Interpreting Komitas' music

Yot Par - Seven Dances | Msho Shoror | Folk Songs

One of the most eye-catching aspects of human life is the dance. Dance is an expression of the characteristic traits of each nation, especially the morals and the level of civilization. Dance is entirely subject to the laws of accent, rhyme and mode. But rhyme, accent and the mode of dance get a national self-image in comparison to the temperament and the level of the civilization (Komitas, 1941, p. 51, my translation from Armenian).

Komitas’ piano compositions, the volume six, published in 1982 in Yerevan, has been my source of scores and I have chosen the 2nd edition of Yot Par and Msho Shoror to explore throughout my project. According to the editor, R. Atayan, the Yot Par and Msho Shoror were first performed in Paris in 1906 by pianist Shushanik Laloy - Babayan (1879-1952), and in concert, the compositions were announced as Msho Shoror and Armenian Dances. Komitas worked on Dances and Msho Shoror in the period from 1906-1916 and, throughout these years, re-edited and modified the dances so that they bear the development of his compositional style.

The first edition gives us the “Dances” as they were until the summer of 1909 when, after the first performances, the composer made needed edits that he noticed and was pleased from the result. Msho Shoror is presented here in the version of 1906. The second edition gives us the Msho Shoror and the Dances in the version as they were in the summer of 1916 when, according to A. Harents, “Vardapet gave to the piano dances cycle it’s final version” (this “final version” expression most likely comes from the author) and was pleased with the result (Atayan, 1982, p. 15, my translation from Armenian).

For each of the Dances in Yot Par, Komitas marked the region where the dance melody originated, as well as indicating with which folk instrument style it should be played, and he wrote down these dance-melodies when listening them played on folk instruments or ensemble of folk instruments: dap, tar, nay (duduk), pogh (blul), and tmbuk (dhol/drums). According to R. Atayan, “in Dances, the author revealed a specific mastery in creating a unique sound on the piano. (…) Dances stand out not only with a freshness of musical thinking, but also with unique clarity: in them a true artistic simplicity is implemented (Atayan, 1982, p. 14, my translation from Armenian).

Komitas strived in his Dances in as much detail as possible to implement the specifics of the natural performance of folk instrumental music - to transmit the whole palette of such a performance, when the folk “self-taught” but still fully master musicians made their instruments literally “talk” and with their simple-sounding melodies create a thousand and one images and express feelings (Atayan, 1982, p. 17, my translation from Armenian).

French musicologist and music-critic and co-founder of Le Mercure Musical, Louis Laloy[1] (1874-1944), wrote after the performances of Komitas’ Dances in 1906:

…sometimes heavy and religious, sometimes gentle, like a love song, or light, like an innocent joke, those dances are always deeply expressive: a true music of harmonious and free, beautiful bodies… a natural language, by the help of which the human essence becomes an image of joy, or sorrow and longing (Laloy, cited in Atayan, 1982, p. 15, my translation from Armenian).

Playing Komitas’ Yot Par and Msho Shoror evoke many feelings within me: reminiscences, the smell of the fresh morning air in our backyard, the colours of nature in my homeland, countless warm shades of brown and yellow when looking over the fields and mountains flooded with sunshine on a hot summer afternoon. I intuitively express these colours and senses from my homeland through the timbre and touch on the piano, through music. The Armenian folk traditions and instruments’ evocative aspects, so full of the vivid and characteristic temperament of their folk origins, the impressionistic exquisiteness of the sonority, the sophisticated context and content of Komitas’ Yot Par and Msho Shoror, are enigmas to explore in terms of pianistic expression, and are an endless inspiration for me.

After working with the Yot Par and Msho Shoror during the fellowship, I made a recording of them the autumn of 2018. To listen to the result, follow this link: Album with Komitas’ music. Here you will also find the Folk Songs described further down on this page.


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Manushaki of Vagharshapat is a female solo dance from the city of Vagharshapat in the Republic of Armenia called, in the present day, Ejmiatsin. Manushak is a flower in Armenian, but here Komitas meant a female name. The tempo indication is Leggiero, also, in Armenian light and flowing. According to Atayan, there were no metronome markings by the composer in any of the manuscripts of the dances. The composer marked this dance as in style of dap. Indeed, to me the entire left hand of this dance is an imitation of dap which responds to the main melody with various articulations. To achieve the sense of light flow and imitation of dap in my left hand, I choose a very delicate but clear articulation of non legato, mostly in soft dynamics but sometimes, when the dynamics are forte, I articulate with piercing and sudden near staccatos, and the tremolos slower, not as a virtuosic tremolo but more as imitating to dap.

Almost the entire dance containts no indications of pedalling, except in four places that Komitas marked while the dynamics were forte, clearly introducing the pedalling here as a tool for increasing the volume. Despite there being no pedal marks at the beginning of the dance, I use the middle pedal to create the sustained bass effect on G in my left hand, which the composer marked with slurs over four bars. The middle pedal helps me to avoid mixing the separate sound layers of the bass, the harmonic notes on the left hand, with the melody in my right hand, thus allowing me to create various articulation without drowning in the clouds of the overtones.

Score example 3, Manushaki, bars 1-12

Yerangi of Yerevan is a female solo dance that the composer indicates should be played in style of the duduk and tar. To achieve the graceful and gentle flow of the melody, I attempt a very singing, expressive sound, played legato with a warm timbre with the duduk in my mind, and very soft staccatos, almost as non legatos when imitating the plucking peculiarity of tar in the accompaniment of the melody. The second time, when repeating the dance one octave up, I intonate my left hand more, which comes further forward with a deeper timbre, and the light register of the right hand plays the role of an echo or shadow of the left hand.

