Avet Terteryan (1925 - 1994)

Terteryan - The Man Behind the Music

Listeners, colleagues in opera, and musicians have all admitted that
Avet Terteryan is an exceptional phenomenon. He is an Armenian composer from soviet times who grew up in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. He was raised on Russian classical music, and feeling the "call of his blood", became a national Armenian composer.

At 22 years old Avet Terteryan, then a third year student at a musical school, moved to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. It was the step of a man who understood his calling as a son of his nation. "Here, everything sounds differently from in Baku. The air, the mountains and the rivers - nature itself sings differently. The sun shines differently, its rays are different, the whole atmosphere is different." This could only have been said by a person who perceives the vibrations of the Earth, the Cosmos, and Music.

He is an interesting conversationalist, an attentive listener, the soul of the party, a builder and lover of musical instruments.

Silence is the main ingredient in his work. When he is composing music, consumed by his world of sounds and images, he prefers total solitude. The composer transcribes his works without a piano, usually in single bursts of effort. He carefully nurtures his ideas, as though transforming them into the language of sounds. Then he writes quickly, completing the final copy without any errors or rough drafts. "In the moment of creative immersion the music 'appears' somehow already done. I hear it from the first in its entirety - complete with opening, development, and conclusion."

Terteryan built his home in the harsh territory of the legendary lake Sevan. The earth there is rough, severe, rocky, and very few things can grow. The landscape is filled with monotone hills, boulders, rockslides, collapses and fissures. They are ascetic mountains, full of suffering. Nearer to the settlements are small, earthen temples and khachkari (stone cross monoliths) which seem to be sliding down the hills. Perhaps Terteryan heard Eternity itself in this stark and severe environment.

He listens to the music of this earth, which surprises many people. Once, when his string quartet was being played, Nikogos Tagmizyan (the Armenian musicologist and expert on ancient chants) commented in surprise: "I don't understand...We know that Terteryan doesn't even speak Armenian, but his music is exceptionally national." A few years later, Terteryan proved that musical intonations and sounds in general are superior to vocal intonations and words, and that no oral language can even come close to imitating the soul of music. And he proves this using only his music.

Terteryan - The Meaning of Sound

Sound as such carries enormous meaning in Terteryan's music. Basic sound is the primary foundation of music. Sound, arising from silence, in its turn is nothing more than sound.

Terteryan stands out from his contemporaries and associates. Two qualities in particular differentiate his music from others: its authenticity (the deep linkages with the philosophy and meditation of the East) and its ability to topple the entire world continuum. Terteryan has not grown tired of repeating: "I have a sound which is all absorbed in itself. It comes from the deep sources of Eastern music and philosophy. Duduk performers have something called "dam", which is a long, drawn-out sound. Using this technique, a performer can play without interruption for days." "Dam" is this endless noise, familiar to musicians who play wind instruments and must breathe through the nose. "Dam" is a distant bell and its sound waves echoing and spreading over the land. And in the end, your attention and feelings are not concentrated on the "subject" of the composition, nor on the instruments or the form, or even the virtuoso playing - but on the Sound itself. It sparks and shines and opens up a new world.

This sound is like an atom: it is complex and yet simple, containing much in a tiny space. And this is exactly why the sounds in Avet Terteryan's symphonies represent Motifs and Themes. The central theme of his symphonies is Sound itself. Therefore Terteryan's symphonies truly are symphonies in the Greek sense - meaning "sound in harmony". This is true regardless of the fact that they completely lack recognized symphonic forms and the traditional development of themes.

In Terteryan's works, the role of Sound works in concert with Time. Time in this case means an extended sounding which presents his performers and listeners with the opportunity for particular concentration - it is in essence the soul of his music.

"I often remember the Eastern feel. It differs sharply from the European. It comes from peace, traditional peace. The Eastern person is capable of deeper immersion into sound, of longer contemplation. The European is fussier. Perhaps this is due to the history or specifics of the region. In comparison to the East, Europe is considerably younger and therefore probably still feels the quick temper of youth. There is already ancient wisdom in the East. It is like a volcano that is never going to explode, silently guarding its secret.

You can examine the psychological understanding of time from the most diverse points of view. The influence of national traditions, cultural heritage, temperament, upbringing, and climate, are all taken into account...

