by Gayane Abrahamyan
Duduk player Jivan Gasparian shows a guest videos of his concerts. The Armenian musician appears in clips with pop stars Peter Gabriel, Lionel Ritchie, Brian May. And with the Kronos Quartet and with jazz artist Michael Brook.
Before 1991, Gasparian hardly dreamed of such musical partnerships. Communism was a sound barrier that prohibited contacts outside its careful control.
In the past 15 years—since Independent Armenia replaced Armenia SSR—Gasparian has played his distinctly Armenian melodies on world stages. Hollywood has discovered the musician. Gasparian's music was used in the Russell Crowe movie, Gladiator. But he recalls how his first invitation for exposure outside Armenia was denied. In the early 1970s, UNESCO invited Gasparian to perform in France. Authorities in Moscow, however, decided to send Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.
"But they have invited me," Gasparian had said in amazed argument.
"We have decided to send Rostropovich," was the response.
As with politics, decisions about art and culture were made in Moscow, and if any Armenians did pierce the veil, they were not to represent their little homeland, but the great Soviet Union.
"We were not the masters of our own art," says Gasparian. "Moscow decided who could go, whom to play with. If one managed to go abroad, it was still impossible to escape security officers and talk to a foreign musician even about music itself."
For Soviet artists, socialism was hardly an expansive palette or a blank page for composing. It was, rather, an imposition of boundaries and prohibitions. Straying outside the lines had consequences—often tragic—as learned by writers such as Paruyr Sevak and Yeghishe Charents who were imprisoned for their words.
The dropping of the Iron Curtain, however, did not necessarily signal raising the curtain on Armenian art that many might have expected.
"The former suppression gave way to simple negligence," says writer Perch Zeytuntsian, who was independent Armenia's first Minister of Culture. "Society suffers from the burden of everyday problems and buying a book has become a luxury for some people."
In some cases, economic hardship has replaced political oppression as a hindrance to artistry. Soviet censorship prohibited Sergei Parajanov from shooting films. Today, renowned director Artavazd Peleshian cannot shoot his Homo Sapiens because he doesn't have enough money.
But with nearly as many stories of difficulty have come successes that could not have happened under Soviet prohibition—especially in the performing arts.
In opera, Armenian singers such as Hasmik Papian have had roles in the world's most famous halls. Pop singer Nuné Yessayan has built a bigger fan base abroad than at home. Chamber Theater actors have appeared on Los Angeles stages. And music groups such as Time Report and the Armenian Navy Band have played in European countries, and even in Turkey.
The Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra, an AGBU beneficiary, has risen from—almost literally—ashes. There is a well-known story from the energy crisis days of workers in the Aram Khachaturian Hall where the orchestra performs, finding a grand piano from which the legs had been taken and used for firewood.
Through some of the republic's least inspiring times, APO was a cultural beacon, providing weekly free concerts for a public virtually deprived of culture.
Honored for its public service during those years, the orchestra has also represented Armenia outside the borders, with performances in North America, Europe and the Middle East.
Further, since independence, it has released more than 30 CDs, some of which earned "Best Record of the Month" by noted music journals.
Generally, independence has been good for cultural Armenia. But the early days brought struggle.
"The very notion of art was forgotten in those days. I can recall only Loris Tjeknavorian's Friday concerts to quench our spiritual thirst," says Marietta Hovhannisian, 57, a piano teacher. "In those days people were thinking only about the queues for bread and oil procurements."
The problems in the newly independent state hit both social and cultural spheres. It took several years for the latter to revive and rise up from the ruins of the empire.
"Those were hard years for culture," says Gasparian. "Many artists went abroad. Some of them found work in other spheres and it seemed we would have no culture left in Armenia, until the energy crisis surrendered."
LET THERE BE . . . ART
The "dark days" lightened in 1994 and cultural life gradually dawned on musicians who were paid less than $15 a month (they make about $100 now).
Note by note, Armenia began to find its song again. In 1995 the Small Singers of Armenia Choir won two gold and one silver medal among 68 choirs from 20 European countries at the San Francisco Golden Gate International Competition.
The choir was founded in 1992, when rehearsals were held by candlelight in a room heated by an oil stove.
