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Djivan Gasparyan

Djivan Gasparyan

Although extremely popular in his home country Armenia, and throughout Russia, Djivan Gasparyan’s music is perhaps unwittingly familiar to Western ears via his appearance on Hollywood film soundtracks, including the score to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, and Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ. This aside, Djivan’s international notoriety is mostly down to Brian Eno, who first heard him perform in Moscow in 1988 and quickly tracked down his 1983 album I Will Not be Sad In This World on the Soviet Union's state owned record label Melodiya. He was quoted at the time as saying that the album was “without doubt one of the most beautiful and soulful recordings I have ever heard”, and determined to release it internationally via his own Opal/Land Records imprint. His wish was realised in 1989 when the album was rereleased to great critical acclaim. Fittingly Djivan dedicated it to the victims and survivors of the devastating earthquake that had struck Armenia on the 7th of December, 1988.

Brian May, the Queen guitarist who has worked on several occasions with Djivan, describes the duduk thus: “it's a small wooden instrument which looks not dissimilar to an English recorder, played with a wooden reed mouthpiece, and sounding uncannily like a human voice when played by an expert.” This album focusses directly on his mastery of it, backed by fellow duduk player Vachagan Avakian who plays a single note as a drone or bass note behind Gasparyan's weaving melodic textures. It's a sparse affair, but all the more beautiful for it. If ever an album could transport you to the dry, mountainous landscape of Armenia, then this is it. The songs meld seamlessly into one another, gently casting their spells and possibly touching your soul in the process. It's really no wonder that numerous film directors have used Gasparyan's music, or that Peter Gabriel once gushed that “Djivan's music touches my heart, with its sorrow so tender and bright, and his feelings so generous and heartfelt.”

Djivan Gasparyan was born in 1928 in the village of Solag, near to the Armenian capital of Yerevan. This was when Armenia was still a member of the USSR. His father was also an accomplished duduk player and Djivan became his apprentice at an early age. However his biggest inspiration came from the cinema. “I was fascinated by the duduk players accompanying the film,” he once told an interviewer. “Their ability to play a suitable melody for a sad or romantic scene, and also to burst in with vivacious folk dances when the film demanded more dynamism. The film didn't interest me much, but I was riveted by its extraordinary ability to express the right feelings through the duduk.”

By going to the cinema each day Djivan befriended the older musicians who taught him the process of circular breathing essential for the accompanying drone part (also known as “dam”). Eventually he joined them as a damkash (drone player). At the age of twenty he joined the Tatoul Altounian National Song and Dance Ensemble and studied at the Conservatoire, after which he became a soloist for the Yerevan Philharmonic Orchestra. He began touring internationally in the late fifties, travelling to Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and America.

Djivan eventually became a professor at the Yerevan Conservatoire and taught there for more than four decades. He won gold medals in world music competitions sponsored by UNESCO in 1959, 1962, 1973, and 1980 and holds the title of 'People's Artist of Armenia'. Astonishingly, he has performed for both Joseph Stalin and Queen Elizabeth II! He's also noted for composing songs based around the love poetry of Vahan Derian - a famed Armenian poet (1885-1920), lyricist, and public activist known for his sorrowful romanticisms.

Djivan Gasparyan passed away on 6 July 2021 at the age of 92.

Written by Phil Meadley

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