Saturday, March 1, 2008

Hovern Engan


Recently I wrote a post in which I waxed rhapsodic about the harmonic minor scale. In it I mentioned performing in a dance piece choreographed to "The Feeling Begins," the evocative opening track of Peter Gabriel's score for The Last Temptation of Christ.

This was in college. I can still remember the opening sequence, during which a haunting wind instrument played a melody that seemed to breathe life into our first gestures as the lights revealed our presence on stage to the audience. When you dance to something over and over again, you get to know the music intimately, like a partner. You notice its nuances, get familiar with once-unexpected turns and shifts in the music, learn its moods and its hidden details, and can almost feel its beat replacing the pulse that sets your body's innermost rhythm.

Recently, too, I was entranced by a post on Eat, Sleep, Oboe, a blog by racheloboes, in which she discusses the duduk, an ancient Armenian double-reed instrument related to the oboe. As it turns out, this is the instrument with the prominent opening voice in "The Feeling Begins." After clicking on a couple of her links to the Armenian Sound Network to hear a couple of samples, I ordered a CD featuring master musician Jivan Gasparian (or Djivan Gasparyan). I wanted to learn something - expand my musical horizons.

A couple of days ago I was listening to the CD on my way to work and found Track 5 almost uncomfortably familiar. I knew this piece. Why did I know it? It was Armenian music. The only exposure I had ever had to Armenian music consisted of the ballets of Aram Katchaturian and the compositions of my daughter's piano teacher, an Armenian-American composer and musician. But almost from the first passage I could hum along to the music; I could have DANCED to it, in fact, if I hadn't been driving. And if I could have recalled all the choreography from years ago. I had danced this music a dozen times. It was literally INSIDE me, interlaced with some memory cells deep inside my brain. It was the melody from "The Feeling Begins" on which Peter Gabriel had hung the rest of his percussive rhythms and middle-eastern-sounding themes.

I'm not talking SIMILARITY here. The two did not simply resemble each other. It was the SAME SONG in both tracks. Arranged almost identically.

I felt bothered by this. It was like an itch I had to scratch but just couldn't reach. I had to find out what the song was. At a stop light I fumbled for the CD cover in the car. I looked at the track titles - but they were in Armenian! Dagnabbit! It couldn't be a CD label in Cyrillic or Greek or some other script I might actually have been able to decipher? And I had work to do! I wouldn't be able to learn more about this till later!

I finally had the chance later in the day to look up the track names in English on the Armenian Sound Network. Track 5 was entitled "Hovern Enkan," sometimes also rendered "Hovern Engan," and I learned this is an Armenian folk song whose title I've seen translated as A Cool Breeze is Blowing / Cool Wind Has Descended / Coolness Has Descended / Autumn is Here / The Weather is Getting Cold / The Wind Has Dropped.

Okay, folk song. So, traditional, probably quite old. I then went to my CD of Peter Gabriel's soundtrack for The Last Temptation of Christ, entitled Passion, to see how this piece was listed. "The Feeling Begins" is the opening piece, the music that sets the tone for the work as a whole. It's also the piece used for the movie's trailer. The back of the CD reads "PETER GABRIEL - PASSION: Music for The Last Temptation of Christ, a film by Martin Scorsese," then lists all the tracks in order. The enclosed CD booklet replicates this information on its opening page. Under the details for "The Feeling Begins," it lists the instruments used as well as the musicians playing those instruments. Beside a tiny asterisk beneath this list is the following explanation: "The Doudouk is playing an Armenian melody; 'The Wind Subsides.' (see note)"

I went to the "Note" on page eight, deep into the booklet, which stated, "All '*' denote selections from existing recordings of traditional music. Armenian Doudouks recorded for Ocora Records under the Direction of Robert Ataian." Then, beneath that, "Compositions by Peter Gabriel with the exception of ['Open' and 'Stigmata']." No mention of "The Feeling Begins" or another track, "Lazarus Raised," which incorporates a traditional melody from Kurdistan.

After reading these details, I wasn't any less bothered by this whole thing. Maybe it was because of an NPR piece I had heard just a day or two before I heard the duduk CD, on the subject of political speeches and giving proper credit to the right authors...if in fact the authorship was discernible. But something did not sit right with me with the way this soundtrack had been done. And I really, really LIKE Peter Gabriel's stuff. Especially this CD, which at the time of its release was considered such a landmark, potentially influential work.