Yerangi does not have any indication of pedalling at all. Naturally, I have almost no pedal throughout the entire dance, pedalling only in places where I want to have the maximum possible warm timbre and round sound timbre in melody, just adding a little volume with the overtones with the duduk’s timbre in my mind.

Score example 4, Komitas’ Manuscript of Yerangi. Copyright: Komitas Institute-Museum,

The Ounabi and Marali of Shushi dances should be performed without stopping as they flow naturally on from each other: Komitas writes after Ounabi, Attaca. The composer marked these female solo dances as being in the case of the first, in the style of the tar and dap and the second in style of dap. In these dances, (as well as generally when playing Komitas), I aim to make my sound layers very transparent, choosing very light and clear articulation in combination with the pedal. From the first bar, the pedal marking remains over the course of six bars, which makes it sound impressionistic, voluminous and transparent because of the large distance in the registers between the voices. I imagine the right hand as an imitation of the tar and the left hand’s gentle beats as the rhythmical patterns of dap. In the middle section of Ounabi, it is essential for me to achieve the imitation of tar in the ornaments: I play the first two notes of the ornament with a delicate sound, not too fast, and the third note of the ornament I hold with the finger in silence, which makes this ornament sound very peculiar - not as in classical music when all three notes of the mordents are normally played.

In the first section of Marali, the atmosphere is mystical, and the composer marks fiero e tortuoso and p-pp in dynamics, which makes the character of this dance melody exciting to explore in terms of timbre and touch.

In Ounabi, the composer is more generous with pedal markings, especially with regard to some long pedalling on the first phrases, which I follow and use to create the effect of cloudy and voluminous musical layers. As in Manushaki, in Ounabi and Marali the left hand entirely imitates the dap, and the bass notes are often kept with slurs over the four bars and it is possible to maintain those basses with fingers, without using middle pedal, and yet still achieve the effect of the dam with a more transparent texture of sound which is more organic, with the ornaments and the melody in the right hand.

In Marali, the composer provides no indications of pedalling at all, despite the dance being written on three lines and containing sustained bass (dam) effects. As in the middle section of Ounabi, here too it is possible to maintain the sustained basses in the left hand and create more no-pedalled sonority, which generates sound production closer to folk music aesthetics, making the imitation of the dap with staccatos and non-legatos more precise.

Score example 5, Komitas’ Manuscript of Ounabi. Copyright: Komitas Institute-Museum,

Score example 6, Marali, bars 1-3

Shushiki of Vagharshapat is a female solo dance, and Komitas marked it as being in the style of the tar and dap. As in almost all of Komitas’, dances, this too has a sorrowful expression alongside the joyful, playful rhythmical patterns of the original melody. Here again, when following the pedal markings of the composer which might last over four bars, I try to create impressionistic, light and transparent sound layers, whilst at the same time maintaining clarity in articulation and trying to imitate the sound of tar, touching the keyboard almost with the tips of the fingers of my right hand and, in the left hand, keeping the rhythmical accompaniment of the dap going with gentle, soft articulation. I have used the middle pedal in the first downbeats of the phrases, at the beginning of the dance, bars 1 and 5 (also in repetition of the same phrase in the middle section of the dance), where Komitas writes that the right pedal should be used over four bars: the use of the middle pedal gave me the possibility to create these separate sound layers in keeping the bass note sounding as long as the composer wished, and building the melody on the bass with clear articulation, without it being wrapped up in heavy overtones together with the left hand, which would happen if the indicated right pedal alone was used. The various combinations of pedalling - such as the middle pedal followed by no pedal sections - the use of the left pedal, and sometimes also the right, vibrating pedal, makes possible to find new expressions in sound when playing Shushiki, perhaps the most famous and often performed from Yot Par. In terms of the ornaments in this dance too, as in Ounabi, instead of playing them in the classical manner, I play the last note silenced, as composer writes the slur from second to the fourth note, maintaining the latter, which makes it sound like the plucking on tar.

Score example 7, Shushiki, bars 1-4

The two video and audio samples of Shushiki presented below provide a glimpse into different approaches of interpreting the same piece. Similar transformations are a natural part of an ongoing search. The recordings were in the same concert hall, but one was a live performance whilst the second was a result of recordings for the Komitas album. In the live performance, the interpretation of the sound atmosphere leans very much towards the impressionistic - the timing, slower than I would normally choose, and the greater amount pedal and overtones. On that evening I felt, and was in the midst of an atmosphere in which the artistic choices on stage were, to some degree, unexpected even for me, relying on the intuitive, spontaneous aspect of the performance. The second recording is more straight forward in expression; slightly faster in tempo, the articulation and the pedalling are very different from the first sample, which I already described above in detail. While writing this, I was thinking about whether I would have chance to record the piece again, and if so I would have taken it another step forward - even faster in tempo and more crisp in articulation, and make it considerably different to the second recording, underlining even more the light, female dance origins of the piece.

Komitas, Shushiki, live recording in February 2018.

Komitas, Shushiki, recorded in October 2018.

Het u Araj of Karno (Erzrum) is marked in the style of pogh (blul) and tmbuk (dhol). Unlike the previous five solo dances, this is a group dance. The imitation of folk instruments results in contrasts in articulation: the timbre of blul is very transparent, full of side overtones/microtones and vibration, and the dhol’s rhythmical beats are precise - these I play with staccatos or almost portamento in terms of the articulation - but very delicate. Whether or not there are any possibilities for achieving an imitation of blul on the piano is a subjective question (as indeed is the question of folk instrument imitation in general). However, guided by my inner senses, I play legato with my right hand, but not to any great extent, so that I make each note come through separately, wishing that each tone would vibrate even more. This is a very subjective inner feeling and perception of the blul’s sound, and it is very difficult to adequately describe what exactly it is that I do with my articulation and touch on piano. The dynamics are soft and warm but, from bar 12, it suddenly expands in register and sounds very voluminous and in forte. Essential to this are the accents of the right hand in bars 15,16, and 17, which represent the choreography of the dance in the unusual rhythmical patterns of 9/8, with upbeats and syncopes. In the last three bars of the dance, I try with my dynamics and pedal to create the imitation of a sonority, as if gradually going away and disappearing.

