Joseph Bohigian Connects Armenian Traditions to Diasporic Culture on Debut Album

Composer Joseph Bohigian’s debut album The Water Has Found its Crack is centered around his engagement with the Armenian diaspora, and frankly, I’ve struggled to figure out how to write about this music. As the grandchild of a refugee of the 1915 genocide, any art that engages with the displacement of the Armenian people puts me in a different emotional context than the average listener. Released Nov. 10, 2023 on Other Minds Records in the midst of an ongoing genocide against Armenians at the hands of Azerbaijan, Bohigian’s music becomes more than a celebration of the resilience of Armenian culture – it’s been elevated to a rallying cry.

In the album’s liner notes, Sylvia Angelique Alajaji writes that this is “music that is simultaneously past, present, and – crucially – future.” Bohigian’s compositions blend Armenian sacred and folk traditions with contemporary musical language to recontextualize both. Despite these works having been written before the most recent conflict, the timing of the release gives the music a heightened political context as it considers the experience of creating art and living within the complicated framework of the Armenian diaspora.

Rerooted opens the album, and, at just over 20 minutes, takes up almost half of the total playing time. String drones performed by the Argus Quartet slip in and out of consonance, forming a backdrop for recorded interviews with Syrian-Armenian refugees who resettled in Armenia. This is not the first string quartet to use audio samples from interviews to dictate rhythm and texture, which effectively makes the spoken word an instrument itself. But Rerooted puts the string quartet and recorded speech in dialogue; swells in the strings are matched with increased activity in the layers of voices, and vice versa.

Joseph Bohigian -- Photo by Christer Mannikus

Joseph Bohigian — Photo by Christer Mannikus

In the medieval period, Armenian musicians developed a notation system called khaz, which was meant to supplement an oral musical tradition. But in the 21st century, most of our understanding of how khaz actually worked has been lost.

In Khazeri Yerazhshtutyun (“Music of Khazes”), Bohigian uses elements of this notation system to create a graphic score, which is texturally and gesturally interpreted by solo violinist Clara Kim through drones, slow slides from not to note, and percussive overpressure techniques. Conceptually, the piece is about the pain of trying to interpret a culture that has largely been lost to a century of military strikes and disinformation campaigns, and this is achieved by a performance in which a lost system of notation is reinterpreted.

The Water Has Found its Crack refers to a story about an Armenian woman who died while visiting the village where she grew up. When it was determined that she should be buried in the village, someone said, “Let her be buried here…the water has found its crack,” an anecdote that has come to represent the longing to return to one’s homeland.

Scored for three sopranos, string trio, and percussion, Bohigian wrote the work while living in Yerevan for the better part of a year. He assembled fragments of Armenian folk songs about water, and the resulting text is sung in Armenian by Catherine Sandstedt, Heidi Schneider, and Alina Tamborini. The piece unfolds in three sections, all featuring a long swell and a long come down. But each successive section is less active than the one before, seeming to evoke the image of water searching for a resting place.

Ensemble Decipher--Photo by Sophia Sagaradze

Ensemble Decipher–Photo by Sophia Sagaradze

The album’s final work, Stone Dreams, features the Armenian song “Karoun Karoun” and the Azerbaijani song “Sana gurban.” Performed by Ensemble Decipher, Stone Dreams demonstrates the way cultures can be drowned out and forgotten in the process of assimilation; occasionally, clear and distinct voices are heard, but those moments never last long before the voices are swallowed by a cacophony of noise and electronics.

The Water Has Found its Crack grapples with difficult topics from the outset and doesn’t really ever stop. The album is explicitly about the pain of a diaspora whose culture has largely been erased as their history continues to be rewritten by their oppressors; Bohigian’s music engages with the traditions of the diaspora without being beholden to anything.


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