The Gurdjieff Ensemble: Komitas (ECM 2451)

Komitas

The Gurdjieff Ensemble
Komitas

The Gurdjieff Ensemble
Emmanuel Hovhannisyan duduk, pku, zurna
Armen Ayvazyan kamancha
Avag Margaryan pogh, zurna
Aram Nikoghosyan oud
Davit Avagyan tar
Mesrop Khalatyan dap, dhol
Vladimir Papikyan santur, voice
Meri Vardanyan kanon
Norayr Gapoyan duduk, bass duduk
Eduard Harutyunyan tmbuk, cymbal, kshots, burvar, bell
Levon Eskenian director
Recorded February 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: October 2, 2015

Since forming the Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble in 2008, musician and director Levon Eskenian has moved beyond delineations of the group’s namesake, even while staying truer than ever to the roots such an association implies. His ECM debut, Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff, drew from a well that had already been dug into the label’s landscape by Keith Jarrett and Vassilis Tsabropoulos/Anja Lechner, and deepened by Lechner’s subsequent duo with François Couturier. It was only natural, then, that Eskenian should turn his attention to that spiritual progenitor of Armenian classical music: Soghomon Soghomonian (1869-1935), a.k.a. Komitas.

Having appeared on Kim Kashkashian’s Hayren and Savina Yannatou’s Songs of Thessaloniki, among others, the music of Komitas has been something of a leitmotif in the ECM catalog, where its expressions of folk sentiment feel right at home, and nowhere so fully as on this first disc dedicated to him alone. As with Gurdjieff, Eskenian and his ensemble have gone as far back to into this music’s past as is conceivable, arranging it for the very instruments whose sounds first inspired Komitas to put pen to paper. Eskenian has, in essence, “re-composed” them as physical environments around on which listeners can walk to absorb every detail.

Gurdjieff Ensemble
(Photo credit: Andranik Sahakyan)

Eskenian, for his part, provides—in both the music and liner notes—a loving account of Komitas, whose approach to diverse interests imbued his writing with metaphysical levels of beauty. Even when composing for western instruments, he would often notate with traditional instruments in mind, and so Eskenian’s instinct is in keeping with the origin story at hand. Komitas and Gurdjieff share one degree of separation by way of the latter’s student, Thomas de Hartmann, but even more in terms of philosophy, lifestyle, and artistic engagement. I asked Eskenian whether these connections had anything to do with how he put this album together.

“Gurdjieff sent de Hartmann to Yerevan, where he immersed himself in, held concerts of, and gave lectures on the music of Komitas. Later on, de Hartmann would found the Komitas Society with the goal of collecting and printing the composer’s music. There are some pieces in which Gurdjieff and Komitas used the same folk tunes. Both of them were truth-seekers. Like Gurdjieff, Komitas would also talk about vibrations. He consulted ancient manuscripts and believed in the healing powers of music, the effects of modes and how each string of the knar [a traditional harp], for example, had on a different part of the body. He taught movements rooted in ancient ritual dances of pre-Christian temples, and often referred to himself as a teacher of dancing. In all cases, I consider the music of Komitas to be an essential key for a better understanding of the music of Gurdjieff and of the many other classical composers who have based their compositions on folk motifs.”

Eskenian’s gentle and respectful assertions of the significance of this music further explain why the album seemed to take form of its own volition. Eskenian elaborates on the genesis of the project, which began with a suggestion on the part of producer Manfred Eicher to center a follow-up to his Gurdjieff debut around Armenian folk and sacred music:

“For many years I’d thought about the Komitas dances, to have them performed on traditional Armenian and ancient instruments. I knew the pieces long before my encounter with the music of Gurdjieff and they had always served as a reference for me, but arranging the piano scores for authentic traditional Armenian instruments was in fact a bold labor which required additional research along anthropological, historical, and ethnomusicological lines in order to have a certain level of objectivity that wouldn’t ruin his work. Manfred left me free to decide the program. During the recording session he was actively involved in creating a comfortable atmosphere in which the musicians might better hear their inner sound, and with the assistance of engineer Markus Heiland recorded these instruments in their full timbrous colors. During the mixing session, Manfred paid strict attention to the sequence of pieces, and to the ‘silent’ pauses between them. The album cover was also of his choosing, a beautiful photo and one of the first of biblical Ararat Mountain ever taken at the beginning of the 20th century.”

