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Listening to Armenia - John Psathas’ A Cool Wind

Updated: Jun 13, 2022

“I have always been drawn to the duduk because of its supreme ability to give voice to grief…‘crying through music’ but at the same time…comforts and soothes.” – John Psathas

New Zealand-based composer of Greek origin, John Psathas, was learning about the tragic events of 1915 when he wrote the piece, A Cool Wind, for string quartet. Despite the distance in time and geography, he was digesting the horrors of Armenian history, having also affected his Greek ancestors in the 1920s. The piece, whose sound is influenced by the Armenian wind instrument, the duduk, grew as a journey of personal, cultural, and national grief, both mourning the past and breathing life into the present.

The emotions provoked a creative process of pen to music staff in which he aimed to emulate the singing human qualities of the duduk while letting the essence of the composition lead him onto the next note, through the next rhythmic pattern, into the creation of the next measure, until the life of the piece, as he said, would “communicate to me what it wants to become.”

I happened upon the premiere of A Cool Wind like a stroke of unavoidable fate shared between two people with common history. Commissioned by Chamber Music New Zealand for the Takacs Quartet, the piece was premiered in the US at Carnegie Hall. I was there for the standard quartets of Schumann and Beethoven so thoughtfully and gently evoked by the Quartet’s famously mature and fluid sound. But nestled unexpectedly between two Western greats, A Cool Wind’s layered silky texture immediately pulled me into a different realm of mystery, question, and elusive answer.

The piece not only carries the duduk’s singing quality of elongated, thoughtful and sorrowful tones (Psathas was influenced by the mesmerizing aura of Djivan Gasparyian’s playing) but captures at the same time a feeling of forward movement. Listening, I felt the past as an entity always present, reminding us, like a wind wafting over and passing on, while always subtly propelling us forward.

“More than anything, this small piece of mine, so tiny in the scale of human experience, is an offering: of remembrance, of hope, of sadness and suffering but mostly of solace.” – John Psathas

Here is a midi rendition of the string quartet, A Cool Wind.

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