Maria Farantouri/Cihan Türkoğlu: Beyond The Borders (ECM 2585)

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Maria Farantouri
Cihan Türkoğlu
Beyond The Borders

Maria Farantouri voice
Cihan Türkoğlu
saz, kopuz, voice
Anja Lechner 
violoncello
Meri Vardanyan kanon
Christos Barbas
ney
İzzet Kızıl percussion
Recorded June 2017, Sierra Studios, Athens
Engineer: Giorgos Karyotis
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 21, 2019

“Everything flows.
Out of one thing there comes unity,
and out of unity one thing.”
–Heraclitus

The project documented on Beyond The Borders was born when Greek singer Maria Farantouri first heard Cihan Türkoğlu, a saz virtuoso of Anatolian extraction who had been living in Athens for ten years. After proposing the idea to ECM, producer Manfred Eicher helped shape the program into its present form, debuting it as part of the 2017 Athens Festival. For this live performance, they are joined by Anja Lechner on cello, Meri Vardanyan on kanon, Christos Barbas on ney, and İzzet Kızıl on percussion. Their collective sound is distinctly individual, like a soul of many cities and eras compressed into the flesh of a single body.

Most of the songs are traditional treasures from the lands of Turkey, Armenia, Lebanon, and Greece. Each tells a story preserved by centuries of reiteration, and achieves relevance as a cool drink of water in today’s political firestorm. The scintillating arrangement of “Drama köprüsü” (The Bridge of Drama) finds both Türkoğlu and Farantouri singing the life of Hassan, a legendary Robin Hood-like figure who went rogue after slaying his superior, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor while shadowing the village just to glimpse the woman to whom he was once betrothed. The Sephardic ballad “Yo era ninya” (I Was a Girl) tells of a highborn maiden ruined by a deceitful man. A mournful quality made resolutely genuine by Farantouri’s delivery, as if sung through a cloud, makes this a standout among standouts. Lechner’s cello is remarkable, a red thread drawn through shadows of time.

From Armenia we receive “Kele kele” (Strolling), an anonymous song preserved by Komitas Vardapet around the turn of the 20th century. In it, a lovelorn girl sings: “I am dying for your footsteps, my precious.” An extended intro from Vardanyan paints a wide terrain on which to seek the traces of her loved one. Not all is so gloomy, however, as the Macedonian wedding song “Triantafylia” (Upon the Rosebush) works from a quiet introduction to an energy powerful enough to shine unscathed through a pessimistic future. “Wa Habibi” (My Beloved), a Christian hymn from Syria and Lebanon, unravels with a lifetime’s worth of experience in every throaty word.

The program is rounded out by songs written specially for Farantouri with music by Türkoğlu and words by Agathi Dimitrouka. “Dyo kosmoi mia angalia” (Embraced Worlds) takes Eros as its theme and evokes loving attributes via kanon, in which are felt reflections of sunlight upon a body of water whose surface is a portal between realms. “Ta panda rei” is a setting of Heraclitus, whose blurring of parts and wholes, of lives and life itself, yields percussive details from Kızıl and breaths from the ney of Barbas. Between “Lahtara gia zoi” (Yearning for Life), an empathic song for the uprooted, and “Anoihtos kaimos” (A Secret Yearning), a surreally uplifting dream, we feel the connective tissue of death and life as if it were the very substance of our hearts. With every beat, we get closer to this music, even as it follows its own path through the tragedies of our world.

Marc Sinan/Oğuz Büyükberber: White (ECM 2558)

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Marc Sinan
Oğuz Büyükberber
White

Marc Sinan guitar, electronics
Oğuz Büyükberber clarinet, bass clarinet, electronics
Recorded October 2016, Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 18, 2018

No matter where I am yet I shall not forget our mournful songs,
Shall not forget our steel-lettered books which now have become prayers,
No matter how sharply they pierce my heart our wounds so soaked with blood,
Even then I love my orphaned and my bloodied, dear Armenia.
–Yeghishe Charents

On White, German-Turkish-Armenian guitarist Marc Sinan and Turkish clarinetist Oğuz Büyükberber join more than forces, blending history and all-but-forgotten biographies into a mosaic of reckoning. After working together in the much larger ensemble of Hasretim: Journey to Anatolia, they now present their first recording as a duo, and the result of their collaboration is one of the most ghostly albums to be released on ECM in recent years.

