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You may not know the late Armenian musician and composer Jivan gasparyan by name, or even by the name of your instrument. But you’ve almost certainly heard her duduk, changing between high-pitched wailing and exuberant screams, on film soundtracks and sheet music ranging from The last temptation of Christ to gladiator. Contributor to Peter Gabriel, Michael Brook, Kronos Quartet, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Lionel Ritchie and Queen’s Brian mayAmong many others, Gasparyan has passed away at the age of 92.
Gasparyan (whose names are sometimes transcribed as “Djivan” and “Gasparian”) was born in October. 12 of 1928 in Solak, Armenia, in a town near the capital, Yerevan. At the age of six, he began to learn the duduk, a double-reed instrument close to the western oboe, from his father, who was also a musician. Years later, however, he said in an interview with the English music journalist Simon Broughton that his greatest inspiration was going to the cinema as a child and listening to the duduk players accompany the films with their own improvisations.
Within his own country, Gasparyan’s talent was recognized early. He achieved a world of emotional expression with his simple instrument, one made of apricot wood, with a range of just one octave. When he was 20 years old, Gasparyan was a soloist with the Yerevan Philharmonic Orchestra. He had a remarkable career in Armenia and the then Soviet Union; In 1973, he was the first musician to receive the title of People’s Artist of Armenia.
Brian Eno heard Gasparyan play a performance in Moscow in 1988, and promptly invited him to London, where Eno introduced him to Michael Brook. Brook produced Gasparyan’s first international album, The moon shines at night. (Meanwhile, Eno managed to license another Gasparyan recording, I will not be sad in this world, from the Soviet state label, Melodiya, and issued it outside the USSR on his own label, Opal Records.)
Most international audiences first became acquainted with Gasparyan’s music, however, through the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film, The last temptation of Christ, which was curated by Peter Gabriel. Gasparyan also appeared as part of the scores and soundtracks of Dead man Walking, Blood Diamond, Syriana other gladiator, among other Hollywood films, as well as that of the Armenian-Canadian director Atom Egoyan Calendar.
He transformed the duduk from a purely folk instrument, played by shepherds, into a force on the concert stage. Surprisingly, Gasparyan, who grew up unable to read music, enrolled in the Yerevan Conservatory of Music at age 52; later, he became a teacher there. But what he accomplished during his career was remarkable, not only in terms of his personal achievement, but also in what he accomplished for the profile of his instrument.
Gasparyan was also an important ambassador for Armenian culture, both for his country and for the distant Armenian diaspora. Upon learning of his death, the former President of Armenia, Robert Kocharyan, wrote: “Djivan Gasparyan is one of the greatest musicians who raised the Armenian performing arts and, in particular, popular wind instruments to a new level, bringing them worldwide fame and recognition. I bow with great gratitude to his merit and memory.”