In Het u Araj, the composer includes almost no indications of pedalling, except in bar 12, with vigoroso on the bass D note, and the pedal indication continues all the way until the end of the dance, over the next seven bars (!) where the end of the pedal sign is marked. The dance is rich with various indications of articulation, active dance rhythms, and such long pedalling that, if followed, makes it challenging to achieve clarity in articulation at the same time as maintaining the sustained basses. I feel that there is room for explorations to find new ways to interpreting this dance.

Score example 8, Het u Araj, bars 1-4

For Shoror of Karno (Erzrum), Komitas marked the style as pogh (blul), tmbuk (dhol) and dap, and presented the music of a traditional group dance. Komitas used many words in his scores that aimed to guide the performer to achieve the sense of music, characterising the feeling of the music that he wrote, or so that we can see how he felt or imagined it to be, which is mainly impossible to emulate accurately/precisely on the piano. He marked the character of the dance as noble and heroic and, right from the first bar, he marked calmo, piano. How is it possible to find an atmosphere and combination of calmo and the nobile ed eroico? Is it even possible to play calmly whilst transmitting the sense of the heroic atmosphere? Indeed, Komitas was generous in terms of the comments he left us for this folk dance, marking not only separate patterns of imitation of the dap and dhol in the scores, but also providing many markings regarding the character and articulation. For me, it has also been essential to see the accents on the different beats of the left and right hands when imitating dap and dhol, which create this rhythmical non-synchrony in the patterns. Moreover, it is important to imagine the difference between these two drums, the dap and dhol, since they have a different timbre and dynamic range. As regards the imitation of the sound of blul, again I must say that this involves a very subjective inner sense, and is very variable within the different sections of this dance because it is the most complex and richest of the pianistic possibilities among the seven dances (Yot Par) of Komitas. During the playing of this dance, it feels as though the left and right hands are different from one another in terms of functions: independent from each other, as if each had their own world of sound production, articulation and dynamics. Nevertheless, they are one organic whole, and it is essential to achieve that organic sense and fulfilment of the other part that is a connection between the different rhythmical patterns and melodic lines of this folk dance. The significant aspect here is the musical expression: the dance is full of mystical, archaic musical expression, and it is very exciting to explore exactly how to achieve these expressions when performing. In this dance, there is rather a great deal of complexity involving all aspects of performance, including different elements from pianistic touch and body movements, articulation and timbre, pedalling, imagination and intuition. In some places it is remarkable how precise Komitas wanted the imitation of the tmbuk (dhol) to be, and how impossible it is to render audible the difference for the listener: in bar 44 he writes tambureggiando (tmbkelov- in Armenian), writes accents, and connects two eight notes with slurs and a staccato under each one, which are repeated three times, imitating the playing on the tmbuk (dhol). In bar 53, with almost exactly the same pattern, with exactly same rhythm and notes in the left hand, he writes the same accents, connecting the same two eighth notes with slurs which repeat three times but now without staccatos under the slurs; in the marking he writes tamburinare (tmbkelov-in Armenian). In this dance, we can see his markings such as tamburo (tmbki in Armenian), tamburello (dapov-in Armenian) and tamburo (tmbkov-in Armenian). In some places when he wants the imitation of the sudden appearance of the dap’s sound, aside the Armenian remark naming dap, he also writes martellinando. This specific variation of imitation on the piano - the different timbres of drums -tmbuk (dhol) and dap - is fascinating to explore in terms of pianism.

Many of Komitas’ markings in “Yot Par”, such as Irrompende e prendendo (crushing and gripping), sorridente (smiley), infervorandosi (flare), tambureggiando (drumming, meaning imitation of the instrument tmbuk), piano e morbido (calm and tender), sollene e luminoso (glorious and bright), ondeggiando (ripply), etc. are all written underneath one or two notes, since the musical texture is very transparent and minimalistic. In such cases the role of imagination is inevitable when playing. To create these sensitive, more atmospheric descriptions of sound/music, it is the imagination that can bridge the inner senses, and the ideas to create sound in real time and space.

In Karno Shoror, the most controversial, complex and mystical of all the seven dances, the pedalling too raises many questions. It is unclear why the composer includes no pedalling indications on any of the three pages, and yet suddenly, from page four, marks pedalling on almost on each bar, then no pedal marks at all on the following page, and finally pedal marks on each bar of the last page. The experimentations with pedalling (amongst other elements of interpretation) have been a part of the whole process of my work while exploring this dance. The pattern that I noticed in terms of where the composer writes pedal is that he indicates in the scores the places of more “heroic” character in music, which are more voluminous in sound, as well as using the pedal as a tool for creating sustained basses. There are a few examples in which the indications of musical character have pedal indications as well: solenne e luminoso, con slancio, fuocoso, vittorioso. All of these different elements - the multilayered and complex content of this dance - make the choices of pedalling varied, especially in combination with the without pedal musical sections following various uses of pedalling.

Score example 9, Shoror, bars 1-4


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Msho Shoror is not just a dance in its usual meaning, but is also a large image of a massive folk choreography, with multi-elemental content, which, alongside the epic-lyrical expressions, also has heroic and, to some degree, even martial moments (Atayan, 1982, p. 12, my translation from Armenian).

