Tigran Hamasyan: "The world we live in is what we deserved"


Katherine Zyabluk
musician, author

Oleksii Karpovych


 Relatively recently, when the use of the traditional folk music in jazz has not yet been so wide-spread, there was a kind of club of the elect. For these improvisers, their ancient (no matter what it could mean to anyone) culture was a natural part of the music language as all other aspects of something modern. It is like eating or breathing.  

And much elder, venerable improviser, without hesitation accepted the young Armenian pianist / composer / interpreter Tigran Hamasyan to this "club". After all, his unsurpassed talent and technical skills (it’s no wonder for jazz) were multiplied by the bottomless sound of the piano in dynamics and colour and thinking style - unusual for his age (and for that anyone can be accepted in any “club” – whatever it could mean).

 As a young musician, Hamasyan had enough wisdom and feelings not to "be spoiled", no offence meant. It is not difficult - when you are sincerely applauded by those who were a nonpareil for you yesterday. Since then actually not many years have passed. But today, still young Tigran Hamasyan has the moral right to look at the current "fashion", to rethink his own roots with light irony of the master. But he doesn't seem to do that. He is doing his own part.

This conversation occured during the festival Jazzowa Jesien 2017, which was organized by legendary Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko, the ambassador of ECM label.



Your arrangements are often unpredictable, they really can convey the true beauty of the song. How do you understand that a folk song can be arranged? How does it happen? How do you start?

Sometimes when I hear an Armenian folk melody I already know the future arrangement or have some idea of arrangement in my head. Then I just need a piano to develop it further and go deep into the composition. For me it starts with a feeling ‘I hear something that can be an arrangement’.


A lot of young musicians come back to the roots of their nation like you, Ambrose Akinmusire from MaeMae, or David Virelles from Gnosis. What ways of improving this theme in future do you see for you and your music?

I don’t want to improve anything, I mean, folk music is already perfect. Whatever you want to add or change – you have to hear it, have a clear picture of something and you have to be absolutely sure of what you want to do. And then it is going to work. Many years will pass before you realize what you can and can’t do, what works and what doesn’t; it’s a very delicate thing [folk music]. It’s something you have to do with a lot of confidence and responsibility. Otherwise, you’re just using folk music, instead of showing its true beauty.


Only beauty?

Yeah. Whenever I see people that just use folk music, talk about it as fun and others like it… (gestures)


Yeah, it’s not all about entertainment, for you it’s rather identification of yourself?

Yes, that’s right.


I’ve heard that Gyumri dwellers have a particular dialect that differs from others in different regions of Armenia. Did you save this dialect after moving to America?

Absolutely, yeah. When I moved to America, it was even in my English. (laughs)


Could you please tell me how is it different?

Well, it’s different – you need to use more words. They have the same roots, except of some of the consonants, like “T” becomes ‘Tha’ or ‘Thea’… So, this dialect is closer to the Western Armenia dialect, because a lot of people from Gyumri have migrated from Kars and Erzurum [Turkey]. So, yeah, Armenia is incredibly interesting, it’s a small country that consists of big regions that used to be Big Armenia once. Like, you can go ten kilometers from Yerevan and hear the dialect, that came from the areas thousand kilometers away!


Would you like to explore it more, as in an expedition around Armenia?

Yeah, I have done it recently. I visited few villages a couple of times to listen to naturally gifted singers that don’t even know how to read notes or anything like that. They just have amazing authentic voices. So, yeah, I’ve done it for a couple of times, but I had more researches like that before, a lot of researches. For now I have enough information to dive into and use it.


Do you use other cultures during creation of music? 

Sure. Each and every folk song is an amazing world, or adventure. I look for the world that is close to my own. A lot of music genres had an influence on me. For example certain rock bands, metal bands, electronic artists, classical composers and so on. I don’t limit myself to one particular style of music. I also listen to and get inspired by different folk music from other countries, like Norwegian and Swedish folk music, Malian, Ethiopian, Madagascar folk music, Persian and Indian classical music, Bulgarian folk music...


What pros and cons do you see in continuous abundance of musical combinations and in the fact that it happens all the time?

I see musicians who succeed in expressing something deep and musical and others that are doing it only for fame and money. It doesn’t bother me anymore. I don’t think that everyone is supposed to listen to jazz, not everyone is supposed to listen prog-rock or any intellectual music. The world we live in is what we deserved.


What does recording with Yerevan State Chamber Choir mean to you? Do you like the result? What was the public reaction?

It was a very profound experience for me. I finally dared to touch religious music, I have been obsessed with it for more than 12 years and finally it came to a point where I decided it was a right time to start this big journey and make my first steps into this world.

It was also an unforgettable experience for me bring the music of this album back to its homeland, to Monasteries and churches (now in Turkey) where this music was created and heard for the first time. To the places where significant part of the medieval Armenian culture was born. It was a blessing to visit these places and to bring the music back to its origins.


Are you a religious person? Do you follow all the rules and traditions?  

I would say so. I do not go to the church every single Sunday, but I think I’m religious.

My credo is: when you play, you play in front of God so you have to be truthful to what you create and what you present to the listener. 

Could you tell us what is ‘Mockroot’ and what does it mean to you?

Mockroot it’s a sort of obligation to the roots you are coming from, but sometimes people have to be far away from this roots. They cannot stay there any longer but at the same time are tighting to their homeland, their roots and everything inside them. Like the real you. 

And when it happens, things are going to be wrong, you feel like something is wrong in your life. Mockroot is a grief.  The moment when it seems that life is mocking you, the God towards you in the right path.



What skills and knowledge obtained in childhood help you the most now?

I am very lucky to have parents and an uncle who loved music. My dad was a huge fan of rock music, so I grew up with all the classic rock influence I could possibly have. Also I am eternally grateful to my uncle Armen Hamasyan who realized that I love music more than anything and he sort of became my guardian, my adviser, my friend who introduced me to jazz music. He took me to my teacher, an extremely important person for me, from whom I learnt bebop. Also my uncle did not let me become spoiled by managers, promoters, record companies that could use me as child prodigy, as they have been doing and are doing  now with a few child prodigies that I don’t want to mention. The most important thing for me was practice and grow up and again, I was lucky to have someone explain this to me and protect. 


What is your most important musical experience of childhood?

There were many I guess....I will give you three: at the time when I was a really bebop head, when I was 12-13 years old I went to my uncles friend’s place and heard a few Jan Garbarek albums, a Keith Jarrett album...and this made a huge impact on me and kind of opened a new door for me to another type of improvised music and folk music. Also I think jamming with Avishai Cohen and Jeff Ballard in a club in Yerevan in 2000 was mind provoking as well. The other incident that made me really think about what rhythm is happened when I first heard Ari Hoenig play with Jean-Michel Pilc trio.


What is complicated music for you? Would you like to play music that is understandable to musicians, but not clear to ordinary listeners?

What I feel is that you will never please everyone.  And even thinking about it is a misconception and misunderstanding of the reason for making music in the first place. In my opinion the artist should only think and create what they really have found and what they love. Also keeping in mind that artist has to bring up the audience’s spiritual and mental level, make them experience something new. I think complication must feel good. If it is just complicated for the sake of being complicated than it’s missing something very important. 

My credo is: when you play, you play in front of God so you have to be truthful to what you create and what you present to the listener.