NEW YORK — Well-known ethnomusicologist, composer, teacher, lecturer, and researcher of the

musical roots of the Armenian heritage, Sahan Arzruni has indeed made worthy contributions to

the preservation of Armenian music, while he continues to maintain ties with Armenia on both a

professional and personal level.  

    Encouraging and promoting young Armenian musicians, Arzruni travels to Armenian

about six times a year and closely follows the occurrences in the artistic life of the country on the

conservatory, concert, and social levels. On the conservatory level Arzruni believes there are a

large number of extremely talented people who are dedicated to the arts, which is an encouraging


     “Art is the sense of a people’s civilization. I’m not saying it has to be classical art or

classical music, just as long as the mind and spirit are trained and disciplined,” said Arzruni, a

long-time resident of New York who holds degrees from the Julliard School and pursued

doctoral studies at New York University.      


Ethnomusicologist Arzruni Comments on the Current Situation of

Music in Armenia and the US

By Taleen Babayan

Mirror-Spectator Staff

     While these young musicians are talented, Arzruni voices concern for graduates of the conservatory who have limited options once they graduate. He notes there are not many opportunities in Armenia and while some immigrate to the U.S. or Europe to pursue a career, it is a challenging feat. Some graduates teach or play in the orchestra or others will break through and become accomplished instrumentalists.      

     “Fortunately those who succeed when they leave Armenia keep their Armenianess intact and they are in touch with Armenia and do good for the country,” said Arzruni, noting that pursuing music is a challenging career.     

     Although challenging to musicians, there is a yearning for culture among audience members, especially younger people who attend concerts in Yerevan including jazz clubs that are filled with young people who listen to others of their generation perform music. Naregtzi in Yerevan is a place where musicians can go and try out programs.     

Things are changing and change is fine as long as we don’t lose our roots. It’s very important for all of us to know where we come from and to know about our history and our language, because it gives us a frame,” said Arzruni. Arzruni’s roots with his culture have remained strong throughout his career in music, which paired him up with non-Armenian and Armenian musicians including Victor Borge and Kathy Berberian. After graduating from Julliard in the 1970s, Arzruni started working with world-class Victor Borge, which expanded his artistic horizons.     

     “Up to that point music was something very serious for me. With Victor Borge suddenly

I understood that music was a means to communicate whether on the piano or through talking or

making jokes,” said Arzruni.         

     Four years after working with Victor Borge, Arzruni started working with Kathy Berberian, an avant-garde classical singer who used the kinds of means that Victor Borge was using.             

     “The artist was not on a pedestal with Borge. There was this constant interaction. He was

talking from the stage to the audience,” said Arzruni. Berberian did the same thing; there was

direct interaction between the person on the stage and the people in the audience.  

     Arzruni soon realized that it was fine to create a line of communication between the

performer and the audience. With this new realization, Arzruni began doing intense research

about Armenian music decided to make a lecture recital about Armenian composers, music and

theory all in an accessible way. AGBU arranged two world tours where Arzruni presented this

material all over the world to Armenian communities.      

    “That became my modus operandi. Then I developed much more with Armenian music

and now it is my primary interest and that is what I generally do,” said Arzruni.  

     Arzruni recently organized a concert for composer Adam Khudoyan’s 85th anniversary

where many artists participated and performed his works as it was broadcast on television.

Arzruni also has choral projects there and tries to create opportunities for Armenian musicians.

If there is a recording to be made for example, he utilizes the choir in Armenia.  

     “I go to Armenia to perform, appear on television, do humanitarian work, be a tourist, to

see friends, to eat khorovvadz, and all that. It’s a real second home to me. If I don’t go for two or three months I feel uncomfortable,” said Arzruni.         

    As a native of Istanbul, Arzruni made some observations regarding Hrant Dink’s

assassination, believing that his assassination has brought together a tight circle of young

Armenians who have become a strong force in Turkey.     

     “His assassination has been a strong catalyst for Armenian youth there to be aware of

their culture. There was a great danger of losing them, and suddenly they are very aware of their

Armenian roots. Armenians in Turkey might not speak Armenian at home but their Armenian

spirit is very strong. The community is prosperous,” said Arzruni.    

