Aram Kerovpyan: “Komitas’s name often trespasses his person”


Aram Kerovpyan: “Komitas’s name often trespasses his person”

Regional Post discussed with musicologist and musician Aram Kerovpyan Komitas’s legacy, his role in the world music and his being an icon for Armenia and Diaspora.

Interview : Nairi Khachadourian



As a musician and musicologist born and raised in Istanbul, when did you first learn about Komitas and how was his heritage presented to you?

When I was a child or teenager, in the 1950-60s, the songs arranged in Western style by Father Komitas were of course part of the repertoire performed in Istanbul for the Armenian bourgeois audience. Nevertheless, neither his life nor his work were highlighted as it is the case today. His name was directly related to a period which could not be mentioned. It was tacitly understood that the Armenian community of Istanbul was tolerated by the State thanks to the Lausanne treatise, and its security was ensured as long as the fear remained present in their hearts and minds. As the Armenian Question only recently became talkable in Turkey, Father Komitas became a symbolic figure, for all, including Turkish intellectuals.


How would you qualify the role Komitas played in Armenian and world music history?

Father Komitas worked during a period when esthetising folk melodies was one of the styles being developed in Western classical music. He is the manifestation of Orientalism, and probably the most efficacious craftsman of the modern nation-building process amongst Armenians. He became a model for many Armenian intellectuals in the Westernizing process of numerous cultural elements of Armenians. Then under the Ottoman empire came the destruction of the Armenian civilization together with its peasantry, and the establishment of the Soviet regime in the Transcaucasus. These events created the conditions which made him the starting point of an Armenian national music. This also led to his near-idolization, but for the time being, that subject is too sensitive to be discussed amongst Armenians.


What impact did Komitas’s musicological approach and research have on your work as a musicologist?

I have read his articles with great interest, but as a musicologist, I look at his work with a critical eye. It is difficult to agree with his theoretical assertions; his approach to modal music is Western (that’s where he was sent to study!) and his efforts to give his theory an original “Armenian character” does not show impartial research. However, in his writings, he was able to express the common characteristics of the songs he had collected. He had healthy and humanistic views about the role of music in human life, in education. On the other hand, his song collection, as much as it is available, is an extremely valuable source, both for research and performance.


How is Komitas perceived in the diaspora and what are the facets of his life and heritage still unveiled or unknown to the large audience?

As research on his life and work continues, there might be new findings in the future. Nevertheless, your question uncovers my very thought: Father Komitas who was not only a priest but also an artist, had the natural right to make music as he liked. However, the way he is perceived, not only in the Diaspora but also in Armenia, is problematic, because he is seen only as an icon of national music. Icons are venerated but not necessarily understood. Consequently, his name often trespasses his person, and is used to cover any activity which pretends to be “national”. This is part of a general problem: the complete, conscious or unconscious, Westernization/alienation of the Armenians.


Could Komitas’s and his pupils’ heritage (folk and sacred music) be a means of education in the diaspora? if so, how should it be approached?

Church music was transcribed amongst Armenians from the mid-19th century on. We have most of the traditional repertoire not only in transcriptions, but also as a living music which can still produce new variants. Father Komitas’s and his pupils’ church music heritage was developed much later, only in the framework of Westernization. It is necessary to make this distinction while speaking about church music. The real heritage is, in my opinion, the folk music collections he initiated. Before Father Komitas, songs were collected, but mostly without transcribing the melodies. The transcriptions he made or collected, together with those made by his pupil Mihran Toumajan, then by others, constitute a cultural treasury. They have an important role which is beyond being purely performative; they are the link to a past musical culture which was eradicated. Preserving this link allows to go forward, because it keeps alive a patrimony rich enough to support creation. In this respect, Armenian folk songs constitute an excellent material for education.

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