Hagop Sandaldjian

The Microminiatures of Hagop Sandaldjian

Biographical Information

The second of three children, Hagop Sandaldjian was born into a family of artists in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1931. As a child he showed little interest in music but he excelled in mathematics and had a remarkable capacity for throwing himself wholeheartedly into any activity he pursued.

It was not until his teenage years that Sandaldjian began playing the violin, discovering what was to be a lifelong love of music. Despite his inauspiciously late start, Hagop set his sights on becoming a virtuoso and compensated for his lack of experience with endless hours of practice.

His father, upset that his son seemed bent on pursuing an impractical career, went so far as to smash Hagop's first violin, but this attempt at dissuasion was to no avail. Against his parent's wisher, Hagop later enrolled in Yerevan's Romanos Melikian Music College. After completing his studies in Yerevan, he immediately enrolled in the Ippolitov Ivan Music College in Moscow, from which he graduated in 1955. Eight years later he emerged from Moscow's celebrated Komitas State Conservatory with a masters degree in the performing arts.

Settling in Yerevan, Armenia with his wife, Venera, a conductor and teacher, and their two children, Siranush and Levon, Sandaldjian threw himself into the capital's lively music scene. Along with teaching at two music colleges and the state conservatory, Sandaldjian also became a highly regarded soloist with the national orchestra.

In the early 1960's Sandaldjian began to develop a technique for playing stringed instruments that drew from ergonomics, the study of efficient interaction between people and the tools they use. Sandaldjian came to believe that fluent, proficient performance resulted from the harmonious resolution of the internal force of muscle contraction against the external force of gravity. This could only be achieved by abandoning the standard teaching approaches, which focused on "correct" finger positions, for a method that accommodated the individual anatomy of each student.

In 1973 Sandaldjian presented his thesis - that paper we know in English as "The Perfected Position of Viola and Its Significance for Musical Performance," - before the highest committee of the Moscow Conservatory. Approved by a rare unanimous vote, Sandaldjian's teaching methods were eventually introduced into the official Soviet music curriculum.

But perhaps his crowning achievement in this field was his performance at the 1977 conference of viola players. Playing a viola popposa, a twenty-inch long, five stringed instrument that had been long neglected for almost two hundred years due to its unwieldy size, Sandaldjian performed several works by Johann Sebastian Bach. His masterful playing stunned the audience and led to a mild revival of interest in an instrument long considered to be impossible to master.

At the same time, Sandaldjian was presented with a new opportunity to test his theory of ergonomics as well as a new medium in which to express his artistic commitment and intensity. In the early 1970's one of his viola students at the conservatory, Edward Kazarian, a renowned microminiaturist, introduced Sandaldjian to the imaginative world of microminiature sculpture.

A deep friendship blossomed between the two artists, and they arrived at a unique agreement by which each became the other's student. In microminiature sculpture, Sandaldjian found an art form analogous to music in its extremes of commitment, passion, and extravagance channeled into controlled, precise movement.

Born of obsessive devotion, an individual figure could take as many as fourteen months to finish. Each sculpted micron represented not only endless hours of toil, but exacting travail fraught with peril, as his work could so easily be destroyed or lost. An unexpected sneeze or misdirected breath could blow away a microminiature with hurricane force, while a casual movement could sabotage the work of months. Since even a pulse in his fingers could cause an accident, Sandaldjian ultimately learned to apply his decisive strokes only between heartbeats.

Hagop and his family emmigrated to the United States in 1980, however, as a condition of his departure to the United States, customs officials forced Sandaldjian to leave behind his entire collection of eighteen microminiatures. Disheartened by his inability to find work as a violinist or music teacher in California, he turned his attention to the less tangible world of microminiature, finding in its cozy dimensions a welcome sanctuary from the frustrations of his new life. During the next decade, Sandaldjian produced a new collection of thirty three miniatures, displaying virtuosic control of space and color as well as graceful conceptual oppositions that reveal layers of human and artistic contradiction.

Inhabiting the margins between dream and reality, these figures of impossible dimensions appear at once banal and elusive, meticulously crafted and dreamily insubstantial. Each nearly weightless sculpture seems to hover between its slim hold on the material plane and the lucid and immeasurable reality of a mental image. Straddling the line between science, craft, art, and novelty, Sandaldjian's work befuddles our ability to make such distinctions, and in so doing, opens a space for wonder.


The Microminiatures of Hagop Sandaldjian

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