A World Music Magazine

"Komitas is always in the heart of Armenian musicians and Armenians in general."

Levon Eskenian is an Armenian composer and pianist who was born in Lebanon. With The Gurdjieff Ensemble he explores the deep well of Armenian music as imagined by the priest, musicologist and composer Komitas. Erik Keilholtz reviews Eskenian's latest recording and Tyran Grillo talks with him about his music.

The Gurdjieff Ensemble

The Gurdjieff Ensemble
Under the direction of Levon Eskenian

Levon Eskenian

Levon Eskenian
The RootsWorld Interview
with Tryan Grillo

The piano is a magnificent instrument: hundreds of pounds of cast iron in a wooden box, capable of quiet shimmerings as well as thunderous chords. An orchestra of one, limited only by the number of fingers available to attack it at any one time. "How many bassists does it take to change a lightbulb?" the classic joke asks, "none. The pianist can do it with his left hand."

Naturally, with these advantages, Komitas, the great Armenian priest-ethnomusicologist-composer, could hardly resist setting his music to this instrument. After all, if he was to bring Armenian music to Western ears, the instrument found in almost all Western parlors was the logical choice.

However, as with any technology, the advantages come with some trade-offs, and those of the piano are considerable: timbral monotony, no true sustain, no vibrato, limitation to equal 12 temperament (not to mention discrete note steps), and, as is the case with any instrument, its own idioms that developed due to the limits of the human hand and the layout of the keyboard. So, while Komitas's pieces are magnificent piano compositions, they necessarily compromise various aspects of the original source music.

Enter Levon Eskenian and the Gurdjieff Ensemble, whose 2011 ECM release, The Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff took the music of the famous mystic and ethnomusicologist back to the instruments of Gurdjieff's sources. In Komitas (ECM), the Gurdjieff Ensemble turns the music of the "savior of Armenian music" towards its roots, with pogh (flute), zurna (a double reed instrument), duduk (another double reed instrument, but having a sound much like a clarinet), tmbuk (large double-headed drum), dhol (small double-headed drum), dap (frame drum), burvar (censer with bells), kshots (silver plate with jingles), oud (lute), kanon (zither), santur (hammered dulcimer), and kamancha (bowed string instrument).

Taken back to the Armenian instruments of its origin, these pieces still should be seen as through-composed works of Komitas rather than actual examples of the folkloric sources, as they were filtered through his transcription process and western art music training (Komitas studied the polyphonic renderings of Armenian liturgical music in Tiflis, then with German musicologists in Berlin). They are, however, no less absorbing and beautiful as a result.

"Msho Shoror" (excerpt)

From the twisting, melismatic melodies of the pogh to the bright timbre of the zurna and the various drums, these pieces range from meditative to rousing, often using both moods in the same piece, as they do in "Msho Shoror", which opens with an almost martial dance section, then moves to sinuous flute and zither work, through a gently pulsing andante, and back and forth until finally resting in a contemplative section of plucked strings.

Overall the musicianship on Komitas shines. Eskenian has put together a first-rate ensemble, whose abilities match their rather profound understanding of the musical material. On one of the tracks, "Hov Arek", a vocalist takes the melody, which is a welcome diversion (if only there were more vocals!).

"Hov Arek" (excerpt)

While the use of these traditional instruments provides a rich timbral palette, there is a bit of sameness to the album as a whole, which runs a tad long. With so much material to cover from this giant of Armenian music, the length is understandable. Komitas, though largely unknown to western audiences, transcribed and arranged over 3,000 pieces of Armenian folk music, and, while only about 1,200 survived, the eighteen tracks on this album barely scratch the surface.

Komitas, born Soghomon Soghomonian in 1869, was a vardapet, a scholarly monk-priest in the ancient Armenian Apostolic Church. Encouraged by Catholicos Gevorg IV, Komitas ran a polyphonic choir and was later sent to Germany to study music, under the patronage of the wealthy Armenian oil explorer Alexander Mantashev. Continuing his choir activities in Germany, he presented the music of Armenia to European audiences, earning the praise of Claude Debussy.

Komitas returned to Ottoman Armenia in 1899, and collected folk music, making him one of the pioneering figures in ethnomusicology. In order to bring greater exposure to this music, he moved to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople.

After living and working in Constantinople for five years, Komitas was arrested on April 24, 1915, the first day of the Armenian genocide. Komitas, with other Armenian intellectuals, was transported to Cankiri in central Anatolia. With the help of the American ambassador, among others, he was brought back to Constantinople, but he was a changed man, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The details of what he witnessed during his deportation are unclear to history, but he never recovered. Komitas moved to Paris, where he spent the rest of his life in a mental institution, died in 1935, and is considered a martyr of the Armenian genocide. His remains were transferred to Yerevan, where the Pantheon of Writers and Artists is named after him.

While the selections on Komitas are considerably different than both the original source materials as well as Komitas's own piano compositions, they are an excellent introduction to his work. The packaging contains photographs of the instruments and musicians, and Tigran Mansurian's consise, but good, notes on the process of re-imagining these pieces, and Eskenian's own informative notes on the individual tracks. - Erik Keilholtz

  Tyran Grillo: I sense a kinship in some of the songs on Komitas to Sephardic, Andalusian, and possibly even Scandinavian currents. Others—such as “Havik,” which recalls the shakuhachi music of Japan—suggest even more distant associations. How much of this similarity is coincidental?

