Marking a Genocide's Anniversary by Celebrating Armenian Composers

Percussionist and composer Joseph Bohigian is a member of the Fresno State New Music Ensemble. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

Five minutes before the Fresno State New Music Ensemble concert is supposed to start, a speaker blows. And one of the pieces on the program is purely electronic, so it’s pretty vital the speaker gets replaced.

It’s the kind of thing that would rattle any program director, let alone a 21-year-old senior who has organized the concert for his honors project to observe the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. But percussionist and composer Joseph Bohigian doesn’t seem too worked up.

“It’s out of my hands,” he says.

And yet all around him, the sounds of stagehands trying to make sure the problem gets resolved -- even as someone on the piano knocks out some dissonant chords -- bring to mind a jarring, atonal composition. The perfect setup for a contemporary or new music concert.

And then quickly, it all comes together. The doors open and concertgoers head for their seats.

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The concert is a diverse menu of sound from seven Armenian composers, including Bohigian, whose piece debuts tonight. There’s New York composer Eve Beglarian. Her piece, "Waiting for Billy Floyd," has an Americana feel with its many instruments, including a guitar, violin and vibraphone.

“She recorded sounds when she was going down the Mississippi River and used that sort of as the background for the piece,” Bohigian says.

And there’s Tigran Mansurian, the most well-known living Armenian composer.  “His piece is definitely influenced by very traditional Armenian music,” says Bohigian. “Much more so than all the other composers.”

Bohigian’s piece, "In the Shadow of Ararat," is the only composition written specifically for this concert. Mount Ararat is an iconic symbol that looms over the Armenian capital, Yerevan.  “I wrote it to commemorate the anniversary, but I wouldn’t say the piece is about the genocide," he says.  The piece uses traits common to Armenian music, such as repetition of short motives and monophonic and heterophonic textures.

Bohigian grew up hearing stories firsthand about the Armenian genocide, which started in 1915. His great-grandmother was a little girl living in the village of Tokat when the Ottoman government began its campaign to deport and kill all Armenians.

“All of her family, except for her and her mother, were killed either in Tokat or when they were marched down to the Syrian Desert,” says Bohigian. “She had, I think, five or six siblings, and they all died.”

In the 1920s, she came to Fresno, where a large Armenian community still exists. And she wrote a memoir with her son-in-law, Bob Der Mugrdechian, called "Siranoosh, My Child."

“I knew my great-grandmother when I was little. I used to go to her house to eat watermelon with her,” he says. But he feels disconnected in some ways from the genocide because it happened so long ago. He decided to reread her memoir for inspiration when he wrote his composition. And, he says, he wants this concert to focus on what Armenians are doing today.

“We survived and we’re creating all these great things still,” he says. “So, I mean the goal was to get rid of Armenians, but it didn’t work.”

Charles Amirkhanian’s piece, "Dzarin Bess Ga Khorim," is completely different from Eve Beglarian’s. “It’s purely electronics and uses elementary Armenian phrases,” says Bohigian.

Amirkhanian is the executive director of the contemporary music organization Other Minds in San Francisco.  His piece is a collage of words. He says he wrote it after a friend told him he was taking Armenian language classes. “And I said, ‘Gee, I’d love to do a sound poem in Armenian because it has such interesting, guttural sounds.’ ”

Charles Amirkhanian at age 9 with his sister and maternal grandparents. The photo is from 1954
Charles Amirkhanian at age 9 with his sister and maternal grandparents. The photo is from 1954 (Eleanor Amirkhanian)

He recorded the piece in Sweden decades ago and says he went through the entire Stockholm phonebook trying to find an Armenian who could help with the pronunciation. But he couldn’t find one.

“So I just decided, ‘Well, I can pronounce these words. I’ll record them myself,’” he says. “But I had no idea that I was mispronouncing one of the key words in the piece.”  The word is khndzor for apple. “And that word is repeated on and on and on for two minutes and, of course, Armenians when they hear it just think it’s ridiculous,” he says.

Amirkhanian grew up in Fresno singing with his grandparents in the Pilgrim Armenian Congregational Church. His maternal grandmother was shot in the eye before she fled the genocide. "She had a glass eye when I was growing up," he says.

When Armenia became independent in 1991, there was very little electricity but lots of noise. Amirkhanian visited Yerevan a few years later.  Groups of artists, including his relatives, would get together in the evenings and take turns performing by candlelight.

“They’d sing and dance all night,” says Amirkhanian. “They simply were so accustomed to being on stage or to performing music as amateurs, if they weren’t professionals. So wherever you find Armenians, you’re going to find music.”

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