Saturday, March 29, 2008

Hovern Engan III: When Artists LIE

Did Peter Gabriel plagiarize?

By that I mean, did he take someone else's work or arrangement of a work (steal), and then claim it as his own (lie)?

Did a famous rock star accept Grammy and Oscar nominations for an album and make millions of dollars off it, all the while touting himself an advocate of world music and its artists, when in fact significant creative musical work on the album was actually done by others, scantily acknowledged if indeed acknowledged at all?

In my opinion, and as I understand the semantics,

And, yes.

I've written two previous posts on this issue: "Hovern Engan," which I posted on March 1, and "Hovern Engan II," posted on March 4.

To summarize, in brief: the first post describes how I came to realize that the melody in the first track of Peter Gabriel's album Passion - the soundtrack to the movie The Last Temptation of Christ - is actually, note for note, the Armenian folk song entitled Hovern Engan, which according to one source is about a mother receiving news of her martyred son.

In the second post I explore the music further and suspect that not only did Peter Gabriel do little more than add percussion on top of the duduk player's arrangement of Hovern Engan, but also he took musical ideas from that arrangement and used them in his instrumental embellishments. (I was unsure at first if Gabriel echoed the dudukist or the dudukist echoed Gabriel, but seeing as I found out recently that the dudukist is DEAD, and in fact died before Gabriel's album was produced, I thought it unlikely that he be echoing anything Peter Gabriel might have composed.) I also include in that post a recording of the dudukist's arrangement of Hovern Engan and a Youtube video which features Peter Gabriel's version.

It would have been fine with me if Peter Gabriel had in fact billed his track as a VERSION of Hovern Engan. But see, this is not what he did. He took someone else's RECORDED arrangement of the piece, tacked on some drums and synthesizers, gave it a new title ("The Feeling Begins"), then included it in an album with a tiny footnote that says the melody being played by dudukist Vatche Hovsepian is an Armenian melody, " The Wind Subsides," from a recording directed by Robert Ataian and published by Ocora Records. Obviously Hovsepian AND Ocora were okay with what Gabriel did. I'm not.

It just so happens that I have obtained a copy of this recording. Or at least, I'm pretty darn sure it's this recording. The cover of the LP is pictured above. The back lists the song exactly that way, "The Wind Subsides," though there seem to be many other ways to translate the phrase, as I explained in my original post. I have listened to this track. I am no sound engineer, but as far as I can discern, it is IDENTICAL, I mean EXACTLY THE SAME, as what we hear underlying "The Feeling Begins," leading me to conclude that Peter Gabriel took this very recording, embellished/added to it without altering the arrangement done by SOMEONE ELSE, and claimed it as his own work. That is, although he marks this track with an asterisk and alerts us that asterisks "denote selections from existing recordings of traditional music," he also announces in the CD booklet: "Compositions by Peter Gabriel with the exception of" those marked with a cross or double cross. "The Feeling Begins" is not marked with a cross or double cross, even though he in fact did not COMPOSE it but rather added percussion and synthesizers to someone's established, recorded arrangement of a pre-existing composition.

This is what Peter Gabriel had to say about the project (from page 10 of the CD booklet): "We recorded some of the finest singers and soloists in the field of world music and set the score on a backdrop of traditional North African rhythms and sounds. It was a wonderful experience working with such different and idiosyncratic musicians. They came from Pakistan, Turkey, India, Ivory Coast, Bahrain, Egypt, New Guinea, Morocco, Senegal, and Ghana. For many of them working with this material was something quite new and they were very enthusiastic [emphasis mine - I found this sentence condescending]. The soundtrack is full of the spirit of their performances."

Not just the spirit, my friend. I'd bet the composing/arranging talent as well, very concretely. And where, in this rhapsodic but patronizing accolade, is the mention of the one country whose music is lifted and used as the SIGNATURE PIECE of the film's trailer and indeed its entire soundtrack? Where, in this generous list, is ARMENIA?

By some interesting coincidence a Youtube member going by the name Yavalia posted a couple of videos, one on March 23 and another on March 28 of this year, paying tribute to Armenian dudukist Vatche Hovsepian and pointing out the glaring but tolerated act of plagiarism by Peter Gabriel. I have embedded the March 23 video below but would like to quote some text from the other:

"Take out the duduk and the tune, and what would remain is an ordinary drumbeat noise just like today's trance or rave music..."

Good point, Yavalia.