Komitas wrote this monumental folk dance for piano to be performed in the style of duduk, zurna, and tmbuk. This marking applies to the whole piece, and he does not provide any further comments about exactly which patterns, melodic lines, or sections are to imitate the sound of the particular instrument, or the sound of the combination of them. This opens up more possibilities to me as a performer to imagine my perception of the imitation of folk instrument sound when playing. I also write in the Armenian names of different parts of Msho Shoror here, in accordance with Atayan’s research based on Komitas’ manuscripts and other archive materials presented in the scores of volume six.

Score example 10, Msho Shoror, bars 1-12

The opening section of Sharani - Allegro vigoroso, also has indications written in Armenian - “suddenly strong” and, in the second phrase, “shouting”. This part invites all of the dancers to form the dance circle. I imagine here the piercing and loud sounds of zurna and tmbuk (drums). In my first performances, I used to play this section much faster than in the recording of the Komitas album. After some time, I felt that a slower tempo better transmits the “groove” of this section, and allows me to articulate more clearly with the accents and staccatos of my left hand when imitating the tmbuk - drums. I try to achieve the imitation of the loud, piercing sound of zurna not only with dynamics, but also in the combination of the well-articulated melodic lines played with the pedal on the downbeats. It is essential for me when imitating the piercing and shouting sounds of zurna, to not make them sound as harsh or exaggerated on the piano.

The Shoror, Tsanr Par - Largo section is the actual dance of Shoror, which is a round dance that includes everyone: women and men, the elderly and children, all forming a huge circle. I play the melody molto legato, with a warm timbre and a gentle but firm touch on the keyboard, as if trying to imitate the vibrating and warm timbre of the duduk. However, I play all of the staccatos that surround the melody with the pedal, which makes them sound round and gentle. The places at which point I can avoid the pedal I do, because that makes my articulation much clearer and brings me closer to folk aesthetics with more semplice sound production. The flow of the Shoror is very solemn, with an archaic, almost religious seriousness of expression, since there are many people involved within a huge circle. It is essential to achieve this sense of the archaic, majestically slow swing of this ancient folk dance which, as Komitas believed, was rooted in the pagan times of Armenia.

Shoror has also been described in detail during a lecture by A. Chopanyan in Paris, in 1906:

It is danced in the pilgrimage of Msho St. Karapet. A solemn dance, almost in a religious manner. It is danced all together; men, women, old and young: it is an endless round dance, sometimes with two-three hundred people involved. After a few beats of the tmbuk (dhol, drum) which invites the dancers to form the circle, the zurna begins to sway the melody and move the circle with a light and mute movement. Everyone who takes part in the dance, seems submerged in a deep amazement: all in silence, in a sweet and gloomy excitement, listening to the melody which prolongs its painful grace in the air… This dance must be very old, very probably it is from pagan times: some kind of a mystical dance in honour of a protective God (Chopanyan, cited in Atayan, 1982, p. 161, my translation from Armenian, parentheses also mine).

Score example 11, Msho Shoror, bars 25-36

Komitas did not indicate the middle pedal in the scores of Msho Shoror, but despite that, in several places at which point the right pedal indication points to long musical patterns, sometimes four or even six bars of music on one pedal, evokes in me the feeling and the emerging need to create the effect of dam. Such place is the section of un poco mosso, where the composer wrote the right pedal on the bass of bar 47 without marking where to take off the pedal on the following phrases, and clearly hinted at his perception/wish for a sustained bass. I use, here, the middle pedal to achieve the imitation of the sustained bass (dam) of duduk from bar 47, which accompanies the melody. Even though the sustained bass clearly sounds over all four bars, unfortunately the sound of it is weaker in the third and fourth bars, and often in such places I wish to have possibility to be able to keep the sound of these sustained basses going much longer - and louder - than the grand piano mechanism in fact allows. Some of my pedalling can produce a certain lack of clarity to “classical” ears, with mixed overtones because of dissonance intervals that I imagine as the effects of the microtones of not perfectly tuned folk instruments, which I then try to recreate on the piano as my response to folk aesthetics.

Score example 12, Msho Shoror, bars 47-52

On Trnoci - Andante capriccioso, my articulation contains contrasts in the left and right hands staccatos and legatos, interrupted by pauses which create the “jumping” of this section. Especially important here is the timing of the downbeats, which I play with slightly delayed accents on them. Trnoci, in Armenian, means “jumping” and it is essential for me to achieve this sense of jumping choreographic movements with my articulation. Here, pedalling plays an essential role in creating that dance swing and jumping feeling in the music: I combine the no pedal effects with dry and clear articulation on the first phrases, followed by pedalled but clear articulated sound production, which creates the effect of the elevating/growing energy of the dancers.

The next section of Kokh - Allegro giocoso is a male dance melody. Here too I combine the contrasting articulation of slightly heavy legato and staccatos, having in mind the sound of zurna and tmbuk. I have played this section slightly faster and with a lighter flow than the previous one, with a clear articulation and minimal pedalling, avoiding elements that would sound as a romantic expression.

With Allegro Vivace, the section of Qochari starts. Komitas did not mention the name of Qochari in the manuscripts in this section but, according to R. Atayan, “with its modulation structure and type of movement it is like the prominent dance of Qochari, from the Mush and Sasun regions, and which is sometimes also called Msho Khr, perhaps in one of its various versions.” (Atayan, 1982, p. 161, my translation from Armenian.)

To obtain the heavy and energetic flow of this folk dance, I imagine it played on zurna here, accompanied by heavy downbeats of tmbuk. In imitation of the zurna, and to create the effect of energetic, radiating power like the swing of the ancient dance Qochari, I follow Komitas’ right pedal marks over the course of the four bars and the con fuoco marking, and in addition I play it almost fortissimo - clearly articulated - which makes it possible that the melody of the dance comes out clearly, despite the heavy clouds of overtones of the long right pedal. My inner feeling is that this way of playing creates this raw and unpolished, unrefined, piercing sound that the zurna can create. Particularly interesting are the upbeats with two sixteenth notes to each downbeat of the bar, imitating the tmbuk’s heavy beats. I make them sound slightly delayed; this brings a very raw groove to the whole part.

