A Rare, Haunting Recording of Armenian Music Gets a Manhattan Launch
Musicologist and drummer Jason Hamacher (late of squalling Washington, DC experimental indie rock trio Decahedron) made his initial trip to Aleppo, Syria eight years ago, which jumpstarted his recently launched Lost Origin Sound Series. Last year’s initial release comprised a series of recordings of thousand-year-old Sufi chants by Syrian choir Nawa. The second release in the series, Forty Martyrs: Armenian Chants from Aleppo, features 2006 and 2010 recordings by Armenian priest Yeznig Zegchanian, made in the historic, centuries-old house of worship where he was head cleric until war broke out. The result is as haunting as it is historic. To mark the hundredth anniversary of the genocide in Armenia, there’s an interesting album release event happening this Friday, September 18 at 7 PM at the Kavookjian Auditorium of the Armenian Diocese in New York, 630 2nd Ave.(34th/35th Sts), where Hamacher will discuss the album’s backstory and related historical events. The evening will be moderated by NPR’s Anastasia Tsioulcas; admission is free and open to the public.
The album itself was recorded on the fly, a selection of common liturgical pieces. Zegchanian sings at a steady clip in his endangered West Armenian dialect, his soulful, expressive baritone projecting with an effortless strength reinforced by just a touch of the 1496 edifice’s magical natural reverb. To call these impassioned solo performances inspired is an understatement: Zegchanian may have realized that he had a rare moment to immortalize this material, and seized it. The performance is fresh and off the cuff as you might expect, and the levels of volume and reverb vary from track to track, as would be expected with a field recording. As with secular Armenian music, the tonalities are closer to the even intervals of the west than the microtone of the east. The album – which is happily also available on vinyl – hasn’t hit Spotify or the other usual streaming spots yet, but there’s an intriguing selection of tracks from Hamacher’s archive up at Soundcloud.
While one might not expect to be able to hear Armenian Christian music in a predominantly Muslim city, Aleppo has historically been a major cosmopolitan center, often serving as a sanctuary for minorities from across the Middle East. As of today, most of the grounds at Forty Martyrs Church remain intact, although its outbuildings have been damaged by artillery fire. And Hamacher has not been able to track down Zegchanian. How cruelly ironic that the horrors of 1915 would mirror the tragic events in Syria a hundred years later: it is approximated that half of Aleppo’s Armenian population have become refugees in the past two years.