In the music community use of folk songs in compositions is considered fine. Things that are legal, even if artistically unethical, are somehow accepted. But this is more than that. This is cultural imperialism and blatant theft under the sheep's clothing of advocacy of world music artists. Even if this were legal, which it shouldn't be, it would be morally wrong. Somehow people can get all hot and bothered about fake memoirs* (e.g. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, Love and Consequences by Margaret Seltzer, and Misha: a Memoire of the Holocaust by Misha Defonseca), though actually written by their respective authors (but lied about), but not get all that upset about plagiarism, which involves both lying AND stealing.

Call me stubborn and judgmental, but I think people should respect and GIVE CREDIT TO the creative and/or musical talents of others and be honest and clear about their own contributions.

*On the subject of these fake memoirs, I was struck by a review of one of the memoirs posted by Timothy Y. Liaschenko on Amazon and wanted to share it here: “The argument could be made that people deserved to be deceived to a certain extent. The reason Seltzer's book sold was essentially prurient interest in the lifestyle of gangs. The same exact thing happened with James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. He attempted to sell it as fiction to a couple dozen publishers under the genre of fiction to no avail. When he remarketed it to them as a memoir they had a bidding war for the rights to publish the book and when it was released it got great reviews, just as Seltzer's book got good reviews. When the books were revealed to be fakes, critics then turned against them and called them awful. Why is this? The story, diction, and syntactical structure remained the same. The only thing that changed was that the events hadn't happened to a real person. In that case it seems that the enjoyment of the book did not come from anything that the author wrote, but the reader's enjoyment of knowing these awful things happened to a real person. In such a case who is the worse person: the author who misrepresents his work or the reader who delights in schadenfreud? At the same time I can see why James Frey acted as he did. After having spent years writing a book only to have it rejected as fiction and then salivated over as memoir reveals more about the American publishing business and the reading public than it does of him. He spent untold time and energy creating something only to have it arbitrarily rejected, not because it was no good, but because in the capitalist system the publishers didn't think they'd make enough money on it. Yet when Frey turned the tables and exploited the system to get his due he is labeled the bad guy, while everyone else wags their fingers and cry, 'For shame!' ”

My question is, why is it considered ok for musicians and composers to lie, but not for writers?

Friday, March 28, 2008


I'm interested in the human voice. Not just because I visualize people's vocal cords and place breathing tubes through them on a daily basis for a living, but also because voices are eerie - part of us, yet sent apart from us when they are put to use, almost like little souls entering the world through our words and sounds, carrying to other people such abstract things as ideas, emotions, meaning, implication. Through them we can create or destroy, make music or noise, send messages or choose silence.

In addition to enabling people to communicate ideas and emotions, to make music, to make significant changes in the world, voices can identify people. No two voices are exactly alike (though there are some people with the talent to create very convincing vocal impressions; last month an interesting article on NPR by Kim Masters described how a deleted scene in the movie Spartacus was restored using Anthony Hopkins' voice as a substitute for the late Laurence Olivier's). I could ponder endlessly the ability of an individual's muscles, vocal cord structures, and respiratory apparatus to produce sounds unique to that individual.

And it's a lot of little muscles!

1. The lateral cricoarytenoid and tranverse arytenoid muscles bring the vocal folds together.

2. The posterior cricoarytenoid separates the vocal folds and allows people to breathe normally.

3. The vocalis adjusts pitch by relaxing parts of the vocal ligament.

4. The cricothyroid muscle lengthens the cords.

5. There are others: the sternothyroid, thyrohyoid, thyroarytenoid, oblique arytenoid, aryepiglottic, thyroepiglottic, stylopharyngeus, palatopharyngeus, cricopharyngeus, inferior pharyngeal constrictor...

But even more than the work of these muscles in concert (so to speak) to produce a unique voice, the transcendent power of the human voice fascinates me. Voices are unique as representations of ourselves in our own absence, because they almost bring us back to life, as it were. When I look at a picture of a friend, or of my husband, or my kids, I smile and reminisce, but I know the pictures are just two-dimensional images of the memories they've captured. When I hear a message on my answering machine, though, or hear a recording of my husband speaking or my children talking or singing, it's almost as if they were in the room with me. Voices recreate a person's very presence and infuse it with a strikingly lifelike quality - again, that eerie way of working in the world, ghost-like, there but not there.