The program consists largely of a suite by Sinan entitled upon nothingness. Combining field recordings from 1916 of Armenian prisoners of war in German detention camps, it is divided into colored subsections of yellow, blue, green, white, and red. The field recordings add a sense of mystery, trickling from cracks in the wall around this unthinkable past while also seeming to scale said wall from a peaceable future. Caged folksongs—each a cry for freedom in places where such a concept feels as distant as the sky—act as catalysts for our two performers, who in their present clarity touch the looking glass of retrospection as if it were a talisman close to breaking. Electronics flood the air, foregrounding inner turmoil.

Sinan’s guitar is multivalent, at one moment tracing a barbed yet invisible border of hatred around the afflicted while the next igniting that ring as a halo of grace. Tents and squalid conditions peak from the images of a lost era like glaciers whose tips only hint at the immense traumas fanning out beneath the surface of a collective amnesia. As lost souls whose only hope is to be grasped like wisps of creative thought, their echoes give rise to electronic embraces wider than any arms of flesh could accommodate. In the album’s eponymous “white” section—a guitar piece written by Büyükberber and transformed by Sinan—we encounter shooting stars, forced to observe from a darkness without ornament.

Interspersed throughout is Büyükberber’s five-part there. Painting a more straightforward, though no less inspired narrative, it strikes a free jazz kaleidoscope, opening windows into windows into windows. Sheltered by their fragmentary architecture, symbiosis becomes the norm, and we as individual agents the exceptions taking in their stories as if they were our own.

Areni Agbabian: Bloom (ECM 2549)

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Areni Agbabian
Bloom

Areni Agbabian voice, piano
Nicolas Stocker percussion
Recorded October 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 26, 2019

Patience is more important now…

Bloom marks the ECM debut of a God-given talent. Areni Agbabian, an Armenian American from Los Angeles, is far more than any biographical sketch might seek to define her, if only because her art points to at least two futures for every past in which it is tangled. As a singer, she is equal parts Meredith Monk and Kate Bush, and in that respect embodies the power of wordless improvisation to tell as much of a story as a crafted lyric. As a pianist, she treats keys as seeds and by her touch inspires them to sprout feathers in place of leaves. As a songwriter, she gathers all of these metaphors in a sacred circle, and by that act offers them as prayers to the forces flowing through her. For this album, she is joined by percussionist Nicolas Stocker, whose textural sensibilities open their arms to whatever impulses arise in the studio.

The album’s cycle of life begins in the fullness of adulthood with the bipartite “Patience.” Its combination of muted piano and brushed snare meshes around Agbabian’s sung mantras, which just as soon pivot into unexpected territories with messages written in blood, tenderness, and possibility. She returns occasionally to auras of meaning, but connects them spontaneously to innermost chambers. “A time to be with you as a time to pray,” she intones, and in that call to psychological arms gives us all the shielding we need to fend for ourselves in a world run emotionally dry. As the first drop in a sprinkling of lyric-based pieces—which also includes the astonishingly cinematic “The Water Bride,” a folk tale rendered in spoken word, and “Mother,” an anthem for all humankind—it is an ocean in the making.

More often, Agbabian takes shelter in absence of words. Drawing a thread of continuity through such diverse selections as the traditional Armenian hymn “Anganim Arachi Ko,” the folk melody “Garun a,” and the original “Seeing More,” she traces that string to a mirror, in whose surface it seems to continue on forever into darkness. In each of these songs she takes a pondering look into the truth of the human condition, naked and vulnerable to pain, and by her very acknowledgment opens herself to intimacies of creation. The latter are best expressed in the fully improvised “The River,” in which she and Stocker add grooves of their own to the other’s sonic fingerprints and which yields the percussionist’s solo vision of “Colored,” which also finds a partner in his haunting “Light Effect.”

