Robin Williamson: Trusting In The Rising Light (ECM 2393)

Trusting In The Rising Light

Robin Williamson
Trusting In The Rising Light

Robin Williamson vocals, Celtic harp, guitar, hardanger fiddle, whistles
Mat Maneri viola
Ches Smith vibraphone, drums, gongs, percussion
Recorded January 2014, Rockfield Studios, Monmouth
Engineer: Steve Lowe
Assistant engineer: Tim Lewis
Mastering: Christoph Stickel and Steve Lake
Produced by Steve Lake

Robin Williamson, perhaps the last true bard on earth, returns with Trusting In The Rising Light. Following a string of intimate programs setting the words of famous poets to music (among them Dylan Thomas, Walt Whitman, and William Blake), he now dips a quill into his own inkwell and scrawls a masterful new ream of originals. Ten years separate this recording from its predecessor on ECM, The Iron Stone, but the wait has been well worth it, not least of all for the contributions of his fellow session musicians. From that last album he retains violist Mat Maneri and to this nexus adds drummer-percussionist Ches Smith. The result is an attuned, free jazz-folk session that feels at once long overdue and just right for its time.

RW

I caught up via e-mail with the album’s producer, Steve Lake, who described how the project came together:

“I’d been in touch with Robin over the years, and hadn’t realized that so much time had elapsed since The Iron Stone—the clichés about time moving faster as we age are true. In autumn 2013 he said he was in a period of writing lots of songs and read me the lyrics to ‘Trusting In The Rising Light’ and ‘Swan’ over the phone. It seemed like the moment for a new album. Robin said he wanted to work with Mat Maneri again, which of course was fine with me. I talked with [ECM head] Manfred Eicher about a possible vibraphone player for the session and Ches Smith’s name came up. It struck me as a good idea since I knew that Ches had formed a new trio with Mat and Craig Taborn. So inside the Williamson line-up there were two proven associations, Robin/Mat and Ches/Mat. With this as a basis we could confidently get to work.”

Where some voices crack and smolder with age, Williamson’s is like a fine sword: it only gets stronger the more it’s folded in its malleable state. And while he has always engaged larger questions of conviction, politics, love, and sense of place, on Trusting he seems far more content to dwell on the little things: spending time with a loved one, the fundamental pleasures of observation, and, as the album’s title implies, faith in life’s givens and regularities. As a romantic, he is lyrical yet realistic. He seems well aware that the limits of his control extend not much farther beyond his own body and the words and music it produces.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the title song, which turns on a movie with no opening credits. Here is one who stands at harbor, watching the rise and fall of the waves and knowing that some things are better left to their own rhythm:

In every man-hewn stone
The anchored voices murmur
Long long
What they have always to say
As to what of our life
When whence and whither
We born of woman
Born of the Great Mystery

Being a relatively new yet enthusiastic fan, I asked Lake to place the album in the larger context of Williamson’s decades-long career. “It’s a high point,” he answered, “but if I look at Robin’s discography there are a lot of high points, including albums on his own Pig’s Whisker label which too few people have heard (if you can find them I recommend Ring Dance, At The Pure Fountain, and Dream Journals). Robin’s been a working musician for almost sixty years but has never been exactly career-minded. His musical and literary interests carry him forward and as a result he has had, I would guess, a richer and more interesting life than many who have made the career a priority. Trusting in the way of the waves, as he says in the title track…”

Accompanying these sentiments—in truth, embodying them—is Williamson’s trusty harp. Despite being prone to putting on magical airs, at his fingertips it is not an instrument of spells and incantations. Over the years it has become burnished like a well-worn table at which countless meals have taken place. And there, among the dishes and scratched spoons are those same rhythms of life, having left their hieroglyphics behind for deciphering. As he blossoms in a wave of strings, crashing on the shores of a dawn not so far away, he provides confirmation that in the good work one can be grateful for the opportunity to engage with land and sea, to know that it will all be waiting on the other side of slumber.

