Notes From Hairenik
November 9, 2006

Revised 12/5/06: Armenian song has recently entered a phase of stagnation. Nothing of unique importance has emerged apart from substantial compositions written and occasionally performed by a few minstrels during the last 25 years or so. Ancient melodies notably from the genius songwriter Sayat Nova are now being conveyed in mildly techno-influenced or overambitious, yet flat popular music arrangements. In fact, finding alternate ways of reinterpreting essential melodies that help identify Armenian culture has become a sort of normal practice. Nevertheless there are important interpretations of the national music that do stand out above a sea of soon-to-be forgotten ambitions.

A new recording of improvisations and arrangements based on the ancient Armenian songs as documented by musicologist Gomidas Vartabed (also spelled Komitas) has just been released by composer Ara Sarkissian, who holds a masters degree in music composition from the Boston Conservatory. He was visiting Armenia for about six weeks this fall, during which he played keyboards for Artur Meschian's live performances. Just before he left he gave me a bootleg copy of the disc for me to hear, as I was expecting to review it for some time now.

He recorded the disc over the course of two years in Boston, using several experienced musicians in Gomidas’s repertoire, although the intention was to record parts of the album in Yerevan as well. The Komidas Project, as Sarkissian’s led group is called, is aiming to present the music using contemporary classical modes without sacrificing the integrity of the original melodic-harmonic arrangements. This 20-part suite, titled “Es El Yes Em” (And This Is Me), represents the group’s first issue, distributed by Sarkissian’s own Lucent Music label.

Gomidas was a devout priest who first attended the seminary at Ejmiadzin, the Holy See of the Armenian church, in 1881 and immediately began singing in the choir. In 1890 he became a monk, was ordained a priest 1893, then left Ejmiadzin in 1895 for Tbilisi and later Berlin to study composition, musicology, and singing under the tutelage of Professor Richard Schmidt. Beginning in 1899 he started the demanding task of noting Armenian song in villages throughout Armenia, which had previously been undocumented, using a modernized version of the ancient “khaz” musical notation system. Khaz was used for Armenian music composition from the 8th to 18th centuries, then was gradually abandoned due to its complexity. It incorporated the use of 12 Armenian alphabet consonants with 25 neumatic symbols to coincide with written lyrics as indications of how the music was to be sung. As many surviving khaz texts as possibly discovered were collected, then painstakingly deciphered by Gomidas through comparison as well as trial and error. In his travels he also aimed to document Turkish, Kurdish, and Persian songs, simply by listening then immediately transcribing them. During a span of only a few years he managed to collect 3,000 songs, only 1,200 of which currently survive. He is widely considered to be the savior in preserving the long tradition of Armenian song.

Despite the availability of that still wide selection of material, only a popularly selected number of those songs are regularly performed over and over, chiefly in modern Armenian dance music—which often reigns injustice to them, by folk troubadours, and notably in string quartet arrangements. Several of these songs were used as a base foundation for Sarkissian to compose themes and variations on the original material. The results are careful arrangements of original music performed alongside the Gomidas melodies, sung or spoken text, or both. The disc’s opening track features a two-and-a-half minute solo piano performance by Sarkissian, a simple yet striking melody performed underneath a signature Gomidas-attributed phrase.

Another remarkable device with which Sarkissian chose to communicate the song form was the composer’s own voice. Some of the few songs that were actually recorded by Gomidas in 1912 while in France on primitive 78 rpm shellac discs, which had been uncovered several years ago from the national archives in Yerevan, were incorporated. The master’s voice first surfaces on the second track, in an eerie, even haunting form, as if sung through a temporarily formed porthole window from the hereafter. His tenor vocal is looped in some places and crossfades into the following occurrence.

The familiar woodwind voicings of Martin Haroutunian of the Arev Folk Ensemble, particularly on the flute-like shvi, appear frequently, he being a lesser-known master of the Gomidas popular song book having studied and performed the melodies for nearly 20 years now. Other musicians weaving in and out of the suite include Karen Kocharian on drums, Todd Brunel on clarinet, Arvin Zarookian on bass, Junko Simons on cello, Paul Erlich on guitar, Ara Gabrielian, spoken word, and Yeghishe Manucharyan, voice. Sarkissian plays piano and occasionally synthesizers on all tracks.

Influences from various music forms can be deduced apart from Armenian folk melodies, notably jazz and modern classical or ambient composition. In particular, the ninth cut, one of the strongest, seemingly incorporates improvisational elements, infused with faint echoes of John Coltrane’s master work “A Love Supreme” coupled with Gomidas’ voice on “Kali Yerg” as it immediately blends into the next track—a fascinating example of such innovation, creatively crisscrossing Armenian themes with western sound.

As a contrast, the sixth track offers a quirky, at times even corny interpretation of a different theme by simultaneously retelling the story of a pesky, mischievous mosquito.

Unfortunately some of the tracks are limited in sound quality, perhaps due to mixing inconsistencies. Thus in certain places the piano performances especially sound muffled or even scratchy, but this does not detract from the obvious professionalism of the musicians, or the beauty of the work overall. [ed., I was just told that the degraded sound effect was intential to match that of the Gomidas voice recordings.] The recording can be easily considered an inspiring, unprecedented wholly unique interpretation of the Gomidas-preserved songs that should gain quite some attention. It is with hope that this disc will be picked up by an influential recording label and earn a wider audience through broader distribution, as it is well deserving of it. More information about the recording artist and purchasing the disc can be found at http://www.lucentmusic.com/.

The Komidas Project on December 3 added an accompanying music video for Track 2 of the suite, which was set to the song "Mokats Mirza." It consists basically of several crossfading images of Gomidas in various forms, such as in sculpture, on coins and postage stamps, and also artist renderings, but there are rare photographs of the master as well.

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