There's been mention in the press the past couple of days of the discovery of the earliest known recording of a human voice. Talk about spectral. When Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville created his "phonautograph" in 1857, he meant it to be a device for creating visual representations of sound waves on paper blackened with soot. Little did he know that 150 years later, scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory would be able to use "optical imaging and a 'virtual stylus' on high-resolution scans of the phonautogram, deploying modern technology to extract sound from patterns inscribed on the soot-blackened paper," as Jody Rosen explains in her article for the New York Times. Now the voice of someone singing a line from Au Clair de la Lune haunts us from the year 1860, a phantasm called forth from the 19th century: the trace of a real person from a past long gone, now resurrected briefly in our living rooms or laptops.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

"Why do you seek the Living One among the dead? He is not here..."

I am on the road again. It's been a liturgically deprived Triduum for me this year, alas, with all the stuff that's going on in my life. I was on call on Holy Thursday. I had to work Good Friday and missed my daughter singing at the Good Friday service. Had to travel yesterday and today, for truly good and important reasons. So I've tried to create my liturgical space and time within, on the plane, on the train...reaching for that mysterious, blessed, ancient space-time depicted in William Hole's painting (above) of early Christians in worship.

I wish all who celebrate the mystery and hope of Easter a good and blessed one.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


This will be brief (for me), because I am tired, because I was on-call last weekend, and again last night, and again tomorrow...

As my 1-year oboe anniversary peeks over the horizon like a timid sun, my aptitude for oboe has established itself.


Today I finally had the lesson I've been dreading all this time. The one where I have to tell her I haven't had much chance to practice lately because of all my call / travel / family obligations / what-have-you. The one where no matter how hard I try I can't for the life of me consistently play a low B because my finger can't bend toward that key somehow. The one where she tells me I have to change my embouchure, to which I've clung like a barnacle for the last several months, because I'm biting the reed, and my attack is wimpy, and I'm not maintaining the air flow necessary to produce a good tone.

"How about this. Try this," Kyoko said. She played a long G.

I put the oboe to my lips and produced a resounding HOOOOOONNNK!

"Maybe pull your reed out just a hair, and keep the air flowing forward."

I started the tone again.

"Relax your lower lip a little..."

I tried.

"But not quite that much..."

How could last Thursday's orchestra rehearsal have felt so satisfying and today be like an exercise in plunking my rear solidly back onto Square One?

The best part is before the lesson waiting for the 12-year-old wunderkind in the time slot before mine to exit the room before I go inside. That's always an ego boost. It's not enough that I'm taller than Kyoko, so when we had to exit the building for a fire drill a couple of weeks ago and the group leader asked, "Do all the faculty have their students with them?" I felt...shall we say...special - like Will Ferrell's character in Elf - when she pointed up toward me to indicate that she, at least, had hers. No, on top of that, I have Superboygenius, son of a professional wind player, taking his lesson right before me, playing his high-speed runs with narry a stray water droplet or missed half-hole, then bundling up into his hat and scarf like mommy told him, before going home for his afternoon milk and cookies... just gotta laugh at yourself. And be thankful your teacher is delighted to laugh along with you and just help you along as much as she can. She has the patience of a saint. Which is good, because I, whose left fingers on the ulnar side should have some strength from mask ventilating people everyday, am decidedly in an oboe SLUMP.


Speaking of boy geniuses, yesterday on the radio I heard the Sinfonia Piccola by Finnish prodigy Heikki Suolahti, who died at the age of SIXTEEN (of peritonitis, according to some sources). It started off a bit grand (influenced by Sibelius, maybe?) but the latter movements had some really nice moments.

I wish I had a talent for composing music.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Last Day

Today I had to deliver a deeply painful message.

What do you do when you have to tell someone this: I'm sorry, but if we operate on you today, you'll die tonight; if we don't operate, you'll die tomorrow?

The surgeon who called me to confirm this devastating news for a patient was my friend Caroline Walsh, with whom I shared another tough, sad situation described in my Veteran's Day post.

Caroline was asked to evaluate an elderly woman with a terminal illness and a perforated bowel. The woman had a whole host of other conditions that made her what we, with our jargon, would call a "poor surgical candidate." From what Caroline, the ICU nurses, and the chart told me, this was someone who might not survive induction of general anesthesia. In fact, the clinicians who knew her best didn't feel she'd even survive the ride home in the ambulance unless she took with her the drug infusion that was maintaining her blood pressure. The woman had a DNR/DNI order in place.