Whether through the droning raga of “Our Evening Walk,” in which love begets love, or the heartfelt wonder of “Alive Today,” in which Williamson takes comfort in something as insignificant as the flap of a bird’s wings, such assurances thread every song that follows with the knowledge that all those things we rely on will be there for us, in light or darkness. Sometimes, as in “Falling Snow,” his romance is with the universe at large, pulling together time and space like a massive proof of emotional and spiritual relativity. At others, it is undeniably close to home, calling his wife Bina by name as he does in the sensuously realized “Your Kisses.” For the most part, however, Williamson looks either down at “These Hands Of Mine” or back along the “Roads” that led him to where he stands. The former tune features a jaunty guitar while the latter’s commentating viola weaves in and out of the loom. In both, the feeling of departure is constant, arrival questionable. And in “The Cards,” a song loosely based on a traditional Irish air “The Coolin” but otherwise ad-libbed in the studio, he offers a cautionary tale against prediction, trusting in reality instead of relying on dreams or elusive signs. Accompanied only by guitar, elastic and supportive of any and all possibilities, he contemplates this dance in what he calls the “soul of souls.” It’s as if he were at a bar alone, the last dart thrown along with last call, but it’s the kind of draft of which every sip tastes as good as the first.

Sitting with this album is like traveling somewhere for a while, much as the musicians did just to bring it all together. Lake sets up the scene:

“Rockfield is a residential studio deep in the Welsh countryside with a long history of recording especially rock music. When we arrived, Mott The Hoople were just finishing a mixing session. We spoke briefly with them. It was slightly odd, almost time-warp inducing, to be in the same room with Mott and Mat Maneri, but strange juxtapositions belong to the journey. I liked living at the studio and had some interesting talks with its owner Kingsley Ward about his early life as a session musician working for Joe Meek in London. There’s a lot of idiosyncratic recording knowledge concentrated at Rockfield. For the session with Robin the mood was positive, friendly and committed. Robin had some songs mapped out on which Mat and Ches were given directives and specific things to play, mostly with some improvisational freedom. And there were some pieces that were wide open to improvising, particularly ‘Just West Of Monmouth,’ ‘Night Comes Quick In LA,’ ‘Swan’ and ‘Islands Of The Inner Firth.’”

The latter songs rest somewhere between speech and singing and flower in freely improvised settings. “Youth burns brighter than neon,” he sings in “Night Comes Quick In LA,” a cynical, bird’s-eye view of superficiality gone rotten in the valley. The beat poetry aesthetic only adds to the acuteness of his poet’s eye. In “Just West Of Monmouth,” Williamson nestles himself in a gravelly accompaniment of percussion, whistles, and bows, unspooling his tale of creation in the rustle of underbrush and thirsty plains. Next is a sojourn into “The Islands Of The Inner Firth,” where awaits the mirror into which we must all someday look:

Now in the October of my life
I trace
Beloved and well remembered shore
Your stony verge
You cold and turbulent Scots water
In memory I trace
My kindly haunted past

So begins a summation of a creation and a new beginning of memory strung like a bead on a necklace that is forever growing to fit the thickening neck of experience. And before him is the pond where swims the eternal “Swan,” who joins her “world self / Where air and water meet.” Let us hope that Williamson’s swan has a long time yet before it sings.

(See this article as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine, where you can also hear sample clips. To hear more of Trusting In The Rising Light, click here.)

Jormin/Willemark/Nakagawa: Trees Of Light (ECM 2406)

Trees Of Light

Lena Willemark voice, fiddle and viola
Anders Jormin double bass
Karin Nakagawa 25-string koto
Recorded May 2013, Konstepidemin, Göteborg
Engineer: Johannes Lundberg
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

Angels
Childangels
Opportunities come with the rainbow
and the children
Sing to us
so our hearts come back to us!

Anders Jormin returns to ECM with yet another surprising blend of multi-genre elements. The Swedish bassist welcomes folksinger Lena Willemark and, in her ECM debut, virtuoso of the 25-string koto Karin Nakagawa in settings and improvisations around Willemark’s poetry, sung in her native Älvdals dialect. Jormin has always been one for self-reinvention, and on Trees Of Light he has stepped into some of his most ambitious territory yet. Not because of any sense of scope (although the trio does evoke some rather expansive scenery), but because the import of every gesture is magnified in such an intimate setting.