And it is completely natural that the creations of an artist who belongs to a certain region carry their particular interpretations of time."

Terteryan - The Secret of Groundbreaking New Symphonies

Terteryan's opuses are so original and unusual that they have taken those who know him by surprise. The fullest expression of his creative gift appears in his eight symphonies.

"The symphony orchestra for me today is the highest form of embodying the human soul. For a composer who knows all the possibilities of this dangerous toy, who knows them all in the appropriate amounts, this knowledge and ability allow him to grow as close as possible to the source of the appearance of music, or the "program of transmission". When a composer is already a Master, residing in a world of higher feelings, this Program is open to him. It is sent to him for artistic embodiment. In that case all that depends on him is that he is ready for the exact reproduction of the transmission."

Each of Terteryan's symphonies is vastly different from the others, yet at the same time they are part of the composer's complete impression of the world. Each symphony, therefore, is one of the borders of an embodied Whole.

Terteryan's symphonies are unusual, even insolently unusual, but it would be impossible not to admit that they have opened up completely new roads for the symphony genre. They have significantly enriched the range of traditional symphonic images and the symphony's means of expression. The composer actually takes on the idea of the symphony itself. In their musical language the reception of the modern composer's letters are subordinate to the understanding of the sound itself, its timbres, rhythms, and heights... the form of the symphony is somehow improvised and is born in the process of music, but nonetheless it is monolithic, complete, inviolate.

Together with traditional instruments, Terteryan includes folk instruments in his symphonies. There is a duduk and a zurna in the Third symphony, and a kemancha in the Fifth.

A single riveting sound appears where there should be a theme, a fresh timbre appears where there should be development, and a universal crash appears where there should be culmination. And yet this is a symphony.

Terteryan -The Third Symphony in his own Words

No one can speak better about the author's work than himself.

"The Third symphony was written in 1975, and, unquestionably, reflects the condition of my soul which I found myself in after the untimely death of my brother, Herman. In the symphony there are traits of some kind of ritual or service. There are musings on life and death.

Some things arose as a result of direct association, especially the "laughing" French horn in the third section... I remember how Herman had a Japanese wind-up toy that had an exaggerated laugh. When the tragedy happened, this unnatural laughter, having left a strong imprint on my memory, became in some way a symbol of that frightening hellish laughter directed toward transitory life. It somehow reminded me of our vanity, of the meaninglessness of many of our actions which accompany the tragedy of human death. But there is something unmissable, eternal - and that is probably what the trombones are secretly and wisely discussing. Their inquiring intonations are asking 'what about eternal life', and 'what is truth'? - this is where the approach to meditative cognition can be felt.

As paradoxical as it seems, the beginning of the Third symphony is nothing other than preparations for silence. It is ritualistic in parts. I was a witness to a Buddhist service in Mongolia. The ritual opened with the ministers carrying out gongs and starting to beat on them. They had multiple meanings: on one hand it was an awakening, an appeal to Buddha; on the other it was a summons, like in Christian churches, where the bells call you to service. There is some kind of distinct power in the actual sound of the gongs and big drums, coming from the mystery of the ceremony. There is probably something similar in the peal of church bells since, after all, religions are all related to one another.

An alarm bell paves the way for silence... Maybe that's why a little Buddhist bell appears after the soloing drums, immediately forging the aural atmosphere for the "discussing" trombones.

Further on comes the zurna, ushering us through the rotation of life's events. You wind up in a frightening world, with bursting hysterical trombones. But by the end of the first part things are already calming down, and the very same C major side tone of the distant little bell opens up borderless expanses, elevates you to endless worlds. There is purity and truth in it. For me there is something secret in this.

It is possible that what I'm saying could be construed into some sort of program, but when I was composing, I naturally did not think of this. Simply now, from the outside, as a listener so to speak, I am trying to explain it.

