Interview with Levon Eskenian, director of the Gurdjieff Ensemble

As part of a recent feature on the new ECM album by the Gurdjieff Ensemble, featuring the music of Komitas, for RootsWorld online magazine, I had the fortune of interviewing the ensemble’s director, Levon Eskenian. The article also includes a review of the album by Erik Keilholtz. My own review of the album, soon to appear on this site, will feature others parts of that same interview not included for being more specifically related to ECM. In the meantime, click the cover below to read on.

Komitas

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.)

Anja Lechner and Vassilis Tsabropoulos: Chants, Hymns and Dances (ECM New Series 1888)

 

Chants, Hymns and Dances

Anja Lechner cello
Vassilis Tsabropoulos piano
Recorded December 2003, Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt am Main
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The enigmatic sound-world of G. I. Gurdjieff (c.1877-1948) made its first appearance on ECM via the spirited renditions of pianist Keith Jarrett. Now another wizard at the keyboard, Vassilis Tsabropoulos, joins kindred spirit cellist Anja Lechner for a redrawing of old maps alongside the newly discovered continents of Tsabropoulos’s own stilling compositions around Byzantine hymns. The result is less a hybrid and more of a conversation across (and of) time. Harmonically a simple world, it elides the trappings of the social, forging its own divine concept in the grip of ideological binds. Some, like Chant from a Holy Book, build up in intensity as might a raga, spinning from humble beginnings a sustained lyricism that speaks with the language of afterlife. Others maintain that humility throughout, as in Prayer. Tsabrapolous’s approach to these free-floating motives is gently improvisational, and yet the star of every note seems to hold its place in the music’s nightfall. In Duduki, for one, we hear in the pianism a potency of such fragile proportions that Lechner’s cello seems to weep with the passion of a last dance.

The album’s heart also renders a portrait of Tsabrapolous’s, as he gives us his own bridging melodies in the wilting graces of Trois Morceaux après des hymnes byzantinshas. In these Lechner’s exquisite tone glows, threading an emotional line as one might find in an Eleni Karaindrou soundtrack. The playful undertones of Dance then give way to Chant, which is closest to its surroundings in mood. Although elegiac, it is bright with textless voices. More Gurdjieff rounds out program, of which the highlights are the evocative Assyrian Women Mourners and its sister piece, Woman’s Prayer.

Anyone who enjoyed Jarrett’s earlier take on the shape of things will find plenty to open the mind further on Chants. I can hardly imagine an album better suited for ECM’s pioneering programming. It is a quiet, unassuming space that takes nothing for granted, granting as it does all that it has ever received.