One of the most hauntingly beautiful albums of recent months is Arsen Petrosyan‘s Charentsavan: Music for Armenian Duduk, streaming at Storyamp. For those unfamiliar with Middle Eastern music, the duduk is the world’s smallest low-register instrument, smaller even than the bass ukulele made famous by the Handsome Family‘s Rennie Sparks. With its ancient, otherworldly, resonantly woody tone, the duduk has been a staple of Armenian music for thousands of years. Over the past several decades, it’s also insinuated itself into the arsenal of many reed players around the world: Matt Darriau, for one, played it on a few numbers at his most recent couple of Barbes shows.
Petrosyan’s album is spare and relentlessly intense, played in minor keys, typically with very sparse percussion, lute or drone accompaniment. The instrumentals mix originals with ancient themes, many of them rescued from dusty archives where the music had been hidden away under Soviet occupation. On the opening track, Eshkhemet, he establishes a meticulously ornamented, woundedly expressive approach, in this case subtly embellishing a minimalist minor-key melody played over a single-note drone. The second track, Hazar Ernek follows the slow, funereally swaying pulse of a dombek goblet drun. On Naz Par, Petrosyan sails up into the instrument’s clarinet-like upper range, this time employing both percussion and what sounds like a harmonium lingering in the background.
In an imaginative piece of orchestration, Tapna Kervan Prtav sets Petrosyan’s imploring upper-register melody over tersely pulsing concert harp. He plays over a stately lute-and-guitar arrangement on Lullaby for the Sun, by contemporary oud mastermind Ara Dinkjian, finally rising out of an opaque, jazz-tinged pulse with an almost horror-stricken intensity. Javakhki Shoror opens with simple, doubletracked duduk, warily flurrying melismatics over a steady high drone until the drums and a full string orchesra kick in and then all of a sudden it’s an uneasy dance.
The gentle, lush, catchy pastorale Kessabi Oror features flurrying tar lutes: it’s the most distinctly modern piece here, contarsting with the 1100-year-old folk tune Havik, an austere, desolate tableau. The final cut, Hairenik is a plaintively airy, medieval-sounding ballad for duduk and harp.
The press material for the album compares Petrosyan to the instrument’s most prominent 20th century virtuoso, Jivan Gasparyan, whose transcendent and reputedly final New York concert this blog was privileged to cover in 2014. Those are titanic shoes to fill, but Petrosyan is clearly up to the challenge. Fans of Armenian, Middle Eastern and Balkan music shouldn’t pass up the chance to give this a spin, and anyone inclined to low-key, melancholy sounds should do so as well. The album is available in the US from Pomegranate Music.