In his own briefer liner note for the album, Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian—onetime director of the Komitas State Conservatory of Yerevan—expands on the cultural iconicity of Komitas, whose piano pieces he goes so far as to describe as “documentary works,” preserving as they do the spirit of his Armenian heritage. The “Yot Par” (Seven dances) represent one such set of piano pieces, recalibrated here to suit the spectral qualities of Eskenian’s peerless ensemble. These dances are centered around the capital of Yerevan, the contentious city of Shushi, the village of Karin, and the Turkish provincial capital of Mush. Whether the binary star of bowed kamancha and hammered santur in “Manushaki,” the duduk and tar in “Yerangui,” or the pogh flute and tmbuk drum duet that is “Het u Araj,” each dance flows in measured contrast to surrounding tunes and highlights a different instrumental color. That same pogh flute, in tandem with oud, embodies perhaps the deepest entanglement of ancient impulse and contemporary realization in “Karno Shoror,” which is about as close to experiencing history as this music gets. Even “Masho Shoror,” another piano work newly fashioned, is rife with textures that feel much older than we can articulate by any other means. The present rendition cross-hatches the double-reed zurna with the santur’s metallic lines. At just under 12 minutes, it is an album in and of itself, gathering as it does many influences in a single hearth of understanding.

“I often think about this piece,” says Eskenian, “which was a series of mystical pagan dances accompanying pilgrimage to St. Karapet Monastery in Mush. The monastery was one of the main pilgrimage sites for Armenians and served as their temple even before Christianity. After the Armenian genocide inflicted by the Ottoman empire, when most Armenians were killed, this marvelous monastery was destroyed much like ancient monuments in the Middle East have been in recent years. It was a great loss, to be sure, but I reflect on the fact that we have these sounds and traditions encoded into the piano music, now brought back to their inspirational sources. Through this process, we are reconstructing something of what has been lost. I am grateful to be able to share this with the world: a piece of the past reaching out to us from unrecoverable times.”

Eskenian

Many of the program’s standalone songs are likewise rooted in nature, by which traces of what came before our current generation continue to thrive, changed but also essential. In the plough songs of the northern Lori region, such as “Lorva Gutanerg,” we almost don’t need to know that Komitas gathered such melodies himself and separated them like chaff from the wheat so that posterity might be nourished by their bread. The medieval influences are clearest in these examples, as in the fortune-telling motivations of “Mani Asem, Tsaghik Asem” (Praises to the flower) and, more so, the strains of “Hov Arek” (Dear mountains, send me a breeze), a high point in the album’s topography that accentuates the talents of santur player Vladimir Papikyan, whose virtuosity unites sentiment and form. Moving through lullabies and other pieces for children, as well as love songs, the ensemble touches on Komitas’s religious affinities in songs like “Havun” (The fowl of the air), in which two duduks express Christ’s Resurrection in metaphor. On the subject of ascendant beings, the pogh solo “Havik” (A radiant bird) evokes its eponym with purposeful flight. Breathy and full of charcoal in its palette, it recalls the sensory world of a Japanese brush painting, trees barely visible as splashes of ink in the background.

Despite any mystical characterizations one might draw around Komitas, it’s clear from this recording that the heart of his music runs on a fundamental energy. It’s the same energy that allows us to listen and to love, to seek out those things which connect us beyond concerns of the flesh. So much so, that no matter what form it takes, the music of Komitas occupies an immediately relatable realm of understanding. In this vein, listeners can look forward to an album of his complete piano music as performed by Lusine Grigoryan, who has worked diligently to reproduce every effect as indicated in the original scores. Where Eskenian has taken those cues to heart by transferring them the very instruments that inspired them, Grigoryan has accepted the challenge of expanding the piano’s vocabulary to suit the ambitious needs of these timeless melodies. The reconstruction has just begun.

(Click here to read the rest of my interview with Levon Eskenian for RootsWorld online magazine, alongside another review of the album by Erik Keilholtz.)

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