Agababian’s pianism shines brightest in “Petal One” and “Petal Two,” both of which presage the natural imagery of “Full Bloom,” and in two further pieces, “Rain Drops” and “Whiteness,” born of suggestions made by producer Manfred Eicher in the studio. But despite the album’s title, we know that most of what we hear is only some of what we get. Like the pinecone held before her face in the cover photograph, Agbabian reveals only the corner of a smile and leaves us free to imagine its curve into melodies yet to be gifted.

Marco Ambrosini/Ensemble Supersonus: Resonances (ECM 2497)

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Marco Ambrosini
Ensemble Supersonus
Resonances

Marco Ambrosini nyckelharpa
Anna-Liisa Eller kannel
Anna-Maria Hefele overtone singing, harp
Wolf Janscha Jew’s harp
Eva-Maria Rusche harpsichord, square piano
Recorded November 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Lara Persia
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 21, 2019

Nyckelharpa virtuoso Marco Ambrosini returns to ECM with a project as successful as it is ambitious. In Ensemble Supersonus, he has forged a far-reaching prism through which to shine the light of his neglected forte, and by its rainbow effects a wealth of reimagined material. For Resonances, he is joined by Anna-Liisa Eller on kannel, overtone singer Anna-Maria Hefele, Wolf Janscha on Jew’s harp, and harpsichordist Eva-Maria Rusche.

The album opens with Ambrosini’s unaccompanied “Fuga Xylocopae.” As the keystone to the geometry that follows, it renders an entire world of possibilities, and from that panoply frames eleven further scenes, each more painterly than the last. In its wake, Heinrich Iganz Franz Biber’s “Rosary” Sonata No. 1 gets a chemical peel, touched by Hefele’s blinding inner-space and Rusche’s sparkling plectra. Through it all, Ambrosini’s abilities delight, touching off minutiae that one would never have guessed to be lurking in Biber’s psyche. Music by Johann Jakob Froberger (an e-minor Toccata played on square piano) and Girolamo Frescobaldi (a Prelude and Toccata with added nyckelharpa) flesh out the Biberian zeitgeist.

Although released in 2019, this album was recorded in 2015, one year after the ensemble’s present lineup cohered in a mutual search for ancient and modern music with such Baroque modes as their fulcrum. From the Medieval mysticism of Hildegard von Bingen’s O Antiqui Sancti, made manifest by Hefele’s liminal voicing, to the starkly visual writing within the group, nothing in the program is out of place. In the latter vein, Janscha contributes three compositions: Ananda Rasa, Fjordene, and Ritus. The first and last are statues come to life, actors moving across a silver screen, while the second is a Jew’s harp solo of deepening soul. Rusche adds her own: the kinetic and vivacious Erimal Nopu, a buoyant polyphony of spirits that seems inspired as much by 17th-century harmonies as by Manuel de Falla. As does Hefele, whose 2 Four 8 is a forest of overtones through which a full moon shines.

The traditional Swedish “Polska” widens the ensemble’s meeting ground like antique machinery oiled to renewal. Ambrosini sighs and sings, treating laments as messages in a bottle cracked open only in dreams. Another standout in this fantastical regard is “Hicaz Hümâyan Saz Semâisi” by Veli Dede, whose music has intersected with ECM before via Anouar Brahem’s Conte de l’incroyable amour. Its modal beauties are familiar and forever searching, thus proving that, for all its backward glances, Ensemble Supersonus is looking resolutely forward, as I hope we can to a follow-up in the future.

Trio Mediaeval & Arve Henriksen: Rímur (ECM 2520)

Rímur

Trio Mediaeval & Arve Henriksen
Rímur

Anna Maria Friman voice, Hardanger fiddle
Linn Andrea Fuglseth voice, shruti box
Berit Opheim voice
Arve Henriksen trumpet
Recorded February 2016, Himmelfahrtskirche, München
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 3, 2017

If fate would send me around the world
far away from you,
I would yet, with tears, send you a sigh
that belongs to you.

The title of Rímur, Trio Mediaeval’s seventh album for ECM, takes its name from a longstanding tradition of Icelandic rhyming verses, passed down orally from generation to generation until reaching their present incarnations in a program that meshes three distinct voices with a fourth: that of trumpeter Arve Henriksen. In this artful sequence of chants, hymns, and folk songs drawn from Scandinavian sources, the quartet reimagines music as it might have swept across northern landscapes during bygone ages whose histories are renewed in these melodic survivors.

