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An Interview with Tigran Hamasyan

Matthew Kassel
Staff Writer
matthew.kassel [at] mail.mcgill.ca

I met Tigran Hamasyan at a Starbucks here in Montreal a few hours before his solo piano show at L’Astral on February 11. Tigran seemed quite composed, and he answered my sometimes-erratic questions with patience and intelligence. In the past few months, I have interviewed several jazz musicians between sets, and I’m always surprised at how composed they are. But this was before the show, and the conversation had a different feel, a different point of reference—no performance to reflect on.

I did see him perform that night, though. And, as I realized after, the one thing I regret not mentioning in our conversation is Indian music—specifically, what he thinks about the tablas.

If you’ve listened to his album, “A Fable,” then you probably heard some soft, rhythmic whooshing in the background of some songs. It sounds a little like a dampened cajon. But it’s his mouth, and he’s sort of using it to accentuate the rhythmic drive of his playing. (It’s known as bol in Indian music, and tabla players use it to mimic what they are playing with their hands.)

Tigran, classically trained, is a virtuoso. And virtuosity can be dangerous. But he handles it well. He played some burning lines in the performance I saw, and they didn’t feel forced or unnecessary. He skillfully let chords hang in the air as they diffused into silence.

There’s something refreshing about solo piano performances—for the pianist, I would imagine, and for the audience. On tour, all the pianist needs is himself. He’s not going to travel with a grand piano, and he has no band members to worry about. As for the audience, all it has is the pianist. And that connection is special.

Matthew Kassel: On your new album [A Fable], I only recognize one title, which is “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Are all of the other songs your own tunes?

Tigran Hamasyan: Well, not all of the tunes.

MK: There’s an Armenian folk song, right?

TH: There’s an Armenian folk song and there’s also a composition [“The Spinners”] by George Ivanovich Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann. Gurdjieff wrote it and Thomas de Hartmann arranged it for piano. And I took that and rearranged it. And also there’s an Armenian, medieval hymn that I arranged, called “Where Are You, Mother?”

MK: I really liked the hymn. It was one of my favorites on the album. It had nice chords—I’m not sure exactly what they were, but I liked them anyway. So why did you choose “Someday My Prince Will Come”?

TH: Thanks. Well, I already had the arrangement for “Someday My Prince Will Come” before I even thought about recording a solo album. And when I started thinking about what I wanted to work the record towards, and what I wanted it to consist of, I wanted to do a standard, a couple of standards. But that arrangement of that song was pretty much the only arrangement that worked with the whole mood of the album. It worked with the rest of the compositions.

MK: What kind of mood would you say that is?

TH: Well, compositionally… I mean, it doesn’t necessarily have to be in a sad mood or a romantic mood. Just compositionally, you can’t play a burning standard next to an Armenian song.

MK: Well, I noticed that you ended “Someday My Prince Will Come” with a sadder chord. And it’s sort of a hopeful song, or maybe not, I’m not really sure.

TH: Yeah, well, it just wouldn’t make sense to end on a major chord. Musically, it didn’t make sense. And my whole idea for this arrangement was to take the most major sounding, happy sounding melody and completely revise it. Well, I’m keeping the melody as it is, but just completely having a dark, opposite harmony.

MK: Like in “The Spinners” as well?

TH: Well, yeah, that’s the Gurdjieff tune. I didn’t change a lot of stuff in that, though. It’s one of my favorite compositions.

MK: It sort of reminded me of Yann Tiersen. Do you know him?

TH: Yann Tiersen… no.

MK: Have you ever seen the movie Amelie?

TH: Yeah.

MK: Well, he did the soundtrack for that, like the piano stuff.

TH: Oh yeah, yeah.

MK: And have you ever sung before? Is this your first time singing in a recorded format?

TH: I actually used to be a singer when I was a child. But then when my voice changed, I didn’t follow up.

MK: You didn’t become a eunuch?

TH: What?

MK: No eunuch for your future [laughs]?

TH: No, I kind of started concentrating on piano. And recently, there’s things that I write where I hear a certain voice singing it. And I feel like I really want to sing, but, you know, it’s still in development. Like there’s things I can do and things I can’t do.

MK: What were you singing in? Armenian?

TH: Yeah, there’s one song [“Longing”] where I’m singing in Armenian. I actually took the lyrics from this really famous poet in Armenia. His name is Hovhannes Tumanyan. He lived in the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth, and I took two of his quatrains that he wrote, you know, four-line phrases, and I put it to this song that I wrote.

MK: Do you like poetry?

TH: I love poetry. I’ve read poetry since I was a kid.

MK: Just Armenian, or…?

TH: Well, mostly, other things, too, you know. But mostly Armenian, just because there’s a lot of incredible Armenian poetry.

MK: You don’t live there anymore, do you?

TH: No, but I visit. I’ve been visiting since 2009.

MK: But you were born there?

TH: Yeah, I was born and raised there until I was sixteen. And I started studying at USC, and then a little bit at the New School in New York.

MK: What year were you?

TH: I haven’t finished yet. I’m on an unofficial break [laughs]. I have like one year to go.

MK: Do you think you’ll finish it?

TH: Yeah, I will. Definitely. I just have to find the right time where I’m not traveling. The great thing about going to school was meeting other talented students and making projects with them and just playing.

