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ARARAT – Mychael Danna

November 15, 2002 Leave a comment Go to comments

araratOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

In many ways, Ararat is Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s Schindler’s List: an intensely personal film which tackles a little-known cultural tragedy with the same depth and sensitivity Steven Spielberg lent his account of the Holocaust. Egoyan, whose parents were born in Armenia, is best known as an art-house auteur who, occasionally, directs a crossover mainstream hit, such as Exotica or the Oscar-nominated The Sweet Hereafter. It is difficult to know whether this film will follow in their footsteps, especially given its difficult subject matter and unusual structuring, but one thing is for sure: the accompanying music CD is well worth a listen.

The film Ararat, so named after the famous Mount Ararat where Noah’s Ark supposedly finally came to rest, is structured as both a voyage of discovery and a film-within-a-film. It tells of the making of a movie by fictional filmmaker Edward Saroyan (Charles Aznavour) about the almost-forgotten Armenian genocide, carried out in that country by the Ottoman Empire between 1915-1918. Inspired by the work of Saroyan and his historian mother Ani (Arsinee Khanjian), 18-year old Raffi (David Alpay), who has been working on the film as a runner, takes it upon himself to return to Armenia and find out about his culture, and his personal past – but instead finds himself contending with a Canadian customs officer (Christopher Plummer), where he must battle with his own demons as well as those of his people.

As is often the case with more “arty” films, the score for Ararat has hit shelves long before worldwide audiences have seen the film. Composer Mychael Danna who, on Ararat, is working with Egoyan for the tenth time, has almost written a Schindler’s List himself – a score which is both passionate and moving, tells a tragic story, but remains deeply rooted in human emotion. In short, he has excelled himself, combining Armenian folk and ecclesiastical music, with choral melodies, and familiar western scoring techniques.

The score opens with ‘Groonk’, a haunting duduk solo which gradually acquires a tinkling saz and stirring orchestral accompaniment, before segueing into ‘Oor Es Mayr Eem’, a stunningly beautiful choral piece based upon the reverent words of the Armenian church, and performed by soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian. The piece, the title of which translates as ‘Melody of the Good Friday Vigil’, traditionally brings to a close a period of meditation and reflection during the Easter religious holiday. Its use in Ararat, where it has been arranged for symphony orchestra for the first time, allows Danna to make a musical link between the history and traditions of the Armenian culture, and modern life, lending the entire score an overtone of remembrance and solemnity. Similarly, the penultimate track, ‘All That is Sacred’, is an ecclesiastical chant based on texts written by Meshrop Mashtots, the creator of the Armenian language.

Traditional Armenian instruments are featured in several tracks, lending the score as a whole a greater sense of time, and place, and authenticity. As well as the familiar duduk (Armenian clarinet), which has become popular in scores such as Gladiator, instruments with such wild and intoxicating names as zurna, dhol, kamancha and bhul-ney are added into the mix. Folk tracks of note include ‘Need to Be Remembered’ with its breathy, pan-pipe element; ‘How Did He Die?’, with its balalaika-like solo; and ‘The Dance’, ‘Ani’, ‘Silent Witness’ and ‘Return to Ararat’, all of which are the slow and languorous and highlight further Danna’s exceptional talent for capturing the essence of unusual and alien musical languages.

‘Siege’ is one of Danna’s few nods to traditional Hollywood scoring, echoing the large-scale action material he first attempted in Ride with the Devil, all slashing strings and bright horn trills. Other cues, such as the majestic ‘Ancient History’ and ‘Yeraz’, are equally grand and portentous, and are especially well received for their use of choral elements. In addition to these, ‘His Land Was Lost’ is a serious-sounding string lament, and ‘The Power to Imagine’ stirs the senses, while the short yet powerful ‘Final Stand’ brings together both the folk and action elements in a pulse-pounding cocktail of sound and fury. The conclusive ‘The Ghost of My Father’ revisits the thematic material of ‘Groonk’ with a deal of emotional gusto, bringing the album to a satisfying close.

Considering the logistical nightmare that surrounded the production of the score (the ethnic instruments and choral pieces were recorded in less than desirable circumstances in a bare-bones studio in Yerevan, the orchestral parts at Air Lyndhurst in London, and finally edited and overdubbed in Toronto!), and the difficult subject matter at hand, it is testament to Mychael Danna’s talent that Ararat has turned out to be such a richly rewarding listen. As I have said on many occasions previously, Mychael Danna is one of film music’s true undiscovered geniuses; the thinking-man’s film composer, with a magnificent touch for capturing the musical soul of raw human emotion.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Groonk (4:15)
  • Oor Es Mayr Eem (performed by Isabel Bayrakdarian) (4:15)
  • Siege (3:35)
  • Something In Your Heart (2:11)
  • Ancient History (1:06)
  • Need To Be Remembered (6:03)
  • The Dance (3:35)
  • Mothers and Sons (1:26)
  • Yeraz (2:55)
  • They Will Take My Island (1:27)
  • Ani (1:23)
  • His Land Was Lost (2:28)
  • Final Stand (0:54)
  • Silent Witness (1:21)
  • Call to Action (1:03)
  • The Power to Imagine (2:09)
  • How Did He Die? (2:31)
  • Return to Ararat (2:41)
  • All That Is Sacred (2:07)
  • The Ghost of My Father (1:03)

Running Time: 48 minutes 29 seconds

Milan 73138-36004-2 (2002)

Music composed by Mychael Danna. Conducted by Nicholas Dodd. Orchestrations by Mychael Danna and Nicholas Dodd. Featured musical soloists Albert Vartanian, Arto Tuncboyician, Gevork Dabaghian, Kamo Khachaturian, Artyom Khachaturian, Tigran Ambarian, Grigor Takushian, Levon Tevanian, Karine Hovhannisian and Norayr Kartashian. Recorded and mixed by Brad Haehnel. Edited by Paul Intson. Mastered by Bernie Grundman. Album produced by Mychael Danna.

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