Outline of the Project
The field of this artistic research project has been the interpretation of classical piano music from the performer’s (my) perspective. I have aimed to find my own way of interpreting several major piano compositions written by the Armenian composers Komitas (1869-1935) and Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978). My approach to interpretation is connected to an inspiration from Armenian folk music. The two composers have expressed this inspiration in their music, and, through my project, I have investigated how Armenian folk music can impact and transform my playing and interpretation of their compositions.
As the music of the two composers is contrasting in expression, their artistic lives too were lived through different realities and social-political systems.
Komitas (Soghomon Soghomonyan) was born in Kütahya in the Ottoman Empire (today’s Turkey). His exceptional musical talent was evident from an early age, and as an orphan, with a delightful voice, he was brought from Turkey to Armenia, to Holy Etchmiatsin Spiritual Centre to study Armenian sacred music in Gevorgian Seminary from 1881-1893. As early as during his study years, he had a compelling interest in collecting and arranging Armenian folk songs. In 1894, Soghomon was ordained as Archimandrite and revived his name, Komitas, in honor of Armenian Catolicos from 7th-century Komitas Aghtsetsi, and in 1895 he received the spiritual scientific degree of Vardapet.
Komitas continued his studies in Berlin in Richard Schmidt’s private conservatory, whilst at the same time also studying philosophy in what is now Humboldt University. From 1899, he was one of the founding members of the newly established International Music Society, where he actively presented his research of Armenian folk and spiritual music in lecture-recitals and articles in European and Eastern countries, as well as being highly appreciated by such musicians as Claude Debussy and Lois Laloy.
In 1907, in Paris, the first collection of Komitas’ works was published, including the Armenian folk songs in solo and choral arrangements, after which followed publications of Armenian Peasant Songs in Leipzig, 1912. Down the years he collected thousands of Armenian folk songs, sacred songs, instrumental and vocal dance melodies and saved them from loss and oblivion.
Together with hundreds of intellectuals and artists in Constantinople, Komitas was arrested and exiled during the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, from which he was miraculously released and survived. Unfortunately, the sufferings and traumas of the genocide impacted the mental and psychological balance of this Armenian genius and interrupted his creative life: from 1916 until his death in 1935, Komitas was treated in psychiatric hospitals of Constantinople and Paris.
With an unparalleled scope of the versatility of being composer, ethnomusicologist, conductor and performer, Komitas founded the Armenian National School of Music during one of the most turbulent and dramatic historical periods of the Armenian nation. At the beginning of the 20th century, the ethnic cleansings of Armenians under the rule of Ottoman Empire had already started, and Eastern Armenia was under the Russian Empire; Armenians were struggling to establish the first Armenian Republic, which had a short life - from 1918-1920. In 1920, the Soviet Army invaded Armenia and the resultant anti-Bolshevik rebellions by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation in 1921 were ended with brutal suppressions by the Bolsheviks, which then were followed by the Sovietisation of Armenia within the Union of Soviet Socialistic Republics for the next seventy years.
Khachaturian, one of the greatest composers from the Soviet era, along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich, created his art in the Soviet realm, and gained worldwide recognition through many of his compositions, such as piano and violin concertos, symphonies, and the Spartacus ballet. Khachaturian too, continuing the mission of Komitas, represented the Armenian musical traditions internationally. He founded the Armenian National Symphonic School, in synthesis with the European genres, by creating the first Armenian symphonies, instrumental concertos and ballets. He grew up in Tiflis - today’s Tbilisi - in Georgia, surrounded by a multicultural social environment, and he absorbed the Armenian folk music around him, which later became a powerful medium when creating his own music. From 1921 Khachaturian moved to Moscow, and in 1922, when he was nineteen years of age, he was enrolled in Gnessin Music School where his professional music education started first in cello class and, later, from 1925, in composition class with Mikhail Gnessin. Khachaturian started at Moscow Conservatory in 1929, studying in Nikolay Myaskovsky’s composition class, and even in those early study years was outstanding in his compositions with his individual characteristics of musical idiom and expression with its inspiration anchored to Armenian folk music.
Nevertheless, the contrasting differences of the musical expression and aesthetics of Komitas’ and Khachaturian’s music, I believe that two significant aspects - the imitation of sound of the Armenian folk instruments and the folk dance elements - firmly connect the music of Khachaturian and Komitas.
I was born and lived for twenty-four years in Armenia, from where I gathered many musical impressions from our folk music culture. From early childhood, I used to play many familiar folk and urban melodies by ear on the piano. Beside the subconscious perception and the feeling of the Armenian folk music that came from childhood, my education as a classical pianist was from the Komitas State Conservatory in Yerevan, Armenia. My interest in Armenian music led to a desire to explore in-depth the impact of the interplay between classical and folk music in my playing:
What interpretational possibilities might emerge in works by Komitas and Khachaturian when listening to Armenian folk music and responding to it through musical expression in classical pianism?
To investigate such musical possibilities in the project, I have explored Armenian folk music, focusing on its specifics and aesthetics, the folk instrument’s timbre, rhythmic and melodic patterns, and the musical timing and articulation. Moreover, I have consciously tried to implement the knowledge that I have gained from these explorations in my performances and, through my practicing process, transfer this perception into my interpretation of Komitas’ and Khachaturian’s compositions.
