I am in a cheap motel in the middle of nowhere and click on a YouTube video.
An elegant musician wearing a black suit with a prominent V, (futuristic or primordial, I don’t know) is in a golden palace—gilded columns, a dramatic sheen—that may be a tomb, and the tomb just might be on a spaceship. The musician is playing what looks to be a strange sort of radio, only he is not playing in the traditional sense of the word, because there are no strings or keys, and it is not a radio. The instrument is a theremin, and the maestro is Armen Ra, summoning the room’s invisible electromagnetic fields into an ethereal music by delicately maneuvering his hands in the vicinity of a pair of antennas. Suddenly, I am a million miles from my motel, shooting through space, headed toward the moon and beyond.
Armen was born in Iran, is of Persian-Armenian descent and now lives in Los Angeles. He has toured much of the world with the theremin, playing with musicians such as Nick Cave and Marc Almond. Now Armen is touring again, this time as the star of a documentary film about his life, directed by Robert Nazar Arjoyan and entitled, When My Sorrow Died – The Legend of Armen Ra and the Theremin. The movie has been racking up awards, Best Documentary at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival and Best Film and Best Documentary at the Byron Bay International Film Festival. It will play April 3rd at the Chicago Underground Film Festival and later this year in New Orleans. Recently returned from a whirlwind tour of Australia, Digital Dying was granted some time to talk with Armen about what after the theremin is his favorite topic of all: death.
Do you think it is possible to summon physical entities from beyond the grave or another dimension with music?
I think music is the only thing that can do that. Though I wouldn’t say summon but connect to, bond. Music can lift the veil, it can transport you. Music is pure vibrations, and we are all vibrating beings. Music is the beginning of everything with sound, so it is the end of everything with sound. Regardless of who or what you believe we know that the big bang was a sound. It was a vibration. But sound is disregarded. We stop hearing sound, but it keeps going. Sound is only audible to human hearing for a short amount of time, but that vibration continues eternally. Every vibration does. It crosses dimensions and realms. It is invisible, it is vibration, it is eternal. I think spirits are attracted to that. Music is going to cross the realm as nothing else can that is generated by a human hand or brain. Music is loved by every major religion. Music is used to heal people, put people in trances, evoke an etherealness.
On a side note, you might want to read up on a doctor named Eben Alexander, who is a brain genius. He died and was brain dead for five days and had a really amazing experience that he wrote about. It is interesting because he goes through everything, the light, god, and ends up in the beginning, in absolutely nothingness. He said all there was was Om. Om is everything, and it is the sound that makes god.
Other Great Reads: Death practices of the world’s religions
Why is Armenian music so sad?
With everything I play, I play because it is beautiful. Sad music is more beautiful to me. Sad music meaning those certain chords and notes, whatever the actual formula of sad music is. In 1915, the Armenian genocide occurred, most sad Armenian music since then is more or less referring to that. Songs of lost love or just songs of loss period carry more weight because they are attached to a massacre. Armenian music is already really sad tonally. The saddest instrument ever is an Armenian wind instrument called the duduk. You hear it in a lot of cheesy gladiator movies, the instrument itself sounds like a crying person. Sometimes the theremin gets compared to that, even though the two don’t sound anything alike. But the theremin can have a sadness in the right hands. The theremin lends its sad hands to the sadness of Armenia’s sad, sad music.
Are you trying to invoke certain stories from the past with your music?
The music is not so much about invoking the elders, but it is revering them and giving them a voice. I talk about what happened and what this music is and why I play it and where it is from—it is not like that information is out there. So there is a reverence and an honoring of the elders. Then there is the psychology of how we feel things, especially sadness. Once you feel anything it dissipates. For me the music alchemizes the sadness into beauty. It is like, whatever you put through comes out beautiful. So I am relieved by sad music, it relieves me, it doesn’t make me sadder. That is the alchemy of music. That is how I process it. It is my therapy.
Thinking about your music I was reminded of a character called the Muse in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. If I am remembering correctly, the Muse plays a transdimensional flute whose music is so sad and beautiful it puts everyone in a blissful stupor and risks bringing about the end of civilization. I am wondering if you desire this effect with your own music, to give such an incredible performance that the listener dies, and perhaps even the player, too?
That is the performer’s ultimate desire. But it is not a thing I can do intentionally. The intention goes into the devotion to the instrument, whether the instrument is the human voice or the theremin or whatever. The only way that type of performance occurs is when you cease being an ego-driven person playing an instrument and either become the music or disappear all-together. The music becomes the perfect vessel or conduit or conductor. Any kind of beautiful music that affects anybody, I don’t think is coming from the brain. I think it comes from another source, a more divine vibration.
Other Great Reads: Broken heart syndrome: induced by stress, or a divine hand?
Have you ever been alive before? Do you think you will ever be alive again?
The first answer to that Pandora’s Box of a question is that I was never born, which is the Hindu view on things. None of us were ever born. I have been here before and yet I haven’t been here before. I am everything and everyone. And not just me, I think we are all everyone. It is one ocean. I am the sky not the clouds. I believe I have reincarnated thousands of times. If I haven’t been in a physical form at a certain period of time, then I have been made aware of it and studied it in between incarnations. You break that down, there is no breaking that down. I know everything there is to know, which is actually nothing. There is nothing to know, except the now being eternal, and that’s all there ever is or ever was. I spent a lot of my life pondering it all and now it is useless to me. The past or the future doesn’t exist, the now does. And right now it feels like I have been here forever.
Have you ever had a near-death experience?
I have a near-death experience every single day, because I die every time I go to sleep. That is just how I would like to answer that question. It is a serious answer, as opposed to talking in circles.
If aliens came to earth on an incredible spaceship and they appreciated art and music and could take a couple hundred artists and musicians including you away to their mysterious alien world, although you wouldn’t know any of the other humans on board and you would never be returning to earth, would you go?
Enough of that shell game, that’s how I ended up here in the first place! This is the alien planet, this is the other world. And they were lying; they don’t appreciate it, only some of them do.
Besides hypothetically, that really did happen. When I was eight years-old I was taken to a foreign land on a space ship and told we were going on a nice vacation and that we would be home in a few months. We never went home again. That alien spaceship was the first class cabin of an Iran Air flight, from Tehran to Paris. Because of the revolution, we went on vacation to Europe and never returned. So, that has already happened thank you very much. This world is scary, but I have been here long enough to be able to navigate it.