Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan describes his latest works, this year’s For Gyumri and its companion album, 2017’s An Ancient Observer, as being “about the world we live in now, and the weight of history we carry with us.”
What does it mean to carry history with us? I’m reminded of a quotation carved in stone above one of the entrances to Royce Hall, the words of the building’s namesake, the great Californian philosopher Josiah Royce: “The world is a progressively realized community of interpretation.”
We should keep this idea of a progressive interpretive community in mind when considering history. Despite how it is often taught, history is not just a boring list of trivial facts about some distant epoch. Rather, it is something vital that lives within us in the here and now. There is no final draft of history, it is a multiplicity of intertwined stories that we tell and retell to make sense of our lives in a constant and often agonistic process of reinterpretation.
You can see the importance of historical interpretation in many of the contentious debates we have about the past today, where questions of justice are often paramount: whose stories do we give more weight to, the oppressed or their oppressors? Which figures and events deserve monuments and which demand critical reexamination? These debates are particularly relevant for long-marginalized peoples. It is interesting to note that Hamasyan combines musical influences from two groups that were both victims of unimaginable historical injustices: African-Americans and Armenians.
In drawing from both his native folk traditions and from jazz, Hamasyan’s music fits Royce’s ideal of progressive interpretation. By finding connections between different art forms and different histories, across eons and continents, Hamasyan is able to create something new in conversation with the ever-present past, enriching that evolving interpretive community to which we all belong. As Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”