said that the Czech Republic will recognize the Genocide. We asked him how we would know that he wouldn’t forget us. A month later, we heard on a news program that the issue of the Armenian Genocide was raised in the Czech parliament, thanks to Hůlka, because he distributed the song “Adana” in Czech to all radio stations, as well as recorded CDs and distributed them to all members of the Czech parliament. He said that it is a shame, the whole world is on the side of the Armenians, but the Czechs still do not talk about this issue. This is the power of music, to spread the message of our country through art. Therefore, I would very much like our Armenian singers going to Eurovision to have something to say, because winning is difficult, but going with something to say is possible. Tell them about carpets, Armenian musical instruments, duduk, kamancha, our history. There is so much to tell. 

I have a song called “Armenian Army, we are with you.” The song was posted on YouTube on October 3, 2020, just six days after the war started. I gathered singers from across the diaspora, thanks to my friends. We conveyed the message that Armenians from across the whole world should unite, as our country is at war. I also wrote the lyrics of the song. When the war was over and the nation was divided into black and white, I created another song, “Petq e Ser” (“We Need Love”), to emphasize the importance of us coming together and being filled with love for each other.

M.B.: You have rich experience in creating collaborative bridges between people from all corners of the world. Convincing artists of different nationalities (including Turkish) to take part in a project condemning the Armenian Genocide is not an easy task, but you managed to convince thousands of people to take part in that piece. What is your key to success when it comes to international collaboration?

A.G.: Whether I like it or not, I cannot reveal many secrets, but in the case of the Turkish singer, for example, I told him that I would not publish his name just for his safety. There was also a very interesting thing in it; if I didn’t publish the name, every Turk who heard that song would try to find out who that Turkish singer was, and if they didn’t find it, they would ask someone they knew, thus inadvertently spreading the song. As for how I convinced him, I told him that we are all singing against the Genocide; we are singing so that there will be no genocides. In other words, the speech was not against the Turks, but against genocide, taking the Armenian Genocide as an example, as a case study. Some singers were paid, and some singers voluntarily agreed. Thanks again to my diaspora friends who helped me in this matter.

Ara Gevorgyan

M.B.: You are the first person in the world who had the idea of creating a bass kanun. It can be said that you have invented a new musical instrument. Could you please tell us about this invention? What inspired you to come up with this idea, and, in general, what serves as a source of inspiration for Ara Gevorgyan?

A.G.: I always say that all the power that inspires me comes from above, as well as from below, from the earth. My source of inspiration depends on the general state of the country, my mood, and I will now share a vivid example of it. 

When Charles Aznavour died, I was very affected, and I came home crying. So that my family members wouldn’t see me in that state, I entered my studio and started playing to get my mood up. While I was playing, I kept saying, thank you, our Charles, we didn’t have enough time to thank you. This is how I spoke to Charles in my mind. And so a song was born, the words of which came to me from heaven. I am not a poet, but I have also started writing poems. Those words dedicated to Charles came and lined up side by side. 

When I finished the song and the instrumentation, I called Masha Mnjoyan, one of our wonderful singers, and asked her to come to our house. It was already 10 p.m. Masha came, we recorded the song, and every time I listened to the recording, my eyes filled with tears, and I really wanted everyone to hear that song. I uploaded the song to YouTube at five in the morning. The song dedicated to Aznavour was ready less than 24 hours after his death. When I woke up in the morning and saw that the song had more than 100,000 views, I called one of my friends who speaks French, and we translated the song into French. Then the song was translated into Spanish, Arabic, Bulgarian, Persian, Finnish…No famous singer in the world has any performance dedicated to him in so many languages, while the multilingual performance dedicated to Charles says in different languages: “Thank you, our Charles.”

Now let’s speak about the kanun. As I am always experimenting, I wanted to record one of my compositions with 50 kanuns. I recorded it, and I realized that it didn’t sound that good, something was missing. Through the computer system, I lowered it an octave, and I realized that the music and its soundness improved. Then, I thought of finding a bass kanun to record with that instrument. However, on Google, it turned out that there are very few bass instruments in the world; I could not find more than 10. I decided to create a bass kanun myself. I went to see Albert Zakaryan, who is a kanun maker. I told him, I want to create a bass kanun, can you create it? He said he had no idea what I was talking about. When I explained, he said that the instrument with the strings of the contrabass would not have strength, and he should make new calculations, break and observe the piano from the inside. Then he said that it would be good to bring the wood from the coast of the Black Sea. I am again grateful to one of my friends, Levon Mkrtchyan, with whom I gathered wood from the Black Sea area and returned. When I was at the customs office, everyone looked at me in amazement – what am I doing with those wood boards, why am I at the customs office with them? 

The bass kanun was created! At first, we used leather, but then we realized that it is sensitive to humidity and thermal fluctuations, so next time we made it out of wood. We created five bass kanuns, one of which I gave to the State Orchestra of National Instruments of Armenia, which now uses the instrument. I gave the other one to the “Sayat-Nova” State Minstrel Song Ensemble, which also uses the instrument now. I gave the third one to the Chair of Music of the Faculty of Culture of the Khachatur Abovian Armenian State Pedagogical University, where we teach how to play that instrument. The other is dedicated to the Armenian State Honored Ensemble Song & Dance After Tatul Altunyan. The other one is at our house, but I am thinking of donating it to the History Museum of Armenia.

I have proposals to present the bass kanun at international expos, and for that, I need the support of all of you. It is important to mention that the bass kanun was also considered a record and entered the Book of Records of Armenia. 