The National Chamber Orchestra of Armenia was reborn in 1996, when American Armenian conductor Aram Gharabekian moved to Armenia while others were leaving the republic.
"If it were not for the devoted people in those years, we wouldn't have anything today," says Armen Mazmanian, who in 1988 helped found the Goy Theater, where plays by banned authors were staged.
Jazz—so distinctly a product of the evil West—was especially vitalized by independence.
"Despite the difficulties at the beginning, we were happy all the same, because jazz was legalized at last, we were free," says saxophonist Armen Hyusnunts. In 1996 he and pianist Khachik Sahakian formed Time Report, which 10 years later is a favored Armenian ensemble that has played in Europe and North America, mixing jazz with traditional Armenian compositions.
"Jazzmen got the opportunity to earn their living by playing jazz. That was almost absolutely impossible before," says Hyusnunts, who adds that good artists are no longer disregarded.
"If you are a good performer, you paint or write well, then you will succeed despite difficulties. Today I earn my living by playing. I have performances every day. I tour. There was no opportunity like this before."
In 1998 the first Yerevan International Jazz Festival was held and in just its second year was headlined by internationally renowned pianist Chic Corea.
The British Jazz Changes magazine wrote: "Who would think that Armenia, associated with only energy crisis, war and refugees in the Western mind, would be able to hold an international jazz festival on this level."
The triumphal march of the Armenian festivals has begun. Big and small, theatrical, cinema, musical, dance and fine arts festivals are part of today's Armenian arts calendar.
"(Independence) was a breath of fresh air for our culture," says writer and publicist Aghasi Aivazian. "It's okay if we sometimes breathe also dust, we need festivals; they are still imperfect today, but tomorrow they will improve."
Since 2004, summer and autumn months have been full of various festivals. The One Nation One Culture Pan-Armenian Cultural Festival brought 1,500 art people from the Diaspora, who jointly performed across the republic for seven days.
Also for the past three Julys, Yerevan has turned into a celebration of cinema with the Golden Apricot International Film Festival. Many were pessimistic about the festival at the beginning.
"Everyone would call us crazy. Festivals need millions of dollars, when we didn't have even a hundred thousand," says the founder of the festival Harutyun Khachatrian.
The festival, with a small budget and great expectations, brought famous cinematographers such as Italian scriptwriter Tonino Guerra, Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi, Cannes award-winner Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov. This July, Canadian Armenian director Atom Egoyan (Ararat, The Sweet Hereafter) led festival events.
The Perspectives XXI Music Festival brought The Kronos Quartet, The Tokyo Quartet, the Vienna Boys' Choir, violist Yuri Bashmet, The London Symphonietta Orchestra, cellist David Geringas and others to Yerevan.
"Negotiations with each separate musician take nearly two years. We aim both at bringing them to Armenia and promoting the Armenian culture at the same time. Many of them already cooperate with Armenian composers," says the founder of the festival, composer Stepan Rostomian.
Festivals and other cultural events got a boost in 2003 when the Lincy Foundation completed a $17.5 million project that included the reconstruction and the full equipment of 35 theaters, museums and concert halls across the republic.
In 2004, when the renewed cultural centers opened to audiences, President Robert Kocharian announced that the new and beautiful halls should be filled with high-class content.
And while the Lincy Foundation has made theater and museum attendance a more pleasurable experience, Yerevan's Cascade has become an open-air entertainment center renovated by the Cafesjian Family Foundation. Routinely, weather permitting, the Foundation and others provide free concerts by Armenia's most popular musical performers.
Armenian pop music emerged this year also, as singer Andre placed 8th at the Eurovision Song Competition in the first year an Armenian had been invited to participate.
And, the biggest music news of the year was that the "ethno jazz" orchestra, Armenian Navy Band (who says its name represents landlocked Armenia's sea of music) won the BBC Radio World Music Audience Award.
TV OR NOT TV . . .
Achievements in culture were offset, some say, by a decline in the integrity of art.
