Simon Broughton speaks to Levon Eskenian who, with the help of his ensemble, is breathing new life into Armenian folk music collected in the early 20th century
The intense breathy sound of a flute over a plucked lute and rippling zither and the plangent tone of a reedy duduk take us into another world. A world now vanished. The lyrical modes of Armenian music always seem full of melancholy and this recording, made 100 years after the Armenian genocide, seems like a requiem for what was lost. The music is by Armenia’s most revered composer, Komitas – also a collector and arranger of folk tunes, a choirmaster and a priest. Komitas (1869-1935) was born in Ottoman Turkey, raised in the seminary at Etchmiadzin in Armenia, studied in Berlin and then settled in Istanbul. During the Armenian massacres of 1915 he was arrested and deported to a prison camp. He suffered a mental breakdown and spent his last years in an asylum in Paris.
For Levon Eskenian, who runs the Gurdjieff Ensemble, he’s still an unrecognised link into the country’s musical traditions. Komitas arranged some of the folk tunes he collected into piano pieces; now Eskenian has re-arranged these, taking them out of the salon and reinstating their folk origins. The ten-piece Gurdjieff Ensemble includes duduk, pogh (Armenian flute), bowed kamancha, plucked oud, tar and kanon, plus drums and percussion. “What amazed me during my work, is the way Komitas transposed all the details onto the piano, thus creating an original structure and unique pianistic idiom,” Eskenian says.
He did a similar thing a few years ago with the music of Armenian composer and writer Georges Gurdjieff, the author of Meetings with Remarkable Men. The brilliant Music of Georges I Gurdjieff was a Top of the World in #80.
What helped with these Komitas arrangements was the fact that the composer noted the instrumentation of the pieces and suggested the pianist try and imitate them. He writes ‘in the style of duduk and tar,’ or ‘in the style of tar and dap [frame drum].’
The main compositions are Yot Par (Seven Dances), which come from different regions of Armenia, and a composition called Msho Shoror, made up of dances from the monastery of Surb Karapet near Mush (in eastern Turkey), which was the most important religious centre after Etchmiadzin. These dances were part of the religious ritual and include the sound of a jangling censer and plate with jingles that were used by the priests. There are some extraordinary photos of the monastery taken in 1905 in the CD booklet. But little of it survives today.
This is a substantial piece of musical archaeology and resuscitation. Looking at the piano scores they appear as pleasant folk-like miniatures but what Eskenian and his musicians (mainly from the Komitas Conservatoire in Yerevan) have done is really bring them to life. It’s a remarkable achievement. Many of these pieces came from Armenian communities in Turkey that were destroyed in 1915, while other changes took place in Soviet Armenia as the country modernised, so the world and the music that Komitas once knew has vanished. This is a valuable glimpse into what was lost.
Interestingly, the original piano pieces arranged by Komitas have also been recorded by pianist Lusine Grigoryan and will be released by ECM next year.