Here, despite the asterisks and the notes, it seemed like he was taking credit for another culture's work and calling it his stuff. It wasn't that he failed to identify the music, musicians, instruments, or recordings. It was the way he presented his album. He was presenting it as a soundtrack he composed with allusions to or influences from other cultures. But in the very opening track we hear a gorgeous melody that's not his presented as if it is his. I felt duped because I am ignorant about Armenian music and I thought he had written the piece himself. Does adding drums and synthesizers and a few added passages make it his composition all of a sudden, when the underpinning of the whole piece is a separate work, well-known in its native culture, with its own history and merit? Can he claim it as his arrangement of "Hovern Engan," when clearly it's already been arranged in duduk player Vatche Hovsepian's rendering of it, and Gabriel simply manipulates it by superimposing his characteristic sounds over it and adding a few musical responses?

I recognize that whether you're re-creating a chef's recipe or alluding to lines penned or spoken by other authors, sometimes attributions can be tricky. But where do we draw the lines between references, borrowings, adaptations, repossessions, and frank theft? I know there are precedents for the appropriation of traditional/folk songs in "Western" music. Ralph Vaughan Williams may be best known for alluding to or re-working English folk songs and incorporating them into his compositions. Bizet's Arlesienne Suites contain passages from the traditional French carol "La Marche des Rois." And what a different work Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring would be without his arrangement of the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts."

I can't articulate exactly why I feel the above examples are different, but I do. Perhaps it's because in these classical works the appropriated songs remain recognizable to listeners in the cultural contexts in which the works were composed. I have to assume "Hovern Engan" is not a household song in most households across the world, and thus not immediately recognizable to the worldwide audience listening to Peter Gabriel's soundtrack and reading the title of the piece, not as "Meditation on an Armenian Melody," but rather, "The Feeling Begins": a presentation that suggests a new work created by the composer for the film.

I'm not accusing Peter Gabriel, whose work I greatly admire, of intentionally lifting the work for his own purposes. I just don't think he attributed it adequately, and I have to wonder if he would have taken the same liberties with traditional music from, say, Scotland or France or Canada or England. I'm dissatisfied with the way the credit was given for "Hovern Engan," and the recording of it, and there's at least one other person in the world who's also troubled by it. A reviewer (haik28) of the soundtrack on Amazon.com, from Glendale, CA, writes, "As an Armenian, I feel terrible when a person like Peter Gabriel takes credit for taking Armenian folk pieces with the use of 'Duduk' and then is considered a genius...It is...intolerable and very humiliating..." In contrast, someone left a comment on the forums at petergabriel.com stating, "I always think [Peter Gabriel] is more influenced by the music around him and therefore steers clear of blatant plagiarism.” Another fan on Solsburyhill.org writes, "Evidently scarred by accusations of cultural imperialism on the fourth Peter Gabriel record, Peter took great pains to credit music to its origin and here the record sleeve notes that the doudouk's melody is that of a traditional Armenian melody titled 'The Wind Subsides.' "

I'd like to assume that Peter Gabriel cares deeply about music and its sources - as evidenced by his compilation of the soundtrack's companion CD, Passion - Sources - and approaches his own great talent with a sense of respect and responsibility for the creative process. But I still have that itch. Chalk it up to my personal preferences or sensibilities, or a nuance in my interpretation of allusion v. imitation v. appropriation in composition; but I want it to be more widely known that "The Feeling Begins" is hauntingly beautiful because its main melody is a product of Armenian composers and Armenian musicians, copyright or no copyright. Peter Gabriel takes the piece to wonderful places with his use of "Synthesizers, Shakers, Skins, and Surdu," but the core of the music belongs to Armenia - as should a greater portion of our appreciation.

13 comments:

racheloboes said...

I think that perhaps Gabriel would have done the same thing with a British, etc. folk tune. Not that I know anything, really, about Gabriel, but I was struck by a similarity with what I've been researching about the Bax oboe quintet. Bax was self-admittedly obsessed with Ireland and Britain, and tried to evoke those countries in nearly every piece he played. In the third movement of the Quintet, he uses three themes, two newly composed and one a folk song. They're treated exactly the same, and only in ONE of the discussions of this piece that I've read has the folk song been identified as something not newly composed. (And this is despite the fact that this particular folk song was also used in several other famous classical pieces.)

Not exactly the same, seeing as Bax wasn't as modern as Gabriel, but a similar circumstance.

Rachel

T. said...

Perhaps...but there's still something that bothers me in the Gabriel situation, with such a prominent rock star and a HUGELY hyped-up soundtrack, using a genre far less familiar to most Western audiences than the English folk song...

I don't know; there's a fine line between incorporating Hovern Enkan INTO a composition and presenting it AS your own composition, and I'm not sure that he maintained the integrity of that line...

But I am neither a composer nor a sound engineer / production manager, so I realize I am opining on things in which I humbly admit I lack expertise...

Elaine Fine said...

