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AGBU Demirdjian School Alumna and ANI Language Coach Volunteer Araxie Altounian
AGBU Demirdjian School Alumna and ANI Language Coach Volunteer Araxie Altounian

Complex Chords

Araxie Altounian deepens appreciation of Armenian musicians 


When just a child, Araxie Altounian was given a toy piano by her parents. It didn’t have many keys, so she kept asking for better ones until she obtained an upright. Lessons began when she was eight; music degrees would follow. But for her, music is not just a vocation or creative outlet—it’s a medium she believes is vital to the perpetuation of the Armenian nation.

“I like to ask all the questions,” says Altounian. “How real is our love for culture—do we pay enough attention to the musicians who do meaningful work outside the spotlight? Are we appreciating a musician’s intrinsic value or applauding their fame? Are we laying the proper groundwork for the next generation with enough musicological research as our identity and culture come under assault? Music is a temporal art form that needs to be classified and codified.”

She addresses these topics and more in the AGBU Toronto program she conceived last year: Musical Minds. Each online conversation brings forth Armenian musicians with a Canadian connection who contribute to Armenian musical culture in unique and innovative ways, and build cultural bridges between the Diasporan host communities. Her first guest was pianist and composer Serouj Kradjian, with whom she had collaborated previously on a live-stream concert featuring over 80 musicians entitled, Komitas: A Canadian Tribute.

“I am excited for Musical Minds to shape a long-term strategy for Armenians to present their culture to host countries so that more people know about us, and we do not remain marginalized. There is no demand for something if people don’t know it exists,” adds Altounian.

“There was always music in our house in Beirut,” she recalls. “One of my earliest memories is my mother singing to me. My paternal grandmother had tremendous, but undeveloped, musical inclinations, as she was orphaned by the Armenian Genocide; but she was proud that one of her sons was a passionate violinist. I loved to sing and dance, and continued piano at the Beirut National Conservatory for eight years.”

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In 2019, Dr. Altounian collaborated with pianist and composer Serouj Kradjian on Komitas: A Canadian Tribute.

In 2019, Dr. Altounian collaborated with pianist and composer Serouj Kradjian on Komitas: A Canadian Tribute.
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In 2019, Dr. Altounian collaborated with pianist and composer Serouj Kradjian on Komitas: A Canadian Tribute.

“Everything around me was also AGBU,” she adds. The Altounian children attended the AGBU Yervant Demirdjian Elementary School, her aunt taught at the AGBU Tarouhi Hovagimian School, and her father led the AGBU Lebanon District during the bleakest years of the country’s civil war. She recalls his deep aplomb as AGBU volunteers visited their home, giving horrific accounts of tragedies that befell Armenian families.

Altounian dreamed of continuing piano in France—an impossibility then. She studied English literature at the American University of Beirut (AUB) for two years, but finally in 1980, she moved to France, later graduating from Conservatoire Régional du Val-Maubuée outside Paris, where she won a gold medal for piano performance.

“When I returned in 1986, Beirut was unrecognizable. Many educated people had fled the dire circumstances. But I found like-minded Lebanese at Université Saint-Esprit, Kaslik, and completed a Masters in Musicology on the multi-talented musician Boghos Gelalian (1927-2011), who was widely recognized in his native Lebanon, but is nearly forgotten today,” recalls Altounian. Her advisor insisted that she continue her thesis as a PhD, which she defended in 1995.

I am excited for musical minds to shape a long-term strategy for armenians to present their culture to host countries so that more people know about us.

As her father was proofreading her French dissertation, he recognized Gelalian’s incredible mastery and urged her to honor him directly. In 1992, Altounian singlehandedly conceived an homage to Gelalian on the Golden Jubilee of his career; she was the MC and performed alongside other musicians. The concert was co-sponsored by AGBU Lebanon and her university, under the auspices of His Excellency Sheikh Boutros Harb, then Minister of National Education and Fine Arts.

It would be her farewell gift to Lebanon. That same year, the Altounians immigrated to Thornhill, Ontario, a Toronto suburb, reuniting with family. The war had taken its toll: since 1989, her neighborhood had become the target of repeated bombings, and she recalls an almost four-month spell spent entirely in a cellar, cut off from her music.

Canadian life brought numerous accomplishments: she continued teaching piano, published essays, gave lectures and taught workshops. She also expanded her love of volunteering by joining the Ontario Registered Music Teachers’ Association, serving twice as the North York-York Region Branch president, and coordinating its Toronto Zone competitions. She taught at Euromusic Centre for Music Studies, and served as the Markham Music Festival Director until 2019. She also brought her volunteer skills to AGBU Toronto and is now a longtime donor.

Many of Altounian’s students over the past 27 years now seek her out in adulthood, a testament to the life lessons she imparted. “I’ve seen almost an industrial number of students pass through my doors,” she jokes. “They learned that mastering piano is not just memorization. It’s also how to handle complex situations, fight fear, and overcome rash behavior, which all bring forth strategic thinking. Music contains emotions. Yet the artist cannot approach a piece emotionally; the correct methodology is with discipline.”

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Dr. Altounian served as Director of the Markham Music Festival until 2019.

Dr. Altounian served as Director of the Markham Music Festival until 2019.
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Dr. Altounian served as Director of the Markham Music Festival until 2019.

Altounian recently embarked on a new teaching assignment, this time for AGBU ANI Language Coaching, which matches Diasporan volunteers to coach homeland Armenians in English conversation skills. “When a young woman in Armenia is educated, emancipated and capable of earning her own income, she will pass on the same opportunities to her children. Learning a new language will also broaden her horizons and create new ways of thinking—which leads to childrearing in a less dogmatic environment,” she adds.

“When we are too comfortable with our stereotypes, we don’t keep pace with the times and cannot progress. Armenians focus so much on the past, which is understandable because we want to remain rooted,” Altounian states. “But are we elevating our contemporary composers looking toward the future? One of the things that motivated me after the 2020 Artsakh War was that the aggression on Armenian culture and our very identity took on a new magnitude. In the short-term, Musical Minds can renew and reinvigorate our faith in ourselves because our culture has that revitalizing power. I cannot influence politics, but can focus instead on what I know best as a musicologist to initiate change. We must constantly question what we are doing—put every idea through a crash test. If it breaks, rebuild the concept with the right changes. Once it works, you adopt it and believe in it. Perhaps through Musical Minds, I can raise the questions, and the guest artists and listeners can test the new ideas. We no longer have the luxury of time.” 

Originally published in the June 2024 ​issue of AGBU Insider. end character

About the AGBU Insider

AGBU Insider profiles extraordinary AGBU program alumni across a diverse set of industries and passions. With exclusive interviews and photography, each issue reveals the Armenian impact on society, community, and industry.