The Naghash Ensemble founder and Armenian-American composer John Hodian answers the questions of Hakob Asatryan, Editor-in-Chief of ORER European Armenian Magazine
ORER MAGAZINE.- You were born and grew up in the US and currently live in Germany. Could you please tell us a little about your family and your Armenian roots.
John Hodian.- Actually, I currently live in Yerevan and New York. I grew up in a very tight-knit Armenian family. All of my parent’s friends were Armenian. All the music we had in the home and most of the music I heard growing up was Armenian. I was always proud of being Armenian and loved the culture but we were not oriented to ”Armenia” as a place. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s and to my parent’s generation the Armenia of that time was not considered their homeland. I am the grandson of genocide survivors from Kharpert. As far as my parents were concerned the Armenia of that time was just part of the Soviet Union and had little to do with them. Now that I live in Yerevan I feel quite different but of course the Yerevan of today is totally different from that of the 60’s or 70’s. For that matter the Armenia of today is very different from that of just one year ago!
ORER.- How and when did you decide to pursue music, when did you make the first connection with music?
John Hodian.- I was not on a good path as a youth. I felt very alienated from society and did not interact socially. My older sister got a piano when I was 11 years old. The day they moved the piano in, no one else was home. I started picking out melodies at the piano keyboard and within minutes I was obsessed! I developed very quickly and started studying classical piano but I was always more interested in composing music as opposed to being a performer. It wasn’t until later on, when the need arose for performing my own music that I became a performer as well as a composer.
ORER.- As far as I am aware, you decided to form the Naghash Ensemble back in 2010, as you were inspired by the performances of Mkrtich Naghash’s pieces by the Luys Vocal Quintet near the temple of Garni. What specifically caught your interest?
John Hodian.- Specifically it was the sound of Hasmik Baghdasaryan’s voice. She has one of the most beautiful voices in the world and that sound resonating in the acoustics of Garni temple was completely mesmerizing. As a composer I wanted to steal that sound somehow and make it mine. Which is basically what I did. Her sound instantly became part of my own musical DNA.
ORER.- You read the poetry of Mkrtich Naghash, you provide explanations and then perform the music. Is this done in order to make the work more accessible to the listener, or in order to provide an artistic expression of the musical piece?
John Hodian.- The music we create is all new music I have composed to texts by Mkrtich Naghash. After hearing Hasmik sing I knew I needed to find just the right texts that would go with the new music I wanted to create for her. I read many texts of all sorts of Armenian poets but when I read the texts of Mkrtich Naghash I knew I had found what I was looking for. Naghash was a highly regarded priest and poet in the late 1400’s . He had a huge following in Diyarbakir but when he built a new church it had a steeple that was higher than any of the local mosques. This did not sit well with the Muslim authorities who tried to make him to take the steeple down. Naghash refused, but eventually he was run out of town and forced to live the rest of his life in exile. Much of his poetry is on the sorrows of life in exile which is something I think many Armenians of the diaspora can relate to.
ORER.- I recall your concert in Berlin in 2015, where a mainly German audience was present, and where you were treated to a warm welcome. Do you feel, see or spot any differences between foreign and Armenian audiences?
John Hodian.- One of the great pleasures of what we do as performers is presenting aspects of Armenian culture to non-Armenians. While the music we play is not traditional “Armenian” music it has an undeniable feeling of Armenian-ness because of my background. Plus many of these people have never heard a duduk or dhol before. But it’s still “new” music and whether they are Armenian or European, audiences from both cultures have been very enthusiastic
ORER.- Other than your written pieces which are based on Naghash’s works, do you perform the works of other authors?
John Hodian.- No.
ORER.- How would you describe or characterize your music, is it classical, folk, or ethnic music?
John Hodian.- Yes to all of the above! Plus there are many other elements I would add as well, all of which reflect my varied musical background. There are aspects of medieval polyphonic vocal music, New music such as that of the American minimalists like Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Plus lots of popular music influences from singer-songwriters, to funk as well as many aspects of Jazz and rock.
ORER.- On 2nd August is your much-anticipated performance at the Český Krumlov International Music Festival. What do you have in store to present in the Czech Republic and what does such participation in festivals give to you, and mean for you?
John Hodian.- On August 2nd we will be presenting a very special program with the South Czech Philharmonic. I originally wrote a lot of this music for the 3 female singers, oud, dhol, duduk and a string orchestra. We tour a lot but of course it is impossible to bring an entire string orchestra on the road along with the 7 seven members of the Naghash Ensemble.
As a solution I arranged the string parts to be played by piano. In doing so the music continued to evolve and as the piano is principally a percussion instrument, it gave the music even more life and rhythmic vitality.
However, after years of touring in this configuration I was looking at some of the original orchestra scores and I realized there were things I missed about the string parts. Plus I am only one person and cannot take the place of an entire string section playing individual interlocking polyphonic parts. So I created yet a 3rd version of this music, which I think has the best of both worlds. It is the full Naghash Ensemble with piano as well as a complete string orchestra. To me it allows for music to be heard as I always intended, with no compromise.
ORER.- What plans do you have in the near and/or distant future?
John Hodian.- We are just now finishing the 3rd and final CD of the “Songs of Exile” trilogy. Naghash only left 15 poems behind and there are no more poems of his for me to set! However there are many exciting things coming up for the ensemble. We continue to tour more and more and this year we will go to more countries than ever before. Plus we are making a live recording , CD and DVD.
The Naghash Ensemble has a tremendous amount of energy when they play live and while there are many videos of the ensemble we have never been able to make a truly great live concert film of the whole program. This will be issued as both a CD and a DVD.
Plus I am working on a big project with several people, which will be a theatrical presentation based on he Naghash material. This would be something like an opera or staged-oratorio but will allow the audience to have a very different multi-dimensional experience of the music. Plus the ensemble will be going to America and Canada for the first time in October of 2020. Beyond that we have concert dates lined up for years to come!
ORER Armenian European magazine
June , 2019