When I arrived inside the ICU I met the woman's son and daughter-in-law, who was in tears. I spoke to them with Caroline, then was introduced to the woman's husband, who looked weary with grief. Then I went and spoke to the patient herself, a lovely, alert woman with short, wavy, snow-white hair and kind eyes.

I told her if we proceeded with surgery, I would have to intubate her and would likely not be able to remove the tube - ever.

I said the induction of anesthesia posed grave danger to her. Caroline had also already told her she might not survive the surgery or its foreseeable complications under the circumstances.

I told her I was concerned that if we proceeded , we would be unable to honor her wishes - namely, to spend meaningful time with her loved ones, aware of their presence, holding their hands, talking to them.

I told her that what Caroline and I wanted for her, and what she and her family also appeared to want, was for her to be comfortable, and to be able to share in her family's company, not to be hooked up to a ventilator and pressors in the hospital with Caroline and me.

She agreed.

Her husband, son, and daughter-in-law stood by, heavy-hearted, taking this all in. Her other child, a daughter, was on the way. Caroline and I promised to be available to all of them if they had questions, then took our leave. As I exited the ICU I hurled my protective gown and gloves into the trash with a bitter kind of resignation. Another patient for whom we could do nothing. Another family left broken-hearted.

She may have found her way back home with her family as I write this. Tomorrow, or the next day, she will die. As I drove home I had a jumble of thoughts in my head, none easy. Did I say the right things? In the right way? Why is it so hard to remain unruffled by emotions - as Caroline and I did our best to remain, as we were professionally obligated to do - when others are weeping in pain around us? Did the woman and her family feel supported despite our "professional" demeanor? If it were my last day on earth, would I want to know? What would I do? Whom would I want beside me? What do I want to see, do, experience, before that day arrives? How could I bear the pain of knowing I would never see my children's smiling faces, feel my husband's arms around me, again? Never another starlit sky, another warm fire in the hearth at Christmas, another passage of my favorite music, a moment of irrepressible laughter in a cozy home or over a favorite meal... Never again the scent of fruit newly opened, or the aroma of smoke from a candle just blown out...

I know this: the O.R. was not the right place for this lovely woman to spend her last moments, unconscious, bleeding out, with a tube in her windpipe and a bunch of stressed-out docs and nurses scrambling to try and help her survive. She belonged with her family, among those who knew her and loved her best, encircled by love, affection, and human comfort, and I hope that's where she is now.


Photo credit: Sunset in Naples by Massimo Finizio, licensed by Creative Commons.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Acupuncture Chronicles I: Do We Have the Ki?

Western doctors can be such arrogant, contemptuous, condescending, judgmental snobs about medical practices in other cultures. It must be the Cartesian mindset. We worship empirical evidence and scoff at concepts that don't rely on observable, measurable phenomena.

I guess I can't really blame us. Reliance on evidence gives us security, a means of holding practitioners accountable for their work, and a solid foundation for our expectations of efficacy and safety. But it also deprives us of millennia of the rich lessons offered by non-Cartesian ways of thinking about the body and the world.

I get annoyed when I see rationalists speak or write in superior, sometimes fundamentalist tones in their polemics against "alternative medicine." Don't get me wrong - I am very much anti-quackery and very much for being educated, careful, and thoughtful about choosing therapies - but I think being categorically dismissive about ancient or foreign healing traditions is both short-sighted and disrespectful. (Of course, I also particpate in liturgy and see value in reading and talking about poetry, so what do I know, right?)

When the anesthesia literature had to start recognizing significant benefits from certain acupuncture techniques, I have to confess I fantasized about standing in front of a roomful of grey-haired white men in white coats and saying "Ha! How d'ya like THEM apples, hm?!"

I used an acupressure technique just yesterday, for a woman whose nausea persisted despite the administration of several different medicines. One of the recovery room nurses called me and asked about trying yet another drug, but it was one I wouldn't have recommended in that particular situation, so after ascertaining what she had already tried, I said, "Give her another five milligrams of drug A and a dose of drug B and I'll be right over to do some P6 acupressure."

When I arrived at the bedside I attached an EKG pad with the little metal nubbin against a spot on the forearm close to the patient's wrist and secured it with a pressure dressing. Half an hour later I was going to call the recovery room to see how the patient was doing when the nurses wheeled her right by me as they were bringing her up to her room. Was it the additional IV meds (which hadn't done a thing for her previously) or the P6 pressure, or a combination of the two? Hard to say, but the nurses were pleased, I was pleased, and most importantly, the patient was relieved and happy. I have other stories about the use of acupuncture/acupressure in anesthetic practice but they will have to wait for another "edition" of Acupuncture Chronicles.

