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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #290
The Khatchaturian Konnection
David Gunn

In 1913, when Aram Khatchaturian was ten years old, his parents moved from their mobile dacha in the Caucasus Mountains of eastern Armenia to Atlantaski, a village in the Russian republic of Georgia. In fact, they didn't move so much as they escaped. They had to leave their homeland, their friends and their prized collection of kapok goats simply because of Mr. Khatchaturian's countenance. His bushy eyebrows, big mustache and extra ear made him the spitting image of Joseph Stalin. Ever since the young revolutionary had been exiled to Siberia by the tsarist government, any similarities to him, either written or implied, were persona non grata. The day before the Khatchaturians fled, imperial thugs had rounded up nearly a hundred men who were milling around outside their trailer. Even though they bore only a slight resemblance to Stalin, they were nonetheless hauled off to an abattoir and never seen again. Because Papa Khatchaturian had to keep a low profile for the foreseeable future, it was up to Mama to find work. And thanks to her unique titanium hair, she was hired right away by a local beauty shop to head the henna research program. They lived in a two-room flat above the Zod Balalaika Factory, which was a real treat for Aram. No matter his grade school guidance counselor had sanctioned a career in meatpacking for him, Aram found himself enchanted by the sounds of the stringed instruments as they filtered up from the workshop below. Occasionally, an itinerant ashug, or minstrel poet, would stop by the factory to jam with the factory strummers, and Aram would spend hours with his ear next to the floor to better hear the improvisational word-music interplay.

In spite of Mama's good job, the winter of 1913 was a hard one, and the family was forced to subsist on a proletarian diet of parrots and blancmange. The Zod Factory, too, fell on hard times. The tsar's mistress was said to have received a mild shock from a balalaika while trying to play it in her bathtub, and soon thereafter the instrument was banished from the palace. As a result, the Zod merchandise quickly fell out of favor with the people of Atlantaski, and the company was forced to retool its machine shop to manufacture a commodity that was once again in vogue: sabers.

While the sounds that attend the construction of a saber may not seem to be on the same musical level as those that pervade a balalaika factory, Aram nevertheless developed a fondness for them. The rhythmic hammering, the soldering iron squeals, the buzz from the arc lamps, the clank of metal against metal as the products were tested under combat conditions -- together they made an exciting wash of sound that would stay with him long after the Zod Factory switched from swords to dried flowers and potpourri. Twenty-nine years later, when Aram, now a famous composer, wrote the score to the Gayane Ballet, he would incorporate those hammers, squeals, buzzes and clanks into one of the dances, his most popular piece, the fiery Saber Dance.

Fifty-eight years and some odd days later, at 2:05 on a Saturday morning, that is the sound that greets me as I slowly open the hatch. The notes cascade upon one another as if the piece is depicting a melee among rival factions of dust mites. But then I realize that the confusing reverberation is simply due to its originating from a long way down another corridor. This one, also dimly lit, seems to be made of metal, based on the zinc aromatherapy that surrounds me. I clamber out of the previous tunnel, close the hatch, and gather my wits, which I have strewn all over the metal floor. The music abruptly ceases, and as I strain to hear any sound that might give me a clue as to my present situation -- a distant dog bark, an arc lamp buzz, the flapping of a large winged creature, anything! -- I intuitively know that further details are not in the cards for this 290th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, and that the soundest course of action would be to turn over the Saber Dance-free festivities to Kalvos.