Yet it’s Willemark, absent from the label since Jormin’s 2004 In winds, in light, who crafts the center of the current project. Her words and melodies inform every song of the program, with the sole exception of Jormin’s instrumental “Hirajoshi.” The latter piece’s title refers to the hirajōshi mode of pentatonic (plus semi-tonal) tuning in which it is played and foregrounds the koto’s dry-wing rasp, percussive accents, and open field. When Nakagawa sweeps her hands over its waters as Willemark’s viola and Jormin’s arco bass sing their way into union, the trio captures something ancient in its hands.

Around this wordless center flows a veritable ecosystem of dreams, recollections, and impressions. It’s not simply that jazz, Swedish folk, and traditional Japanese music are melding into something new. Rather, it’s that they are speaking to one another in the interest of honest friendship. Both the title and music of “Krippainggler” (If you listen) best exemplify this philosophy, as each musician occupies her or his place. Where Willemark’s voice is like the reed and Jormin’s bass is the riverbed, Nakagawa draws the waterline between them in a song of angels and resuscitation of life forces.

TOL

Pairings occur naturally throughout. Nakagawa and Jormin sometimes beckon their vocal traveling companion as if she were the sun itself, while at others koto and voice share ululations and whispers. Spotlight moments also abound, as when Nakagawa proves her improvising strengths in “Urbanus” or Willemark sings alone on “Minni” (Memories), an arresting segment of horizon. Whatever the mood, the listener can be sure to feel it wholeheartedly. “Ogadh Dett” (Your eye), for one, opens with a bass solo that is muscular yet somehow gentle, giving way as it does to the koto’s fairytale strains and taking lyric comfort in the warmth of unbroken regard. “Uoruo” (Worry), for another, walks the way of sorrow as if it were the clearest path of all.

And perhaps there is some truth here: that which leaves the deepest scar is also the easiest to follow, so that even when we are dancing, as in the title track or the “Slingerpolska” (Winding polska), somewhere in the back of our minds we know that we will end up alone, and all the stronger for it.

I am still standing where I left me
I walk on as another
See that the earth is still there
Still there
That I must remember
I have loved

(To hear samples of Trees Of Light, click here.)

Savina Yannatou & Primavera en Salonico: Songs of Thessaloniki (ECM 2398)

Songs of Thessaloniki

Savina Yannatou
Primavera en Salonico
Songs of Thessaloniki

Savina Yannatou voice
Kostas Vomvolos qanun, accordion
Yannis Alexandris oud, guitar
Kyriakos Gouventas violin
Harris Lambrakis nay
Michalis Siganidis double bass
Kostas Theodorou percussion
Recorded February 2014 at Sierra Studios, Athens
Engineers: Yiorgos Kariotis and Yannis Paxevanis
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Songs of Thessaloniki marks the fourth appearance of Greek singer Savina Yannatou and her second-nature ensemble Primavera en Salonico. Characterized by the artists as “canvases for our imagination to create contemporary narratives on old myths,” the songs gathered here make for an appropriately multicultural portrait of Thessaloniki, a city where Orient and Occident have long blended at a crossroads of actions, peoples, and politics—a city, incidentally, Yannatou’s band calls home. Most importantly for the purposes documented here, it was a place where music could always be heard and can now be heard again.

When the first strains of “Apolitikion Agiou Dimitriou” caress your ear— strings, bellows, and lungs yielding Yannatou’s lullaby out of time— you may just feel at home as well. As a Greek hymn of St. Demetrius, patron saint of Thessaloniki, it paints a door deepest blue and welcomes us as we are. Ironically enough, and with exception of this hymn (and its instrumental variation which concludes the album), the Greek material on this album is tepid by comparison to its extra-cultural counterparts, even as it draws vital connective tissue between the same.

SY

Thessaloniki’s historical influx of Sephardic Jews (Thessaloniki was, in fact, once known as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans”) is reflected in a formidable assortment. These songs especially reflect the arranging skills of Kostas Vomvolos, who also plays accordion and qanun throughout the recording. Yannatou’s chameleonic abilities have rarely sounded so organic as they do here. Whether in the childlike whispers of “A la scola del Allianza” or the qanun-accompanied “Una muchacha en Selanica,” she finds rawness of emotion in the simplest phrase and, by contrast, treads ever so lightly on danger—as in “La cantiga del fuego,” which tells of a great fire that swept the city in 1917.

