Does exoticism in music still exist?

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© 2023 Alain Herzog
© 2023 Alain Herzog
For their project -The Armenian presence at the Montreux Jazz Festival - A study of the Tigran Hamasyan Quintet concert in 2014-, Léandre Guy and Basile Tornare explored what exoticism means in music and the limits of genres.

Léandre Guy and Basile Tornare, master’s students in Civil Engineering and Environmental Engineering respectively, met during their bachelor’s at EPFL when playing music together. They found each other again in the Social and Human Sciences (SHS) course -Music, Politics, and Society- taught by Constance Frei and offered by the College of Humanities (CDH).

-We talked at the end of one class and I asked him about his ideas for the final project,- Léandre says. -He immediately said -Tigran Hamasyan-, and I said that I was thinking the exact same thing. It was a great coincidence.-

Tigran Hamasyan is an Armenian musician that both Léandre and Basile became fans of separately. The main theme of the course is music and exoticism, so they decided to study Hamasyan’s music to understand if the idea of exoticism and music still applies, and if music like Hamasyan’s can be pinned to one specific place and culture.

-You have to try and get as close as possible to the music itself-

Basile and Léandre chose to work on a concert from the Montreux Jazz Festival (MJF). They had access to a trove of data thanks to the Montreux Jazz Digital Project from the Cultural Heritage and Innovation Center , led by Alain Dufaux, which has videos of MJF concerts since 1967 available for viewing at EPFL’s Montreux Jazz Café.

Tigran Hamasyan has performed four concerts at MJF - in 2004, 2011, 2014, and 2022 - plus his first appearance as a competitor in the Concours de Piano in 2003. Léandre and Basile chose his 2014 concert performed as part of the Tigran Hamasyan Quintet and focused on a song called Hov Arek.

They chose Hov Arek because it is a traditional Armenian song, and while some of the other pieces from the concert were original and written by Hamasyan himself, this song had already existed for over a century. In addition, the 2014 concert was the only recording of Hamasyan and the quintet performing Hov Arek. It is not available on any album, and his few other performances of this song were not recorded, except for one other version from a concert in Paris , which Léandre and Basile also analyzed from YouTube.

-It’s the piece that closed the 2014 concert,- Basile explains. -And musicians choose the piece that closes a concert for a reason.-

Hov Arek is attributed to the ethnomusicologist Komitas, and the earliest recorded version of the song is from Paris in 1912 , which led Basile and Léandre to structure their project as a detailed comparison between the 1912 and 2014 versions, as well as some contemporary traditional versions recorded by other artists.

To compare the two pieces, Basile and Léandre did a grid analysis with the help of Prof. Frei and the course assistant Federico Terzi. They used the grid to explore several elements: the presence or absence of instruments, the rhythm, the agogics, the ranges, the modes, and of course, the words, the language, and who was singing.

-For me, the biggest fear was to fall into description, to just say -this happened, then that happened-,- says Léandre.

-You have to be as objective as possible, really analyze the music as it is, without going into more subjective aspects,- adds Basile. -Whether you like it or not is important to say in a more personal moment, maybe in the conclusion, but in the analysis, you have to try to get as close as possible to the music itself.-

The Montreux Jazz Festival’s living history

In order to spend as much time with the music itself, Basile and Léandre became frequent visitors of the Montreux Jazz Café, which has nearly every concert since 1967 available to watch on a large screen with surround sound from comfortable couches, without needing to buy anything from the restaurant. Basile and Léandre watched the 2014 concert probably around a dozen times. Yet they never tired of the repertoire, nor of Hamasyan.

They also had access to other archives from the Montreux Jazz Festival, such as photos of the concert to see how the stage was set up, and the program to see who else was playing before and after Hamasyan. And one of the greatest resources they had access to was Stéphanie-Aloysia Moretti, the artistic director of MJF.

-She happened to know Tigran personally, so she could really tell us a lot about his debut in Montreux at the Concours de Piano in 2003, and about his 2014 performance,- says Léandre. -She had a lot of anecdotes about Montreux, about Tigran, and explained how the process of booking and scheduling artists works.-

The trap of exoticism

While the theme of the course was music and exoticism, what Basile and Léandre found in their work was that it’s difficult to talk today about exoticism in music, because there is such a mixture of influences and cross-pollination in music.

-It helped me realize that while at first I thought of Tigran’s music as being Armenian, it isn-t,- Basile explains. -It’s Tigran’s music. It includes certain elements of his Armenian culture, but it’s his music. And in this case, more specifically, it’s the music of the Tigran Hamasyan Quintet.-

By comparing the 1912 and 2014 versions of Hov Arek, Basile and Léandre were able to understand all the ways the Tigran Hamasyan Quintet deviated from the traditional Armenian sound, for example by incorporating electronic elements. In this way, they could show how much traditional music has evolved, making it hard to categorize any one type of music or song into a specific genre.

"It’s not Armenian music, but it’s not jazz music either, nor is it electronic music,- says Léandre. -You can’t put it into one genre. It really is unclassifiable music."

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