Review | A Consideration of the Worlding Power of Music in Tigran Hamasyan’s "Shadow Theater"

Tigran Hamasyan’s new record, Shadow Theater, is an example of a work by an artist creating in a world of cultural and ideological multiplicity. The music is by turns melodic, complex, meditative, lamentful, kinetic, culturally particular, boundless, very old, and very new. More than aesthetically pleasing, Hamasyan’s music provokes listeners to consider new horizons of possibility. I will show this stylistically-inclusive approach to music making, especially with a focus on musical improvisation, as an example of music which can refigure the reality of those who listen. In the interest of exploring this capability, I will consider Hans-Georg Gadamer’s description of “play” as related to aesthetic works and David Borgo’s characterization of improvising music as platform for change and celebration of difference. By situating Hamasyan’s music in these theoretical frameworks we can gain insight about how musical works change us, and why this is important.

In his magnum opus, Truth and Method, Hans-Georg Gadamer offers a simple but revolutionary characterization of the ability for aesthetic works to affect those that would interact with them. Eschewing earlier characterizations of aesthetics via the corpus of German transcendental idealism, Gadamer offers instead a simple characterization of our interactions with aesthetic works as “play.” For aesthetic works to effect us we must engage in the to-and-fro movement of our interaction. “Play,” he says, “fulfills its purpose only if the player loses himself in play” (1994:102). Speaking in terms of music, the degree to which a listener engages with a work—thereby allowing an intersection of the world of the musical work and the world of the listener—to that same degree can a work offer possibilities for imagined difference perhaps not otherwise available to the listener. “[T]he work of art has its true being in the fact that it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it” (ibid.). In this way, the transfiguring capacity of works allows for a “transcendence” of perceived worldly limits while still acting within the “immanent” world. In this model of aesthetic vehemence there is no need to appeal to an imagined transcendent realm. Our immanent realities are re-configured by our interactions with musical works; they change us, challenge us, offer different ideas and new understandings of ourselves.

Hamasyan’s music is uniquely positioned to challenge and change a listener via the worlding power of play. Rather than presenting his complex music as forbiddingly difficult (though parts of it unquestionably are), Tigran’s employment of singing, whistling, and old-world melodies in his music entreats the listener to play by offering familiar signposts. For example, Areni Agbabyan’s wordless vocal during the rhythmic permutations of The Court Jester acts as a trail of breadcrumbs through the shifting rhythmic sands as it does in Pt. 1. Collapse. Similarly, Tigran’s choice to voice the melody in saxophone and voices through the break-beat infused Pt. 2. Alternative Universe, humanizes the challenging, stylistically shifting tour de force. Employing a playful but sophisticated compositional style redolent of his many influences, Hamasyan subverts listener’s expectations. This ability to surprise listeners by his compositional technique and improvisational wit challenges their anticipated musical outcomes. And perhaps by taking them outside of their musical comfort-zones by way of its concomitant employment of familiarity and unconventionality, encourages differing perceptions of the possible. As it opposes a polarizing schematization, this music is an expression of chiasmic unity; of a para-logical “both/and” rather than “either/or.”

The effectiveness of the stylistically inclusive nature of Tigran’s music—as it incorporates elements of musical worlds which are usually mutually-exclusive—alludes to David Borgo’s estimation of the import of improvising music practices. In his book Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age, Borgo describes jazz and improvising music in terms of nonlinear dynamical systems. He suggests that jazz music, which is inclusive in terms both of its varied influences as well as the plurality of attitudes surrounding musical practices, ratifies improvisation as a model for complexity. By “complexity,” he means as an aggregation of simpler systems that both work and can work independently; a whole made up of wholes, as it emphasizes "adaptation, perpetual novelty, the value of variety and experimentation, and the potential of decentralized and overlapping authority..." (2005:193).

A wonderful example of the music from Shadow Theater, this live performance of The Court Jester displays the multiplicity of influences, complexity, and approachability of Hamasyans' music.

