Lusine Grigoryan: Komitas – Seven Songs (ECM New Series 2514)

Seven Songs

Lusine Grigoryan
Komitas: Piano Compositions

Lusine Grigoryan piano
Recorded February 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 22, 2017

Armenian pianist Lusine Grigoryan makes her ECM debut with a program of music by her homeland’s most respected composer: Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935). Seven Songs is a companion to the Gurdjieff Ensemble’s Komitas, led by her husband Levon Eskenian, and was recorded during the same 2015 sessions. Where that previously issued album expanded upon the sonorities of Komitas’s piano music, here we encounter said sonorities nakedly. In each are shades of traditional instruments and dances, motifs regarded beyond time yet grounded in the familiar by their immediacy of offering.

Komitas was intensely interested in Armenian folk music, which he collected, studied, and arranged throughout his life. If not for the efforts of Grigoryan and likeminded artists, his music might remain sequestered in Armenia without ever transcending its borders. As Paul Griffiths writes in his booklet essay, “His is a torn page waiting to be sewn back into music history.” The eponymous heptad of 1911 is a veritable notebook of ideas, each the memory of a fleeting moment, dutifully bound at Grigoryan’s fingertips. Like an ancient soul seeking solace in modern sprawl, where physical contact—once the glue of the human volume—has now dissolved in a landscape of storm-blown leaves. Komitas-via-Grigoryan’s interpretations of innocence and sin, perfection and corruption, death and life are all here for us to examine. Their happiest moments, such as the last (titled “The water comes from the mountaintop”), are also its briefest, and speak of the honesty with which Komitas viewed the world around him. The latter’s geological inevitability is, like the music itself, indicative of his earthly pilgrimage and points to a perennial theme of landscape echoed in the painterly Toghik from 1915 and even in the twelve Pieces for Children (1910-15). Nowhere so vividly, however, as in Msho Shoror. Inspired by the mountainous region of Sasun, its rocky qualities indeed require deft footwork—or, in this case, handwork—to navigate. The shoror, or “sway dance,” is a navigation unto itself, every step woven into what the composer called an “ancestral” experience. Whether vigorous or reflective, each of its seven variations is spiritual in nature, reflecting upon the relationship between flesh and fate, and the connective tissue of experience between them.

The Seven Dances further nuance this sense of bodies in space and time. Komitas calls upon the performer to evoke timbral qualities of particular instruments, such as the daf and duduk. Grigoryan renders these with intimate attention to detail, deeply aware of the flow within them. The second of these dances, of Yerevan extraction, is a standout for its delicate pointillism. Likewise the fifth of Vagharshapat. Heard against the somber reflection of the final shoror, they remind us that vigor means nothing without the stillness awaiting its exhaustion.

Because this music feels at once so near and so distant, I conducted an email interview with Grigoryan, who kindly offered her own reflections…

Tyran Grillo: Can you tell me, in your own words, what Komitas means both to you and to Armenians in general?

Lusine Grigoryan: For me, Komitas is first and foremost a marvelous composer. His compositions are extremely valuable and give pianists the opportunity to discover and express their performing peculiarities. This music forces you to think, endlessly: its character can change from one bar to the next. In addition, it requires you to evoke Armenian traditional instruments through the piano. Komitas helps the performer with his meticulous indications (the approach of Baroque music to folk imagery has been a big help in this regard). For me, and for the Armenian people, Komitas is the founder of our national music. He preserved and defined what Armenian music is, setting the foundation for our approach to composition. The reflection of sacred music in his piano repertoire is more obvious in “Msho Shoror” (Shoror  of Mush), a dance in which 300 pilgrims would take part at the Monastery of Saint Karapet in Mush. In the first part, the zurna and the drum would sound the call and gather the dancers, then a large circle would be formed and the prayer would start. This is a significant part of the cycle and has motifs that have been passed down orally for generations, going back to pagan times, as expressed in the leitmotif of the sun in Komitas’s “Pieces for Children.” We come across this theme also in our church hymns and in Armenian national music more broadly.

TG: I believe the music of Komitas has a uniquely timeless quality. Do you agree? If so, where do you think that quality comes from?

LG: Yes, Komitas’s music truly has a timeless quality to it. Listeners are frequently confused and think he is a contemporary composer. I believe this has to do with his minimal approach, his ornaments and motifs, all of which have their origin in folk music. It is also a manifestation of how powerful Komitas’s thinking as a composer is, of how he is able to transport a simple song to a classical instrument—the piano—while preserving its genuine rustic condition.

TG: How did you prepare yourself for this recording?

LG: The recording was done in parallel to that of the Komitas CD recorded for ECM by the Gurdjieff Ensemble. I sometimes would take part in their rehearsals and practice sessions. I would listen to how national instruments resounded and search for ways to achieve those sounds through the piano, because Komitas often indicates “in the style of tar,” “in the style of dap,” “in the style of nay,” and so on. Despite being an ethnic Armenian, what I had pictured as the performance style of these instruments was not always accurate. So taking part in the rehearsal and practice sessions of the ensemble was very informative. As a matter of fact, it was Manfred Eicher who advised me to do this and he who insisted that the recordings be carried out in tandem.

TG: How much do you know about Komitas as a person, and does your knowledge of his social and spiritual beliefs help inform the way you play his music?   

LG: Komitas was a very down-to-earth, straightforward man with an immediate and uncomplicated personality, but at the same time deep and sensible; much like his music. He gave a lot of thought to these pieces before writing them down. He worked on them extensively, often producing many versions of the same piece. The more I play his music, the more I discover.

TG: If you could ask Komitas one question, what would it be?

LG: I would be reluctant to ask a question. But I know that he had a clear view of the Armenian school of composing, that he had started to work on his opera Anush, was composing string quartets, and thinking about the symphonic genre. But because his creative life was cut short, he wasn’t able to bring these projects to fruition. I would love to know: Had he had the time to lay the foundations, what direction would our composers have taken? Armenian composers have tended to write more in the European mode, using folk themes only occasionally. Maybe in Tigran Mansurian’s music we can find can find something more attuned to that cultural spirit. I am very much interested in this question.

Komitas

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