Words by Michael Church
The music of a Turkish Renaissance man
Komitas (1869-1935) will always remain one of music history’s most tantalising mysteries. Born Soghomon Soghomonian in a Turkish village and orphaned at an early age, he renamed himself after an early Christian saint. He had both a wonderful singing voice and a scholarly curiosity that led him to collect folk songs spanning Turkey and Armenia; he could be said to have been the first ethnomusicologist. This fascinating character composed piano arrangements of those songs, and as a choirmaster he trained singers to deliver the ravishing three-part arrangements he wrote. He is even said to have cracked the code of the notations used by the early Christian church. Briefly feted in Berlin and Paris as the musical voice of Armenia – Debussy was a fan – Komitas was incarcerated following the 1915 genocide. What he witnessed drove him mad and extinguished his genius. All Armenian instrumentalists and singers revere him, and all perform their own arrangements of his originals.
Levon Eskenian rearranges Komitas’ melodies for the peasant sound world from which he originally extracted them: duo and trio performances on instruments such as duduk, zurna, kemancha, oud, santur, kanun, daf, and percussion. And the results are mesmerisingly beautiful, as different permutations of these instruments create delicately different textures, together with the occasional addition of the human voice. The rhythms of the dances that Komitas arranged for piano now sound gently but insistently pervasive, as he himself might have first encountered them.