More intense theatrics wait in the wings of “Dimo is Solum hodeshe,” a Bulgarian example that finds accordion, violin, and nay in artful concert. Two Turkish tunes, one as hymn and the other as folksong, give further context to Yannatou’s intrepid singing. In “Iptidadan yol sorarsan,” voice and nay practically become one, Yannatou sounding more like the flute, and vice versa, while halting rhythms and surreal beauties in the violin make “Çalin Davullari” a standout sojourn. There’s even an Irish folksong, “Salonika,” which dances, tongue-in-cheek, in the midst of war.

Yet few moments can approach the mastery of “Inchu Bingyole mdar?” and “Qele-qele,” both collected by the great Armenian composer Komitas. In both, the oud makes grander statements of purpose as it sweeps away the sand at Yannatou’s feet, allowing her to process into the distance, where, like the ancient Serbian tree of “Jelena Solun Devojko,” she stands until she dispels specters of violent pasts by virtue of her keening ways.

(To hear samples of Songs of Thessaloniki, click here.)

Sinikka Langeland: The half-finished heaven (ECM 2377)

2377 X

Sinikka Langeland
The half-finished heaven

Sinikka Langeland kantele, vocals
Lars Anders Tomter viola
Trygve Seim tenor saxophone
Markku Ounaskari percussion
Recorded January 2013 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Sinikka Langeland is that rare artist whose albums feel as if they’ve always been with us, only it takes the divine intervention of recording them to make them perceivable in this dimension. As a virtuoso of the kantele, a Finnish table harp of the psaltery family, she is unparalleled. As a singer and composer, likewise. Yet beyond her physiological understanding of the relationship between text and arrangement, beyond her sonic woodblock printing of an ancient yet personal mythology, it is her willingness to grow into new territory with every project that makes her visions feel so ingrained. And in that respect she continues her rainbow chase toward the achievement of a settled style, freshening the colors of that spectrum by virtue of her very own.

SL

Langeland owes her evolution in part to the respect of collaborating musicians, whom over the years have grown and changed as the seasons. Out of previous ECM sessions she retains, from Maria’s Song (one of her most unexpected and shatteringly magnetic creations), violist Lars Anders Tomter and, from The Land That Is Not, saxophonist Trygve Seim and percussionist Markku Ounaskari. The idea for this album had been brewing since her debut with the label, after which producer Manfred Eicher suggested a solo kantele outing with minimal singing. The half-finished heaven is the compromise: a program of mostly instrumentals from which three songs rise like spruce trees against a listening sky.

The words come from Nobel Prize-winner Tomas Tranströmer, whose naturalist poetry also gives the album its name. The instrumental set-up of the title song feels like sitting down for a meal with someone you can only hope to see again. The sting of finality in the air is as strong as the drink at your lips as you try to focus on the good memories, which come marching through to the beat of Ounaskari’s snare. There is an intensely cinematic quality to the scene before Langeland silences the cameras with her vocal truth. “Each man is a half-open door,” she sings, “leading to a room for everyone,” and with that single statement the world awakens to the possibility of enjoying the God-given light in peace with others.

In captivation of rising arpeggios from the kantele, “The light streams in” unfolds far less checkered table cloths of expectation:

Outside the window, the long beast of spring
the transparent dragon of sunlight
rushes past like an endless
suburban train—we never got a glimpse of its head.

Langeland’s music is inherently attuned to just this sort of spatial and temporal mixture. Every touch of her instrument thus produces an observational moment, bending notes like branches aching with fruit. Ensnared as they are by sunlight so intense that it “makes the statues blink,” Tomter’s grave double stops drag arms along a wasted earth once filled with beautiful mourning yet which is now only mournfully beautiful. And just over the album’s central cusp is “The tree and the sky,” which at surface level links its titular metaphor to us and nature, while at the biological level erasing any distinction between the two. The viola moves like that tree, an Ent-like presence living out of time but in deep connection to all things material. Langeland’s (bene)diction here is a fairytale come to life for those who will believe it.

