Sound Art in Armenian Reality

Vardan Harutyunyan

Writing about sound art in Armenia is like speaking about being human, when one hasn’t even been born yet. According to my observations during my years of studying at the Yerevan Conservatory in the 2000s, there was - amidst both the lecturers and the students - some idea about movements such as Musique Concrète (Concrete Music), which is made through the combination and transformation of field recordings. This movement was a topic of discussion, music scores were available and there were recordings in the Conservatory’s sound library. Concrete Music was also known to the theoreticians and was touched upon in some theoretical works. Nevertheless, I never met a composer at the Conservatory – either an established or an emerging one – who’d be making work in this genre. Naturally, some of the composers used field recordings, and we’ll discuss one of them below. Despite this, concrete music was not something that was explored by Armenian composers. This lack was partially due to the comparably limited accessibility of technical means in our country.

Musique Concrète is a movement that emerged in the 1940s, in France. This definition was proposed by the French composer Pierre Schaeffer. It is a particular direction of contemporary music that uses field recordings. We could probably consider this movement as the source of sound art. When new, more accessible means for recording and transforming sound became widely available, they started to play their own, special role alongside more traditional forms of music.

The technologies of sound transformation create a number of mathematical changes within the sound wave, for example: they allow to repeat the same sound wave after some time or a few times in a row (this is called delay), to slow it down or speed it up, and so on. The first tools for sound manipulation were analogue and they performed their function through physical, electromagnetic means. Today, digital tools are also widely used, which alter the function of the sound-wave mathematically. Naturally, digital techniques are more varied and can create considerably more combinations in comparison with analogue formats. Nevertheless, both methods are widely employed in contemporary music.

In a recording, there is always only one wave and although we can hear in it a number of different musical instruments simultaneously, the recording as a whole appears as a single function, a single wave. If we are correlating the recordings of different instruments, their waves – or mathematical functions – are added up. In nature, sound spreads out in the same way. For the sake of clarification, we can imagine the waves of water: when the peaks of two waves join, they create a higher wave. The height of the sound vibration, meaning the distance of the vibration point from zero, is called amplitude, which signifies the loudness of sound in musical terms. Depending on the frequency of the vibration the sound tone (or the note, in musical terms) changes.

These physical phenomena are defined by familiar musical definitions such as the ‘note’ (frequency or pitch), harmony (correlation of frequencies), tonality (the system of arranging other frequencies around the tonic centre - i.e. the dominant pitch), high or low volume (amplitude), interval (the difference in pitch between two sounds) and so on. Classical tonality and harmony (which in our minds are associated with melody and perceptions of melodic music) came out of overtone sequence. The overtones are the pitch sequences present in a single note.

First comes the octave overtone (octave is the interval in which the second note has a pitch twice higher than the first one). After the octave in overtone scale comes the fifth and so on. All music history has been created on the foundations of overtone sequence intervals. For example, at the basis of music, which we call ‘tonal’ or, in everyday language, melodic, lies the cycle of fifths. This schematic arrangement of tonalities was created in the eighteen century, after the Pythagorean music scale. It also initiated the well tempered musical system, which divides the entire sound spectrum into semitones. Tone and semitone are those musical intervals through which harmonies or modes are constructed. Their sequencing in tempered music is determined with the help of fifths cycle. The musical interval smaller than a semitone (pitch difference) is called microtone. Today, the differences between microtones are measured in cents – 100 cents in a halftone. Tempered music is a special kind of optimisation, which helped to create the contemporary musical system, but also strictly delimited the innate diversity of the sound spectrum in music. While microtones are widely used in modern music, they still function in it within the system of tempered semitones. On the other hand, sound art operates completely independently of the latter.

As we can see, all of these musical and mathematical aspects have always been closely intertwined with each other, but during the centuries-old development of music humanity has not yet reached a point at which it could claim that it has fully understood the nature of sound. It is the nature of sound that has formed the history of music in the way that we know of it today. Sound art also doesn’t entirely reveal the character of sound, but it moves closer to the exploration of the farthest frequencies in an overtone sequence.

Despite the lack of a fully-formed field, there are, of course, in Armenia many such individual artists, who have turned to sound art or have created specific works that have laid the foundations and shown the potential for later development. Many of these artists are representatives of experimental art. We should admit that the presence of sundry practitioners is not a sufficient precondition for a developed field or the growth of a structured network around sound art. An important requirement that is vital for the creation of a network is the mutual accessibility of the artists - meaning the possibility for collaboration - and the active rapport between this art form and other media, which could prompt an increase in the number of artists working in sound art.

