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Despite being stripped of its funding after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yerevan’s famed blind choir is still fighting for its existence. From JAMnews.by Gayane Mkrtchyan 12 September 2017
The silence in the hall is broken as the blind choir gathers for yet another rehearsal. They are coming in slowly, one by one, in a businesslike manner. They sing, eyes fixed on the conductor, who is standing on stage. They catch his every word and sometimes sigh. They are somehow able to grasp all the movements of the conductor’s hands – and thus, the 40-year-old choir of the blind performs yet another musical piece.
“Throughout the years, in the process of communication, they’ve ‘shaped me’ and [also] accustomed themselves to my musical thinking,” says Karlen Aleksanyan, the conductor and head of the Armenian Association of the Blind. “We have become one: one body, one soul, with the same perception. Our choir performs on a very high level. We constantly rehearse the pieces from our repertoire, and every time we discover something new in them.”
According to Aleksanyan, the world’s first blind choir was founded in Bulgaria, in the 1940s. Similar ensembles were then established in Lithuania and Georgia, with the Armenian one the fourth of its kind. Aleksanyan recalls that 40 years ago, when he received an offer to work with this newly founded choir, he was at a loss to know how to direct it.
“It was not an amateur, but rather a paid professional group. In the first years, we learned to play the musical pieces by ear,” he says. “Then the program gradually became more complicated, and it was impossible to perform all that from memory. So, together with the blind performers, we switched to using Braille musical notation, and to providing the performers with a musical education,” says Aleksanyan.
A Sudden Change in Fortunes
The choir’s best years ended, however, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The blind performers have fallen on hard times now.
Susanna Buniatyan, HR manager of the musical ensembles at the Armenian Association of the Blind, mentions the awards, titles, and international tours of the past when the Soviet-era Blind Associated provided funding. However, the money dried up after the historic changes of the 1990s when all the centers for the blind were closed.
“Our performers were paid 220 rubles [in Soviet times], whereas now they receive just 15,000 dram [less than $32], and they receive their salaries only a few times a year,” says Aleksanyan, the conductor. “We’ve been living on donations for 20 years already. For seven years we were funded by the Jinishian Memorial Foundation [an Armenian NGO focused on poverty reduction], and then we received funding for one year from the Open Society Institute [currently known as the Open Society Foundations, and funded by investor and philanthropist George Soros]. For over a decade, I’ve been sending letters to the Ministry of Culture, requesting for the choir to be granted state musical ensemble status. But all my efforts have been in vain,” said Buniatyan.
The youngest performer in the choir is 22 years old, and the oldest one 80. Most of the performers are elderly. There are few young people among the choir members.
“They don’t see any prospects for themselves here. Their argument is: ‘Let’s say we sing in the choir two hours a day for our own enjoyment. What are we supposed to do after the rehearsal, go home and starve?’ That’s the problem. If we had stable funding, if we could offer people some additional income, young people would join the choir, and we would continue the efforts to keep it alive,” says the choir conductor.
Meanwhile, against all odds, the choir diligently rehearses twice a week.
Kamarnik Gevorgyan, one of the singers, is a lecturer at Yerevan State University. He says that he can’t imagine his life without the choir, where he has been performing since the day of its foundation.
“Once you get attached to a creative process and feel a touch of this beauty, then it’s hard to live without it. You want to soak up the art, which complements and enriches your life,” says Gevorgyan. “Choral art is a delicate matter. You need teamwork skills, in order to hear the others and perform together. So we try to come here, no matter what the situation [in our life] is.”
The choir’s repertoire is comprised of about 500 musical compositions, which include folk melodies, classical works, and operatic arias. The choir performs musical pieces by Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Handel, Gounod, Komitas, and others.
“We were the only ensemble that performed Bach’s ‘High Mass’ (Hoch Messe). It’s a very complex and voluminous piece,” says Aleksanyan, proudly. “We also performed [Soviet composer] Georgi Sviridov’s ‘Pushkin’s Garland’. We did a monumental job. In Russia, this musical piece is performed jointly by two choirs.”
A Lack of Appreciation
The rehearsal lasts for nearly two hours. The choir is rehearsing a musical piece by Komitas [an Armenian choirmaster who is considered the founder of the Armenian national school of music]. The melody is interrupted by the conductor’s voice, but then it softly flows over the entire hall again.
Nelly Sargsyan is sitting in the first row, following the conductor with utmost attention.
“Although we need to be accompanied by a sighted guide to come here, and thus spend double the money – money that we are already short of, given that nearly all of us are living in harsh social conditions – we come here anyway, because we can’t live without singing. That’s our job and the only thing we wish is to have our work duly appreciated,” she says.
The blind musicians receive disability benefits that are hardly enough to cover even the most basic needs. Sargsyan gets 55,000 dram, and she spends most of it on medicine, she says.
“It should be taken into account that we are disabled people, and we are on the brink of old age. We should at least be paid salaries so that we can survive. We receive spiritual nourishment, but we don’t get anything from a financial point of view – we are poverty-ridden,” she adds.
The choir is made up of 27 people, including sighted ones. Ludmila Petrosyan, the ensemble soloist, is one of them. She says there should be some sighted singers in the choir as well, so that they can assist the blind performers.
“Getting here is a real problem for the blind. In the past, there was a car serving the choir members, bringing all of them here together, and then driving them back home. But that’s not the case now,” says Petrosyan. “Each of them has to be accompanied by a family member. Those people come here, sit in the hall, and wait until the rehearsal is over. Of course, it’s very difficult, but all of that gives a powerful energy charge. To feel music at least twice a week … Music is like an addiction for a musician, or a singer. At the same time, it brings spiritual satisfaction.”
Aleksanyan praises the people he mentors: “And there is one important aspect: eye contact actually distracts people, whereas [the blind singers] concentrate to a very great extent. They remember everything I tell them right away. It’s a highly professional choir.”
The singers are nostalgic about the choir’s better days, when they went on tours, and their masterly performances were in demand. They still remember the thunder of applause that the audiences lavished them with.
Buniatyan, the HR manager, shows the Culture Ministry’s gold medal, which the choir was awarded this year, as well as albums with the choir’s performances. There are also letters addressed to various agencies, which have been left unanswered.
“I even appealed to the president, requesting that the choir be granted state ensemble status, or be transferred under the jurisdiction of a certain agency so that we could submit an application for funding for our concerts,” she says. “I submitted six applications this year, but only two of our concerts were financed. We were allocated a total of 5 million dram. One of the concerts was held in April, and another is scheduled for 3 December, which is the International Day of People with Disabilities. So, we are up in the air.”
Aleksanyan believes it’s the choir members’ loyalty that helps it stay afloat.
“The art is such that once you get engaged in it, it’s very hard to leave. These people can’t live without music, without singing, without this world of beauty. This world has become an integral part of their life. These people have been singing in our choir for 40 years, and it’s their whole life,” said Aleksanyan.
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