     Aside from his involvement with the Armenian community, Arzruni also has other

projects and interests on the side. He has a passion for music written for young pianists by master composers. All major composers from Bach to Bartach composed these pieces but they were never performed by professional pianists. Arzuni thought this was something worth performing and informing the public about, so he did a half-hour radio program on WNYC for five years, introducing this material. He also recently recorded an album, “Childhood Memories” dedicated to American composers for children.       

     A major challenge facing music today is finding new ways of attracting people to music

since there is so much out there in terms of artists, genres, and songs. Arzuni stresses the

importance of  finding innovative ways of having music appeal to the current generation. 

     “You can’t expect things to be done the same way they were done 50 years ago. You

want X-generation people in the audience and there needs to be a way to attract them. If you take System of a Down, that is a phenomenon. I might not understand the vocabulary but diversity is good even if I don’t understand everything.”       


Used by permission

     When asked why musicians in Armenia have more of an interest in music and the arts in Armenia than in the U.S., Arzruni said there was a Soviet influence and requirement of people to play instruments and learn music. “I’m not sure if that influence will continue to last.

September 15, 2007


       Today our partner in conversation is pianist Sahan Arzruni, who brings together in a compelling manner - he synthesizes them - the artistic qualities and lofty status of his personality. In the world of music, the name of Sahan Arzruni is a known quantity; at the same time, he is acknowledged as an intellectual, a man of culture, and a community activist. A resident of New York City for the last forty years, our interview took place in his native Istanbul, where he is a frequent visitor. Having traveled all over the world, Sahan is also intimately familiar with Armenia after his numerous trips there.  Let's start our interview…

* * *

During many conversations, Sahan Arzruni has put an emphasis on the importance of tradition to retain our national identity. He believes that it is essential to know the past in order to build the future. In explaining his position on this matter, he states, “Traditions, which are related to the  history of a people, form the character of a nation.  If you don't know them, you cannot preserve them. Awareness and knowledge of the national culture is the most important means for maintaining national identity and language is the first among equals. In order to preserve a national identity, one has to speak the native tongue. The role of the language then is of paramount importance, especially for the Armenians.

September 7, 2007

        “Through the ages, the Armenian language has undergone only minor changes. In essence, we have the krapar [the language of the church] and the ashkharapar [the language of the people]. Other languages, over the centuries, have taken many more steps to get where they are today. That the Armenian has not gone through major changes speaks volumes of its scope and stability.

        “The Armenian language has always been the very foundation of our culture. It has given birth to almost all other cultural phenomena, including religion. During the fifth century, it had become essential to devise an alphabet to preserve our religion and nationhood. Both the mother tongue and the Christian religion have played an enormously important role in keeping the Armenian nation alive.

        “From the word comes music. When uttering an Armenian word a villager gives it a unique inflection, which then evolves into a musical expression. The same is true for medieval illuminations. Culture is the  bedrock of a  nation. There are, of course, customs, which are different and change over a period of time and from place to place. Traditions are much more enduring than customs.”

        And what does Arzruni think about the greatest disparity in the Armenian Diasporan life? Identity crisis. If you remain Armenian, it becomes difficult to belong to the greater society; if you become a member of the greater society, you lose your Armenian identity. How does one consolidate these two seemingly disparate elements? How do we ensure the safe transfer of Armenian values under such conditions?

        “Know thyself…” with this motto, Arzruni begins his answer.

        “Love, on all levels, is the most natural and potent feeling. If you don't love yourself; you can't love others. If you are not versed in your own literature, how can you pass it on to others? To begin with, you need to be interested in your own literature, music, art, etc. You need to want to pass it on to others. If you love, you're loved in return; if you communicate, you're communicated back. When the two are united, then you have a peak experience.

        “I believe that if a person has experienced “belief” - in the largest sense of the word - that will be a most potent life force, a force of action and reaction. If you believe in Armenian culture, in my book you then truly believe.

