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
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
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
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.