IF red is the color of passion and chocolate the food of love, then the duduk has surreptitiously become the sound of sadness. Most of us can’t name the instrument, but we’ve heard it so often that if we were paying attention, it might almost border on cliche. Almost.
The duduk (pronounced doo-dook), is an ancient instrument from the Caucasus that looks a bit like a recorder. No longer than a forearm and with a range of just an octave, it sounds like a voice crying or wind howling across a mountaintop, its tone fleshy and pulpy, deep and haunting. Anyone who has watched a tear-jerker has probably heard the duduk’s mournful echoes. Peter Gabriel’s score in “The Last Temptation of Christ” introduced us to it almost 20 years ago -- music on which Djivan Gasparian, the duduk’s best-known ambassador, played.
Like a Hollywood star, the instrument then took a sabbatical, showing up only in an occasional film or a pilot that never made it. In the last 10 years, however, it has made a very steady showing and is now an expected guest at all the right parties.
Its evocative sound surfaces again Friday night when the new season of Sci Fi Channel’s “Battlestar Galactica” begins, featuring a soundtrack adorned with what its composer, Bear McCreary, calls “a simple wooden pipe [that] emotes generations of sadness.” A duduk solo, with text sung in Armenian, is featured in a McCreary song that follows the first episode’s main title Friday.
The duduk’s rising star owes a debt to the half-million Armenians that call Los Angeles home. This large Armenian community -- the largest in the world outside of Armenia -- has provided a steady base of musicians, teachers, instrument makers and, not least of all, fans that helped the duduk transition from ethnic enclave to mainstream culture.
On a trip to Los Angeles to visit his two daughters and their families -- as well as to record the scores for “Syriana” and “The Da Vinci Code” -- Gasparian, now 76, still seemed surprised by his fame as a master of a once-obscure instrument. “Many years ago, a Russian journalist asked me if I had made the duduk famous or if the duduk had made me famous,” Gasparian says. “I still don’t have an answer.”
How and why did a simple shepherd’s flute move from an ethnic curiosity to a staple in the Hollywood composer’s arsenal? “I don’t think there’s anything that sounds as close to the human voice, and there’s nothing as compelling to the human ear as the human voice,” explains Jon Ehrlich, whose credits include now-defunct TV shows “Invasion” and “The Agency,” and who composed a piece for the duduk for his own wedding.
It’s a great dramatic tool for composers, Ehrlich points out. “With the duduk, you’re pointing to a moment you want to keep alive, making a static moment breathe and be alive,” he says.
“Battlestar Galactica” composer McCreary attributes the duduk’s rise to “a current trend in films and television to branch away from the traditional orchestral score, which opens the door for unusual instruments and non-Western musical influences.”
His roots led him to the instrument. “I first introduced the sound of the duduk mainly as background color in my orchestration, simply as a way to represent my Armenian heritage,” says McCreary, who first heard the duduk while researching and writing an opera based on his grandmother’s exodus from Turkey after the 1915 Armenian genocide. “I was instantly struck by the haunting, vocal quality.
“However, as the scoring process for ‘Galactica’ went on, I found it more useful than I had originally imagined, and the producers responded to the intimacy and power of the sound. It was not long before a mournful duduk wailed over the main title.”
Although the show last season saw some changes, the duduk remained. “Set against the heavy percussion in the ‘Battlestar Galactica’ score, the duduk has an even more powerful impact,” McCreary says. “During the most dramatic scenes, a melodic instrument will always resonate more with viewers.”
THERE is the danger, of course, of going to the well too often. “It seems like composers are getting tired of the duduk or at least they’re afraid it will get overused,” says Chris Bleth, Gasparian’s first American student and a professional duduk player who has worked with Ehrlich and McCreary. “I get asked, ‘What’s like the duduk but isn’t?’ ”
Yet the duduk’s sound is so ephemeral it has yet to be synthesized successfully.
“The depth of perception -- the stirring mournfulness that comes from so many years of suffering -- at some level we can all relate to that,” says Pedro Eustache, a woodwind musician and ethnic instrument disciple who played the duduk in scores for “The Passion of the Christ” and “Munich,” among others. But, he adds, “I will not let movies define the duduk. The duduk is the antidote to desensitization.”
“It’s slowly become part of the musical landscape,” Ehrlich says of the instrument. “That’s staying power.”
The duduk’s musical resume
‘Battlestar Galactica’: Third season begins at 9 p.m. Friday on the Sci Fi Channel.
* To hear samples from the “Battlestar Galactica” soundtrack and learn what composer Bear McCreary says about the instrument, visit his blog at www.bearmccreary.com.
Past movie scores: “The Crow,” “Dead Man Walking,” “Gladiator,” “Hidalgo,” “The Hulk,” “The Passion of the Christ,” “Munich” and “Syriana.”
In concert: The Yuval Ron Ensemble, featuring duduk player Yeghish Manukyan, performs at 11:15 a.m. Oct. 19 at the Santa Monica College Conert Hall, 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Free. www.smchillel.org. Also: 8 p.m. Oct. 28 at the Chapel of the Sacred Heart, Loyola Marymount University, 1 LMU Drive, L.A. $15 in advance; $20 at door; free to LMU students/faculty. (818) 505-1355