MK: Was it like that in Armenia?

TH: It was, but I was in high school, like I finished high school and I left. I was in a classically oriented school.

MK: Are there any jazz schools in Armenia?

TH: There’s a jazz department in a conservatory, but it’s kind of sad. I was really lucky that I had this teacher who went to New York and studied with Barry Harris. And he came back to Armenia and started doing private lessons, and master classes, for free. And it was just like, “I need to teach this thing to people.” So I was lucky to study one year with this guy, and that’s why I really discovered what jazz was.

MK: So when was the first time you played in a group?

TH: Well, like I told you, I used to sing in a big band. And that was my first band experience, around ’97 or ’98.

MK: And what did you sing?

TH: Standards. There’s two songs that I definitely remember: “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and “What a Wonderful World.”

MK: Louis Armstrong has got some pretty popular versions of those songs. In your solo playing, it seems like the rhythm is not necessarily reliably consistent, like it goes back and forth between different pockets of rhythms. Did you have to practice that, or did you just start playing in that sort of way.

TH: You definitely practice—you practice everything. I mean, you have the vision and the desire to find what you want to say, but then it’s all about practicing to make your vision come true.

MK: OK. That’s usually what the answer is.

TH: Oh yeah, definitely. But it’s great to be exposed to a lot of different things so you can feel where you’re going. And of course I’m really lucky to have met some of the musicians that I’ve met. When I was a freshman in college, I did my first record [World Passion] with Ari Hoenig and Francois Moutin and Ben Wendel and that was a life-changing experience.

MK: Yeah? I interviewed Ari Hoenig a couple of months ago. And he has a pretty interesting sense of rhythm.

TH: Yeah. He’s a master of that. So that was pretty big for me. And then after that a lot of things opened up. After that record, I started really getting into exploring things. And it’s an ongoing project.

MK: Do you prefer solo piano?

TH: I can’t say that. No, I like doing projects, dedicating myself to one project for a certain period of time and getting a lot of stuff out of it and really exploring it deeply. And then, of course, you got to change, you know? I love playing with groups as much as I love playing solo. Especially the group that I have right now. For me, it’s really, really special.

MK: What’s that group?

TH: My quintet, with Nate Wood, Sam Minaie, and Wendel and Areni. It’s like a dream band for me.

MK: Do you write the compositions for it?

TH: I write the compositions, and we also do Armenian folk music that I arrange.

MK: Armenian folk music. Do you listen to those folk songs a lot? Were they a big part of your childhood?

TH: Yeah.

MK: Well, I don’t really know much about Armenian folk music, so…Armenia is bordered with Turkey, right? And Azerbaijan and Iran Georgia?

TH: Yeah, you got it.

MK: Have you ever been to those other countries?

TH: I’ve been to Georgia, I’ve been to Turkey. I haven’t been to Iran or Azerbaijan yet. I think I will go to Iran someday.

MK: If I’m not mistaken, historically, there’s a little tension between Armenia and the surrounding countries. Like there’s been lots of war in the past. Did you experience that when you were growing up?

TH: Yeah, well, the history makes the people. And there’s so much influence from that, you know? Music is influenced by that, what kind of history you have, what the music is about. You can like read the history in a song.

MK: Are there similarities between the folk music of Armenia and, say, Turkey?

TH: Certain similarities and influences, but the structure is completely different. Turkic tribes came from Mongolia, so their music got influenced by a lot of Middle Eastern music, especially Persian music, and also Arabic music. But originally Turkish music, that’s where it came from, so it’s closer to Mongolian music and Central Asian music.

MK: What do you think of Arabic music?

TH: What exactly? That’s such a broad question.

MK: Do you listen to it?

TH: Of course, yeah.

MK: Like, when I think of Arabic music, I think of quarter steps, like little, teensy steps.

TH: Yeah, I played with an Arab musician from Tunisia, and I would say the differences are just the melodic structures, the modes, and actually, the use of those quarter tones. Like, Swedish people have quarter tones, too. You know what I mean? So it depends on where you use it and how you use it. And of course the most important thing is the rhythmic structure of the song or the dance, and also the melodic structure.

MK: Do you know Fairuz? Or, Umm Kulthum?

TH: Fairuz? Yeah, and Umm Kulthum, man.

MK: I take Arabic at school, so I try to listen to some of these people and musicians. Speaking of Swedish music, I read that you like Meshuggah. Do you like any other metal bands?

TH: Yeah, I like Tool, I like Apex Theory, and yeah, Meshuggah. But I mean, I like the energy of these bands. But also I’m really into Meshuggah and Tool because of their creativeness. They’re incredible musicians. Rhythmically, it’s insane. They have a concept.

MK: Yeah, I just bought a Meshuggah album this summer. It was my first time buying a metal album, actually.

TH: Well, you shouldn’t think of Meshuggah as metal. I mean, first it might scare you, because of the energy of it. But after you get past that, you know, the style is addictive. But yeah, Meshuggah is from Sweden, but they don’t have anything to do with Swedish folk music, which I love. I mean, that’s my thing. Swedish and Norwegian—the Scandinavian folk music is unbelievable.

Matthew Kassel is a fourth-year at McGill University studying political science and Arabic. When he can, he writes--often about jazz. Find some of his work at http://coldjazz.blogspot.com/.