Composer John Hodian on Reinventing Armenian Music with His ‘Songs of Exile’

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Ahead of their SOAS Concert, we sat down with legendary composer John Hodian to discuss the origins of The Naghash Ensemble, problems with concepts of ‘fusion’ and ‘tradition’, plus the role of the exile in Armenian history.

How would you introduce The Naghash Ensemble?

I’ll tell you a story. I met Tigran Mansurian, probably Armenia’s most famous and highly regarded classical composer. After several years of working on ‘Songs of Exile’, I gave him some test recordings. I got a call the next day to say that he would like to see me. I thought I was in trouble. It felt like I was getting called in by the high school principal, and I’d done something wrong. I thought he would say: how dare you come here and steal our music and culture? But when we met, he just looked at me and said: “It is the sound of Cilicia [Ancient Armenia] — reinvented for the 21st century.” That really meant a lot. To get his blessing to keep going was wonderful. 

Your music has been described as combining “Armenian folk, new classical music, contemporary post-minimalism, and the energy of jazz and rock.” How does your music defy genre and incorporate fusion?

I don’t feel like it defies genre, and I think the word fusion is a tricky one. I see fusion as this synthetic pastiche of putting two cultures together. I grew up in America but in an Armenian community with generations of Armenian heritage. I studied Western classical music, played tons of Bach and Beethoven and Brahms, and have always been interested in early polyphonic vocal music. But I also grew up in Philadelphia, where you hear nothing but pop music on the radio. If you missed Prince, you weren’t paying attention, and if that music didn’t get into you, then I don’t know if you have a pulse. Then I started working with some contemporary composers. Philip Glass produced my first record, which brought me into contact with all the post-minimalist guys. So I don’t see the music I write as a fusion. I think of it as a completely natural thing. It is the result of an Armenian guy growing up in America, studying Western classical music, but then absorbing everything that Armenian culture has to offer. 

What is your relationship to ‘traditional’ Armenian music?

To speak of tradition gets into this question of purity and what ‘pure’ Armenian music is. Armenians always talk about tradition. One of our most revered composers, Komitas, has always been used as an example of ‘traditional’ Armenian music. He was a fantastic curator who went into the field and notated the music of farmers and women singing lullabies. But what most people know of Komitas is what he turned that into.

Komitas had a very deep education in Western classical music, so he could do very sophisticated settings of these songs using a piano, a string quartet and harmony, which the original songs did not have. He took a very different approach than a typical Western classical person would and was very sophisticated and unusual.

So again, it’s not this synthetic fusion of two cultures. Komitas had a deep knowledge of both Western classical music and Armenian folk music. He then synthesized it through his genius. Everybody thinks of him as traditional Armenian music, but it’s not. Traditional Armenian music wasn’t played on a piano. Hundreds of years ago, folk music was from people tilling their crops or watching their sheep who didn’t own a piano or even a violin, and they weren’t using Western classical tuning systems or harmonies. So usually, the things that are great in their time and that we then look at as tradition are things that were really weird and new and cutting edge at the time. And then, a hundred years later, it’s said that this is the way it’s supposed to be, and that’s tradition.

Why were you drawn to the work of the medieval poet Mkrtich Naghash? Is there a section that is your favourite?

I knew what I wanted to do musically but I had to find the right text for the project. And it took years. I found this one little fragment from a very little known medieval Armenian priest and poet named Mkrtich Naghash. He was a very popular priest at the time who was forced out of town and lived the rest of his life in exile, and left behind 15 poems.

Soul, don’t say “ghareeb” or else my heart will bleed

A ghareeb in a strange land has a hard time indeed

Like a bird that strays from its flock, with nowhere to rest

Disoriented until he reaches his end

‘Ghareeb’ isn’t an Armenian word, but it means exile, wanderer or lost soul. It has a very tragic meaning. Naghash wrote very poignantly about what it’s like to live in exile, but he was also a priest and not only some existential angsty poet. So at the end of many of the poems, there is a euphoria because heaven is home. A lot of the poems deal with how to live your life on earth so that you can go to heaven. You’ll get home eventually, which is a beautiful thing, whether you are a believer or not.

How does the role of the wanderer and exile influence your work?

This concept of living as an exile is something that is really meaningful to Armenian people because of their history. It dates back to Urartian times (900 B.C.) when such a huge chunk of the world was the original Armenian people, which then diminished and diminished after every empire that could take a chunk away from it did. Then there was the genocide in 1915, which wiped out almost three-quarters of the population and dispersed those who were left all over the world.

My grandmother was a genocide survivor. And whether it was talked about or not (and it wasn’t really talked about), there is this kind of transgenerational effect that I think becomes part of your genetic makeup. And for me, I never felt like I belonged where I was. I never felt like I belonged in this suburb of Philadelphia growing up. So this whole concept of homeland is really important to Armenians. So when I stumbled across this little fragment of Mkrtich Naghas’s poetry, I fell in love with it. Most of the poems are about living in exile and everything rhymes in these perfect rhyming couplets and is very musical. I really fell in love with setting this stuff, so I ended up setting all 15 poems to music which became ‘Songs of Exile’.

The Naghash Ensemble come to SOAS in May

I was very lucky to be able to put a remarkable group of musicians together for The Naghash Ensemble. They’re all highly knowledgeable about their instruments, Armenian folk music, and Armenian spiritual music, but they’ve also all been trained at a conservatory. We’re really looking forward to coming to SOAS and sharing our music.

The Naghash Ensemble will be playing at SOAS on 11th May 2022. This concert has been co-produced with and financially supported by the Armenian Institute, London. Book your tickets.

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