Regardless of the practitioner, sound art is present in music, other media and also in contemporary, conceptual art. Going further, one might say that sound art, as well as art in general, is present within all phenomena – in the everyday environment, the urban informational field, all natural occurrences on the planet, the interior of the Earth, in the resonances hidden within materials, the ice fields of the Antarctic, the cosmos: this art will be perceived as an art when it finds its observer. The American author Terence McKenna notes in one of his lecturers that the universe is in itself a creative machine, which constantly generates more and more complex art forms.

Sound art shares certain commonalities with music: in my own observations it is more tolerant towards formalism than visual or textual arts (the British philosopher Alan Watts compares music with the dance of electrons, thus questioning the need for signification entirely in both art and reality). The role of concepts and ideas - or text in general - in sound art is not as hefty or obligatory as it is in other, more material art forms. Nevertheless, it is more significant than it is in music. With sound, signification acquires an entirely new form: it appears not verbally but within the realm of frequencies, vibrations, clusters and other similar phenomena. This complexity is, perhaps, one of the reasons that contemporary Armenian art has not turned to sound as a separate media to the extent that would be desirable.

Presently, we see a favourable time for the growth of sound art. This process started in recent years and is currently gathering steam. That’s arguable, of course and it is impossible to form a precise opinion regarding this development without conducting extensive research. But, based upon my own experiences, it is the view of a practicing, independent artist that I would like to emphasise, and to focus the reader’s attention upon the reality in which musicians experimenting in the field of sound art currently live in. Hopefully this will serve as a perspective on the subject, as well as a contribution to research and art historical interests in the framework of the field’s critical evaluations.

The diverse experiences of both contemporary artists and composers in the area of sound have laid foundations for the development of Armenian sound art. Along with his great contributions to twentieth-century modern music, it is known that the Armenian composer Avet Terteryan also had a role in initiating the use of sound-recordings within academic music – something that perhaps should be seen as the closest link of Armenian classical music with Concrete Music and especially sound art. Contemporary art, in its turn, had an influence upon conceptual and philosophical aspects of sound art.

We can observe two key sources in the emergence of sound art. Firstly, there is the increasing intricacy of compositions in academic music, which creates the need for electronic mediа as a result. Such material becomes sonoristic in nature and begins to approximate Concrete Music with its use of field recordings (Sonorism is a 1950s style in Polish avant-garde music, in which the phenomenon of sound acquired tremendous importance). The second source is the hybridisation and unhindered use of different media in contemporary art, which brought about a new understanding of sound. In actual fact, these are parallel processes. Some ten years ago in Armenia, the school of academic music and contemporary art were almost entirely separate from each other: there was a significant informational gap between the two. Few of the local contemporary composers had any notion of the nature of contemporary art in a general sense, while some of the contemporary artists considered that – regardless of the period and complexity of the material – music was not worth considering as art, but only a decorative and illustrative phenomenon or craft.

In time, naturally, both of these realms expanded their boundaries, creating a possibility for their gradual fusion. We can gladly note that there is already some mutual tolerance between artists working in different fields, which is due to a deeper understanding of these diverse arenas by the practitioners themselves.

In 2009 I graduated from the composition department of the Komitas State Conservatory in Yerevan, where, in my opinion, one of the major deficiencies to this day continues to be the absence of an introductory course on electronic music culture and its technologies. Sometime later, I met Raf Geoletsyan at an electronic music club called Wormhole (currently the location of Mirzoyan Library). Just like me, Raf was making his first experiments in abstract sound art. The meeting was a big and pleasant surprise – Raf was the first person I met that shared my preoccupation with contemporary experimental sound art. Such a chance acquaintance between two solitary creative people was an ordinary occurrence in Yerevan life. Down the track, while collaborating with the LSD group, I discovered new experimental musicians, whose approach to conceptions of abstract sound stemmed from the punk psychedelic movement. Among them was Kay Khachatryan, who engineered innovative sound experiments in the studio, and others.

At the same time, one of the first sound performances took place at the newly-established AJZ artist-run space and a group of contemporary artists presented sound art pieces at the Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art (NPAK). Thus, the element of sound was gradually being taken more seriously in local conceptual art.

It must be said that the majority of musicians who create conceptual or abstract sound art in Armenia, concurrently work in techno and other electronic dance music fields, produce new club music and perform in rock or jazz bands. This is normal, since the demand for sound art is limited. Nevertheless, aside from public or paid commissions, there exists, fortunately, the so-called ‘command of the art’: art itself dictates the need for creating new projects.