Because improvisation has always been a vital component of Nordic folk tunes, the leaps of intuition required of their interpretation are in-built into the music. And while saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble will draw obvious comparison—and, to be sure, fans of that project will want to own this one as well—it’s very much its own world, tracing a continental fringe that runs crosswise to that ECM classic.

The Icelandic material yields the most ghostly effects—not only because of a certain transparency, but more importantly because of Henriksen’s ability to see in it what few others might. Whether rising like the stream of a quiet fountain in “O Jesu dulcissime,” a highpoint of the disc for its vocal blending and Hardanger fiddle accents, or unraveling inner spirit in “Morgunstjarna,” a hymn to God’s only begotten Son in confirmation of grace, Henriksen reveals unforced harmonies, by turns balladic and martial. Other highlights include the original “Krummi,” the traditional Swedish shanty “Du är den första,” and the anonymous chant “Alma Redemptoris Mater.” In each of these, he extends the wingspan of expectation while yet cooling us in a familiar shade. In his absence, Friman, Fuglseth, and Opheim are spotlighted by a handful of vocal pieces, including some especially evocative material from Norway. Of these, the wedding tune “Brureslått” features some of the most stillness-inducing singing the trio has ever recorded.

At the heart of this recording are substantial hymns to Saints Birgitta (Sweden), Magnus (Orkney), and Sunniva (Norway). The first, by 14th-century Swedish composer Nils Hermansson, epitomizes the dynamics that make Trio Mediaeval such a unique ensemble. The way in which they spin from a single voice a sonority beyond triplicate measure is exquisite, even as Henriksen adds a voice of his own, at first in lockstep then in untethered flight. In the other hymns, they sail equally selfless waters. Would that we were able to turn their metaphorical vessel into a reality, docked far beyond the world’s storehouse of hatred by a braid of divine inspiration.

Elina Duni: Partir (ECM 2587)

Partir

Elina Duni
Partir

Elina Duni voice, piano, guitar, percussion
Recorded July 2017, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard (mastering)
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 27, 2018

We are all departing, bound to be torn away,
one day or another, from what we love.
Here are scenes of departure sung in nine languages.
All we are left with is the unknown ahead of us.

So does Elina Duni describe this intimate new collection of songs. As on her previous outings for ECM, if by different register in being alone, the Albanian singer grabs hold of her roots and squeezes them until tears of personal significance drip into the vessels of her guitar, piano, frame drum, and voice itself.

Domenico Modugno’s “Amara Terra Mia” (Bitter Land of Mine) opens as many doors as the song has words. It’s a film reduced to a single camera and actor, a memory that finds its protagonist severing the umbilical cord of her ancestral home in favor of itineracy. But while there’s as much to be gained as lost from this endeavor, the uncertainty of it all looms over her like a cloud of darkness, her only companion the guitar that gives her a ground upon which to place her vocal step.

On the surface of this and all songs to follow there is a fracture, from which issues a ribbon of nostalgic patterns and color schemes, but which in its unraveling signals an end to things. Such mortality is felt with deep urgency in Alain Oulman’s “Meu Amor” (My Love) and Duni’s own “Let Us Dive In.” In the latter, she holds the piano close to her chest, as if to transfer some of her heartbeat to its material assemblage in the hopes of illuminating something common to both. In the fleshly conflict of Muhammad Abd al Rahim al Masloub’s “Lamma Bada Yatathanna” (When He Was Swaying) and solace-seeking litany of Jacques Brel’s “Je Ne Sais Pas” (I Don’t Know), she dismantles façades of expectation to expose the shadows slumbering behind them. With these she dances in defiance of human contact.

