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    Un-sabre-y character

    In and out of favor during the Soviet era, Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian is best known for the zany "Sabre Dance" but his serious musical legacy and his life's sad ironies get their due in the documentary "Khachaturian."


    Composer Aram Khachaturian is probably best known for a piece that nobody knows he wrote: the "Sabre Dance" from his ballet Gayane. You've heard it — the piece sounds like a duel between a xylophonist and a saxophonist on different doses of speed, with interpolated aural sneers from the trombone section. It is the cue of choice for frantic chase scenes in cartoons. But Khachaturian is more than the Caucasus's answer to Raymond Scott. In the middle of the last century, he was one of the USSR's most revered or reviled composers, depending on what year it was.

    Full title: Khachaturian: An Armenian Love Story.
    Directed by: Peter Rosen.
    Narrated by: Eric Bogosian.
    Quad Cinema 34 West 13th St., between 6th Ave. and University (212) 255-8800.

    In connection with what would have been Khachaturian's 100th birthday, director Peter Rosen has released a documentary that deals with the composer's life, music, and politics, in equal measures. Using newsreel and propaganda footage, along with modern interviews, "Khachaturian" demonstrates the vagaries of functioning as an artist in the Soviet system. Khachaturian rose from humble beginnings in Armenia to becoming an official in the Union of Soviet Composers right after the war. Rosen's film suggests that Khachaturian was the ideal "Soviet artist," at least at first. Khachaturian was true to his ethnic heritage, but devoted to the Soviet state. His music, characterized by traditional tonality, vaguely "oriental" melodies, and spiky rhythms, had the advantage of sounding modern without really being so. Furthermore, Khachaturian's music — especially his concertos — was championed by Soviet and western artists such as Mstislav Rostropovich and William Kapell, and was as common on concert programs both in the Soviet Union and in the West.

    But apparently Stalin had a change of heart in 1948, when Khachaturian was denounced for the "formalism" of his music, along with the four or five other greatest Soviet composers. The "formalist" label didn't fit Khachaturian in the least; his music is accessible, emotional, and eschews experimentation or rigid academic structures. In a fascinating sequence, the film plays a recent interview with the party apparatchik appointed to deliver the purge, Tikhon Khrennikov, in counterpoint with footage of the faces of the purged composers from 1948, including Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Khrennikov naturally regrets serving as Stalin's tool, but insists that he "had no choice."

    Khachaturian's artistic and political reeducation consisted of a trip back to Armenia chaperoned by a party official, where he was re-exposed to the folk tunes that formed the basis of much of the music that was now deemed formalistic. Khachaturian ironically observes (through the voice of narrator Eric Bogosian) that his reeducation included listening to a film score based on "true Armenian music of the people," which his Kremlin-appointed escort did not realize had been written by Khachaturian himself. Eventually Stalin dies. Thereafter, Khachaturian finds himself back in the good graces of the party again, due less to his own reeducation than to the change of the political wind.

    Khachaturian's fortunes as an artist in the political arena are well worth comparing to those of Wilhelm Furtwangler (the subject of another movie this season, "Taking Sides.") Furtwangler thought himself above politics, but ended up being branded a tool of the Nazis. By contrast, "Khachaturian" shows the composer, who also chafed against a repressive political system, taking a more realistic approach to the intersection of art and politics. While Furtwangler's artistic legacy may outlive Khachaturian's, Khachaturian's realpolitik approach to creating art under a dictatorship will probably be more influential. "Khachaturian" is a fine introduction to the life of Armenia's greatest composer. It will be of interest to anyone who likes music, is interested in Soviet history, or whose name ends with "ian."

    OCTOBER 17, 2003

    Reader comments on Khachaturian:

  • Go see it while you can !   from VIK MOMJIAN, Nov 18, 2003
  • A must see !!   from Gary, Nov 20, 2003
  • Khachaturian Piano Sonata (1961)   from Richard Meyrick pianist, Sep 9, 2004
  • Khachaturian Piano Sonata (1961)   from Richard Meyrick, Sep 12, 2004
  • Khachaturian   from Armando, Sep 7, 2005

  • Post a comment on "Khachaturian"