Music, its forms and rituals, has the power to bring us close to distant civilizations. Armenia offers a special case: a sacred culture that was preserved and presented at its fullest flowering through the work of one man, the scholar-monk Soghomon Soghomonian (1869 – 1935), known under his religious name as Komitas, to which is sometimes appended the title Vardapet (archimandrite).
Komitas was many things: composer, priest, collector and arranger of folk songs, choirmaster, singer, rigorous researcher into khaz, the neumatic system developed in Armenia between the ninth century and the fifteenth. His musical education took place at the seminary attached to Echmiadzin Cathedral, the Holy See of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and in Berlin, where his teachers included Richard Schmidt, the theorist Heinrich Bellermann, the prominent folklorist Max Friedlaender and Oskar Fleischer, a specialist in European medieval music. Acquainted with western classical music as well as the Armenian tradition, he also had a deep understanding of Middle Eastern and more distant Asian musical cultures, which helped him understand and define what was unique to Armenian music.
While living in Armenia he gathered thousands of folk songs, sacred songs and instrumental melodies, to notate which at speed he often used the Armenian system, though he also made arrangements for piano, solo voice or chorus in standard western notation. In his compositions he was able to combine Armenian modality with aspects of the western classical tradition and thereby establish practical models and a theoretical basis for the development of a specifically Armenian classical music.
In his work as a collector of thousands of folk songs, sacred songs and instrumental melodies, he explored the connections that uniquely bind together Armenian sacred and secular music.
This program indicates the breadth of his achievement and something of his methods. His practice was to select the most interesting variants of traditional melodies and rhythmic patterns while remaining true to the original style and spirit, which partly accounts for the unusual character of his piano writing in solo pieces and accompaniments.
In an effort to go more deeply into the music and its interpretative potential, as well as to recreate the sounds Komitas encountered, the pieces are here arranged for traditional Armenian instruments, without altering Komitas’s structures and details. Some of the instruments date back to antiquity, and it has been necessary to build replicas of those no longer in use.
Komitas preserved several dance melodies as piano pieces, and included in the manuscripts of his Yot Par (Seven dances) and Msho shoror instructions for how to imitate the styles of traditional instruments on the piano. He would constantly revise these dances to make the conventional notation more closely fit what was particular in his source material.
Many of these dances and their music reach back to Armenia’s pagan time, long before the state adoption of Christianity in 301. Komitas wrote that: ‘The pagans had two major types of dances, sacred and secular, that have kept their original functions to the present day’ – though he noted also that ‘religious traces still survive in folk or secular dances’.
“Dance”, he further observed, “is perhaps one of the most significant manifestations of human existence. It expresses the particular traits of a nation, especially its customs and the level of its civilization. For through its manifold movements dance unconsciously exposes the workings of the spirit.”
About the Komitas project and the CD album on ECM
Levon Eskenian formed his ensemble in 2008 to explore the inspirational sources of Gurdjieff’s music. The group’s debut album, Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff, issued by ECM in 2011, was a history-making project, drawing new attention to Gurdjieff’s compositions in his native Armenia and around the world, and winning prizes – including the Edison Award in the Netherlands and the National Music Award in Armenia – for its imaginative recasting of the music for traditional folk instruments.
At the urging of producer Manfred Eicher Levon Eskenian has gone on to prepare material for two new recordings concentrating on Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935): one with Komitas’s music for piano played by Lusine Grigoryan (to be released in 2016), and the present disc with vivid and exciting arrangements of Komitas for Eskenian’s folk instruments group. Both albums were recorded at Lugano’s Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI in February 2015.
Komitas is revered by Armenians as his nation’s most brilliant songwriter. He was also more than this, a composer, singer, priest, philosopher, poet, ethnomusicologist, collector of folk songs, writer of sacred and secular music bridging the old and the new. The fine line that connects the melodic character of the most ancient Armenian music with the works of contemporary Armenian composers runs through his work and for this reason he is often referred to as the father of modern Armenian music. His music was an important reference for Thomas de Hartmann when preparing Gurdjieff’s music for solo piano and Komitas also influenced Levon Eskenian when preparing his own Gurdjieff arrangements. For these and other reasons reinvestigating the music of Komitas seemed a logical next step for Eskenian and the Gurdjieff Ensemble.
Levon Eskenian: “In his compositions, Komitas was able to combine Armenian modality with aspects of the western classical tradition and thereby establish practical models and a theoretical basis for the development of a specifically Armenian classical music. This recording indicates the breadth of his achievement and something of his methods. His practice was to select the most interesting variants of traditional melodies and rhythmic patterns while remaining true to the original style and spirit, which partly accounts for the unusual character of his piano writing. To go more deeply into the music and its interpretative potential, as well as to recreate the sounds Komitas encountered, the pieces are here arranged for traditional Armenian instruments, without altering Komitas’s structures and details.”
In an introductory note in the CD booklet, Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian, former director of the Komitas State Conservatory of Yerevan, asks: “What results may we expect when taking folk music-playing turned into composer’s art back to its folk sources and to folk thinking? This is a unique experience, something that occurs inside the folklore-composing art relationship.” The fabric of Komitas’s compositions is illuminated by the deployment of the folk instruments. “How should we characterize such an endeavour?” Mansurian continues. “As research? Differentiation between documenting and artistic thinking? Coexistence of folklore and composer’s art?” He concludes, “Maybe we can go on with questions of this kind, but, in all cases, Eskenian’s years-long meticulous work has led to unusual beauty – this is obvious.”