It is a song born of a whisper.
A whisper repeated in a rhythmic manner.
A whisper that through time transformed into words and song.
A whisper that slides like a soft and limpid fluid into the ears of a child,
Caressing and transporting them with a gentle rocking of arms,
A magical, familial dance.
A whisper that awakens the most intimate senses,
And weaves tiny threads of human connection.
A whisper that became the lullaby.
We know folk lullabies, or cradle songs, are meant to gently lull a child to sleep, but their meaning goes far deeper. This singing ritual lies at the foundation of parenthood and is considered one of the oldest of the oral traditions. At the birth of language, parents endow ideophonic words, especially onomatopoeia—words that mimic the object or sound it refers to, such as the chirp of a bird or the purr of a cat—with a lilt or melody. These would become the sophisticated songs we know today containing a bouquet of good wishes and blessings. They live on in our Armenian homelife and in our archival collections, as well as within the worlds of modern media. We turn to them in times of trouble.
During this COVID-19 pandemic and the war with Azerbaijan, we see important Armenian composers, musicians, and singers perform reassuring lullabies for the world online. Miqayel Voskanyan’s recent rendering of a Parsegh Ganatchian lullaby is one of these nurturing works. But first, let us look at the nature of the lullaby, a very human and cultural innovation.
The moment of a lullaby’s singing is tender, intense, and delicately sublime. It is an act of intimacy, even hospitality. I feel that any attempt to define the song form is to merely approach its meaning, as the lullaby is also endowed with a powerful cultural force, an aesthetic experience that allows for the creation of personal memories.
Armenians have transmitted folk lullabies from one generation to another in a range of local dialects. They are full of historical, sociocultural, and ethnolinguistic information just as valuable today. The word օրօր (oror), meaning “lullaby,” comes from the root word օր (or) meaning “to move,” mirroring the endless back-and-forth motion of the rocking cradle. Rocking is the first rhythmic and musical activity babies experience, and is similar to the human heartbeat, which pulsates in a regular binary rhythm.
In different regions of the Armenian highlands, the word oror appears in local dialect as hayrur, heyrur, lurik, ruri, nenni, or lai lai. Although based on short, regular, and repetitive rhythmic patterns or longer freeform melodies, our lullabies speak sumptuous volumes. The lyrics of Armenian folk lullabies contain the singer’s hopes and aspirations, words of love and good wishes, and information about the surrounding world, through rich comparisons such as “the stars as playmates,” “the blowing wind from the south rocking the cradle,” “the leaves as cover,” and “the wild deer giving milk.”
Metaphors depicting the surrounding flora and fauna, invocations to deities, mythological images, and magical words fill the lyrics. Sometimes words dedicated to the child are seasoned with a mother’s words of grief, expressing her personal experiences and concerns about domestic or societal issues, which turn the lullaby into a sort of soliloquy taking place between inner and outer worlds. Folk lullabies are rich carriers of collective and individual memory—the most intimate reflections of a culture.
Since the nineteenth century, a number of ethnographers and ethnomusicologists have collected and transcribed Armenian folk lullabies. Among these collectors was Father Komitas Vardapet (1869–1935), one of the pioneers of the field of ethnomusicology. Komitas collected the richly ornamented lullaby melodies of the region of Akn, and in Vagharshapat, modern day Etchmiadzin, discovered two variants of Քուն եղիր, բալաս (“Sleep, My Child”). These were based on Raphael Patkanian’s (1830–1892) poem, well-loved in the region. Later, a student of Komitas, composer Parsegh Ganatchian (1885–1967), created a new lullaby based on Patkanian’s lyrics, which is still one of the most commonly sung lullabies among Armenians.
Numerous musicians have pulled from the treasure trove of Armenian folk lullabies. They have been recorded in many settings (concert venues, museum educational programs), in various genres (folk, classical, pop), both in Armenia and in the diaspora. Some artists remain true to the a cappella monodic interpretation of the original songs, with a single vocal melody. Others have added accompanying instrumentation.
But when a piece is made “modern,” when a composer layers on voices and instrumentation, developing a written score, performing it in a setting detached from its sociohistorical context of origin—that of parent and child in a specific village and period of time—does it lose its soothing emotional power? Its intimacy or purpose? How then, should a modern, caring artist approach a folk lullaby?