In the absences of words, we gain knowledge of absences. Throughout the opening “Hare rune,” for instance, we may notice that Ounaskari’s forested drum speaks as much to the effect of branches as to the sky feathered between them. Even the kantele—in this case, a 15-string version—twirls its ribbons of mercury to draw attention to the resulting chain of circles. Seim’s breathy tenor, meanwhile, sounds like an animal horn blown from a great distance, so that by the time it reaches us it is barely clinging to its note. “The blue tit’s spring song” is another 15-stringed tune, one that features goblet drum for a distinctly brighter sound.

With the additional exception of “Hymn to the fly,” a miniature played on 10 strings, the rest of the album features the 39-string concert kantele, which like a piano is equipped with a sustain pedal that allows for longer decay. Such capabilities of resonance enhance “The white burden,” an old piece from 1978 now making its first appearance on record, but more so the album’s faunal illustrations. Whether trailing feathers in “The woodcock’s flight” and “Caw of the crane” or reveling with “The magical bird” (modeled after a traditional polsdans from Finnskogen), each plucked string is hollow-boned and attuned to any change in wind direction. As in the delightful “Animal miniatures,” we may feel the way of every flit and burrowing.

To hear Langeland, be it through strings or song, is to be healed and know the way of holistic music. Like the ancient materia medica, her runic ways turn plants into cures and animals into protections. She is by no exaggeration a living treasure, and this may just be her most invaluable relic yet.

(To hear samples of The half-finished heaven, click here.)

Benedicte Maurseth/Åsne Valland Nordli: Over Tones (ECM 2315)

Over Tones

Over Tones

Benedicte Maurseth Hardanger fiddle, voice
Åsne Valland Nordli voice
Recorded May 2011 at Strype Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Audun Strype
Production coordination: Guido Gorna
An ECM Production

Over Tones is among a recent crop of ECM recordings featuring young duos playing some of the most absorbing music from the label in years. Unlike the unexpected microscopy of Vilde&Inga or the cavernous implosions of Kappeler/Zumthor, however, the interests of Benedicte Maurseth and Åsne Valland Nordli gravitate toward the traditional folk music of their native Norway. Both hail, in fact, from Hardanger, after which the fiddle at Maurseth’s fingertips was named. The instrument has had its finest advocacy on the label so far from Nils Økland, but Maurseth and Nordli are special for adding their own singing to its sympathetic strings. That they once worked regularly with Berit Opheim (now a fulltime member of the Trio Mediaeval) should come as no surprise once you hear the clarity of their voices. So effective was their overlap that they paired forces in this seamless program of old and new music, and it makes a welcome addition to ECM’s new directions.

Over Portrait
(Photo credit: Ingvil Skeie Ljones)

While this album will speak most directly to fans of Økland’s premodern sets, and despite the fact that Hardanger fiddling is very much its own entity, those familiar with the alpine visions of Swiss violinist Paul Giger (see, for example, Alpstein, to which I have also compared Økland’s Lysøen) will find much to admire in the duo’s free improvisations. “Overtone” in particular expands on likeminded impulses of dance and drone with the fleshiness of human voices. “Ales” is another silhouette of externalized thought in which history appears as a glowing exchange between the self and its double. In this sense, Nordli’s purely vocal presence is an integral part of the music’s solution and dissolution, for its power may carry us out softly on a woven raft even as it readies the next one.

Norwegian folk singing, known as kveding, encompasses a range of styles and encourages the performer’s spontaneous detailing, but in the context of Over Tones its core religious aspects are lovingly foregrounded. Despite appearing in lyric form on only two songs culled from the villages of Luster, in western Norway, the overtly redemptive themes of “Jesus gjør meg stille” and “Kilden” turn also on the instrumental axes of the duo’s original tunes. The origins of Maurseth’s opening “Adle,” for one, are unquestionably divine in origin. The patience with which its harmonic-only melody turns the fiddle into a choir of glass is like seeing the moonlight through a forest canopy, but knowing it speaks in a dialect of sun. And Nordli’s own “Veverskens tid” matches the fiddle’s keening heart with a leaping vocal act that pulls relics from the past in the manner of a bird catching worms.