Composers (or compilers) of movie soundtracks often take pre-existing music and re-orchestrate it. Some cases in point would be the use of Saint-Saens' Organ Symphony in Babe or the use of Schumann's Reinish Symphony in Braveheart. As far as the legal musical community is concerned, if it isn't under copyright, anything is fair game. It doesn't even need attribution.

Composers have been incorporating folk music into "composed" music for a very long time. The use, for example, of l'homme armé as the basis for polyphonic music goes back to the earliest polyphony we have on written record, and the incorporation of folk music probably goes back much further than that.

You know that Peter Gabriel didn't write Hovern Enkan, and now everyone reading this post knows that he didn't write it. Bravo for your musical detective work. It is obsessions like the one you had that fuel the minds of all kinds of musical research.

Sometimes it is difficult to separate something you wrote from something you already know deep in your subconscious mind. If he was aware that he didn't write it, Gabriel probably didn't know the source of this tune. Maybe he thought that nobody would notice. I'm glad you did.

T said...

Elaine, it's so great to have input from someone with some real knowledge about music and composing. Thank you for including me and readers here as part of the community that is blessed to have you as their teacher. I always learn so much from you!

And I feel maybe a LITTLE better about the Hovern Enkan thing now...though just a little! Having a brother-in-law who is a professor of sound engineering and who is very much in-the-know about the "music business" and the "legal music community" has made me perhaps disenchanted a priori with issues of intellectual property, proper credit, etc.

Elaine Fine said...

But...

If Gabriel used Vatche Hovsepian's recording of it and added voices to that, that is wrong and illegal, since the recording is published.

If he used Hovsepian's exact arrangement of the melody without attribution, and that arrangement was published as a piece of music, that is wrong and illegal.

Otherwise, it is legally fair game.

T said...

Hmm...the only details I've seen are those disclosed in the CD booklet. I did see online a record for sale entitled "Armenie: musique instrumentale," under the direction of Robert Ataian, published under the Ocora Radio France label. I'd have to see if I can get a copy and listen to it and see if in fact Hovsepian's arragement and/or recording is the exact one used in the Peter Gabriel track...

If so I'll feel tense about it all over again...!

T. said...

I also want to add that the "legally fair game" concept has been pretty annoying to me over the years. I think creativity is such a gift, and people who are able to express it musically should retain "ownership" of what they and no other people have been able to produce, whether or not they have an official copyright.

Though of course, things are never simple...again on NPR I heard a discussion on Science Friday about patents versus copyrights for biotechnology creations, and I think the blurry, crooked lines between making and sharing can easily wind up all in a tangle...!

T. said...

Still reading and mulling this over to try to educate myself and see if I can come to some better understanding of the process of creating a soundtrack...

I was thinking to myself, ok, I've already acknowledged that the incorporationg of folk songs is a known, accepted, and acceptable tradition in music...so why does this still bother me? Why should the use of Hovern Enkan as a base from which to improvise / create another great composition be wrong? If anything it actually highlights the great worth of the original, doesn't it...?

I then created in my mind an imaginary movie - perhaps a comedy about Jewish family life. "My Big Fat Jewish Wedding," or something like that. I imagined a soundtrack in which the opening titles were set to a rousing, jolly rendition of Hava Nagila, or some Klezmer standard, which then morphs into something else that the composer drummed up (pun intended). Would that have bothered me? Well, no. Why not? I think it's because I know it's Hava Nagila. Though I am not Jewish, Hava Nagila is on my cultural radar screen of traditional music. And I can recognize that Mr./Ms. Composer then went off on Hava Nagila and composed some wonderful, creative spin-off all his/her own, but using Hava Nagila as a springboard.

I know I'm just rambling here, trying to make sense of my own strong reactions to something...Not even sure if I'm making sense, but really just trying to understand what's going on - in the music, in the creative process, in my own head...

I think what's at the heart of my tension over this is that in other appropriation examples mentioned here, there's some potential awareness among listeners of what the composer is doing - incorporating, spinning-off, what-have-you. The Passion CD, though, was billed as a musical breakthrough, a revolutionary work by a composer presenting his own original work. If that's not exactly what he did, he shouldn't allow it to appear that way...

And maybe it didn't appear that way to other listeners more sophisticated than I...I'm just learning!

Elaine Fine said...

I never believe it when anyone calls any soundtrack "a musical breakthrough." Film music, even at its best, is there to underscore the drama of the film itself. Just because one critic (or one person who is connected with promoting the film) calls something a breakthrough doesn't mean that it is true.

