Musical minds: A conversation with Canadian-Armenian musicologist Michael Turabian

By Dr. Araxie Altounian

Musical minds is a conversation series with established, talented Armenian musicians with a Canadian connection who contribute to Armenian musical culture in innovative ways and build bridges between the Armenian diasporic community and its host societies. AGBU Toronto has graciously provided its Zoom platform for live broadcast on Facebook, and its recording on Facebook and Instagram, while Torontohye has been kind enough to publish them.

The following is based on my conversation with my second guest, pianist/musicologist Michael Turabian, a doctoral candidate in musicology at McGill University in Montreal, where he is completing his dissertation in Armenian folk and art music of the fin-de-siècle. His dissertation examines romantic conceptions of the Armenian “home” and narratives of exile that pervade Armenian folk and art music between 1880 and 1920. Michael holds a Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance and a Master’s in Musicology from the University of Ottawa. He has participated in multiple international conferences, including those hosted by MusCan, the American Musicological Society, and the International Musicological Society, among other notable conference organizers.

Michael’s publications include an article on Ludwig van Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata published via Keyboard Perspectives, a historical keyboard society based at Cornell University. He is currently preparing a forthcoming publication on Armenian music in fin-de-siècle France via Routledge and the University of Cheltenham in the UK. 

Araxie Altounian: You moved to Canada as a young boy and settled in Brandon, Manitoba, having your extended family as your sole Armenian community. Your family members were your only connection to your Armenian identity. What was it like to grow up as an Armenian in Manitoba?

Michael Turabian: I was born in Baghdad and moved to Canada with my family in 1992. We settled in Brandon, famous for its hockey team, the Brandon Wheat Kings, and the Brandon Conservatory of Music. My engagement with Armenian identity was limited to the private sphere of family life, Armenian being one of the principally two languages that were spoken at home. That engagement also came by way of food. My mom made a manti that we swear by to this day.

Music came in a little later, although I have one endearing memory: Sundays, we would have breakfast together since my parents worked six days a week, and Sunday was the only day when everybody was at home. With breakfast, we would have a musical aperitif. Charles Aznavour was my first introduction to Armenian music. My parents would say, “He’s Armenian,” and in the naïveté of my youth, I wondered why he was singing in French and if French and Armenian were similar. When I started playing the piano, I discovered the name Aram Khachaturian in the Royal Conservatory syllabus and ended up playing “Ivan Sings.” That was the first piece I played that resonated with my cultural identity. I did my undergrad in piano performance at Brandon University, and during those years, I started opening up to Armenian music in the art music context. There were two seminal moments, the first of which was “Joyous Light”, Isabel Bayrakdarian’s debut recording [CBC Records].

I remember listening to “Oor es mayr im.” I had been in music since I was eight years old but had never felt that kind of heart-rendering immediacy where there’s almost a physiological reaction to hearing that music that I hadn’t experienced before. This wasn’t related to the classical music I grew up with, like Bach, Beethoven, and others. The second seminal moment was the 2008 Komitas Songs. That same year, my great-uncle, who lived in Binghamton, New York, brought me a volume of Komitas’ works edited by a New York-based Armenian priest. I had the book and the 2008 recording, so I listened to the music as I read it. Something meaningful came about – not one that was forced: I came to it on my terms. I graduated from Brandon University in 2009, and that year, before graduation, I realized I was engaging more with Armenian music. Since I had designs to go further, my thoughts turned towards a degree in musicology and providing my first work on Armenian music in my master’s. I was also encouraged by my professor at Brandon University, Prof. Patrick Carrabré, now Dean at the University of British Columbia. He encouraged me to keep exploring, explaining that research is a detective process; you always search for new things. I was semi-confident that I could do this. I decided to study Armenian music in my master’s, which, I thought, in the Canadian context, not everyone would do.

Altounian: Let’s discuss your master’s thesis, “Echoes from Home,” in which you examine how music can connect a diaspora to the homeland.

