Aram Khachaturian: Gayaneh Ballet Suite

1968 was a tumultous year for the US. Think of the upheavals–in 1968 two political leaders–Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy–were assassinated; Washington, D.C. was nearly burned to the ground; the U.S. was waging war in Vietnam; Richard Daley, mayor of Chicago, ordered police to tear gas and beat up students and protesters trying to exercise their right to free speech; Russians invaded Prague; and Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States.

Though only a boy of 13 living in a small Midwestern town, I was deeply affected by these world events–brought to me via film, TV, through popular music and in person. In May of 1968, Robert Kennedy, campaigning for president, visited my home town. I saw him speak and, as his car passed, shook his hand. A month later he was dead and his death hung over me for years, coloring my outlook on life almost as much as the threat of nuclear annihilation. (Which did not lift until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1998.)

That summer also saw the release of Stanley Kubrik’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. My oldest brother is an aeronautical engineer, and so as a boy I was fascinated by rockets and the race to the moon. So when that film came out, I desperately wanted to see it.

One day at the dinner table, I asked my father to take me to see the film. My sister, who was about 20 at the time, piped up and said she didn’t think it would be appropriate for me to see it. “He might not understand it,” she said.

Thus, I did not get to see the film until they showed it at my university many years later. My sister had bought the sound track, however, and I used to sneak into her room and play it while she was at work. The disk featured the works of two contemporary composers, Gyorgy Ligeti and Aram Khachaturian. The latter’s Gayaneh Ballet Suite convincingly captured the barrenness and solitude of the lunar landscape.

Later in college when I did see the film, it seemed dull and wooden. At the time I did not believe in Bergson’s idea of guided evolution, having revolted against the catholic church and all things spiritual. Years later as an adult with two young daughters and in search of a moral compass based on spirituality, I said, “sure, why not?” But I don’t think that message reached the general public, especially considering how they’re still trying to get creationism taught in the public schools.

What got people’s attention was the psychedelic light show at the ending, which critics at the time likened to a trip on LSD. Maybe that’s what my sister was afraid I’d be susceptible to. At the time there was dire anti-drug propaganda out that warned of “bad trips” that ended in insanity or people going mad and jumping out of windows to their death. I only know that the one time I did anything like that–in the Roman ruins of Tipasa in Algeria–it was much more fun than 2001: A Space Odyssey.


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

3 Responses to Aram Khachaturian: Gayaneh Ballet Suite

  1. This soundtrack was my inroads to 20th century composition. I am working on composing a work now based on Ligeti’s use of micropolyphony as demonstrated in “Atmospheres.”

    Gayane’s Adagio is to me an incredibly powerful piece of work. Imagine you are with Khatachaturian on a Soviet work farm during World War II. The Wehrmact is just over the next hill. You can hear the sad desperation in that lonely violin.

    I have been looking for some time for a score for Gayane’s Adagio but can’t find one in print. One of these days I’m going to have to sit down and work it out by ear if I can’t find it- I am so moved by it.


  2. calmgrove says:

    Though I don’t hold with guided evolution, let alone creationism, I still find Kubrick’s choice of music for the film wonderfully moving and inspired, whatever the implied ‘message’ of the film. (Though I do think that any guided evolution suggested by the plot is merely a common SF trope, which Kubrick’s collaborator liked riffing on. I’d always had Arthur C Clarke down as an atheist, though I see that he wavered from pantheism to atheism, even describing himself as a crypto-Buddhist but disavowing reincarnation.)

    The Gayaneh Adagio is, as you say, particularly affecting, though to my chagrin I’ve never listened to the rest of suite. I may have to put that to rights after reading your post.


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