As the world has locked down in 2020 to contain the coronavirus, artists continue their practice, but through different channels, in order to reconnect with themselves, capture this period of history, and reflect upon the meaning of their work. During this time of confinement, their music helps the world maintain a sense of community.
In Armenia, one of the most active artists to engage with audiences digitally was Miqayel Voskanyan, a composer, tar prodigy, and performer at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. He broadcast live solo improvisation sessions entitled “Tarantine” (named for his long-necked traditional Armenian lute) and participated in online performances on local and international platforms. As a guest performer for a popular Instagram channel Fairytales At Home, Voskanyan sang Ganatchian’s beloved lullaby “Sleep, My Child” a cappella. The digital world responded with words of praise, celebrating a father breaking the gender norm by singing such a piece. Encouraged, Voskanyan entered a long, introspective creative period, which gave birth to a contemporary vocal piece inspired by the same lullaby.
Voskanyan’s “Oror” begins with a single vocal melody, in its purest form. It then evolves from harmonies involving two, three, ten, even eleven voices, to a point where the number of layered voices is uncountable. The myriad of non-linguistic syllables, sounds, melodies, and vocal percussions create beats and rhythms that highlight the repetitive motion of the lullaby and transmit the performer’s inner world.
His composition is both sincere and profound. The piece is composed in such a way that one feels an “in the moment” improvised creative process, a core feature of many forms of folk music. To the listener, each harmonic and rhythmic layer deepens the bonds between the parent and the child. As the music ascends in volume, Voskanyan turns the lullaby into a luminous ode to the child.
With its abounding voices, the lullaby enchants us, filling our ears with peaceful, meaningful echoes. To an Armenian’s ear, the last non-linguistic syllables pa, ru, re even suggest the word պարուրել (parurel)—to envelop, to cocoon. For Voskanyan, each layer represents an immersive introspection, an exploration of his inner world. Before recording, Voskanyan had already laid the groundwork for his composition, but after his base tracks were laid out, he invented layer upon layers of new voicings. I feel that through this improvisational method, he remained true to both the lullaby’s emotional message and the folk process, his piece becoming a contemporary manifestation of a soliloquy.
Voskanyan’s lullaby became the basis for a collaboration with another artist and father, French Armenian animator and illustrator Atam Rasho. Illustrated with pen and India ink, Rasho’s animation pays tribute to the lullaby through its minimalism and the repetitive motion of a mother rocking a child in her arms and whirling endlessly. One could allude to the iconography of the Virgin and Child, but the warmth of the embrace evokes the first lines from Armenian writer Vahan Totovents’ 1933 autobiographical work “Life on the Old Roman Road”:
My mother hugged me, stood on the roof and called․
- Father Moonlight! Father Moonlight! Come and take this naughty boy away․․․
I looked in the direction my mother had called, I saw the moon in a purple twilight sky sitting on a dark blue mountain. The moon was so big! I never saw such a big moon since then. Watching, rejoicing from its fiery glow, I grabbed my mother’s hair with one hand, and leaned forward — I wanted to be closer to the moon — and with the other, I began to call. My mother looked at me and suddenly pressed me against her breast with such strength and tenderness. Although I lost the moon, I loved my mother’s embrace, I loved my mother’s scent.
In the animation, the circular movement spreads out the mother’s hair as if reflecting many interweaving voices. As the music evolves, the spinning mother and child come closer and closer, hypnotizing the viewer, eventually giving a glimpse of the sleeping eyes and luminous faces. Combined, the music and animation acquire an intense meditative quality and demonstrates that the lullaby is a subtle game of love and magic, a subtle song born from a whisper.
This fall, Armenia found itself suddenly at war. Voskanyan shared the music video for “Oror” on Facebook, with a dedication:
“On September 27, 2020 a war was started in my homeland. Since the beginning, the war has changed countless lives and terminated numerous ones. The war continues to do so to this day. I would like to devote this song to the fathers who didn’t get to hold their babies, and to the mothers who didn’t get to hold their sons.”
Armenia and Azerbaijan signed an armistice on November 9, ending violence between the two countries, but feelings of hurt and anger remain. We can only guess that lullabies, so important to Armenian culture, such as Voskanyan’s, will become an important part of the healing process.
Nairi Khatchadourian is the Senior Museum Specialist for the My Armenia Program, funded by USAID and implemented by the Smithsonian Institution. As a Paris-born independent curator based in Yerevan, she works in the fields of contemporary art, design, and cultural heritage.