Turabian: My master’s thesis was my opportunity to come to terms with what I was hearing. I wanted to talk about the musical enactment, and the performance and to view the performance context as a sacred space. When I came to Ottawa, I travelled to any concert I could, Armenian concerts particularly. If Komitas was on the bill, I was usually there. I was always interested in the audience’s reaction. It seemed to me that these were socially acceptable opportunities to express emotion, whether it was the performer emoting on the stage or the listener experiencing something. That always struck me as an interesting cultural phenomenon I hadn’t witnessed in the more constrained parameters of Western art music; you have this license in Armenian music to connect emotionally to certain sounds. My work in my master’s thesis was to try to understand the function of nostalgia in this repertoire, partly because it was sad: “Krunk,” “Antuni,” laments of the past homeland. I know it’s been a long time since these songs were written, and what version of homeland they were written for, and for people who may not be longing for that version of Armenia but a moment in their own lives, I was curious about how this music became a kind of sonic trigger to nostalgia. At the beginning of every chapter, I start with a musical concert I attended. As a temperature gauge, I tried to read what the audience encountered in the context of these performances. The use of language is not the ideal way to describe a musical phenomenon. You want to create a complete audiovisual picture, but of course, I could not do that in my master’s thesis. I tried to explain how in the context of these performances, everyone came in with a collective form of nostalgia, and maybe it hit people in different ways. For someone in his early stages of discovering Armenian music, the opportunity to speak to you, Serouj Kradjian, Nurhan Arman, John Sarkissian in Ottawa allowed me to have your voices in there, too, asking questions about what you experienced as an educator or a creator.

Altounian: Let’s move on to your doctoral research: you had a certain project in mind, but Covid changed your plans.

Turabian: I was initially going to do a sociological topic. I wanted to talk to people (I’m a people person generally), to do work connected to my master’s but more thought through. But the pandemic rolled through, and everything shut down. Through the library of McGill, I was able to amass several sources – primarily musical sources, through various libraries worldwide, particularly in the United States and a few in Europe. But that wasn’t going to be enough. I also amassed many recordings that I thought I could look at and analyze. I started doing what everyone else does; I went on the internet. “Armenian libraries” was one of my Google searches; I found the Armenian Museum of America in Watertown, that had some wonderful sources. They had some lovely articles about their sound archives done by musicologists, ethnomusicologists, and practitioners ased in the States.

Bibliothèque nationale de France had digitized archival research that was a treasure trove. I did some basic French searches and suddenly had several hits. They were all primary source materials that add cachet to a scholar’s work. You don’t want secondary sources because your work becomes a book review, not a dissertation. I encountered a number of Komitas’ articles that were published in German and in French, which was a good starting point. Then I started seeing connections between Armenian and French culture, like a new university that opened in the 19th century to study Oriental languages, including Armenian. I also saw Armenian sources published in French publications. I had not seen this in scholarship before and thought that was the lacuna I wanted to address. I had to build a narrative, translate sources, and finally analyze them. When the pandemic hit, I didn’t quite know what to do, but that impulse of looking at digitized archives was the godsend, and it allowed me to explore other elements of Armenian musical identity that you cannot get through the contemporary lens exclusively. How do you historically situate what is going on? My research focused on 1880-1920 because that’s the period to which the bulk of my original sources pointed.

Altounian: Through your work, you have introduced us to Ali Baba’s cavern! We never knew about the existence of this material. Examples include Armenian music arranged by Armenian or French composers published in Le Figaro, even this opera “la Giaour (Infidèle)” written by a French composer! Could you please walk us through your dissertation?

Turabian: The first chapter is about Komitas. He is such an essential character in this story that he deserves to be spotlit as a major voice throughout the dissertation. I tried to have a critical edge and contextualize him in his time without letting myself be influenced by the posthumous legend. I also had to provide musical examples, so I chose the French publication of the “Six Armenian Dances” [for piano]. I know that in a subsequent publication, the musicologist Robert Atayan added a seventh dance, “Shoror.” But I was curious about the French edition, the first one to be published. It has extramusical components that play on this nostalgia of places with an Armenian cultural history.

In the second chapter, I go to Armenian music in France – that’s the large headline. I was searching for evidence of the encounter between Komitas and the great French composer Claude Debussy but found sources and names that I had never heard of before. Komitas moved to the background of the chapter as I talked about the popular press, and the representation of Armenian musical scores like in “Le Figaro,” French engagement with Armenian culture. At the time, France was reckoning with the Armenian Question as well; there was a wave of emigration from Western Armenia following the Hamidian massacres and then the genocide of 1915. A cultural community was formed and had the attention of the French. I was curious about how this engagement took place musically.