Cinema critic David Muradian says Armenian artists were a slave to communism, but are slaves to marketing today—meaning they appeal to a lower common denominator, i.e., the buyer. In both extremes, culture is distorted. No longer is every artist looking over his shoulder to see how far behind the Soviet artistic counsel is lurking. But neither is anyone restricted from calling himself an "artist" if he has the means of self promotion—a phenomenon easily observed with a glance at the number of Armenian CDs available for purchase.
Just as oppression thwarts artistic growth, quality suffers when the freedom to create is confused with any self-expression being seen as art.
"The freedom to create is the most important achievement we have had after independence. Any kind of censorship was abolished and every citizen of the Republic of Armenia got the right to freely enjoy cultural services and to be engaged in professional and non-professional creative work," says Garnik Guyumjian, Head of the State Projects, Cultural Cooperation, Education and Science Department at the RA Ministry of Culture.
Guyumjian says, however, that handing over cultural centers for management by local administrations (in 1996) was done in haste, without legislative provision and criteria.
"There were prohibitions in Soviet times and that was not bad even for a dissident like me," says theater founder Mazmanian. "It was prohibited to show naked women and children bellydancing on TV all the time, because its influence can't be positive in raising a new generation."
In Soviet times there were two state television channels in Armenia; the Armenian public also had access to two Russian channels—all of them geared mainly for educational purposes. Today there are 18 stations in Yerevan and at least one in each region. And for Yerevan residents who pay $200 installation and $20 a month, there are 68 channels of mostly Russian-language national and international programming. Super System officials say they have "a few thousand" subscribers.
In the three years of energy crisis, television was almost excluded from the lives of the Armenian population. In those times, the two available channels used to work from 6 or 8 p.m. to midnight. The viewers managed to watch only news and Brazilian soaps—a novelty for post-Soviet society.
In the early years of independence, the parade of soap operas reached its peak—people outdoors were in a hurry to get home; those who had 12-Volt power consuming TV sets and a battery were considered "rich". And the "happiest" were those whose schedule of electricity supply coincided with TV movie times.
"Now as I see the programs on TV, I long for those bad years, when there was no electricity and we watched almost no TV. Today the television perverts our children instead of educating," says film director Armen Mazmanian.
He recalls that in Soviet times a non-professional production was not allowed for show without permission of the arts council that included the best art experts of the country.
"Today everybody who has money, a rich dad or a lover sings, shoots videos and appears on the screen and the new generation thinks that's a normal thing, that's what art is," says Mazmanian with exasperation.
Only two TV channels, Hayrenik children's channel and Shoghakat, which belongs to the Holy See of Etchmiadzin, avoid showing music videos and advertisement.
Notorious on the television landscape is ALM TV.
Tigran Karapetian, founding president of ALM as well as of the People's Party political organization, uses the channel as a means of self-promotion.
Karapetian's constituency is made up of people from the provinces, to whom he offers the opportunity to appear on the screen, to sing, to dance, to recite, without regard to whether the person has any talent. The children who sing "well" are named Emeralds, Stars and Diamonds.
In the past three years, everybody speaks of the tasteless "vocal arts" at ALM, including the mass media. A large group of intelligentsia addressed an open letter to Karapetian last year to stop aesthetically spoiling children.
Twenty-five representatives of intelligentsia—writers, composers and other specialists in arts—said Karapetian's programming was having devastating consequences on the education of the new generation.
"A badly singing child or a young man, who gets the title of ‘Star' has no doubts of being a star. Arrogant, they achieve nothing in life; they don't even understand that the title of a star they get from Karapetian is a bribe for a vote. The thing is so well elaborated," says Jivan Gasparian.
But the artists' nemesis has flourished. Since opening in 2003 through last year, some 50,000 guests have visited Karapetian's "Musical Treasure Chest" show; 5,000 have been given a "diamond" rating.
The number of visits to the TV company has doubled this year with the introduction of a new game that asks "intellectual" questions to adults. Contestants scoring the most correct answers get TV sets.
The letter by the representatives of the intelligentsia particularly says: "You easily want to turn a whole nation into that of singers by granting cheap-valued titles of ‘Diamond' and ‘Star'. No one opposes exploring new names and finding talented children, but you should at least invite specialists, who would work with those children to prepare them for appearing on screen. The transient happiness that you grant those children and their parents seeds arrogance in their souls and distorts the further flow of their lives."