Levon Eskenian: In ancient times, Armenian music was certainly known in places far beyond it, but for the few centuries under Ottoman rule, it was hidden from Western ears. When people in the West hear Armenian music nowadays, they naturally associate it with what they know already from different cultures. Armenia, now considered to be a small country, was once much bigger and influential in the ancient world. For thousands of years Armenians lived in Armenia and in Eastern Anatolia (now part of modern Turkey) where music of rituals, along with sacred and folk music, was transmitted orally from one generation to the next. Sacred Armenian music was first notated using khaz, the neumatic system developed in the Armenian Church between the 9th and 16th centuries. Cultural exchange was active between Armenians and Persians, Greeks, Assyrians and Byzantines (11 of the Byzantine emperors were of Armenian origin). Parts of Armenia also fell on the Silk Road, as Armenian merchants traded actively between Asia and Europe. Armenia, being the first state to adopt Christianity in 301, started to spread the religion to different parts of the world, music being its constant companion. Armenian music spread to different parts of Europe in ancient and medieval times as Armenians began immigrating to those same areas. Armenian music and culture could be one of the important keys to shedding light on many ancient civilizations. 

TG: I am curious about Komitas's life as a priest. Because he was so deeply interested in pagan songs that predate Christianity, did he see these as a conflict of interest in the context of his faith? Were they merely fascinating vestiges of the past or did they also have spiritual value for him?

LE: Komitas mentions that Armenian sacred music is derived from its folk music, and that these two are like brother and sister. In his work as a collector he explored the connections that uniquely bound Armenian sacred and secular music. Many pre-Christian rituals and their music were adopted by the Christian Church. This continued until the 12th century, when sun-worshipping hymns, for example, were incorporated into the Church in by the Armenian Catholicos Nerses IV the Gracious. Komitas was deeply interested in Armenian music and rigorously researched the history, culture and language, and since Armenian music existed long before the adoption of Christianity, he strove for an objective approach based on all the materials available to him. Yet despite being a celibate monk and arranger of the Armenian Liturgy, Komitas sometimes ran into conflicts with clergy. Either way, all of these activities had spiritual value for him because they were bound together by their spiritual veracity for the Armenian people.

TG: How does this album fit into the evolution of your Gurdjieff Ensemble and its musicians? Has it changed the way they play music, or was Komitas always somewhere in the heart of what you do together?

LE: Komitas is always in the heart of Armenian musicians and Armenians in general. He was educated as a composer in Berlin, where he also had the chance to study European early music. He was also a collector of folk music. He collected thousands of Armenian songs and dances. All Armenians will have known some of his songs from early childhood, though his works have yet to be deeply analyzed and understood. The way we have chosen to play and record his music for ECM is new. Komitas tried to be very accurate in his attempts to reproduce the essence of Armenian music on classical instruments and in forms more easily understandable in the Western world. His work resulted in a new language that revealed elements previously unknown in classical music, especially in its approach to the piano. Although classical music has seen its fair share of composers using folk melodies to create piano pieces, what Komitas did was to create harmonies, polyphonic lines and rhythmic structures derived from the essence of Armenian music without capitulating to Western harmonies. To be able to perform these pieces, a certain knowledge in the roots, traditions and source instruments is needed. Each piece is notated with performance instructions in the manner of one traditional instrument or another, and only someone familiar with those instruments would be able to reproduce their characteristics on the piano. My hope is that these pieces will garner interest and become part of the standard repertoire of many pianists. Some great pianists like Grigory Sokolov and Alexei Lubimov are already doing just that, which is one of the reasons why I arranged these pieces for traditional instruments. The process of doing so, however, ended up being as much like archeology as musicology. This music has journeyed from Armenia through Western classical traditions and back again, gaining certain characteristics along the way, and performing them afresh while remaining loyal to their ancient roots requires innovative approaches to even the folk instruments involved.

TG: Do you feel that Komitas's attempts to gather folksongs that might otherwise have been lost came from a desire to “preserve” them, or was there another motivation for doing so?

LE: I don't think what Komitas really wanted was to preserve and archive them. He had no way of knowing, of course, that some years later most of the Armenians in the Ottoman empire would be killed and that, as a result, a huge portion of this music, orally transmitted for thousands of years, would be in danger of being lost. It's worth noting that two thirds of the works of Komitas are themselves considered lost, but at least the world has been given the opportunity to study Armenian music through what remains of his oeuvre. Now that we have some of it brought back to its inspirational sources, some of the traditions can be understood, felt and recreated.

TG: Can you recall your first encounter with the music of Komitas?

LE: I feel that I have always known the music of Komitas. You might call it a genetic memory: I am related to Komitas on my mother's side. I heard the songs of Komitas in my early childhood from my mother, and when my grandfather took me to church he used to tell me that we were relatives of Komitas. I couldn't imagine at the time what this meant for him, but certainly hearing the Komitas Liturgy made a deep impression on me.

TG: The message of Komitas's music feels just as relevant today as when he first notated it for posterity. What is that message for you?

LE: When Komitas notated these tunes and rhythms and turned them into art music, he gave Armenia's medieval and ancient music a new, relevant form. We are now hearing those pieces with the sounds that first inspired him and something thought to be lost or forgotten is being reconstructed. At the same time, a novel combination of musical sounds is being presented to the world, and as much as it has its roots in ancient traditions, it also stretches to the future. As such, his music seeks to unite all of Creation through its combinations of sounds and vibrations. This may seem a little mystical, but awareness of such was very much a part of everyday life for the peoples that kept this music alive long enough for Komitas to hear it. Creating something based on this whole vastness of material that was practical and understandable to music lovers in his day, all while keeping the essence intact, required a true mastery that only he possessed. His work was so honest that from his pieces written for the piano I was able to reconstruct a pure and ancient music. This is very much in the spirit of Komitas, who looked at once into the past and to the future in his quest for inner self. As he himself bade us, “The people of the villages are the best creators; go and learn from them.”

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