Anesthesiologists are interested in acupuncture and acupressure because of their recognized potential for efficacy against certain pain states and against nausea. The conference I attended in Vermont over the weekend offered a special workshop on acupuncture which was attended to capacity. I was struck by how, in the various discussions on the mechanisms by which acupuncture provides relief, people kept trying to find Western explanations: neurochemical transmission, embryologic connections, cell signalling / second messengers, and microscopic connective tissue changes. I had a nagging thought throughout all the lectures and conversations: could we be "missing the boat" trying to force neurophysiology and biochemistry, very matter-oriented mechanisms, on something that has for thousands of years been explained as an energy-oriented healing method? Will our understanding always be incomplete because we just cannot, will not believe in Chi (or Qi, or, in Japan, Ki), the "life-force" coursing through the meridians along which acupuncture needles are placed?

The National Council Against Health Fraud articulates a fairly commonplace attitude to the concept of Chi, and to acupuncture in general, in its position paper, revealing not only skepticism but also some real disdain for any understanding that departs from the wisdom of modern medicine: "The life force, Ch'i, has no basis in human physiology. The meridians are imaginary; their locations do not relate to internal organs, and therefore do not relate to human anatomy. Acupuncture points are also imaginary. (Various acupuncture charts give different locations for the points.) These fanciful concepts continue to form the basis of modern acupuncture therapy even though extremely sophisticated methods are used to measure its reputed biochemical effects." (Emphasis mine.)

I believe it's possible that not all healing mechanisms rely entirely on matter: molecules, receptors, ion channels, and the like. Even "modern" physics supports the interchangeability of matter and energy: light is a wave as well as a particle. For all we know Chi not only exists but also can be crucial to our health. We can't see it, touch it, or run it on a gel, so of course it must be a load of superstitious hogwash, right? One of the key speakers at the Vermont seminar did concede that even if we could really grasp and accept the concept of Chi, there had to be some interface with the physiology we know and understand that would satisfy our hunger for tangible mechanisms. I agree, I think the truth may lie in both worlds together (yin and yang in balance, anyone?). I don't think medical doctors should cling so obstinately to their mental models of health and pathology as the absolute truth, and I for one am happy to see my field opening up to possibilities that just might do our patients some significant good.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Closest I May Ever Come to Discussing Sex on this Blog (Unless You Count the Mischievous Inside Joke In That Mawidge Post...) - Still Rated PG

I'm not on vacation, exactly. I'm at an anesthesia conference in Stowe, Vermont, one I've attended the past several years. The second year I attended, I spent all the free time between lectures studying for my written boards. Passed them. The third year I attended, I studied for my oral boards. Passed those too. This year my free time is actually that: FREE!

So what on earth am I, a non-skier in a ski town, doing with myself? Besides waiting for The Hunk and The Cuties, who do ski, to join me?

I am still doing what I was doing before - READING! But this year I get to choose what I read, when I read it, and what to focus my thoughts on. This weekend it's the wanna-jump-in-and-wallow-in-it prose of Barbara Kingsolver's fifth novel, Prodigal Summer, in which the writing is as luxuriant as the Appalachian landscape it describes, almost sexually so. The language itself is verdant and voluptous. Talk about authorship! Who else can come up with sentences like this:

"The weeping limestone was streaked dark with wet-weather springs, which were bursting out everywhere now from a mountain too long beset with an excess of rains."

Or this:

"...she soothed herself with an ancient litany: Actias luna, Hyalophora cecropia, Automeris io, luna, cecropia, Io, the giant saturniid moths, silken creatures that bore the names of gods into Zebulon's deep hollows and mountain slopes. Most people never knew what wings beat at their darkened windows while they slept."

Kingsolver has the kind of mind I love, admire, and envy: that of a brilliant scientist AND a poet/writer with a unique vision and voice.


It just so happens that this novel I'm reading parallels a Psychology Today article that caught my eye recently, in which human attractions and mating rituals are explained as fruits of our olfaction. This is old news, of course. Martha McClintock drew attention to the phenomenon of pheromones in her work on menstrual synchrony among women living in close proximity to one another. Claus Wedekind demonstrated not only that we choose our mates because of smell but also that the probable resultant benefit is the generation of offspring with stronger immunity. This last part was new knowledge for me.

