“I started out with arrogance, and the arrogance got eaten up by the music.”
So the thereminist Armen Ra describes his artistic evolution, in an interview a week before a documentary on his life and art, “When My Sorrow Died: The Legend Of Armen Ra & the Theremin” opens for a week's engagement in New York City, November 13-19, at downtown’s Cinema Village.
Ra’s recitals, in which he mixes standards and opera music and the classical music of his ancestral home of Armenia, are magical, ethereal events. The Theremin is an electronic instrument that creates its haunting sound via manipulations of electronically created fields in the air itself. Its “eerie” qualities are evident in the soundtrack music for “The Day The Earth Stood Still,” while Brian Wilson explored the more expressive potential of the instrument on the Beach Boys song “Good Vibrations.” A whole prior documentary on the instrument and its fascinating history, called “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey,” came out in 1993.
“When My Sorrow Died” shows how Ra, born Armen Hovanesian in Iran, has expanded the boundaries of the instrument and also tells a moving personal story. Ra lost his home country when he was ten years old and the Iran revolution brought the Ayatollah to power. Growing up gay in an unfamiliar America, the music-and-movie obsessed Armen became a club kid and drag performer in New York, and spent such a long time living dangerously he almost lost himself. His discovery of the Theremin, on which he came to play not just songs and arias but also Armenian classical music, gave him a new lease on life. He’s played concert halls the world over, toured as a supporting act for Nick Cave, and played on recordings by artists as diverse as Antony and the Johnsons and Selena Gomez. The movie about his life and art coincides with a return to performing after a several-year layoff.
Now would probably be a good time to own up that this movie affects me personally beyond my disinterested critical eye. Armen is an old and dear friend of mine, and there’s even some archival footage shot by me in the film. So you may take my recommendation of the film with a grain of salt if you wish, although I do think it is very good indeed … but … well, I didn’t think that my connection to Armen would preclude an interview, so I arranged to speak with Armen and the film’s executive producer Matt Huffman, now in New York for the run-up to the movie’s opening here. (Matt’s an L.A. native, while Armen has lived on the West Coast for about a decade now.) We met at the vintage music shop Retrofret (that's Retrofret proprietor Steve Uhrik with Ra in the picture below) which has a vintage Theremin—built by the instrument’s inventor Leon Theremin himself—on the shop floor, which Armen sampled before we got to talking.
Matt, tell me a little about yourself and how the film came about.
Matt Huffman (MH): I was raised in film and the arts; my mom cast for Clint Eastwood for thirty years, and my dad was an actor. I had to wind-up cast “Letters From Iwo Jima” because my mom died in the middle of that. And I went into a depression after that, because everyone I was seeing was apologizing and talking about my mom … so I left. I went into insurance.
But Armen soon became my upstairs neighbor in the place I was living in. He took an apartment I had previously inhabited. That’s how it started. I came home one day to find this sound, all through the courtyard. The building manager said, “That’s Armen Ra! He’s the greatest Theremin player in the world!” And I said, “Whoa! Does he practice every day?”
We soon became friends, and Armen would tell me these amazing stories of New York. He was trying to make them into a book, and he asked me to help him write them down. I ended up with several notebooks full of stories. I had been making my way back into film, working with Susan Smith, a casting person and producer, who was telling me that it was getting to the point where I ought to break away, start doing my own thing. I started looking for a project; [meanwhile] the book with Armen wasn’t coming together. I wondered if we could make it into a movie, but I didn’t know how we were going to recreate all these stories. And Armen didn’t want to animate anything, or do anything like that. And I said I didn’t know how we’d be able to do it if we had to keep it all in the present. And he said, “No no, I have it all here.” And he went under his bed and pulled out a little tote. Which contained all these old VHS tapes, and some 8mm film reels that had been smuggled out of Iran. I took them and had them digitized … when I saw the footage, I knew we had the material we needed. Among other things, I’d never seen drag like that, what I saw in the footage from the shows of Armen’s drag days.
I like pulling for the underdog. I don’t like movies about violence, I don’t like movies that are misogynistic, I don’t want to put anything in the world that I don’t want to live with. And Armen’s story got more and more powerful and more positive the more I looked into it. But I needed one more thing. I needed Armen to perform again, because at the time that this was coming together, Armen hadn’t performed on stage in three years.
Armen Ra (AR): After my father died, I didn’t play for three years. I practiced every day.
MH: We decided to make a concert film of sorts, about Armen’s return to the stage. Armen had met and been impressed with a young director named Robert Nazar Arjoyan, who, like Armen, is of Armenian background—they met at the Armenian Film Festival a year before. He’s a sharp, fast thinker and a great director—we call him “Nazo.” What we needed first was a little bit of proof of concept, to see if it would work. Not just for myself and the crew but for Armen, who on some points was very skeptical. So Nazo and Armen worked out what became our Indigogo trailer.
AR: In which, of course, I had to be Norma Desmond!