        “Please understand that believing and trusting in someone are two different things: Belief is unconditional; trust is “trust but verify.” It's essential to find people who are passionate in something.   But how to find them? You need to have the proper energy. Then, someday, sometime, circumstances will create the right conditions, and voilà…

        “I don't believe in a time continuum -- past-present-future. What was before the past? What is there after the future? I don't know. I believe in dimensions -- in an expanded “now.” Yes, now.

        Now that the independence of the Armenian Republic is established, we are living in a dimension that is auspicious for Armenians. We have the right conditions; let's take advantage of them…”

* * *

        We conclude our conversation. I had prepared many questions, but Arzruni's answers to my two initial questions were so complete and comprehensive that there was no need to go on. Sahan Arzruni, who can communicate powerfully with the masses through his music making,  also engaged this interlocutor with his clearly articulated ideas and lucid expressions.    


The interview was conducted by Ara Koç, in Armenian, for Jamanak daily.

     The above is presented in English translation.

Johanna Spector

Ethnomusicologist, Filmmaker

1915 – 2008

by Şahan Arzruni

It was 1973. I was pursuing my doctoral studies at New York University, majoring in Music Education. As part of the course requirements, I was expected to give a piano recital: I chose to present an all-Chinese program composed in the western style. Nixon had just been to Mainland China and anything Chinese was quite newsworthy. I was going to be the pianist who would perform western-style Mainland Chinese music in the Free World for the first time. It was exciting. It was, in fact, a major coup.

The program generated a great deal of interest. I myself was very excited by the enthusiastic reception the music received and thought this material could be an interesting niche for my musical career. One of the panelists for the event, composer Chou Wen-chung, suggested that I get in touch with Dr. Johanna Spector, who was then the president of the Society for Asian Music.

I telephoned Dr. Spector and asked if I could meet with her, and she very kindly agreed. On the appointed day, I introduced myself and explained the situation and my interest in "promoting" newly available Chinese music. With perfect serenity, she looked me in the eye and said, "But you don't look Chinese." I was taken aback; I wasn't even sure what she meant by that statement.

"What is your ethnic background?" Dr. Spector asked. I told her I was Armenian. "It would be much better if you would explore your own roots. I am sorry, I can't help you," she replied. I was crushed. Crestfallen, I returned home. Yet, she intrigued me as a person – as a human being. This tiny lady with gentle eyes but with a piercing gaze had touched me deeply. I wanted to know her better. So I called her back and invited her over for dinner. She accepted to have tea with me instead.

Over tea, Spector explained to me why she'd had to turn me down. She could understand and imagine my deep disappointment and recounted her experience in this field. In the late forties, after spending some time in Palestine, collecting innumerable Jewish folk songs, she had arrived in this country and approached Curt Sachs for advice regarding her desire to study Jewish music.

According to Spector (or "Gania," as her friends called her) Sachs dismissed the idea of exploring Jewish music and suggested instead that she concentrate on a topic that was related directly to western culture. "Trying to make a career of Jewish music," he said, "would be a waste of time."

Though heartbroken, Spector persisted and finally found an ally in Dr. Eric Werner who steered her toward the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where she received her doctorate in Jewish music. Upon her return to New York, she founded the department of Ethnomusicology at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where she taught for many years and was head of the department.

Dr. Spector and I became close friends. I admired her many laudable qualities, especially her sense of loyalty. If she believed in you, she stood by you and defended you to the end.

She was also generous. If you were raising funds for a personal project, Spector was the first to make a donation. Not only was she generous in material ways, but she was lavish with her time and her knowledge. She was likewise very generous with her possessions and would always lend her valuable music scores to those who needed them.

Dr. Spector always seemed happy and was full of laughter. Despite her tragic past, she knew how to enjoy life and made sure that you enjoyed it along with her.

At the same time, she was principled. Deeply religious, her tenets in life were molded by her profound belief in the teachings of the Bible. She was also unbending: a determined lady who would brook no action that violated her principles.

One of her pet words was "proper": things should be done properly, one should behave properly, one should treat others properly.

Oh, yes, Gania – Dr. Johanna Spector – was a very proper lady.

An expert in Armenian music, Şahan Arzruni is a pianist, composer, and ethnomusicologist.

Original article first published at