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You might not know the late Armenian musician and composer Jivan Gasparyan by name, or even by the name of his instrument. But you’ve almost certainly heard his duduk, shifting between keening wails and exuberant shouts, in movie soundtracks and scores ranging from The Last Temptation of Christ to Gladiator. A collaborator of Peter Gabriel, Michael Brook, Kronos Quartet, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Lionel Ritchie and Queen’s Brian May, among many others, Gasparyan has died at age 92.
His death was announced July 6 on social media by his grandson and protege, Jivan Gasparyan Jr. No other details were provided.
Gasparyan (whose names are sometimes transliterated as “Djivan” and “Gasparian”) was born Oct. 12, 1928 in Solak, Armenia, in a village near the capital city, Yerevan. At age six, he began learning the duduk — a double-reed instrument close to the Western oboe — from his father, who was also a musician. Years later, though, he said in interview with English music journalist Simon Broughton that his biggest inspiration was going as a boy to the cinema, and hearing duduk players accompany the films with their own improvisations.
Within his own country, Gasparyan’s talent was recognized early. He coaxed a whole world of emotional expression out of his simple instrument — one made of apricot wood, with only a one-octave range. By the time he was 20, Gasparyan was soloing with the Yerevan Philharmonic Orchestra. He had a notable career in Armenia and the then-Soviet Union; in 1973, he was the first musician to be given the title of the People’s Artist of Armenia.
Brian Eno heard Gasparyan play at a performance in Moscow in 1988, and promptly invited him to London, where Eno introduced him to Michael Brook. Brook produced Gasparyan’s first international album, Moon Shines at Night. (In the interim, Eno managed to license another Gasparyan recording, I Will Not Be Sad in This World, from the Soviet state label, Melodiya, and issued it outside the USSR on his own label, Opal Records.)
Most international audiences first became acquainted with Gasparyan’s music, however, via the soundtrack to the 1988 Martin Scorsese film, The Last Temptation of Christ, which was curated by Peter Gabriel. Gasparyan also appeared as part of the scores and soundtracks to Dead Man Walking, Blood Diamond, Syriana and Gladiator, among other Hollywood films, as well as Armenian-Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s Calendar.
He transformed the duduk from a purely folk instrument — one played by shepherds — into a force on the concert stage. Remarkably, Gasparyan, who grew up not knowing how to read music, enrolled at the Yerevan Conservatory of Music at age 52.; later, he became a professor there. But what he accomplished during his career was remarkable—not just in terms of his personal achievement, but also what he accomplished for his instrument’s profile.
Gasparyan was also an important ambassador of Armenian culture, for both his country and the far-flung Armenian diaspora. Upon learning of his death, the former president of Armenia, Robert Kocharyan, wrote: “Djivan Gasparyan is one of the greatest musicians who raised the Armenian performing arts and, in particular, folk wind instruments to a new level, giving them world renown and recognition. I bow with great gratitude before his merit and memory.”