Armenian musicianArtyom Nagdyan described his experiences performing in an orchestra and concerts with other musicians from the region, including Azerbaijanis, Georgians and Russians in an interview conducted with the author. The interview was conducted in Armenian and quotes from the interview have been translated into English by the author.

“Are you crazy? Why should you approach the Azerbaijanis?” asked his fellow Armenian musicians, as Nagdyan talked about the first time he participated in a CIS Youth Symphony Orchestra tour.

Artyom Nagdyan, 20 years old, has played the cello since the age of 6. He took the usual path of a musician in Armenia, studying at the Conservatory and graduated this past year. He was recently admitted into magistratura, which is close to but perhaps not equivalent to a “master’s program” in the Western education system.

Nagdyan has travelled and performed in numerous concerts in Europe, the United States and in several former Soviet countries, including in Baku Azerbaijan, winning highest awards and recognitions for many of his performances and concerts. It seems his talents has afforded him many opportunities and soon, after the interview, he would be headed to London to continue giving performances.

It was during one such experience of participating in a youth orchestra tour comprised of musicians from former Soviet republics where he had the chance to meet Azerbaijanis and interact with them.

For the first time in his life, Nagdyan had met an Azerbaijani person. As he was born in 1991, the year when the war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Nagdyan never had any interaction with someone from the “other” side. Twenty years later, this young musician describes how he felt during his first encounter.

“I can say that before that I had never imagined if they were ‘bad’, ‘good,’ like this or like that because in all my life my family never said the Azerbaijanis were good.” He went on to explain that generally, he had something against Turks, which is because of the Armenian Genocide and the events of April 24. He felt Turks were the enemy, but did not feel that way towards Azerbaijanis.

Now he is involved in two classical quartets. One of them is the Vartanyan quartet which plays concertsregularly in Yerevan and is comprised of Armenian musicians. The other is known as the Conflict Countries’ Quartet.

After participating in the youth orchestra with musicians from former Soviet republics, he and a fellow Azerbaijani musician had become so close that they decided they wanted to start a quartet. Overall, the interaction between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the youth orchestra went really well. He explained the reasons for that might have been because of regional ties, “…perhaps it’s because it was a regional issue because we were understanding each other really well in every respect. In dressing, eating, talking and our interests, I won’t even mention because it’s obvious we are musicians.”

He and a fellow Azerbaijani musician, whom he had befriended, decided they wanted to start a quartet, as they realized that would be the only chance they would have to see each other frequently. They approached leaders within the organization that was sponsoring the youth orchestra. By chance, it turned out there were two directors who were Azerbaijani and Armenian and enthusiastic about these two musicians’ proposition. They also suggested to include a Georgian and Russian musician as well, and thus, the Conflict Countries Quartet was formed.

For those who are unfamiliar with the physical set-up of quartets, the illustration below depicts the seating arrangement for the musicians.

They sit across from each other, facing each other as they fiddle away playing their melodies. On most occasions, Nagdyan describes, they place their country’s flags on their music stands to show people where each musician comes from. However, on a couple occasions when they played in Yerevan and in Baku, they decided not to feature their flags because they were not sure how the audience members would react and needed to ensure their own personal safety.

Otherwise, the average audience member probably is not aware that these musicians come from countries that are in conflict with each other. For the audience, the music is harmonious, knows no boundaries or identities.

I asked, if he and his Azerbaijani colleague ever talked about political issues or topics? Does he think it is inevitable for Armenians and Azerbaijanis not to get along? His response, “First for me a person is a human, then second comes their identity. And I think if a lot of people thought this way, then there would not be problems.”

He said they do not talk politics and they would prefer not to do so. However, that is not to say that “there is no smoke without a fire” and he recognizes something very serious had happened in this conflict between Azerbaijanis and Armenians.

He spoke highly of his Azerbaijani colleague, saying he is extremely intelligent and even speaks some Armenian words. At this point he started laughing and told a story that one day his Azerbaijani colleague had gone to a market in Yerevan. He entered the store and said, “barev dzez” (hello in Armenian) and continued to speak in Armenian, “where is the ice-cream,” “thank you,” and then left the store laughing out loud thinking – if these people knew I was Azerbaijani they would probably…

What about the role of music in peacebuilding? Nagdyan said, “I can’t say that if it [the conflict] is resolved, then it has to be resolved through music. No, that would be incorrect. But it [music] is that kind of thing that nobody can attack. It’s like when you bring a child and have the child stand in front of you and say ok now you must shoot the child. It is something that is very innocent. Nobody would really ‘attack’ it.”

Indeed, music is something that can be very innocent and one that speaks across cultures and boundaries. For these musicians, music has been a reason for them to come together and meet, even though their societies might tell them that it’s wrong to do so because the “other” is the enemy. Music has played a role in blurring that boundary line between these two musicians.