As to ownership of music, nobody exclusively owns a piece of music. When I write a piece of music and somebody plays it, the music belongs to the people playing it. If an audience hears it, the music belongs to everyone who hears it. Granted, it is nice to try to claim "ownership" of a piece of music, but, if you forgive the analogy, it would kind of be like you owning a patient's life after you help bring him or her through an operation. You don't own that patient's life, and you have no claim on whatever that person does after leaving the hospital. You just did your job and made it possible for that person to continue life after entering the hospital for an operation.

We composers try to do our job well while we are putting pitches, rhythms, and dynamics in the places they need to go, but our job is finished once the music is sent to the publisher or to the musician it was written for. The life of the piece is out of our hands.

By doing your job well you make it possible for a patient to continue being alive. By writing a piece of music a composer makes it possible for that piece of music to come to life when it is played. If someone records it, that person makes it possible for the piece to come to life when somebody pushes the play button on whatever device is being used to play it. At that point it could be said that the performer "owns" the interpretation, but that would still be a reach, because an interpretation is not a "thing" to own, and it is something that could not "exist" without the piece of music to be interpreted.

T. said...

I definitely see your point, Elaine. But truth be told, I know of composers who are far less magnanimous in their attitude to their own work than you are (bless you for it), and who would never agree that their music "belongs to the people playing it." How I wish that were different!

I guess when I used the word "ownership" I really meant authorship, and a certain implicit acknowledgement that the composer "brought to life" something that another person could not...

And on that note (again, pun intended), I have to say that there is no way I would ever compare something like artistic creation with the job I do for a living. Anyone can go to med school and learn material and skills and learn them fairly well. I think it takes much more un-learnable talent to be a composer! I'm in such awe of people who can create with music. For people with zero music-writing ability, like me (believe me - when I see how my daughter can just play around on the piano and generate musical ideas, I KNOW what having that gift looks like!), it's much more than just "putting pitches, rhythms, and dynamics in the places they need to go." I know music and composing can be studied, practiced, and honed, but I think good artists also have what can't be taught in any school...

Which brings me back to the idea of authorship. I think of great works of art as unique fruits of a person's combined talent and labor, each one a gem, a precious gift. When someone else claims to have brought forth such a gift into the world but has not, in fact, truly done so, I do see it as a lack of integrity, both artistic and moral - a combination of lying and stealing. So, certainly a piece you've written can "belong" to all of us - you, musicians who play it, listeners who hear it - but you wrote it, and no one else could have. In that sense, I would always think of it as yours, even though you are generous enough to allow it to be ours as well.

Geoffrey said...

Peter G has done a fair amount for 'world' music -- at least in terms of garnering wider exposures for various 'stars' from countries other than the usual US/UK. I think it was Eno who first recorded Duduk for the wider pop audience. It's ironic that those of us who were considered ultra-weird by the mainstream because we listened to sounds other than the western are almost reckoned 'trend-followers'now because a few big names have forced 'world' sounds into the mainstream. You could read something like 'Music Grooves' by Keil and Feld to explore some of the socio-political aural colonialism issues. And you could listen to say, Jon Hassell, to hear modern composing with a genuinely rooted 'exotic' flavour'. You're giving a lot of free publicity to Peter G, incidentally..


btw, I think English folk song has been rather marginalised in comparison to say, Celtic.

Ed said...

It's a tricky issue; the thing I thought of right away was the renaissance practice of writing "parody masses" based on the work of other people. So for example Morales would take a motet my Ockeghem, and then make that mass into a whole different composition, while still using similar melodic lines and harmonic progressions. And Bach used to steal from himself! 90% of the B-minor mass is from cantatas that he wrote.

But it seems like your problem has more to do with the whiff of imperialism involved in this. It's one thing for Vaughan Williams to take English folk songs that are anonymous and in circulation, and it's another thing for a western musician to take something from Armenia like that without attribution. Now, it's probably not morally suspect if Gabriel is just using the folk song, though he should say that this is what he's doing. BUT, if he takes the arrangement from someone else, that's really bad. That would be like me taking Vaughan Williams' arrangement for Locke Loman and passing it off as my own. It doesn't help if I take it, and add a bunch of drums and synthesizers around it. I'm still taking his arrangement.

In general, I think it's a good idea for western musicians to play andexperiment with music from abroad. But I think it's also a good idea for them to be explicit and honest about what they're doing. And Peter Gabriel shouldn't be saying that he wrote a melody that he didn't write.

T. said...

Geoffrey - I wish this meant "publicity" for PG, but I think the only people who read this are some dear friends in the world and in the blogosphere!

I do have discomfort around a champion of world music acting like he is entitled to do whatever he wants to another culture's music...you have me pegged, Ed!

Brilliant remarks, wish I were so knowledgeable...!

Thanks for discussing - I'm really learning quite a bit.