Score example 13, Msho Shoror, bars 155-163

To achieve the graceful and flexible flow of the female dance movements of the section Tchotch - Andante sostenuto, I have more impressionistic touch and dynamics, combined with very soft but transparent articulation of my right hand.

In the Allegro ma non tropo section, Komitas marked Tchosh in the manuscript, which means here, “dance with a sword”, the zinapar, which characterises a martial dance, and what Komitas believed also had roots in pagan times (Atayan, 1982, p. 162). Here, in the first part of this dance, I try to create this raw and unpolished folk dance flow, having the sound of zurna and tmbuk in mind, with my heavy downbeats, clearly articulated in both hands, with staccatos but closer to a heavy non legato. I chose to have a minimum of pedal here, and achieve dryness in articulation which adds more character to the music. The second part of this section has some phrases of a lighter, even playful groove, which contrasts against the initial motif of the dance, but eventually the whole composition is concluded with a decisive phrase ending in fortissimo, with an energetic upward motion.

Fest ved Surp Garabed kirke (Festivity near Saint Karaped Church), 1905-1917, by Bodil Biørn. RA/PA-0699/U/L0040

Surp Garabed kirke nær Musch (Saint Karaped Church, near Mush), 1907-1916, by Bodil Biørn. RA/PA-0699/U/L004

Arinjavank landsby, Musch (Arinjavank village in Mush), 1907-1916, by Bodil Biørn. RA/PA-0699/U/L0038


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Ask a peasant where this song comes from and will, rightly or wrongly, name a village. Ask who created it and will point to the person known for singing it in the village. And if you ask this singer – will either remember a name or just shake the shoulders. (…) The gift of creating a song is a natural ability of the peasant. They learn the art of creating song in nature, which is their true school (Komitas, 1941, p. 17, my translation from Armenian).

I have performed the eleven selected songs by Komitas, written down from rural, peasant folk sources and arranged for voice and piano, together with Vigen Balasanyan playing on blul and duduk and it represents an important part of the project. It expresses aspects of my understanding of the interpretation of folk songs and is rooted in my idea of playing songs with folk instruments (instead of vocals), driven according to my inner feelings about what I was missing when listening to these songs performed in a classical way, with perfectly refined vocals, often bearing the manners of academic singing, as well as in the piano accompaniment of the songs.

The urge to play piano with folk instruments was also connected to my wish to delve deeper into folk music aesthetics not only through and in Komitas’ music, but also in order to gain a deeper understanding and interpretation of Khachaturian’s music, and bring this folk inspiration and impulses in their written compositions into my interpretations. This was a path that I wanted to take to step outside of the classical frames of the piano world by playing with folk instruments.

We recorded the songs with Vigen Balasanyan at Kilden Teater og Konserthus during October 2018. However, the idea was conceived much earlier; as far back as 2016, during my meetings with Vigen in Yerevan, we started carefully selecting the songs and deciding for which of them, and with which folk instrument, he would play the melody, originally written by Komitas for voice with piano accompaniment, based on his ethnographic findings written down from hearing peasants sing, and later made into masterpieces of his own. I did not have need to play all of the folk songs of Komitas, but rather to select those which spoke most close to my heart and helped explore my understanding of folk music aesthetics. Throughout the next two years, when I was visiting Yerevan, Vigen and I would continue to meet and work on songs, often completely changing the character, tempos, timing and expression of the music, transforming it significantly and preparing to share it in live concert and through the recordings in Norway. The crucial aspect of the recording that we made in 2018 was to find the perfect balance and to set the distance of the microphones and set up the acoustics in a way in which it would allow us to capture the close, dry, but detailed sounds of the duduk and blul, transmitting through the recording the real sense of the folk instruments’ overtones, the breathing and vibrations, and the tiniest shades and colours of timbre, without having it mixed and “lost” in the acoustics of the hall. This sound is more dry and close than the usual balance and mixing methods of classical music recordings.

As in all of the compositions that I have worked with throughout my project, here, in the songs too, I have been true to my principle of not modifying the scores that Komitas wrote and not changing any ornament, melodic pattern or content of the melody and piano accompaniment of the songs.

I aimed to play the piano parts with folk instruments in a way that sounded and felt not as if learnt from a score (as a classical accompaniment), but rather as if playing by ear - something that, as if I listened and responded on piano by ear, adjusting my playing entirely to the timing of the duduk and blul, depending on the natural breathing and overtones lasting, and forming the shadow sound atmosphere to the duduk and blul.

In nine of the eleven songs of my project I have played my piano part as it was in Komitas’ songs in arrangements for piano by Villy Sargsyan, and doubled the melody played by the duduk or blul. Villy Sargsyan did not modify the musical content of songs and arranged them for solo piano as it has been written by Komitas. The natural overtones, vibrations and tuning of the duduk and blul add certain modifications even when Vigen played according to how it is written in the score, but still the folk instrument added a significant difference to the expression of the music, especially when played in unison with the piano, which underlines even more the raw, unpolished natural tuning, the overtones and vibrations of the duduk and blul, and the “out of tune” unison playing of the piano and folk instruments: sonority, and an expression which brings me close to the folk aesthetics of Komitas’ songs, which is precisely what I was searching for. By excluding the melody sung on vocals, the listener miss out on the opportunity to experience the Armenian lyrics of the songs and their declamatory expression - but in attempt to partly cover that gap for the listener, I present here the lyrics of the songs from the scores of Villy Sargsyan’s arrangements of Komitas’ songs for piano, the first volume of which was published in 2015 and the second in 2018 in Yerevan. The lyrics of “I am burning” and “This night, moonlight night” are my own translations, as well as the few minor modifications that I made to the lyrics of all the other songs presented here from the scores of Villy Sargysan’s piano arrangements. In the following section, I describe in detail my choices in the piano parts of each song.