The album’s most resonant chambers house its traditional selections, intersecting with cultural touch-points in Kosovo, Armenia, Macedonia, and Albania. From the separation anxieties of “Vishnja” (The Cherry Tree) and “Lusnak Gisher” (Moonlit Night), both of which share metaphorical affinity with Philip Laskowsky’s “Oyfn Veg” (On the Road), to the dolorous strains of “Vaj Si Kenka” (How) and fleet images of “Schönster Abestärn” (Beautiful Evening Star), Duni broadens her wingspan to ensure total protection when night falls. But few beats of those feathers are as powerful as those sung without accompaniment in “Kanga e Kurbetit” (The Exile Song). Therein, her illustration of exile is itself a form of exile, dividing the self into as many components as possible before putting them together anew, minus the broken pieces.

Sinikka Langeland: The Magical Forest (ECM 2448)

the-magical-forest

Sinikka Langeland
The Magical Forest

Sinikka Langeland kantele, vocals
Arve Henriksen trumpet
Trygve Seim
 soprano and tenor saxophones
Anders Jormin double bass
Markku Ounaskari percussion
Trio Mediæval
Anna Maria Friman vocals
Berit Opheim
vocals
Linn Andrea Fuglseth
 vocals
Recorded February 2015 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: August 5, 2016

On The Magical Forest, Norwegian kantele virtuoso Sinikka Langeland reconvenes her “Starflowers” quintet (with saxophonist Trygve Seim, trumpeter Arve Henriksen, bassist Anders Jormin, and drummer-percussionist Markku Ounaskari), adding to that quilt the patchwork of voices known as Trio Mediæval. Any of these names will be familiar across the spectrum of ECM followers, but their shared love for Scandinavian folk music has never been so clear as in this latest project.

In contrast to previous albums, the kantele is a largely supportive presence, almost airy in its backgrounded-ness. This gives Langeland’s unaffected singing—and, more importantly, the imagery laced into it—room to roam. Of central significance in that regard is the sacredness of space. Not only in the immaterial sense, but also in the physical landscapes of nature at large and their shaping of reality as we’ve come to understand it over millennia of spiritual seeking.

The album’s opening trifecta sets its thematic charge as the rising sun ignites the day into breaking. “Puun Loitsu” (Prayer to the Tree Goddess) is based on a rune song text from the Finnskogen, or Forest Finns, whose migratory settlements in Norway and Sweden have become reliquaries for creation myths and other origin stories, glistening anew in the varnish of Langeland’s diction. The wiry strains of the kantele offer hints of song, which emerges first in monotone before being taken up in Trio Mediæval’s chanting response. “Sammas” crystallizes the running theme in its evocation of the “world pillar” (axis mundi), a column of infinite energy binding Heaven to Earth and circling around the North Star. The lyrics, with their Trinitarian framing, demonstrate one way in which Christian elements have found their way over the centuries into these mystical traditions. The light-bearing qualities of Henriksen’s trumpeting deepen these underlying messages, which “Jacob’s Dream” makes even more apparent. This retelling of the biblical Patriarch’s vision emphasizes the permanence of verticality over the fleetingness of horizontality. The “ladder,” then, is not climbable by the body but constitutes the body itself: a DNA helix spun from godly breath. Once the words are sung, the instrumentalists brilliantly unravel an improvisational second half. Seim’s tenor and Henriksen’s trumpet move in tandem, drawing rungs between them as they travel.

Trees continue to dominate the landscape in “Køyri” and “Karsikko.” The latter, which names a memorial trunk on which the names of the dead are carved, is based on a variant of the hymn “I Know of a Sleep in Jesus’s Name,” and Langeland’s communications with Henriksen make for some picturesque unfolding in both songs. “Pillar to Heaven” likewise strengthens an interconnectedness of things.

As so often happens on a Langeland album, animals figure heavily into the symbolism of The Magical Forest. “The Wolfman” recounts a man named Johan who, according to legend, lived as a wolf yet died as a man. The inseparability of soil and sky resurfaces, as Ounaskari’s cymbals seem to scale the clouds. “Kamui” takes a relatively documentarian turn in its depiction of Hokkaido, Japan’s indigenous Ainu, whose annual ritual killing of a bear cub is described in empathetic detail, while Trio Mediæval intones the titular “Kamui,” an Ainu word meaning “God” and referring to both the sacrifice and the deity honored by it. This leaves only the title track, an instrumental foregrounding the bird-like calls of Seim (now on soprano saxophone) and Henriksen while Jormin’s arco bassing slithers in the underbrush.

