An instrumental maker
THE perfect duduk, some say, is carved not in a remote hillside village in Armenia, but, like so much of this instrument’s current existence, here in Los Angeles. Deep in the lap of a working-class North Hollywood neighborhood, maestro Karlen Matevosyan Smbati, the 78-year-old immigrant whom many consider to be the world’s foremost duduk maker, whiles away in a senior center, plotting and planning to create the perfect instrument when he gets home to his neat garage workshop.
Matevosyan, a self-taught artisan who was once a high school principal, wears glasses too big for his deeply lined face and harbors a penchant for plaid flannel and sweatpants. In a raspy, low voice, he says he’d always played the instrument and had never found one he liked. The first instrument he made was for himself, and every duduk he’s since created gets the same treatment. “I always think this is my instrument. I’m making it for me,” he says through an interpreter.
“I’ve been studying apricot wood all my life and I’ve been making duduks for more than 50 years,” Matevosyan says. “If I hear a duduk, I can often tell where the wood came from.”
To succeed as a duduk maker, you may need to know your wood but you also must be a musician. “That’s why I don’t have a personal successor,” Matevosyan says. “You can’t teach an artisan to make the duduk. You must know how to play the instrument first to understand it.” But the high standards that Matevosyan set have fueled excellence in duduk-making back in Armenia.
“Recognizing that there are great new duduk makers and the instruments have increased in quality, maestro Karlen is the godfather of modern duduk making,” says Pedro Eustache, a professional woodwind player who plays the instrument for many Hollywood scores.
Matevosyan makes most of the duduk by hand, using a hand drill to form the cylinder. It takes 42 additional steps to finish the instrument, from drilling the finger holes to lathing the cylinder. That’s after a year to 18 months to cure the green apricot wood that gives it the specific timbre and lasting quality. Over the course of his career, he has sold more than 3,700 handmade instruments, which start at around $250.
Matevosyan revolutionized the instrument by changing the spacing of the finger holes and enlarging the holes to get a full volume. He’s also credited with improving the mouthpiece by adding tonal control to the reed to play half notes. “It’s like the black keys on the piano,” he says. “Now you can play more than full notes on the duduk.”
Matevosyan also pioneered different types and sizes of duduks. In the past, duduks were created in unpredictable keys. Now they represent the four tonal ranges: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. The latest of his creations is a Hegoshu, the largest duduk, which sounds like a cross between a clarinet and a duduk. There are four in existence, one owned by Eustache.
“People ask me if I get sick and tired of making the same instrument every day,” Matevosyan says. “I think this is my legacy. After I’m gone this will remain.”