During the past two-three years, the Contemporary sound orchestra was formed in Armenia, which has a flexible member structure. Aside from those artists who permanently take part in the band’s performances, the project is ready to include new artists and musicians. Nearly all of the group’s concerts have been conducted with different casts. This ensemble has temporarily halted its activities and is currently seeking new working space. Prior to this, the group’s practice sessions took place at the Composer’s Union building in Yerevan. It is no secret that spaces intended and specifically designed for contemporary art in Armenia are extremely scant. The Contemporary sound orchestra also collaborates with video artists.

Thus, the same artistic personalities have simultaneously been servicing Yerevan nightlife, while creating ‘daytime’ sound abstractions for a much smaller audience. At the time, this parallel work in commercial and experimental fields considerably widened our staid perceptions regarding the nature of ‘real’ art. This is a normal practice in the West, where the collaboration between capitalist and artistically alternative realms has evolved much further than in our local reality and the artist’s public functions are more numerous and diverse.

The role played by contemporary sound artists in the process of creating techno, house or other kinds of dance music and filling the clubbing scene with new sounds, is very important. This fact should not be seen merely as an obligation or a compromise: the artist searches for and proposes new perceptual and methodological horizons in all fields, and this is also useful in the construction of a new society. The role of someone who works in this direction in cinema – even in case of television and advertising sound design – is also significant: one must not define such work purely in technical terms. The art’s resistance within the system is just as vital as the artist’s critical gaze directed at this same system from the outside.

A few, crucial transformations are essential for creating favourable conditions for the evolution of sound art in Armenia.

First of all, new spaces and platforms for sound art must be formed. The platform and the growing interest towards sound as a substance or a specific language, create the necessary climate for the development of the field. Appearing in the informational flow, those individuals who work in this arena are able to identify the vectors of their creative trajectory more quickly and find their means of being useful to society, which is an important precondition in the evolutionary process of the artist.

The Second change is the establishment of new disciplines and branches of study at traditional educational and cultural institutions, where potential specialists could realise their ideas and achieve more tangible results. As a result, the spectrum of possibilities expands and the increase in the number of specialists prompts the field’s development, thus engendering the demand for the very same experts, which, in its turn, could lead to the creation of a school of sound art in Armenia.

The Third circumstance is the growth of mutual appreciation between artists working across different fields and media, as well as the acceptance towards artists operating within capitalistic structures and the increasing perception and understanding of their work as a form of resistance.

Finally, there is the acceptance and instrumentalisation of historical, cultural legacy. From the perception of cultural values as mere artefacts, a transition is being made towards new modes of transformation and reprocessing, along with the reconsideration of copyright’s significance. Perhaps, the conservative public attitude towards cultural values drove the new generation of creators to reject or resist against the said values. Hence, the shift from parochial to more proactive approaches enables the reconsideration of heritage as a creative and educational resource.

Coming back to the musical legacy of Avet Terteryan and other innovative composers, we should state that it serves as a fundamental source for a new generation of sound artists. The archive of modern and contemporary music recordings has also been used by contemporary and conceptual Armenian artists.

The types of art, which deal with sound media in Armenia, are evolving at a much slower rate in comparison with the West. In this instance, the West’s influence is enormous and dominant. The conscious use and promotion of local sound archives is a vital factor in ensuring Armenia’s stable position within the ranks of the ‘global’ art-world.

The near future undoubtedly promises large-scale projects and festivals, which will encourage the re-evaluation and usage of sound and musical patrimony, as they will the production of new sound material. We can already observe the first stages in the planning of such events.

Taking into consideration the extreme governmental and social corruption in Armenia, it was impossible to imagine any large-scale efforts of such kind in the realm of either contemporary, musical or sound art.

With proper organisation, procurement of resources as well as their correct distribution and use, the possibility of realising such initiatives becomes more tangible. Among these initiatives we could potentially see open-air festivals of academic, modern and contemporary music, art residencies for emerging artists, festivals dedicated to the works of young composers, exhibitions and events pertaining to new media art, and so on. The necessity for enterprises of this type, is indisputable in my opinion.

Also of importance is the training of the kind of specialists who oversee the organisational aspects of these endeavours and who’d be able to execute large-scale events with limited means and change public perceptions regarding this, as well as other branches of art.

Not to diverge too much from the subject and the rubric, let us list a number of artists and musicians, who play a role in the development of Armenian sound art.

Artak Gevorgyan: Co-founder of the experimental electronic label ‘Bohemnots’, political artist.
Following his achievements in political art, Artak Gevorgyan created the ‘Bohemnots’ label. Its aim is to promote the works of young electronic musicians in Armenia. Aside from this, the label organises events lasting for up to twelve hours, where one can listen to different kinds of electronic music.