But I was terrified, because it was a real line to cross because you’re asking for money … that tells you how much interest there really is. And that being said, we had one person who gave us ten grand and if he hadn’t we would have not met our goal. In one day, our funding went from $2,000 to $12,000. And I couldn’t believe it. And it was from Singapore, and we couldn’t reach the donor, and I thought, well, this is spam. But it wasn’t. It a very wealthy person in Singapore who was involved in drag culture and the first time he went on Indiegogo he saw that portrait of me on the site, and he watched the trailer and gave ten grand.
MH: He and his partner were looking to invest in something just to see what they would do with it, because they’re testing the waters to see if they want to produce other stuff. And he’s very happy with what we’ve done. We are looking to go to Singapore and work with him and the film. The goal with this movie is to get it in front of as many people as possible, because it inspires them. We’re not looking to make tent-pole money, but we do think the movie can heighten awareness and inspire.
AR: We do screenings now where I play afterwards, and it’s gone really well. I was hesitant at first because I thought, “They’ve just watched me for an hour and a half. I think they’ve had enough.” But it was the complete opposite. And the dynamic changed from my concert performances. When I come out after the movie, not only do they know me completely—because as a concert performer, I’m this beautiful alien stranger performing this ethereal music, and that’s all the context they have, but here, they’ve watched my whole story. They know me, they’re rooting for me. I’m telling them on screen how difficult how everything is, and when I come out, I’m already kind of a big star because they’ve just seen me in a movie. So it becomes a real life continuation of the story that’s been on the screen, and audiences are very moved by that. As am I! They’ve invested in this character. And this has been in mainstream places. Not LGBT venues. And we’ve always gotten great reactions. From teenagers to old Armenian men, who are very affected by the Armenian music I play.
It was weird then and it’s weirder now. I don’t relate to the character. When I get up there … it’s me who’s practicing, it’s me who’s getting nervous, it’s me who’s freaking out before the show … but when I’m playing, it is like something else takes over. The breathing changes, which tells me I’m going to be okay, and it’s as if I become the music. I always look down, I don’t know what’s going on, at some point I forget where I am. I’m glad people can cry because I know it’s relieving them. That’s what I love about sad music. It doesn’t make me sadder. It relieves my sadness. I feel weird saying “I” because I don’t feel like I’m doing it. I know that I’ve rehearsed the mechanicals of it but when I’m up there … I’m not trying to make it mystical but it is. So honestly a little embarrassed. By nature I’m a little shy.
Yes, I know that about you. Many people tend to have the impression of drag people being extroverts, but a lot of them are shy, and you can be painfully shy. You are also very exacting in matters of aesthetics, and pretty much everything else. So I have to ask you, how much pain did it put you through, having to expose yourself to this extent in the interview segments and so on?
AR: Having to relive the past over and over again was very taxing. Especially losing your home and your family and your father. I don’t harp on that years later but that’s the core of my sadness, that I’ve had for decades: that I never went home. I’m still on vacation.
MH: When I started watching the early tapes, the CNN stuff with Jeannie Moos, you can see the shyness, the self-deprecation, when he calls the Theremin “my Callas machine” and so on. The confidence and the years have seasoned you into this vessel. And the same thing happened over the three weekends we shot Armen’s interviews. The first weekend, Armen was talking about his childhood and stuff, the second weekend he was on the bed, third weekend on the settee. When we were editing, we saw this evolution of the “character” to the point where at the end, you see this master. That not only really helped us with the arc, but it also showed how quickly Armen adapts, and the more he gets comfortable with what’s going on, the more you see that mastery exert itself.
AR: I feel as though what I do is a service, and I’m grateful for the gift, because it is a gift. I don’t know how I play this well. But I knew early on it was going to work. Because I’m very critical. Especially with music. But I had, right before starting to do this, nothing to live for. Everybody told me I was so beautiful, so great, and so talented, and I’m at 31 already and I’m a drunk and I’m a cokehead and I don’t want to do drag anymore, and all my friends start dying. I thought I had no reason to live, except for my mom, as in, “Don’t kill yourself while your mom’s still alive.”
And I’m obsessed with music, I hear these voices telling me “you should have stuck with piano lessons, you should have stuck with violin lessons, you should have gone to college … ” And I found this instrument. And when I learned “Madame Butterfly” and played it and I saw people were crying … when I first started, I mean, I was not bad, but I was not great either. It was good enough, and it was affecting people … but as it went on, it changed. I started out with arrogance, and the arrogance got eaten up by the music. So right now, at these screenings, there are sometimes hundreds of people wanting to talk to me. I’m grateful for it but … I don’t agree with them. I’m living inside of it. I’m not that great, I’m not that talented … I know I’m pretty [laughs], but that’s neither here nor there. When it came to this, it’s not the same kind of performance as drag at all. It’s very kind of church-y to me. That’s why it has to be quiet, everybody has to be sitting, I’m not playing in clubs … it’s entertainment, yes, because the presentation is beautiful, the lighting is beautiful, it’s beautiful makeup … but it’s also like a healing. They’re musical healings. I don’t want to pander. This is what I’m going to play. Songs that I love. “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” because of Chet Baker. “Summertime,” Shirley Bassey. All the arias are Callas. [Laughs] What was the question?