Any secular inclinations are to be found in two traditional dances from the southern valley of Setesdal. The combination of human-possessed and human-made instruments lends three-dimensionality to every step and shows that each, like the musicians themselves, has a little of one in the other.

(To hear samples of Over Tones, click here.)

Jean-Louis Matinier & Marco Ambrosini: Inventio (ECM 2348)

Inventio

Inventio

Jean-Louis Matinier accordion
Marco Ambrosini nyckelharpa
Recorded April 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Lara Persia
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Although French accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier and Marco Ambrosini, Italian virtuoso of the nyckelharpa (a Swedish traditional instrument that is something of a cross between hurdy-gurdy and vielle), have existed as a duo since 2008, it took a period of refinement and an invitation to record for ECM Records in 2013 before their music at last saw the digital light of day. Anyone who has followed the career of Anouar Brahem in the 21st century will have encountered Matinier alongside the Tunisian oudist on 2002’s Le pas du chat noir and 2006’s Le Voyage de Sahar. Ambrosini is recognized as a leading proponent of the nyckelharpa and has carried that instrument in fresh directions across a varied terrain of recordings. Matinier has elsewhere characterized his musical relationship with Ambrosini as “a total dialogue,” and the description could hardly be more appropriate. They complete each other’s sentences.

Inventio Duo

The first strains of “Wiosna,” among the lion’s share of tracks penned by Matinier, immediately recall another duo: Argentine bandoneonista Dino Saluzzi and German cellist Anja Lechner. Both partnerships are savvy in terms of rhythm and atmosphere, morphing from tears into triumph at a moment’s notice. And yet, if Saluzzi and Lechner could be said to treat the listener like a canvas, Matinier and Ambrosini treat the listener like a movie screen on which to project moving images. This analogic difference comes about through both a distinct timbral palette and an unprecedented program. It is virtuosic and gorgeous all the same, but in its own way indivisible.

Matinier’s writing comprises a folk music all its own. Whether in the cartographic flybys of “Hommage” and “Kochanie Moje” or in the briefer passages of “Taïga” and “Balinese,” an underlying pulse finds consummation in the musicians’ synergy, which is so seamless that it’s sometimes difficult to tell where one instrument ends and the other begins. Even in Matinier’s two solo tracks, the nyckelharpa’s droning spirit lingers. Of those solos, “Szybko” is particularly moving and brings to mind the flute playing of Guo Yue. Like the “Siciliènne” (by accordionist-composer André Astier) that closes the album, his are fleeting portraits of places out of time. Also out of time are Ambrosini’s own compositions, through which the nyckelharpa’s sympathetic strings resonate like a life force. His “Basse Dance” best exploits the duo’s interlocking sound and might just as well have been lifted from a Renaissance manuscript. In this context the nyckelharpa sounds like a viola da gamba and signals the titular dance with a locomotive pulse. His “Tasteggiata” and “Tasteggiata 2” are likewise steam-driven, chugging through a full spectrum of color.

The album’s circle rounds out with segments plucked from a tangle of Baroque repertoire by Giovanni Pergolesi, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, and Johann Sebastian Bach. A “Presto” from the latter’s g-minor sonata for solo violin is reborn at Ambrosini’s fingertips, which imbue this familiar piece with an ancient air, while the “Inventio 4” from Bach’s Two- and Three-part Inventions yields not only the album’s title but also its most luminescent notecraft. Folk touches from Ambrosini again pull this music into a deeper origin myth. Such integrations make the Baroque selections something much more than obligatory nods to an established canon. Their placement stirs the waters with a certain depth of interpretation that links them to a chain across borders.

(See this review as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine and listen to samples here.)

Review of Inventio for RootsWorld

My latest review for RootsWorld online magazine is of Jean-Louis Matinier and Marco Ambrosini’s Inventio. For what it’s worth, this is so far (and by far) my favorite ECM release of the 21st century. No exaggeration. Click the cover to read my review and hear samples of this phenomenal album.