Garouna (It’s Spring)

In spring, it is all snow,
Wi, le, le, wi, le, le
Wi, le, le, le, le,

My love has cooled, he will go by,
Ah, black, Vakh, love,
The tongues of evil men will dry.

The wind, it blows hard, pagh-pagh,
The pain burns inside, so rude,

Love, you no longer loved me first,
And then abandoned me for good.

Even though the title of this song indicates that it is spring, the mood is sombre and sorrowful, since it is also about an unhappy love, and there is no response from the loved one. This is about the burning pain inside.

I listened many times to the recording of this song, where Komitas himself plays the piano part accompanying the singer Armenak Shahmuradyan. The static, heavy tempo transforms the character, the whole meaning of this song, underlining each word, and the importance of them. I used to have much faster tempo, and more flowing phrasing; the musical timing was very romantic, filled with crescendos and diminuendos. The more I started to listen to this Parisian recording of Komitas and A. Shahmuradyan from 1912, the more my approach transformed itself. I tried to practice a precise imitation of the vocal line on piano, like a translation of the melody from the recording on the piano without the accompaniment of the piano part. This made it possible for me to come close to the original version’s interpretation of this song that Komitas presented - the declamatory timing of the music, its simplicity and its clarity. The musical expression became more static; simple, with minimum pedal, avoiding romantic and emotional exaggerations, which are not typical of the serenity of the folk music aesthetics.

Ervum em (I am Burning)

I am burning, I am burning,
The red stone is hewn,
I am burning, I am burning,
My image on it drawn.
I am burning, I am burning,
What can I do, that drawn,
I am burning, I am burning,
My heart is melted and worn.

In this lyrical, quite sad love song, simple motives repeat in the piano accompaniment; I play over the top of a G bass note, played as a dam by the help of the middle pedal, thus creating really simple, transparent layers of piano accompaniment, serving as the sound shadow of blul. We have transposed the song from original G flat major tonality to G major in order to fit the natural tuning of the blul.

Yerkinqn Ampele (The Sky was Cloudy)

The cloudy skies,
Show grace,
I will go past her gaze.
My love is there in place.

Cloudy is the sky
Wet is the scene,
She is asleep, my love,
Her face is seen.

The clouds in heaven
Earth covered in dew,
I love you forever,
The magic is you.

In this delicate, lyrical love song, I have searched to come up with a much more significant dynamic difference between the melody and the accompanying voices, bringing the originality of the accents/tenutos coming from the Armenian lyrics on the upbeat notes more visible. Compared to earlier performances of mine, later I have a much slower tempo choice for the whole song, allowing more space for the music to speak itself.

I used to play this song with pedal, which resulted in it sounding very mixed and cloudy in sound. After a turning point during the working process in May 2018, my perception and imagination of the folk-inspired interpretation gained new perspectives. Particularly interesting details include the pedalling which, in my recording, is almost absent on this song because of the aim for artistic simplicity and clarity of tone, in the sense of creating the legatos not with the help of pedalling but almost without pedal. One significant aspect is also the impressionistic and transparent touch, aimed to find various timbres and colours of soft dynamics. This gives the song more colour and a real sense of folk melody, which has the elements of naivety, rusticity, and innocence. The key to it I consider to be the absence of a certain pushing of the pianistic tools of expression onto the first plan, instead letting the melody itself speak the meaning, character and message of the song to the listener. The audio samples of this chapter presented below provide a glimpse into the way in which my piano playing was transformed from a more romantic expression to an underlining of folk aesthetics in Komitas’ songs.

Komitas, Yerkinqn Ampele (The Sky was Cloudy), in an arrangement by V. Sargsyan for piano, recorded in live concert in June 2017, Germany.

Komitas, the same arrangement played with Vigen Balasanyan, blul, recorded in October 2018, Norway.

Es Gisher, Lusnak Gisher (This Night, Munlight Night)

This night, moonlight night,
Wi, le, le, le, le, le, le, le,
Le, le, le,
It snowed and garnished the earth,

Who has seen, that the beloved yar be forgotten,

Who forgets, may both eyes be blind.

As in “I am burning” here too, the piano accompaniment of this lyrical love song is based entirely on one bass note, which Komitas prolonged with slurs, and which hints to me at composer’s wish for sustained basses, dam. Naturally, I use the middle pedal here, and build the musical layers on. Here too, we have transposed the tonality from A flat major to G major in order to be able to play with blul. The expression of the song is like a meditation, and the voluminous registers created by pedals and soft echoes in the piano part bring tranquility and an observational character to the music.

Tsirani Tsar (Apricot Tree)

Apricot tree, no fruits are due,
Your branches make too much ado,
When I go stalking you,
My pain will start anew.

Give it back to me, give it back,
The mountains are again cool,
The joy of heart went down to the pool.
Go and never come this hour back,
The woe that struck my heart is black.

It has become so cool.
The joy sank in the pool.

I have been working way too much,
To water and weed a garden patch.
No leaves are left on naked trees,
There is no drug for my disease.

This song has a mysterious musical expression and is firmly rooted in the declamation of the lyrics into the words that shape the musical phrases. It is the monologue of an emotionally exhausted person relating his/her pain to nature. To achieve this mystical mood, I try to make my tremolos in the right hand not only as soft as possible, but also slow, thus giving to the music the expression of some static, archaic breath, letting the melody emerge through the tremolos. The accents on the up-beats of the song are related to Armenian lyrics, which is essential to focus on during playing because it changes the musical timing within the phrases. In the middle part, and in the coda too, the accents/tenutos are directly related to the lyrics of the song and are essential for creating the right phrasing of it. Clarity and the simplicity are keys to coming closer to the folk-inspired interpretation.

