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Serj Tankian’s 'Armenian Portraits' Masterfully Engages Ancient and Modern Instrumentation

It is a gift when an artist can reveal more talents and skills than previously made public. It is inspiring when an artist can share “new” craftsmanship through a product of their heritage, sharing more of themselves. Armenian Portraits, one of the four albums launched by Serj Tankian with his new label, does just that: shares Serj’s compositional talents through the musical folk traditions of his Armenian heritage. 


Watch Serj talk about the album in this exclusive interview.


Though perhaps most well-known for his role as the lead singer and songwriter of the Grammy-winning Armenian-American rock band System Of A Down, Serj’s discography goes far beyond his music with the group. With SRJ releases licensable through APM for a range of visual media, he’s sharing more of his creative genius. “I got into scoring because I always composed more than I used for our records, whether it’s with System of a Down or solo efforts,” Serj said in APM’s interview. The four albums display a range of composition talent, varying genres, instrumentations, and feelings. In Armenian Portraits, Serj effortlessly blends cultural musical traditions with modern stylings to craft five exceptional tracks celebrating and energizing Armenian music.

Armenian Portraits provides snapshots from various viewpoints into a cultural heritage, and Serj continues the musical legacy of pulling from regional folk tradition to create something present and powerful. In APM Music’s interview with Serj, he touched on what makes Armenian Portraits a unique album, specifically in the context of licensing for media: “It provides a very interesting ethnic flavor to different series, whether it be TV series or films,” he said. 

The opening track to Armenian Portraits is a prime example of this: “Celebration Feast” is a percussion-heavy folk dance that, with the help of drastically different instruments like the Oud and a Clarinet, transforms into a lively piece that melds the old and the new. The upbeat and driving piece begins by layering diverse instrumentation, which, along with the Oud and Clarinet, eventually includes the Santur, Tar, and Trumpet. The buildup cumulates into a more modern, jazz-style break that strips down the instruments and lets the horns shine while familiar melodies dance in the background.

While “Celebration Feast” opens the door to multi-era musical collaboration, Armenian folk tradition shines on “Historical Artifacts.” The album’s third track is an understated yet dignified duet between hand percussion and Duduk, joined by unison strings. “Historical Artifacts” starts as a spare and entrancing duet with smoothing and almost hypnotic give and take between the featured instruments. The composition is soft but strong and builds in intensity as surging strings fill out the piece before it closes. Much of Armenian Portraits achieves what “Historical Artifacts” highlights: elevating instruments by calling attention to how they play with each other, whether their sounds are from the same region or traditionally considered worlds apart.

The range of advanced instrumentation on the album uniquely blends current and past sounds and textures. Serj described the album as “a collection of ethnic Armenian music composed with incredible ancient instrumentation, including the Duduk, the Kanon, and some modern instrumentation as well, mixed in.” The second track on Armenian Portraits, “Journey Through the Mountains” features the Dhol drum, the Zurna reed, and the Shvi flute in an energetic and insistent percussion piece. The repetitive and catchy melody is played on several of the spotlighted instruments, allowing each to shine and provide their take on the folk tune. “Journey Through the Mountains” is fast-paced, exciting, and does a lot in a brief amount of time before stripping down at the end for the melody on a single instrument. 

The balancing of an impressive variety of instruments continues in “Spiritual Dances,” the fourth track on the album that features the Tar, Dhol drum, Trumpet, and Flugelhorn in a simple yet formal movement. “Spiritual Dances” is a bright composition; the insistent Tar dances on your ears, underscored by the percussion and horns that deepen the piece in solemnity. While the track is one of the more simplistic compositions melodically speaking on Armenian Portraits, it showcases the impactful and seamless blending of varied regional and traditional instrumentations throughout the album. 

While Serj’s album energizes the Armenian folk tradition, the power of Armenian Portraits lies not only in its most animated melodies but also in its more intimate moments. Between persistent percussion and embellishing horns, each of the songs in Armenian Portraits allows for a singular appreciation of the instruments and culture. This is most apparent in “Ancestral Memory,” the fifth and final track on the album. An expressive and emotional solo on the tar, the brief track is full of anticipation; listeners can’t help but hang on to each movement of the Tar, eager to see where it will go next. “Ancestral Memory” closes out Armenian Portraits with grace and confidence, and reminds listeners in the focused solo of the instrumental prowess Serj expertly wields. 

Listen to the album now.


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