All of which makes me think that the album’s title is somewhat misleading. For indeed, what the listener encounters here is not a forest that is magical but a magic that is forested.

(See this article as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine here.)

Nils Økland Band: Kjølvatn (ECM 2383)

Kjølvatn

Nils Økland Band
Kjølvatn

Nils Økland viola d’amore, Hardanger fiddle, violin,
Rolf-Erik Nystrøm alto and baritone saxophones
Sigbjørn Apeland harmonium
Mats Eilertsen double bass
Håkon Mørch Stene percussion, vibraphone
Recorded June 2012, Hoff Church Østre Toten, Norway
Engineer: Audun Strype
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: April 8, 2016

Since his 1996 solo debut, Blå Harding, Norwegian Hardanger fiddler Nils Økland has charted a range of melodic waters, always docking at the intersection of traditional and contemporary music. His relationship with ECM has produced a series of artistic statements, each more cohesive than the last. His first for the label was 2009’s Monograph, a solo album of great scope that led to 2011’s Lysøen, in duet with Sigbjørn Apeland. And now we have Kjølvatn, for which he has assembled a full band under his own name. Apeland rejoins the fray, here playing harmonium, along with saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm, bassist Mats Eilertsen, and percussionist Håkon Mørch Stene. Each has lived in that gray area between folk, jazz, and classical, and funnels his unique experiences into Økland’s sound-world like grains of sand through an hourglass.

Having worked with these musicians for years in some configuration or another (all except Nystrøm played on Bris, released in 2004 on Rune Grammofon), Økland revisits a trove of older material with special familiarity. A look at even a few of the tunes shows the breadth of his network. He wrote “Mali,” for instance, after attending a concert by Swedish rapper Timbuktu. The band’s profiles cohere evocatively in this opening piece, as in the album’s title track, a retroactive score for the 1933 Scottish silent film The Rugged Island. “Undergrunn” (Underground), too, feels quite integrated, arising as it did from a collaboration with the London Sinfonietta around folk motifs. Such diversity of origins suggests that Økland’s influences are as complex and fragmentary as life itself.

NOB
(Photo credit: Ellen Ane Eggen)

Økland employs a variety of open tunings on the album, each of which has its own special name. The “dark blue” tuning (D-D-A-D) is heard on the processional “Drev” (Drifted), wherein are bolded Stene’s percussive colors, and “Start” the so-called “troll tuning” (B-E-B-D#). In the latter, Økland combines ancient structures and modern minimalism, both of which he sees as relying on short motifs multiplied to form larger structures.

Økland has been increasingly inspired by the viola d’amore, which like his mainstay instrument has extra strings that vibrate sympathetically beneath the main four, and on tracks “Puls” and “Skugge” (Shadow) he draws a darker soul from this cousin. In the former piece, the heartbeat is evoked by Stene on kettledrum, while Eilertsen explores kindred frequencies. Over this, a flight from Økland’s bow touches the ocean with a wingtip in search of nesting territory.

Location matters a lot in Kjølvatn, which was recorded at the Hoff stone church in the countryside of Norway’s Oppland county. Økland’s go-to engineer, Audun Strype, captures the church’s resonant bounce, allowing the rougher, more organic aspects of the performance to exude clarity. One may hear this especially in “Fivreld” (Butterfly), an alluring piece of ambience in which the harmonium breathes like sunlight through foliage. Made for a ballet performance at Haugesund Theater in Økland’s hometown, it veritably dances.

Other references to Økland’s past are found in “Blå harding” and “Amstel.” Earlier versions of both appeared on the aforementioned debut. The first is something of a blues dedicated to his Hardanger fiddle teacher Sigbjørn Bernhoft Osa, while the second, which closes out the album, is greener, its organ-like harmonium reminding us of where we are.

Kjølvatn rarely bubbles beyond a simmer, but its flavors are all the purer for it. It’s a significant move in Økland’s career, and exemplifies an artist who, despite denying any underlying message, understands the value of careful construction. And in a way, that is its practice: to create art for its own sake, devoid of political baggage and free to roam in search of new and welcoming ears.

(See this review as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine here.)

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.)