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.

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.)

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

Kim Kashkashian: Hayren (ECM New Series 1754)

 

Kim Kashkashian
Hayren

Kim Kashkashian viola
Robyn Schulkowsky percussion
Tigran Mansurian piano, voice
Recorded May 2000 at Teldec Studio, Berlin
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The music of Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian made its first ECM appearance on Alexei Lubimov’s Der Bote. Yet it wasn’t until violist Kim Kashkashian reflected deeply on her own Armenian roots that his sound-world, along with that of the nation’s treasure Komitas (a.k.a. Soghomon Soghomonian, 1869-1935), came into its deserved own. The result is a fortuitous one, not least because of Kashkashian’s unwavering dedication to her instrument and its limitless possibilities. Hayren interlocks Mansurian’s earthen sensitivities with Komitas’s visionary roots for a blend that is at once supra-paradigmatic and forged on a shared oral connection between those who perform and the very earth on which they stand. The program’s title deliberately evokes the poetic style much revered in Armenia, and the implications could hardly be more appropriate, for while Mansurian is like a brittle page, Komitas’s typography is bold and crisp.

Although the album is made up mostly of chamber pieces such as Havik, in which the viola seems on the verge of losing its foothold, surprises await us Mansurian not only takes to the piano but also adds his actual voice into the rippling waters of his surroundings. The polished arrangements encase every raw lullaby in a lantern, such that the quietude of songs like Garun a feels like the shadow of the dying light of Krunk. His is not a voice to be praised for its technical prowess, but one to languish in for its unabashed descriptiveness. Mansurian seems to mimic Kashkashian’s gravelly emotions, if not the other way around. This is music that flirts with pitch as the wind might with a tree branch: no matter how much it bends, its essential form remains intact. One can say the same for Chinar es, which feels on the verge of utter collapse from the weight of its openness. And it is a fine musician indeed who can become even more vocal in her instrumental rendition of Krunk, which while timorous is by virtue of its lilt a caress on whatever part of the brain is activated when we read moving literature. After an alluring piano solo in Oror, sounding like a plaintive interlude in an Eleni Karaindrou soundtrack, Kashkashian and percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky untie every subtle knot to be found in Mansurian’s Duet for viola and percussion. What starts as a soulful postlude burrows into an 18-minute cavern of living darkness. The melodies are self-aware, dented by marimbas and gongs, and point like a compass needle to the truest north that is incantation.

Hayren is an album that will likely require repeated listening. As for myself, I can only say it has grown with me into a rich and multilayered carving. Not unlike life itself, it is narrated by a thousand cryptic asides for every direct proclamation, and through this disparity achieves a mature sort of unity that is nothing if not honest.

Kashkashian always brings a personal dimension to her playing and perhaps nowhere more so than here. The intimacy of her interpretations is only enhanced by those of Mansurian, who continues to open our ears to the possibility of what lies already locked behind those cochlear doors.

Kim Kashkashian: Neharót (ECM New Series 2065)

 

Neharót

Kim Kashkashian viola
Münchener Kammerorchester
Alexander Liebreich conductor
Boston Modern Orchestra Project
Gil Rose conductor
Kuss Quartett
Recorded between 2006 and 2008 in the USA, Poland, and Germany
Engineers: Peter Laenger, Lech Dudzik, Gabriela Blicharz, Joel Gordon, John Newton, Blanton Alspaugh
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Neharót Neharót (2006/7) for viola solo, accordion, percussion, two string ensembles and tape by Israeli composer Betty Olivero opens a haunting album from violist Kim Kashkashian. It is a slow awakening—not into light, but into twilight—and swells with the wounds of fresh tragedy. Kashkashian arrives as if by wind and with the raw imperfection of an unpreened bird. The tone and feeling are not unlike that of John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil at its tensest moments. The strings roil like turgid waters in which eddy the relics of an unseen war. Two women’s voices reach into the storm with tendrils of mimicry. This call and response blossoms into a profound moment of rupture, at which point the orchestra and percussion spill over one another. Fragments of the audible past come through as snatches of Monteverdi quoted from his Orpheus and eighth book of madrigals. These recycled motifs are like a dream that quickly consumes itself before waking again. The viola rises in their place, seeming to run around frantically in search of the voices that so enlivened it. When they are nowhere to be found, the outcast wallows in the hopes that nightfall will be her cloak. But then the voices come back: the viola prostrates itself, fearing to expend the ancestral legacy it breathes. It wants nothing more than to offer gratitude, but can only contort itself into a vowel of need.

After such a profoundly draining journey, the three Armenian selections that follow are a welcome rest, though one not without its internal travels. Tigran Mansurian gives us his Tagh for the Funeral of the Lord for viola and percussion, Three Arias (Sung out the window facing Mount Ararat) (2008), and Oror, a lullaby by Komitas (1869-1935) arranged and performed here by Mansurian at the piano. The “tagh” is an ancient Armenian song, and Mansurian’s breathes with organic vitality. Its lament echoes across cold plains, the percussion a mere accent to the viola-driven melody. The Three Arias are essentially a series of orchestral swells with viola interludes, an audio essay of the music’s own origins and possible futures. The viola acts like a lens over a film sheet, trying to find the one picture that most clearly articulates something that can only be remembered through image, but that can only be musically described. The viola struggles with an unseen force in spite of its orchestral inheritance. A dazzling ending is made all the more so for the effort required of us to get there. And this is precisely what the piece is about: seeking out those moments that, in a life remembered, also define that life most clearly. Mansurian’s interludes are like the passage between two days, a conduit between continents and cultures, a subtle diaspora of sound.

And so, by the time we return to Israel in Eitan Steinberg’s Rava Deravin (2003) for viola and string quartet (the tile means “Favor of Favors”), we feel more fully prepared for any and all emotional obstacles. The piece was originally scored for voice and a mixed chamber ensemble, but was transcribed as the current version at Kashkashian’s behest; hence the accordion-like opening harmonics that speak of bellowed breath. Yet even before the music begins, the instrumentation tells us so much about what we are about to hear. We know the viola soloist has a second self, a ghost presence amid its accompanying quartet, and yet here it is at once extracted and embedded in its periphery, singing with its own voice even while knowing it has been long aligned with the larger organism behind it. When the quartet takes a more syncopated stance, we never lose sight of the abstract milieu in which it is situated. The viola must resign itself to self-division, and toward the end it squeals and scatters snake-like through tall grasses of harmonics. The music dies not by lowering itself in volume, but by pushing us away so gradually that by the time we notice the music has gone, we are already too far away to catch up with it.

Were the orchestra to be analogized as body, the viola would most certainly be the throat, for the vibrations of song rattle its chambers more than those of any other. In this respect, Kashkashian has given more lucid breath to this recording than to any other she has made. She only seems to get better with every draw of her bow, and her dedication once again remains paramount. This is a cohesive program of some of the most original music to come out of ECM in a long time. Not to be missed.