After I read the Psychology Today essay I curled up against The Hunk and mumbled, half-joking, "Isn't it sad that we don't really love each other?"

The Hunk laughed, replied with a typical, "Oh, okay honey," and gave me an affectionate squeeze.

"No, seriously, man, it's all because we detected that our major histocompatibility complexes would result in progeny with better membrane proteins."

"That's right, it's all because I smelled you."

"Yup. Looks that way."

Even our ferocious love of our children isn't all that remarkable in the natural world. I once saw a program on some science channel - National Geographic, or Discovery, or PBS - that showed footage of a shrew or a field mouse valiantly defending her young against a much larger predator. We're hard-wired to protect our own. All the ferocity and ardor of my love for my cuties, this little field mouse can demonstrate too. But the little field mouse, I suspect, doesn't well up with delight just watching her daughter playing M.A.S.H. in her notebook or listening to her son talking about the Ancient Egyptian belief in the weighing of the heart in the afterlife and liking it for being "mathematical." Why do the most ordinary moments we spend together take on such an extraordinary quality, a precious vibrance we cherish and ponder repeatedly? Can delight in our loved ones be so easily explained away as a product of molecular and biochemical interactions?

And for The Hunk and me, what does it mean, this thing we call love - the heady rapture of our earliest days, the emotional and intellectual bonds, the deep comfort and happiness of these trust-filled years - it's all just testosterone, oxytocin, and pheromones, isn't it? A mist of molecules entwining our lives in its vapors.

Or is it? :)

The truth is, I don't think it matters much what the empirical "reality" of our relationship consists of, and what biological mechanisms gave it life, when the truth of it that we have defined for ourselves, and chosen, is the reason we live that life. One case in which our faith - the way we regard our world, our lives, and their meaning - is more important to us than our knowledge.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Hovern Engan II: Still Mad at Peter Gabriel

For anyone who missed the previous post: I've been mad at Peter Gabriel ever since I discovered that he appropriated an Armenian folk song into "The Feeling Begins," the first track of his 1989 Passion CD, and billed it as his own work.

Even though he printed in tiny letters in the CD booklet that the duduk in that track was playing the "Armenian melody," he gives no credit to the duduk player for the arrangement / recording of the melody.

Well, here's what happened today.

In an effort to learn about the music arranging process, I decided to listen to two different artists' renditions of the melody, entitled "Hovern Engan" or "Hovern Enkan," and try to create a simple arrangement for orchestral oboe for myself. I spent a couple of hours this afternoon listening intermittently to performances by Jivan Gasparian and by Vatche Hovsepian, who had been the dudukist on "The Feeling Begins."

In the course of trying to figure out the core structure of this song underneath all the advanced embellishments by Gasparian and Hovsepian, I heard something on Hovsepian's recording that sounded very familiar. It was a musical idea that was also on "The Feeling Begins," but played by instruments other than the duduk. By implication, added by Peter Gabriel, and also by implication, composed by him - yet here it was in Hovsepian's arrangement.

The phrase I'm referring to can be heard at time index 1:59 on "The Feeling Begins" (both on the CD track and on the Youtube video below) and at time index 2:47 on Hovsepian's recording of "Hovern Engan."

Now what I'm wondering is, did Gabriel take that from Hovsepian too, or did Hovsepian echo it from having worked on the Passion CD years ago?

My Ocora Records recording of Armenian instrumental music, directed by Robert Ataian, should be arriving in the mail soon. This may be the recording that Gabriel credits in his CD booklet. If it is, we'll see if this same musical idea is in Hovsepian's earlier performance of the piece.

For now, I leave you with all three versions of the music via this video from Youtube uploaded by Aussiemystic and via links to Hovsepian's and Gasparian's performances of the work. Enjoy.

Hovern Engan played by Vatche Hovsepian

Hovern Enkan played by Jivan Gasparian (you have to click on the actual song title on this one because it's cued up to a different track)


The image of the Passion CD cover art used here is used under "fair use" as:
-It is the primary means of visual identification of the album in question.
-It illustrates an (arguably) educational article about the album from which the cover is taken.
-It is a low resolution copy of the album cover.
-It represents only a portion of the album's complete packaging and cover art.
-It does not limit the copyright holder's rights and ability to sell and market the album from which it is taken.
-It is not replaceable with a non-copyrighted or freely copyrighted image of comparable educational value.

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, 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 stating, "I always think [Peter Gabriel] is more influenced by the music around him and therefore steers clear of blatant plagiarism.” Another fan on 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.