When Nuné Melik moved by herself to Montreal in 2009, she felt “rootless.” The violinist was born in Siberia and studied in Moscow but is of Armenian, Georgian, and Jewish heritage. So, it’s little surprise that a source of consolation was the music that rekindled memories of her grandmother’s Yerevan apartment.
Fast forward a few years: Melik, who’s earning her doctorate at McGill University, has become a fierce advocate for music of the Caucasus region. She’s cultivated a sprawling project called “Hidden Treasure,” which presents little-known gems from the area. “It’s something that I will be doing my entire life, no matter what [else is] happening,” she says. The project is based on years of research, including three trips to Armenia, and includes lectures, more than 60 concerts, and now Melik’s debut album, Hidden Treasure: Rediscovered Music from Armenia.
Melik spoke to me about her album, on which she also holds a producer’s credit.
Your studies on this subject are very broad. How did you decide what to put on the album?
I think by trying different repertoire—different pieces during concerts—I was looking for repertoire that speaks to the larger and the broader audience no matter where they’re coming from, [for example] their social status, their nationalities. I would see the reaction of people to particular pieces and say, “OK, this piece is a winner.”
The ‘Hidden Treasure’ project comprises many pieces—how many are we talking here?
[Laughs.] A lot! My trip to Armenia, the latest one, was sponsored by McGill. [It] gave me the possibility to broaden my research and make it more profound—I right now have maybe the biggest library of music scores of Armenian repertoire. The amount of music available is huge. And that’s why I decided to make this CD; I wanted to make sure I document how I play this music in order to move forward to other repertoire.
Can you describe the stylistic elements of violin music of this region?
It’s so difficult to describe it: You have to feel it, you have to hear it. It’s like trying a particular food from a particular region. It’s exotic, it’s special, but at the same time, potatoes still taste like potatoes, even with chilies or mayonnaise.
I think the most interesting part of Armenian music is that it has all the elements of classical music. There are some pieces that sound like Shostakovich’s music—very contemporary, very sharp, very angular—but at the same time there are lyrical ones, Ravel-like in style—a more impressionist style. And then there are pieces that are purely folk and simple and there’s a beauty in them that is absolutely breathtaking. Funny enough, most people I talk to love the first piece, [Apricot Tree—Tsirani Tsar], which is purely folk. It’s a plain, simple melody.
The emotional power of this music cannot leave people indifferent. It will always find its way to the heart of people.
You include four composers. Who were they and why are these works important?
There’s Komitas Vardapet, [an] Armenian ethnomusicologist who collected more than 4,000 folk songs. Though he had a strong academic background—he went to Germany, he spoke German, he was presented to Saint-Saëns—he dedicated most of his life to saving Armenian folk music, even though he was born in Turkey, which I think is very interesting. He’s mostly a folk composer.
Of course, Aram Khachaturian. We cannot speak about Armenian culture without speaking about Aram Khachaturian. But, I chose the pieces that no one knows. One of them is a lyrical dedication to the Ashugs, who were the Armenian troubadours. It’s lyrical but at the same time you’ll hear Ravel-ish harmonies because he was a huge fan of Ravel. It’s very emotional, very lyrical, but at the same time it’s a beautiful dedication to the beginning of our secular music, when the Ashugs were composing the songs themselves. And then there’s a little “Variation of Nuné,” as my teacher would say to me as a joke. It’s from [Khachaturian’s] ballet,Gayane. It’s a short variation, very joyful.
The next composer, Arno Babajanian, is a focus of your thesis. Can you speak about him?
He is a composer [who’s] absolutely underestimated and not known to a broader audience unfortunately, but he was genius. Absolutely extraordinary. He was a virtuoso pianist. That’s why you’ll hear in the Violin Sonata that the piano part is very difficult, besides the violin part being super difficult. It’s written in the Shostakovich style because he had dedicated the music to Shostakovich. He’s interesting because, besides having a very strong education in Armenian folk music, he was a huge fan of Armenian culture, but at the same time he lived in Moscow. He was, I think, the most prominent Armenian composer in the way that he had developed his style from a romantic, classical Armenian folk style to an atonality. The violin sonata is not atonal, but it’s contemporary. You hear some of the Shostakovich style immediately. Shostakovich himself found this a masterpiece.
And the last composer?
Alexander Spendiaryan, who is again not known abroad at all. He was born and raised in Ukraine, and was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov. He went to Armenia and dedicated a lot of his time to creating the first Armenian opera. The CD ends on a life-affirming, fiery dance, which is not Armenian. It’s actually a tartar dance, because he spent his childhood in Crimea. I still decided to put it in because his dedication and contribution to Armenian culture is simply outstanding.
Were there any difficult decisions?
There are a couple pieces by Komitas Vardapet, [including] one anthem of the Armenian Genocide that happened in 1916 [and took] more than 1.5 million lives. I was actually reluctant to put this piece on the CD and then my pianist [Michel-Alexandre Broekaert] actually kind of forced me because he said it was such a beautiful piece.
Why were you reluctant?
The message of the CD is not about suffering, it’s about survival. The message of the CD is about the creative spirit, the message is a positive one, that I’m proud. Armenia is such a little country, almost nonexistent anymore, and is still there after annihilations and literal destruction of our culture for centuries. I wanted this to be a message. I didn’t want to look back at this terrible time. But, my pianist just loved the piece so much, he said, “No, we have to put it in there, it’s so beautiful.” I agreed with him.