Inventio

The Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble: Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff (ECM 2236)

GFIE

The Gurdjieff Folk Instruments Ensemble
Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff

Emmanuel Hovhannisyan duduk
Avag Margaryan blul
Armen Ayvazyan kamancha
Aram Nikoghosyan oud
Levon Torosyan oud
Meri Vardanyan kanon
Vladimir Papikyan santur
Davit Avagyan tar
Mesrop Khalatyan dap, dhol
Armen Yeganyan saz
Reza Nesimi tombak
Harutyun Chkolyan duduk
Tigran Karapetyan duduk
Artur Atoyan dam duduk
Levon Eskenian director
Recorded November and December 2008 at Teryan Studio, Public Radio of Armenia, Yerevan
Recording producer: Levon Eskenian
Engineers: Armen Yeganyan and Khatchig Khatchadourian
Mastered by ECM at MSM Studio, Munich
Album produced by Manfred Eicher

The music of esoteric spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff has been a lucid, if sporadic, touchstone of ECM set lists since Sacred Hymns, released in 1980. Keith Jarrett’s solo album was an appropriate place to begin such an association, as Gurdjieff’s inner melodies were made available to the outer world through the piano transcriptions of his student, Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann. Music was an integral part of Gurdjieff’s teachings, and much of his oeuvre of over 300 pieces came from a place unknown. The energy of his melodies molded the skeleton of its own sacred geometry, and to have an entire ensemble of musicians dedicating their musical lives to casting its patterns across the oceans is a gift, pure and simple.

On a mission of his own to nuance this romantic vision is Levon Eskenian, whose program draws from Gurdjieff’s experiences in lands where the instruments of this ensemble would have been heard in context, singing of the earth even while soaring above it. Eskenian and his talented musicians thus shine Gurdjieff’s light through the prism of the traditions he would have encountered as an itinerant (anti-)ascetic. There is an unmitigated sensibility at work in their extraction of the Armenian, Greek, Arabic, Kurdish, Assyrian, and Caucasian sources Eskenian heard echoing in Gurdjieff’s music. At last, we can experience them in interlocking contrast.

Four pieces link to cellist Anja Lechner and pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos’s Chants, Hymns and Dances, the 2004 album which took Gurdjieff as starting point for improvisational pathways. Excepting the brightly inflected “Bayaty,” the present versions put the Armenian double-reed duduk at the center of the picture. The “Chant from a Holy Book” places three duduk alongside a single oud. Structured as a tagh, or Armenian sacred song, its cantabile enchantment opens the program at dusk. In comparison to the previously recorded reading, this one suspends itself, rendering the oud a current of wind beneath feathers. “Duduki” adds to this instrumental configuration the dap, or Persian frame drum. With such flexible tension in tow, the melody coheres by way of a mournful finality, even as it extends back toward infancy. Four duduk and one dap form the evocative palette of “Assyrian Women Mourners,” which is as cleansing as it is heart-wrenching.

Some tunes ply the trade of ancient dances. Two selections from Gurdjieff’s Asian Songs and Rhythms explore the ensemble’s percussive capabilities to the fullest. Combining Armenian motifs and spontaneous creation, they allow insight into the meta-level of it all: We can hear Eskenian hearing Gurdjieff hearing something in the world. Others, like the “Caucasian Dance,” draw from a rainbowed palette, relaying ecstatic flights and contemplative landings. Elsewhere, as in the “Sayyid Chant and Dance No. 10,” amalgamations of Greek, Sephardic, and Andalusian influences abound. In these compressions, the receiving body becomes a sheet of paper folded until its resistance as a single molecule can no longer be doubled.

The most transformative moments are reserved for the Kurdish tunes: a “Shepherd Melody,” played on instruments used by shepherds, and the “Atarnakh, Kurd Song,” which traverses continents in single bounds yet with a quiet dignity that feels as effortless as a cloud. At the heart of all this stands a “Prayer” played solo on the kanon zither. By its sounding a nameless portal opens, through which the hesitation of spiritual experience flees into the darkest corners of the mind.

In the album’s booklet, composer Tigran Mansurian describes a silence at the core of this music. Indeed, it moves to what Gurdjieff called the “swing of thought,” that unquantifiable rhythm by which flesh and spirit dance their eternal dance. These sounds are shadows of those movements, and in them is the key to a door, behind which glows the solace of another key.

(To hear samples of Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff, click here.)