The last case study [third chapter] is Armenian music in the Russian Empire. Here, in the musical volumes, Armenian music is connected with the broader “music of the Russian Orient” along with Georgian culture, Persian culture, even with examples of Turkish music. Folksong volumes, with a couple of pieces from Armenian music and another from Georgian music, were an example of hybridity, a plural engagement that I didn’t see in France or the Komitas chapter. Here are three places that engage with Armenian music, and I wanted to see how they compare and contrast. My findings showed a certain awareness of Armenian musical identity, but it was often paired with other minority groups in the Russian Empire. At the time in Russia, there was an attitude towards the non-Russian communities that reflected how music was collected. You had Russians collecting Armenian music, but also Armenians. Nikoghayos Tigranian was very comfortable in genres like the mughamat, which is Central Asian. I found that flexibility novel, considering the anxiety about the intermixing of diverse, non-Armenian music.

Altounian: Going back to your second chapter, you write in the introduction: “By the close of the 19th century, the stakes for determining Armenian identity grew dramatically. This development took place not only in the competing Ottoman and Russian Empires, but also in Europe, with France exerting a significant role in debating and circulating Armenian literature and music to new audiences and newly emergent diaspora networks. Symbols of identity long associated with [Western] Asia were shifting towards European modernity for expressly political and aesthetic ends, largely informed by people at the forefront of the Armenian National Liberation Movement. In these years, there was an increasing division and awareness between the two faces of Armenian identity: the European versus Ottoman representations of Armenianness.” Could you please comment on the dichotomy between Ottoman and European representation?

Turabian: The big takeaway is that reformers like Komitas were trying to create a national culture that was specifically Armenian, but at the same time, Armenian musical engagements in the Ottoman Empire, or even in the Russian Empire as in some of the repertoire that I discussed, engaged with a more flexible attitude towards cultural representation that reflected a degree of hybridity that these reformers regarded as impermissible. My question was how these two competing versions [of Armenian identity] play out in the popular press. Since so many of these reformers were educated in Europe – Komitas, for instance, was educated in Berlin for three years – I wanted to see how the European influence impacted their attitudes toward Armenian musical identity. In the sources I found, many Armenian folk songs are transcribed and harmonized so that multiple audiences can engage with them. I view that music as more representative of the Western, European rapprochement that Armenian music had.

Altounian: You had the example of a song that had been arranged in two ways, oriental and Western. Did this have a political purpose behind it? We know that Komitas considered culture a “weapon” to advance the Armenian cause, to show that Armenians are not simply begging for mercy but can contribute to world culture. And he arranged Armenian peasant songs to make them accessible to the Western audience. Did the other composers whose works you examined pursue a similar purpose?

Turabian: The easy answer is “Yes.” At that time, France was also engaging with its own folk music tradition and trying to separate from German musical influence. French composers travelled around France, collected folk songs, and harmonized them. The French and Armenian national projects were taking place at the same time. In some of my examples, an Armenian collects the melody from the homeland, and a French harmonizer provides the harmonies. It’s interesting to see that division of labor. I suspect that the Armenian community of musicians knew that there was a cultural capital in France that allowed them to disseminate their work there. It was a political statement when Armenian well-being in the Ottoman Empire was in a state of dissolution.

Altounian: Under the subtitle “Armenian Infrastructure in 19th Century France”, you discuss the symbiosis between Armenian and French culture: “Certain institutions and organizations in 19th century France evidenced a growing symbiosis between Armenian and French culture respectively. Symbiosis is the operative word here.”

Turabian: In that section, I develop the history of late 19th and early 20th century Armenians moving to France, finding a home in that context, and building Armenian institutions such as the Samuel Moorat school. The Oriental Languages Institute (INALCO) had Armenian as a branch. Many of the people who went there were French orientalists interested in other cultures. France was interested in different cultures because of its colonialist activity at the time. The French were encountering the “other” while, at the same time, trying to construct “selfhood” in their musical work. In that symbiosis, I found French musical figures captivated by Armenian music. One of the names connected to Komitas is Pierre Aubry, a musicologist who did a degree in Armenian at INALCO, then travelled to Etchmiadzin where he did some ethnographic analysis, and published his findings in France through [La Tribune de] St. Gervais, a publication linked to the Schola Cantorum, a competing conservatory to the famous Paris Conservatoire. I noticed a French curiosity towards Armenian culture and wondered how that developed and why. That’s where partly the symbiosis comes in. It wasn’t just an Armenian community thriving in France that found its outlets through its press. Still, it was French curiosity towards Armenian cultural artifacts, something that was, on the one hand, “exotic” but by virtue of Armenia’s Christian context, not as “exotic” as other Central Asian non-Christian cultures.

Altounian: Would you say that music helped the French understand the Armenian condition? You do mention European sympathy towards Armenian welfare in the Ottoman provinces.