As an example of this complexity, novelty, and experimentation, consider Tigran’s composition Drip from Shadow Theater. A whole made up of wholes, in Drip it is apparent that Tigran’s musical influences cast a wide net. Beginning with chunky piano that sets up a dubstep wobble, a groove unfolds incorporating an Armenian-influenced melody in the vocals and Ben Wendel’s Warne Marsh-informed tenor. There are many layers present; traditional eastern European, modern jazz, dubstep wub wub, and ambient electronica are just a few discernible influences. The unison passages at 1:58 of Drip subverts rhythmic expectations via the employment of a challenging compositional technique wherein the “big” duple groove is seemingly chopped-up into quanta that lay sometimes before the beat, sometimes behind. While this rhythmic deviation does not preclude a listener from appending the unison melody in the piano and bass as a gestalt, the familiar markers of the rhythmic terrain by which we usually understand it are recast as simultaneously familiar and alien. This effect of disorientation but not being lost challenges the listener to work to keep up, to push at boundaries, to play, to delimit the territory themselves.

Melodic improvisation does not take a lead role in Drip as it does in Pt. 1. Collapse and Pt. 2. Alternative Universe. Rather, through-composed passages merge into one another sometimes connected by swirling modal pads wherein Tigran improvises shifting harmonic voicings and textures. More than drawing on just the jazz and Armenian traditions, Tigran shows here that he’s well acquainted with dubstep, EDM, and chopped and screwed. The incorporation of Areni Agbabyan’s incandescent vocal with Tigran’s own aids in making these disparate influences into more than just a bricolage; they become a unity of opposing values, a song. This music is an example of how improvising music can be a model for future discourses in a world which continues to grow in its plurality. Speaking to the value of multifaceted musics in a world of plurality, Borgo suggests, “[f]ostering improvising music has the potential to overcome the inherent problems of slow-moving traditional hierarchy, providing an effective way to handle unstructured problems, to share knowledge outside of traditional structures, and to inject local knowledge into the system" (2005:194).

Returning to Borgo’s point about music’s ability to decentralize authority, I suggest that Tigran’s playful and challenging compositional choices are subversive. The music crosses borders, and doing so brings disparate times and places together via their histories and cultural contexts. For those familiar with Armenian music, Hamasyan’s presentation of Armenian melodies can bring the complexity of their history along with them. Employing EDM and dubstep presents a different kind of subversive party culture and joie de vivre, while jazz music is famously iconoclast, creative, and inclusive. Each musical influence mentioned above is a product of its history and cultural context. In the concomitant presentation of these musico-cultural histories, the listener must consider them in new relationships to one another; and in doing so, reconsider their own situatedness within these histories and cultural contexts. Even if a listener is not familiar with these styles and their cultural baggage, the resulting admixture of styles is new and challenging. As Gadamer suggests, when a listener loses themselves in play with the work there is a recession from the exigencies of the real. This recession creates space for new considerations of tradition, for experimentation, and dialectical mediation. This coupled with musical improvisation, which can serve as a model for play, imagination, experimentation, and the sand-boxing of moods, shows Tigran’s music as a formidable proponent of change.

In this sense, Tigran's music is an instance of a complex system of wholes that creates conditions for greater emergent phenomena while challenging the status quo. This is contemporary music that speaks from a place of multiplicity, that pushes at the borders of stylistic bounds, and as such, challenges listeners to recognize their own complex humanity. Do we not, each of us (as Whitman might suggest), contain multitudes? Are we not each of us ourselves complex and, in our humanity, boundless? When we engage in play with it, music can help us celebrate our multiplicity and imagine new possibilities. This is what the best music can do; this is what Tigran Hamasyan’s music does.  

Works Cited

Borgo, David. Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age. New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc. 2005

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method 2nd Revised Edition. Revised Translation by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York, NY: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc. 1994.

Hamasyan, Tigran. Shadow Theater. Verve, 2014. CD.

Shadow Theater track listing:
1 The Poet
2 Erishta
3 Lament
4 Drip
5 The Year is Gone
6 Seafarer
7 The Court Jester
8 Pagan Lullaby
9 Pt. 1. Collapse
10 Pt. 2. Alternative Universe
11 Holy
12 Road Song

More about Tigran at

AJ Kluth is a doctoral student in UCLA’s Department of Ethnomusicology (systematic musicology specialization). His research incorporates perspectives from aesthetics, contemporary interpretive strategies, and the corpus of philosophical thought to situate questions of musical meaning and affective power. More about AJ at

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