Karapetian's response to the letter by the intelligentsia was comprised of one sentence voiced out both on his own channel and in the press: "They are envious because so many people love me."
Mazmanian believes Armenia, including its arts, needs a conservative democracy. "A slave can't be given absolute freedom, otherwise everything around will turn into chaos. We were born in the socialist slavery regime. Today we ‘enjoy' the chaos and I don't know what generation we are going to have tomorrow." Folk music composer Ruben Hakhverdian, who was once the most zealous opponent of censorship, has a new tune, 15 years into free speech: "I believe now we need a taste of censorship. I don't know where we will arrive at, if our children hear songs like ‘Baby, daddy will buy you a Mercedes Benz'."
Specialists of art say there is a decline in values, traceable to a lack of state policy in the field of culture.
While extremists took the ideology too far, officials in the Soviet Union were well aware of the need to legislate art. As early as 1918, Lenin decreed that libraries and museums must be created as a means of educating the masses through art.
Despite hardships, of the 106 museums operating in 1997, 97 are still active today. Libraries have been hurt a little more, dropping from 1,208 to 1,050.
Commercialism has collided with culture. During the last five years the premises of "Hanragitaran" (Encyclopedia) Publishing House, Armenian Cultural Foundation and Yerevan History Museum were sold for a price some ten times lower than the market value in Yerevan. The building of the "Posi" Theater (Theater in the Pit) was sold to a billiards bar.
But nowhere has the misuse of cultural property been more apparent than at the Opera House, where some 2,000 square meters of public space were taken over by restaurants and cafes—many owned by government officials. Inside on the stages, artists struggle for decent wages and are often only surviving due to Diaspora subsidy while, outside, money pours into private pockets from cash registers placed on property that rightfully should be part of the cultural scene.
"You can't hold anyone responsible, because the ministers change every year and blame the closing or the selling of a cultural center on their predecessors. The frequent change of ministers is witness to the state's lackadaisical attitude towards the culture," says Ruben Gevorgyants, chairman of the Union of Cinema Workers.
Armenia has had seven ministers of culture since independence, four in the past three years.
Gevorgyants believes the status of the Ministry of Culture should be equal to that of the Ministry of Defense.
"The Ministry of Defense defends our country by means of weapons, and we do it by means of culture. A nation that has lost its culture turns into a nomad and there remains nothing for the Defense Ministry to protect," says the director.
Although the state has been allotting significantly more money to the cultural centers during the last five years, its share in the state budget still makes up just 1.44 percent.
In 1997 the Ministry of Culture was allocated about $2.5 million; in 2006 the budget for culture has grown to nearly $15 million, while state artists' salaries have increased by nearly four times.
"Although the salaries have grown, they are still too little to provide a normal living, and many artists are in the state of a beggar today, and a beggar cannot fully devote himself to creative work," says the chairman of the Union of Composers, Robert Amirkhanian.
Writer Davit Hovhannes believes the Ministry of Culture is able to, and should, convince wealthy citizens of Armenia to invest in culture.
"Their imagination is limited to having a Hummer and erecting another villa. The rich do not know art is profitable. But who can guide them, except the Ministry," says Hovhannes.
But money can't buy artistic integrity.
Along with many others, dudukist Gasparian complains of amateur troupes, unsophisticated tastes, and non-Armenian music in the market.
"Anyone can open a college or a group and teach children whatever he wants. Today 90 percent of our pop music is not Armenian; young people sing songs with Arabic, Turkish and Persian motifs. Komitas saved us from that and it once again has emerged in independent Armenia. This is the easiest way to conquer us," says Gasparian.
Karo Vardanian, head of the cultural policy department at the Ministry of Culture, says the Ministry has no direct leverage on supervising the sphere today, but plans to introduce a licensing system soon to set defined criteria for private training centers.
Vardanian says the Ministry has a cultural policy that is implemented in three directions:
"First, preservation of material and non-material cultural heritage, its dissemination, promotion and development; second, formation and education of a civil society that will realize the role of culture; and, the most important, proper presentation of the Armenian culture abroad," says Vardanian.