M.B.: You have received many medals and awards. To what extent are awards important for an artist, and to what extent does the appreciation and love of the audience itself matter, especially in the present context, when low-quality pieces of music gain more attention, recognition and love? 

A.G.: You ask a very important and good question. First of all, I’m doing what I love, and if someone doesn’t thank me, it doesn’t matter, I still love my job. Medals and titles are not important to me. Of course, it’s nice to receive them and feel appreciated, but I never knocked on anyone’s door to get them. But when you do something very valuable and it doesn’t receive the appropriate attention and appreciation, I feel a sense of resentment. 

For example, more than a thousand singers in one video, filming during the night in difficult conditions…At the end, the pictures come alive, the number 1915 is written by the human bodies present there. That great work, however, is inferior in its recognition and appreciation to an ordinary, low-quality song about lost love. The latter gets millions of views, a big prize at an award ceremony, but my large-scale work has neither a prize nor views. Due to the number of views, I am sometimes even ashamed to show it to representatives of other nations. How can an Armenian person not turn on that video, watch it and then spread it? If we are so indifferent to those who create value, it turns out that times have changed, other values have emerged, and superficial, ‘heartbreak’ songs are getting more recognition and love. It is even possible that my song dedicated to the Armenian Genocide will not be shown on television on April 24? 

I can’t really blame anyone. The internet has ruined many things and values. No one watches TV, and people are now on TikTok consuming the cheap content available on that platform. In response, singers, based on their financial and household needs, now create low-quality music videos with half-naked girls dancing in a boat, and these videos get  20,000,000 views, while songs about the Armenian army or history have only 1,000 views.

No award or title is important to me. What is important to me is the name Ara Gevorgyan, which I will never tarnish for some views. Thanks to God, students of various dance ensembles of the diaspora were able to recognize and love Armenian music through my music. I am grateful to all the radio stations, TV channels and media that have talked and still talk about me, about my music, including you and the media where you work. No one knew how many medals Aznavour, Michael Jackson or Luciano Pavarotti had; however, their names and their music remained in the pages of history, and that’s the important thing.

M.B.: What upcoming projects are you currently working on?

A.G.: Dear Milena, whatever works I write today, they turn out to be sad, because mentally I haven’t fully recovered from the war yet. Before the war started, my son was drafted into the Armenian army and went to serve in Karvachar. On August 28, the swearing-in ceremony took place, and a month later, unfortunately, the war began. I had to be by my son’s side. After the war, I still can’t get out of that mood. I have planned concerts in Bulgaria, Iran and the U.S., and all those concerts are constantly being postponed, because I still can’t find the power in me to give a concert. Currently, everything in the world is chaotic, but I would very much like to be able to give concerts again, because I have new compositions, new plans, new things to say. Recently I created a two-part composition. The first part is a woman’s cry to our thousands of fallen Armenians, and the second part is an uplifting, furious rock music called “We Will Win.” I am sure that we will win, I am sure that everything will be fine, and the blood of our martyred Armenians will not be in vain. I have confidence that the people of Artsakh will return to Artsakh. 

I still continue to create and recently I finished another piece, which is dedicated to Hovhannes Chekijian’s 95th birthday. I also wrote the lyrics and arranged the instruments myself, and when Chekijian heard the composition during a concert in the Armenian National Opera, he was very pleased and said that he had never been given such a gift before. I was very happy that I was able to present him with a musical ode; he is our national hero. We also made a music video on the banks of the Araks River, about the Araks River itself, performed by Daniel Decker. I also have a song about Yerevan, the words of which were written by Astvatsatur Petrosyan, our general and former Deputy Minister of Defense. I also have a project to continue with the translations of the work dedicated to Aznavour. The director of my latest videos is my daughter Ani Gevorgyan. My daughter and I plan to create protest videos about cutting down trees, polluting the environment and being full of hatred towards each other. If we continue to be divided and fail to love and tolerate each other, we will lose everything. We all need love.

M.B.: What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and what advice would you give to your Armenian audience?

A.G.: I got the best advice from my parents and grandfather. The advice is: do everything for your friend without demanding anything in return. This is very important advice, and if we all use this advice, we will be more loving, more tolerant, more forgiving towards each other. I would advise my dear audience and my dear compatriots to be more tolerant. We all make mistakes. There is no infallible person. Only Jesus Christ was infallible. I have always advised that when we meet in a corridor or somewhere else, we should greet each other. If we accidentally touch each other’s shoulders on the street, we should ask for forgiveness instead of insulting each other. I call on all of us to forgive each other and not to leave pointless negative opinions and remarks in Facebook or YouTube comments sections. If you have something positive to say, say it! Evil returns to the one who speaks evil words, because God is above, and all our actions will be judged. We don’t have to judge each other. The judge exists above. Let Him take care of the judgments. Finally, God’s commandment is to love one another. I wish all of us warmth, good attitude and patience, and we will win. We have the necessary sources for our unity – our traditions, our culture and our thousands-year-old church.

Milena Baghdasaryan

Milena Baghdasaryan

Milena Baghdasaryan is a graduate from UWC Changshu China. Since the age of 11, she has been writing articles for a local newspaper named Kanch ('Call'). At the age of 18, she published her first novel on Granish.org and created her own blog, Taghandi Hetqerov ('In the Pursuit of Talent')—a portal devoted to interviewing young and talented Armenians all around the world. Baghdasaryan considers storytelling, traveling and learning new languages to be critical in helping one explore the world, connect with others, and discover oneself. After completing her bachelor's degree in Film and New Media at New York University in Abu Dhabi, Milena is currently enrolled in an advanced Master of Arts program in European Interdisciplinary Studies at the College of Europe in Natolin.

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