Gevorg Dabaghyan, Miniatures: Masterworks for Armenian Duduk

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Traditional Crossroads
Released: 2002

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For over a thousand years, the Armenian people have faced prejudice, exile, war, bad luck, hatred, and genocide. Through it all, there have been two constants--Mt. Ararat, the symbolic heart of the land Armenians claim as their own, and the duduk, the ancient wind instrument whose mournful, wailing sounds are said to echo the Armenian's historical plight. Ararat today, while visible from the Armenian capital, Yerevan, is located in eastern Turkey, a country that once tried to exterminate Armenia. The duduk, however, is Armenia's to claim, to hold, and to play, and no one does any of this better than Gevorg Dabaghyan.

Now, I should tell you that my interest in Dabaghyan's music is not based on my overt fascination with Armenian culture. I sympathize with their plight, just as I sympathize with any dispossessed people's plight (from Australian Aborigines to Native Americans to African Americans to Jews to Kurds). I'm not of Armenian descent (if you want to know, I'm German-Scottish). I find Armenian folk and classical music interesting, but it is no more interesting to me than the folk and classical music of other parts of Central Asia (though Armenian medieval music is truly astonishing--I'll say more about it in a future review). However, I am fascinated by the duduk. I'm so fascinated by it that I actually bought one, and I'm learning how to play it. Why am I so interested in this instrument? I think it's because the instrument itself is at once both simple and powerful. It is simple because it is a small instrument, with only ten or eleven holes (depending on the maker), and hence its dynamic range is limited to just over an octave. However, this simplicity is deceptive, for the instrument provides a great deal of emotional depth. There's a rich, sorrowful sound in those few notes. This sorrow is possible because the instrument's holes can be played in different ways (half-closed, fully closed, so on), thereby allowing the artist to bend and twist individual notes in a variety of ways. A typical note on a duduk, then, is always in flux, moving up or down the register depending upon the needs of the song. To me, there's nothing more interesting than being able to take a simple sound and transform it into something complex, elegant, beautiful, and mysterious. That's the heart of the duduk, and that's why I am so enamored of the instrument.

As the liner notes to Miniatures: Masterworks for Armenian Duduk suggest, Dabaghyan is one of the foremost duduk players in Armenia. He has been featured on more than fifty recordings, including the soundtrack to Atom Egoyan's Ararat. Miniatures is his second solo release; the first was volume four of the six volume Music of Armenia set (released in 1996). Dabaghyan is also featured on several albums as part of the Shoghaken Ensemble--including the recently released Armenia Anthology.

The goal of Dabaghyan's Music of Armenia volume was to introduce western audiences to the mystery and the magic of the duduk--a feat that is readily accomplished. By contrast, the goal of Miniatures is to explore the role of the duduk in the myriad styles that make up Armenian music. Hence, this fifteen-song collection features duduk performances of traditional folk and dance songs, troubador love songs, Eastern classical compositions (known as makam in Arabic and mugham in Armenian), and Armenian liturgical chants.

When I say "features," I mean it: the only accompanying instruments are the dhol (a round drum for rhythm) and a duduk dharm (a continuous duduk drone note played in the background). One thing that a solo recording such as this one does is render its disparate songs a rather unified sound. Hence, the medieval and liturgical songs blend seamlessly with the folk dance and lullaby numbers. At times, this can make the actual listening experience a bit redundant; in fact, I had to study the liner notes to be able to differentiate one musical style from another. It's easy to listen to all fifteen tracks here and think, "Well, there are a lot of nice melodies, but they're all the same--what's the point?" Only by listening to each track by itself and carefully discerning the overall shape and structure of the different musical styles here can one truly appreciate not only Dabaghyan's artistry but also the richness and depth of the duduk's sound.

For this album is really all about the duduk. Any reservations I have about listening to this disk are dispelled once I focus in on the instrument's beautiful sound. If you enjoy the instrument's sound, you'll love this disk; if not, then get something else.

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