Thus, the interplay of the folk and classical music aesthetics has been a significant aspect of my project, bringing a sort of musical “translation” from folk music inspiration to pianistic choices. My idea of translation is a response moving from folk to classical aesthetics. It has been bound by classical pianistic strategies of musical expression when attempting to instigate the sound and timbre of Armenian folk instruments such as the duduk, blul, zurna, dhol/dap, qanon, tar and qyamancha in my piano playing. I have also aimed to find nuances and pianistic features which might create the effect of dam (sustained bass), the effects of overtones/microtones on certain sections of the compositions, and musical timing inspired from the declamatory free timing of Armenian folk troubadours, ashughs art. To talk about precise translation is not entirely possible in this case, since the compositions by Khachaturian and Komitas are written in a European notation system for the well-tempered piano. I have not intended to alter the written compositions of the composers, and I cannot directly add the overtones and the microtones of, for example, blul and duduk timbre when imitating it on piano. My response from folk to classical aesthetics is rather an attempt to recreate my imagination and inner perception of the folk music into timbres on the piano. I have aimed to refine this imagination of the folk instruments and folk music aesthetics and integrate it in my piano playing.
I hope that my interpretations of Komitas’ and Khachaturian’s compositions, and the reflections following them, will open up new perspectives to the established approaches of interpretation. The artistic results of the project are the live video recording of A. Khachaturian’s piano concerto with Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra and conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen, and a two-CD album. The first album is the chamber music for piano, violin, clarinet and cello by A. Khachaturian. On this album, original chamber works of Khachaturian are presented, such as the Clarinet Trio, the Song-Poem, the Dance for violin and piano and the seldom performed Sonata for violin and piano, as well as three transcriptions for piano trio from Khachaturian’s ballets Gayaneh and Spartacus. The second album is Komitas’ Yot Par Seven Dances and Msho Shoror for solo piano, and selected folk songs performed on piano with the folk instruments duduk and blul.
During the process, I searched the available literature and recording archives in Komitas State Conservatory Library in Yerevan, Aram Khachaturian’s home museum, the Komitas Museum-Institute and in the Art Institute in Yerevan, Armenia. I had conversations with several professors (pianists and musicologists) from Armenia in order to gain further insight into Komitas’ and Khachaturian’s music, as well as about Armenian folk music in general. The chapter of interviews is based on my meetings with experts of Armenian music from my visits to Yerevan: Professors Mher Navoyan, Villy Sargsyan, and Alina Pahlevanyan. These meetings were significant for me so that I could gain deeper understanding of Armenian folk music’s aesthetics, share my artistic choices of interpretation, and discuss different aspects of the project with them.
During my trips to Armenia, I also organised several meetings with folk musicians in order to gain a more profound experience of the specifics of the timbre of Armenian folk instruments. The appendix provides a folder of short music videos and information about that folk instruments that I have recorded in Yerevan. These videos could serve as tools for the reader to provide a glimpse of each instrument’s sound and way of playing.
An essential element of the project’s investigation has been the consistent and disciplined practical work with musical elements such as pedalling, articulation, dynamics, musical timing, ornaments, phrasing and structure. I used video recordings of my playing during the process of artistic work as a tool for self-evaluation and observation so that I would refine my interpretations. I used this tool not only when preparing the interpretation of solo compositions, but also during the chamber music rehearsals and the preparations of Khachaturian’s piano concerto for the performance with Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra. I consider the video recordings to be a path towards analysing and transforming my playing. The extensive search and learning from the available literature sources, books, articles, other performer’s recordings, interviews with renowned musicologists, folklorists and performers, both folk musicians and classical pianists, have been valuable and significant methods too. To the reader who wants to explore Armenian Folk Music further, I suggest looking into http://www.armenianmusic.am, as the most substantial webpage available in English. Its vast catalogue contains recordings from many different genres and folk instruments of Armenian Folk music. This webpage has been a tool for me, and I believe that it could be useful for the reader too.
The writing itself has also been a significant tool for investigating my thoughts, my approach and perspectives, the creative process and turning points, and the insights I have gained as well as, in general, to note my ideas for in order to have better control over and an overview of the project.
It is evident to me that the relation of conscious and subconscious aspects during the performance creates certain elements that are not possible to explain, and neither to describe logically or analytically. This leads me to refer to the intuition that has an impact on my playing and my performance, and respectively on interpretations of compositions by Komitas and Khachaturian. Expanding this idea, I would call this musical intuition, which is not only directly connected to the subconscious mind but also is inseparable from my identity and bodily knowledge, thus leaving significant imprints upon my playing. The knowledge and insights gained through looking deeply into Armenian folk music and into the compositions of the composers have become part of me and my body during the projects’ processes, and this acts together with my personal musical intuition in the ephemeral event of performance.
The Form of the Reflection
This reflection is formed as a collection of texts, including examples of scores, video and audio. After this introductory chapter, the reflection continues with the part “Roots”, containing chapters on personal background, the context of classical pianism, artistic research, and the meetings with Armenian professors that influenced me. Further, all following parts and chapters are placed under a main title as my response to Armenian folk music in terms of pianism and musical expression, my personal search for emerging interpretational possibilities. The sub-chapters are organised as aspects of interpretation that have had the greatest impact on my playing. In the part called “Fingerprints”, I reflect on listening and response, pedalling and dam (sustained bass’ effects, drone) and impressionistic touch. I also present my thoughts on improvisational timing in Khachaturian’s music, which is anchored in my inspiration from Armenian folk bards, ashughs art, and on declamatory timing in Komitas’ songs, the importance of Armenian lyrics that impact the musical timing of it, and embodiment.This part also includes thoughts on additional layers that impact my interpretation, such as the imagination, bodily knowledge, and intuition.
Further texts are formed around interpreting Komitas’ and Khachaturian’s compositions by going deeper into detail and describing my artistic choices in concrete examples of compositions, as well as containing quotes, references and examples from scores.