In the first part of the song, I experimented with the middle pedal, which allowed me to create separate sound layers, on G and F sustained bases, without getting mixed up with the melody and the tremolos. This creates a certain clarity, which is so important in order that the song does not become emotionally and musically romantic and exaggerated.

The middle part and the ending of the song are very close to the impressionistic - transparent, lucid sound layers created on a long right pedal, with calm, soft dynamic shades. However, in the piu lento, con dolore, I release my pedal at the end of the bars, which makes the pauses more expressive and allows them to hang like a question mark in the air, in silence.

Hov Areq (Cool Down)

Cool down,
Cool down my woe.
The mountains never hear,
They never cool my woe.

Clouds, clouds, dispel this heat,
Drop down your rain, make a sea of it,
So that the man of vile
Stay down there for quite a while.

This song is full of deep sorrow – it is a monologue calling on nature to take away and calm the woes of the heart. The recording of Komitas singing this song a capella provided me with a unique opportunity to try to imitate his musical timing, to follow his declamation, the way he ends his phrases, and to try to find ways on the piano to express it or come close to that musical expression. During the process, my tempos have been changed entirely so that they have become much slower, which allows the creation of a musical space for very intense inner concentration, motionless (in the body), and solely concentrated on the sound. My goal was not to make it sound romantic, or to use classical, romantic rubatos in combination with crescendos and diminuendos, but rather that it would be more straightforward, with serene musical timing close to folk music aesthetics. The timing and breathing of the phrases I naturally connect to the Armenian lyrics as Komitas sung them (in the Piu mosso section), as well as aiming to make a more significant dynamic contrast between the melody and the accompanying voices.

Komitas wrote that the beginning up until bar 12 (!) was to be played on one pedal. Here, I have used the middle pedal; it was particularly important for me to achieve this sense of a pulsing dam - the repeating beats of the same basses in the first section - but at the same time to try to achieve the clarity of the melodic line, without mixing it into the “clouds” of accompaniment notes. This was to prove rather challenging since the texture of the musical material was not easy to adjust to this artistic choice. It demands sensitive ears and a subtle control over pedalling when using all three pedals during the song, and also in articulation.

Komitas, Hov Areq (Cool Down), in an arrangement by V. Sargsyan for piano, recorded in live concert in Germany, in June 2017.

Komitas, Hov Areq (Cool Down), the same arrangement played with Vigen Balasanyan, blul, recorded in Norway, in October 2018.

Qele, Qele (Walk, Walk)

Go, walk, I am your slave,
I praise you; go by until I die.

The quail of love,
The quail of wounded love,
My meek and tender quail,
You walk, and others pale.

And with your gait and stature
You are just standinglike a tree of plain.

This song is a dialogue between the person talking to the bird, called Lorik, and sharing his/her pain. It is also available on recordings from 1912 to listen to, played on piano by Komitas and sung by Armenak Shahmuradyan. Having the possibilities to listen to their original timings and tempo choices in this song is a precious opportunity. I have tried the direct imitation of this recording in my playing. My response to it was expressed through my articulation; more clear, simple, serene and without romantic crescendos/diminuendos. There was more of a sense of flowing from phrase to phrase without stopping the groove. The timing of the ornaments was much slower than I used previously, which doubled their musical expression, bringing new meaning to it, and this of course closely relates to the Armenian lyrics of the song. The same refers to the accents/tenutos of the melody. I have tried to make more significant dynamic contrasts between the main melody and the accompanying layers. Much slower tempos in response to the original recording of Komitas with A. Shahmuradyan I have chosen in my playing. Here again, I have experimented with the middle pedal in the introduction, trying to create separate layers of the sustained bass in C, and the rest of the musical texture.

Antuni (Homeless)

My heart is like a broken stock,
A pile of rubble and a sunken log,
A place for wild fowl.
But floating in the river one day in spring,
The fishes will abound.
With no one around.

Antuni is one of the unique examples of an old Armenian pilgrim song in which the person involved is in a state of a deeply meditative, tragic monologue, expressing profound personal emotions about how broken the heart is and how devastated he feels, that he does not find any comfort, but wishes only to be drowned in the wild river, to be a food for fishes.

Komitas’ masterpiece “Antuni” has a special place in national art (not only musical), becoming perhaps the most vivid artistic generalization of the tragic in the history of the Armenian people. Claude Debussy had this song in mind when writing “If Komitas had created only the “Antuni”, that alone would have been enough for him to be considered a great artist (Gyodakyan, 2000, p. 43, my translation from Armenian, parentheses also mine.)

Komitas composed the piano part of the song in static tones surrounding the declamatory and tragic expression of the melody. The song evokes in me a strong sense of archaicness and sorrow when I listen to the 1912 recording of Komitas playing on the piano and the singing of Armenak Shahmuradyan.

My response to this recording transformed my playing from very emotional to a more introvert expressiveness, allowing the declamatory melody speak for itself. My tempos became so much slower in order to transmit the sense of archaicness - the feeling of a motionless, meditative state of mind looking deep into the inner space of the soul. My timing of the musical phrases I have built entirely based on the Armenian lyrics of the song: the accents, the articulation of the individual notes in the melody, and the breathing pauses in the melody.

In this song, (from bars 13 to 16) I have used the middle pedal as a tool to create on the piano the effect of sustained basses - dam; this has helped me not to mix the free declamatory melodic lines with the basses and the upper notes of the piano accompaniment, creating musical layers individual in expression that are "audible” to the listener. Even though I play the whole song entirely with pedal, I nevertheless chose my articulation in a way as to be intensely focused, with a certain sense of core, even in the soft dynamics of pp, and p, which allows them to transmit the seriousness and the sense of meditative diving into the sound layers of the song. In addition, the duduk’s sorrowful, vibrating velvet timbre playing the melody transmits the profound inner struggle and meditative aspects of Antuni.