Turabian: Very much so! I found a document from 1903, a concert done for the benefit of Armenian orphans displaced during the Hamidian pogroms. It was organized not by Armenians but by Vincent d’Indy [founder of the Schola Cantorum], a pretty prominent figure in French music, and several others, Louis Bourgault-Ducoudray, who had harmonized many Greek songs and published them in France. Yes, they were acutely aware of injustices in the Ottoman Empire particularly, and the Armenian Question, which was becoming increasingly debated and talked about in the political sphere in France. Music served as a way of educating the French audience about Armenian culture. In the first half of the 1903 concert, Arshag Tchobanian read poetry, either written by him or based on folklore, whilethe second half was made up of Armenian folk songs, none of them by Komitas but rather by lesser-known composers in the French Armenian context. Yes, there was a sense of sympathy for persecuted Christian brethren, and musicians brought their contributions.

Altounian: How easy, or how hard, is it for a musicologist like yourself to research material related to Armenian music: find bibliography, books, and scores you’re interested in, and meet Armenian musicologists with whom you could exchange ideas?

Turabian: It’s a challenging process, especially since no centralized place exists. Some museums and institutes are specific to Armenian identity and culture, and that’s useful. My interest in Armenian musical sources started in earnest in 2008. I started building my musical library. Anytime I came across recordings and musical scores, they ended up in my library. I went to the NAASR bookstore [Belmont, Mass.]. Abril Books in Glendale had some rich sources. Now there are online sources. Digitization is great but limited. It’s easy for these materials to become siloed and not accessible. I lucked out when I found the material. It was the process of hard work but also knowing how to search, where to look.

In terms of people, this is where I lucked out early in the process. Upon moving to Ottawa, I started accompanying the Ottawa church choir, where once a month, a priest would come from Montreal to celebrate mass. It was through those personal connections that I encountered you. I had the lovely opportunity to speak with Serouj [Kradjian] on a couple of occasions and Nurhan Arman. Over time we kept having these conversations, which were effective from a personal standpoint. Finding sources is difficult, but maintaining that interpersonal connection with people who know more about Armenian music has been quite special. There’s a small group of us, but it is expanding. The Armenian scholarly sources published through academic press have come a long way. But at the same time, there are works from the past that are still relevant today. It takes a lot of work to find sources and people, but it’s worth our time because it leads us to interesting places and conversations.

Altounian: Is there less material about Armenian music to explore than another aspect of our culture? Does music need to be better documented?

Turabian: I can certainly speculate. There are a great number of sources about Armenian history. As for Armenian music, I have seen a growth in the last fifteen years, where scholars like me, who were not steeped in the Armenian community but explored it in their academic work, are starting to come out with more frequency and explore the musical legacy, particularly in the diaspora. I can’t speak about homeland research – I’m sure a great wealth of knowledge there deserves to be examined. Indeed, in North America and Britain, I’ve seen many scholars speak about music in the diaspora context in a way that I didn’t see before the early 2000s.

Altounian: If you had the opportunity to continue your career as a researcher, what would be the topics that you would explore?

Turabian: I would like to do more archival work in person. The online sources are great, but the sources you can find in person are even greater. One of the things that I would like to do is go to the Bibliothèque nationale de France. This would be post-doctoral research if I could get a professorship. I would go to libraries and explore because I am certain there is a lot of material we don’t have access to. That kind of academic archival research could be overwhelming. The number of sources that I found so far would multiply. I would extend the parameters of my research to encompass a larger period.

Altounian: I’m not sure the music of our diaspora has been discovered and documented well enough. These archives exist, and we are not even aware of them. You would be doing a great favor to us if you could continue your research. Do you have any messages to our community regarding how we’ve been handling our musical legacy, especially in the diaspora?

Turabian: I don’t have one big statement. Part of my work has been engaging with non-Armenian communities and introducing Armenian music to them. I would like to see more engagement in that regard. The kind of conversation we’re having is super productive; it motivates me to do more work. Communicating with the broader community about our musical legacy would be interesting. Also, it would help to have a centralized resource centre for our musical legacy, like that of the Canadian diaspora, if possible. I know the latter is a relatively recent community, so it would be interesting to amass and see what kind of musical footprint we have and use that as a potential source for future endeavors. On a personal level, you don’t have to be a researcher to be an archivist. We have family photographs and musical scores that might be passed down to us, occupying a shelf in the back closet. Engage with those sources, too, because there’s meaning in there. Historians can do only so much: they can uncover patterns but can’t get the whole picture. So, I recommend engaging with those family archives.