Kay Khachatryan: Electronic music author, sound artist, sound engineer.
Kay Khachatryan works at the sound studio of Mkhitar Sebastatsi educational complex. Prior to being involved in electronic music, he played in experimental, punk music groups. Currently performs with the LSD Sound-Out Club group.

Areg Arakelyan: poet, musician.
Areg is one of the co-founders of the LSD Sound-Out Club. Amidst his projects is ‘Colourless Rainbow’. Areg’s peculiar poems are available on the project’s Facebook page.

Duke: musician, artist, electronic music author.
Duke or Vardan Sargsyan is a painter who, during his creative trajectory also began to play electric guitar. The artist’s interest towards noise expressions has brought his music closer to sound art. Vardan is also a member of the LSD Sound-Out Club.

Arash Azadi: composer, electronic music author, video artist, ambient musician, sound artist.
Azadi has studied in the composition department of the Komitas State Conservatory in Yerevan. He has made a contribution to the arena of experimental music and sound art in Yerevan and has presented his works at numerous exhibitions. Arash also has video works and is a live video artist.

Samvel Khatchatourian: ambient musician, sound artist.
Khatchatourian is quite a young artist in comparison with his colleagues in Yerevan. His music is distinctive – it is a mixture of ambient and techno forms. There are experimental elements in this music, which have the potential for becoming sound abstractions.

Davit Hakobyan: author of electronic music, DJ.
Hakobyan’s first work in the field of sound art is the sound design created for Kamo Nigarian’s retrospective exhibition ‘Schizopolis’ at the Cafesjian Center for the Arts. He is currently active in the arena of electronic music and also makes ambient and experimental works.

Vazgen Harutyunyan: author of electronic music, sound artist.
The works from Harutyunyan’s initial creative period are experimental sound compositions. Currently he composes experimental dance music. His works are typified by experiments with time and rhythm.

Cast Coverts: electronic music author, sound artist.
Raph Geoletsyan is flutist and has had a training in classical music. His electronic music can be found on the Internet in the form of different project, each of which has a particular direction and conceptual approach. Among these are the Blind Mortis, Cast Coverts, Optometric projects.

Davit Balasanyan: composer, experimental musician, pianist.
Balasanyan is a contemporary, academic composer whose music contains both modernist and post-modernist elements. Currently he continues to write academic scores and concurrently works and performs in the field of improvisational music.

Van Sarkissian: musician, electronic artist, Hassfest festival organiser.
Established by Van, Hassfest festival is a unique phenomenon in Yerevan’s audio-visual scene. It provides young artists with the opportunity to present themselves in an entirely new format in Armenia. Contemporary artists from all over the world are also invited to the country in the frameworks of Hassfest. In this regard, Van also makes quite interesting and unusual choices.

Eva Khachatryan: curator, art manager.
Khachatryan is one of the leaders of contemporary art in Armenia. Her practice is tied with different organisations. Currently she collaborates with the Goethe-Institut in Armenia. She has brought the internationally renowned Unsound Dislocation festival to Armenia. Eva is also a contemporary and multimedia artist.

Artyom Evoyan: sound artist, DJ.
Artyom has an important function in Armenian reality not only as an author of electronic music, but also due to his employment of often solely experimental sound and music compositions within his DJ sets.

Melikset Panosyan: artist.
Panosyan is a contemporary artist, whose artworks amalgamate different forms of expression: sculpture, sound, performance, video and so on. In recent years, he primarily works overseas.

Aram Hovhannisyan: composer, co-founder of Quarter Tone organisation, artistic director of Assonance ensemble.
Hovhannisyan is a contemporary composer, has studied at the Yerevan Conservatory and later moved to Switzerland. He continues to keep ties with contemporary musicians from Armenia. Through the Quarter Tone organisation he remains an active figure in Armenia as well.

Also worth mentioning are a number of practitioners whose primary activity is related to the visual arts, but they have also made an important contribution to sound art. Among these artists are Diana Hakobyan, Davit Kareyan (1973-2011), Karen Ohanyan.

These and other artists take part in the creation and cultivation of the sound art scene in Armenia. It is possible to get acquainted with the works of these artists through the links presented below.


Kay Khachatryan 

collaboration with Duke 

Contemporary Sound Orchestra 

Areg Arakelyan 

Karen Ohanyan 

Duke Duke  

Arash Azadi 

Samvél Khatchatourian 

David Hakobyan 

Vazgen Harutyunyan 

Cast Coverts 

David Balasanyan 

Van Sarkissian 

Eva Khachatryan 

David Kareyan 

Diana Hakobyan 

Artyom Evoyan 

Meliqset Panosyan 

Aram Hovhannisyan 


Translated by Vigen Galstyan