There are wailing images in the second part, which resemble our tears. The same problem arises as in the Second symphony: nobody plays on the duduk like that! There is no music of this kind for these instruments, but, nonetheless, listeners accept it almost like folklore. When I invited the famous duduk player Dzivan Gasparyan, he didn't understand what I wanted from him and offered to play a song by Sayat Nov... 'No,' I told him, 'no, only these three notes - that's all that I need.' And the long pauses provide time to become conscious of the sound, they are time for worry. Reminiscent of the beginning of the symphony, once again the drums appear with natural forethought. I don't know how it appeared to me, but now, when I listen to the symphony over again like a member of the audience, it seems to me that here also is some kind of ritual symbol. You get the impression of someone throwing rocks, banging them off of the wooden top of a coffin.

'The crazy, crazy world' of the third part... there's something celebratory here, the atmosphere of a universal dance. In the words of the poet Charents, 'It's a crazy dance'. There is some kind of unrestrainable power here, the frightening dictate of time which whips everything, consumes everything, and creates, and destroys... In the third part there is also something from the history of our century, in the unity of the past, the present, and the future. And once again the unexpected "exit" into major seems grandly steadfast. You can probably sense rejoicing here, but personally, I don't believe in it. Although it is an affirming major, in essence it absolutely does not rejoice. An emptiness looks through it. Cymbals are beaten as though in happiness, but why? There is even an emphatic falseness in it. And of course the culmination is cut off, and once again come the echo of the trombones' 'discussion' and the duduk's monologue. This gives people the time to think, what's the truth of being, what are life and death. And once again I hear the trombones' question and at the same time feel that it is a mysterious, secret conversation, known only to them. Only they can talk about it, only they are allowed to pose such questions. But then that laughter which I mentioned before bursts out. It is somehow mocking everyone pious. It is laughter coming from somewhere in the heavens. Someone is laughing, maybe a kind of demonic power or simply a man who's come to know himself. Maybe his soul itself is trembling. And everything is deafened by the shine of the fireworks of life."

Terteryan - Philosophy of the Fifth Symphony

The Fifth is one of the composer's brightest symphonies. As opposed to classical symphonies, it is impossible to describe the sequence of events. However it is also impossible to say that nothing happens - in reality the action goes on within each listener. What happens purely on the surface is the interchange of enormous layers of Silence, in which Eternity, Wisdom, and Sorrow combine into Sound. Powerful ostinato supercharges grow aggressive, as though gathering together all of the Evil in this world.

The evil in Terteryan's work literally bubbles with emotions that seem almost anti-human, but which are all the same present in the human world. It is an outburst of primal instincts, a raving horde of fanatics.

The Fifth symphony comes from dull, dragged out life - the kind that burns with an intense inner existence. The symphony is constantly filled with side tones; it spreads and expands, breaks into pieces. The whole symphony is a constant alternation between raising dust and fading away, the coming and going of sound plasmas. In its rumbling you can hear something vital, something distantly familiar but long forgotten. Armenia is not China, but all the same think on the Tao, the way of all things. Think of movement in the unmoving, the Sky and the Earth. Known and the Unknown. Yin and Yang. "Something exists incorporeal, formless, and yet complete and perfect. How it is silent! How it lacks form! It stands as it is and does not change. It permeates everywhere, and nothing threatens it. One could call it the mother of all things. It needs a name, so I call it perfection. By perfection, I mean slipping away. By slipping away I mean growing distant. Growing distant means returning." (Lao-Tze)

Terteryan himself spoke very briefly on his Fifth symphony.

"In this symphony I used the natural sounds of the kemancha, which takes on the leading role. The kemancha tells a story about that special secrecy which I'd like to tell people about.

I think that there is no such thing as non-national music, just as you can't have an artist who doesn't belong to a specific nation. East or West, this country or that - life itself, your perception of the world determines your relationship to sound, time, space...to It. It always was, it lay in the foundations of every culture's development, and that's how it will be. I don't think you have to remind yourself of it all the time. I'm talking about real music, pure creation, not just putting any old thing together.

It seems to me that an artist is not only spiritually, but also physically connected to his country, to his Homeland. When I was being talked into moving to Moscow, I answered that it would be impossible, that only in Armenia do I receive that charge of spirituality which comes out in my work. When I'm far from the mountains of Armenia, I simply feel some kind of difference, and I am not pulled to self-expression.

When I'm talking about national music, I mean its spirituality. The spirit of a people, the spirit of the Homeland - you can't replace that. This is what makes the music close to its people, and consequently, incomprehensible to all humanity."