Score example 14, Antuni (Houseless), bars 1-16, from the piano arrangements by V. Sargsyan.

Krunk (Crane)

The “Crane,” (Krunk in the Armenian language) is one of the unique historical examples of pilgrim songs that Komitas saved from oblivion. Krunk, according to Robert Atayan,

(…) is a song that has been widely spread from Armenian late medieval times and, with its melodic style, is close and related to types of compositions such as chants and in general to samples of Armenian medieval professional music, tagher, sharakanner (Atayan, 1969, p. 182, my translation from Armenian).

A pilgrim also expressed feelings, such as sorrow, love, and longing for the homeland, nearest and dearest through a symbolic dialogue with the “Crane.” The crane became, in a sense, a symbol of sorrow and nostalgia in the genre of pilgrim songs in Armenian folk music.

Crane, whence doest thou come? I am servant, of thy voice.
Crane, hast thou not news from our country?
Run not to thy flock, thou wilt arrive soon enough:
Crane, hast thou not news from our country?

I have left my possessions and vineyard, and I have come hither:
How often do I sigh, it seems that my soul is torn from me:
Crane, stay a little, thy voice is in my soul:
Crane, hast thou not news from our country?

The autumn is near, and thou art ready to go:
Thou hast joined a large flock:
Thou hast not answered me and thou art flown!
Crane, go from our country, and fly far away!

(Alishan, “Crane”, 1852, pp. 48-52).

My main goal has been to achieve the sense of folk aesthetics in the musical expression by connecting it entirely to the lyrics, for example how the word krunk is pronounced in the Armenian language, and how it affects the music of the main motif. I also chosen the musical phrases’ timing bearing in my mind the lyrics. The piano accompaniment has the likely possibility of sounding romantic, which I try to avoid at any cost. I imagine the piano as the shadow - the harmonic base for the duduk, playing the melody with its expressive, hauntingly beautiful vibrations, so characteristic of the duduk’s sonority and soft, velvet timbre of sound. In my response to the original recording, where Komitas plays himself, the piano sounds very humble, serene, simple and straightforward, allowing the melody take most of the musical space, both with regard to the dynamics, and the declamatory timing of it. My ornaments too have been transformed and became slower, with more musical expressiveness and meaning. With the help of middle pedal, I create the sustained bass (dam) effect on the D and A tones, (in the introduction bars from 1-4 on D, and the first sentence of the song, bars 5-7 on A), building the melody on it, with clarity and musical simplicity, on a separate sound layer from the ornaments and the bass.

Le, Le Yaman[2]

Le, le, yaman.
My house and yours standing eye to eye.
Le, le, yaman.
Bothered by signs, you and I.
Yaman, yaman, yar.

As soon as the sun hits the top of Masis,
My love, it is you, it is you that I miss.

This is one of the most renowned folk songs that nearly all Armenians know from the very first exclamation of the song - more typically known to people as Dle Yaman, and not Le, Le, Yaman. Sorrowful in expression, with an archaic breath, meditative and serene. It is interesting to know about the origins of the song: it was composed by a peasant blind woman named Bde, and “it came from her soul”, as expressed by Villy Sargsyan during our conversation in Yerevan in 2017. The Le, Le Yaman has been very popular among people over the centuries, and has spread widely so that several versions of this song have been created over time.

I consider the lyrics and the exclamations to be the key to the timing and phrasing of the music in order that it reflect the declamatory, almost improvisational timing of the song. I always imagine in my mind a raw, peasant, female voice with a warm timbre when I attempt to find the right touch on the keyboard, and the timing and timbre of duduk are also the closest sounds that I imagine in my mind with regard to Le, Le Yaman. I also try to articulate and to keep the second note in the main motive in such a way that it comes forward with overtones, breaking the “cleanness” of the major chords of the piano accompaniment. In the last two bars of the song, I use the middle pedal to create the effect of the dam in the A-minor chord and separate sound layers on it with the responding ornaments. We transposed this song from Komitas’ original tonality of A minor to B minor in order to adjust to the tuning/modes of duduk.

Oror (Lullaby)

You are good, no fault at all.
Who with no fault shall I call?

From heaven the moon shall I call,
And stars of the light with no fault.

You are good, no fault in you,
And all of you with no fault.

But in you, too, there is one fault.
You lie and lie, and sleep you don’t want.

The Komitas album is framed with Oror, played on duduk with chords on piano playing the role of the dam for duduk on the opening track, and on piano solo as the last track as a concluding afterthought - a reminiscence. I have used the middle pedal to keep the chords (dam) separate, without mixing them with the melody when played as a piano solo. Despite using the middle pedal, the frequencies/overtones of the chords disappeared too soon, and I wished to be able to prolong them with middle pedal more than the mechanics of the grand piano would allow. Nevertheless, I preferred to avoid the use of the right pedal, which was making the sound too voluminous, and mixing and blurring the articulation of the melody. Oror is very evocative to me, with its meditative and concentrated manner: it is atmospheric and has a very expressive, hauntingly beautiful melody.

Score example 15, Oror (Lullaby), bars 1-11, from the piano arrangements by V. Sargsyan.

Komitas’ handwriting of a folk song, Sari Aghjik, with Armenian Musical Notation and Armenian lyrics, written in Yerevan province, Surmalu, Evjilar village, signed 1913, July.

Copyright: Komitas Institute-Museum,

Photo of myself and Vigen Balasanyan, playing on the blul, taken during the course of a recording day at Kilden Concert House, Kristiansand, 2018.

Photo: Private

  1. Laloy was also the biographer of C. Debussy. ↩︎

  2. Sad exclamation. ↩︎