Ara Gevorgyan Has Invented Bass Qanon

Bass Qanon Nvard

Achod Papasian | Music of Armenia, Yerevan

Besides being a successful composer and producer, Ara Gevorgyan is also the inventor of a new instrument: the bass qanon. Our meeting took place in his studio, among a collection of multicolor caps hung on the walls, portraits of his mother - the famous folk-singer Valya Samvelyan - and all types of unusual instruments.

Where did the idea to create a bass qanon come from?
The idea was born one year ago when I recorded one of my compositions – Mush – with a band consisting of fifty qanons lead by the famous qanon player Hasmik Leyloyan. When I listened to the recording afterwards, I noticed that there was something missing - the deep sound of bass. With a computer software, I separated the section with the lowest notes and lowered it one octave down. It sounded much better and softer. Thus, I thought: why don’t we have a bass qanon? I searched the internet and discovered that there was no such instrument in the world. I only came across seven bass instruments: the double bass, the bass guitar, the bass balalaika, the bass mandolin, the tuba, the bass clarinet and the bass saxophone. Among our traditional folk instruments, the instrument that holds the function of bass is the oud. But given that its strings are very thin, it doesn’t meet the expectations of a real bass sound. Thus, many of our traditional folk ensembles have to use the European double bass. However, our traditional ashughakan (minstrel) song ensembles are deeply attached to the true traditional tones and therefore have refused to use the double bass, as it doesn’t fit the sound of the music. We have created the bass qanon especially for these ensembles.

How did the fabrication process begin?
I went to meet one of our best master craftsmen, Albert Zakaryan, to discuss the creation. He said we had to start from the strings. I told him I wanted the qanon to have double bass strings and an amplitude starting from the contra octave - the lowest note on a piano. Based on this information, Albert began to do calculations and research on the double bass, the harp, and the piano in order to understand how to build a structure strong enough to resist the tension of sixteen steel strings. Afterwards, we had to find the right wood. Albert offered me to use maple wood, for its beams are especially straight. I went to Tuapse, a town located north of Sochi in Russia, to meet the Tskanyan brothers, Tigran and Hamayak, who have a wood workshop there. I bought enough wood from them for the creation of ten instruments. I brought it all back to Yerevan, and when I arrived at the airport, everybody laughed at me passing through the customs with my arms full of wooden beams!

Overall, how many bass qanons have you fabricated?
So far, we have produced three of them. The first one took us about twenty days to make and was finished on May 28th. We named it Alvard and consequently decided to give each next instrument a name. The value of a bass qanon is about 2000 dollars. Because we absolutely wanted our traditional folk ensembles to use it despite this expensive price, we decided that we shall give it as a present to ten traditional Armenian Folk ensembles. In order to build these instruments, we needed sponsors. The first one was sponsored by the great Karlen Karapetyan and it was named Alvard after his mother. It was then offered to Tovmas Poghosyan’s “Sayat-Nova” State Minstrel Song Ensemble. Last October, the ensemble performed a concert dedicated to Sayat Nova’s 300th anniversary at Moscow’s State Kremlin Palace, and it was the first time that the bass qanon was played. We finished the second bass qanon in July and called it Nvard. The major difference with the previous one was that we took off the tuning levers which were not essential. We just finished the third bass qanon, Gohar, which will be introduced to the public for the first time during a presentation at Arno Babajanyan concert hall on December 16th. It will be given as a present to the State Orchestra of Folk instruments. We hope to find more sponsors in the future; we are confident that the price of the qanon is not such an expensive sum for donors. After we finish making all ten bass qanons, we will donate the first one to the Yerevan History Museum for people from all over the world to see it displayed. Then we will start to produce instruments to order, at a higher price. 

As tradition requires, only women play the qanon. In the case of the bass qanon, will there be any difference?
Well, it is a tradition now, but until Khachatur Avetisyan, only men used to play the qanon. In Turkey and in the Arab countries, qanon players are mostly men. Everything changed with the influence of Avetisyan who wrote wonderful compositions for qanon. Nowadays, no man plays the qanon in Armenia. In the case of the bass qanon, anyone can play it, there are no rules; the most important thing is that the musician masters the instrument.

How do you plan to spread the word about your invention?
For the moment, by the means of interviews and coverage by the media. Last march, the Russian TV Channel MIR aired a report about our instrument, which was shown in all former Soviet Union countries. Let them all know that it all started in Armenia! We also plan on making a website to advertise the bass qanon and to have all information about it in one place. I am pretty sure that we will soon get orders from Turkey, Iran, or Arab countries. But the most important event will be the presentation at the Arno Babajanyan concert hall on December 16th. The young students of the State Pedagogical University as well as Tovmas Poghosyan’s “Sayat-Nova” State Minstrel Song Ensemble will play compositions using the bass qanon. A short film will also be played, showing the different stages of the instrument’s creation. All the media agencies will be there and I want to take advantage of this opportunity to ask the Ministry of Culture to apply to SKB*, and ask them to create a special case made especially for the bass qanon. I also want to call on our compatriots. Unfortunately, there is a great lack of master craftsmen in our country. At present, there are almost no students. We have to show our support to our master craftsmen, otherwise, the knowledge will not be passed on and soon we won’t have anyone to make and renovate our instruments. Anyone interested in helping them should contact me. We will build studios/workshops for the craftsmen and give them the opportunity to teach students.

Do you get any profit from this?
All the money goes to the craftsman, and I don’t receive a single cent. I am not a shopkeeper you know, I am a musician. One day, Albert asked me: “What is your benefit in doing all this?” I answered him: “Varpet jan, first of all, you receive money and enjoy a better life. Secondly, our sponsors got instruments dedicated to their loved ones. Thirdly, our traditional folk ensembles received presents. Fourthly, students are taught how to play the bass qanon in Yerevan Pedagogical University. And finally, our country benefits from it, as it has received a new folk instrument, unique in the world. Now, if you take a look at all these benefits, do they not benefit me too?

*a company, which makes cases for musical instruments