Putting Down Roots

Written by Lawrence Schenbeck

I’ve just seen a documentary about a food writer. It was inspiring, it made me think—about what critics can accomplish, for instance. We can always direct you to a nice restaurant, a good movie, or a terrific new album. But occasionally, we can redefine the whole meaning of critic. That’s what Jonathan Gold did in Los Angeles. He pointed people toward exciting cuisines in strip malls, immigrant mom-and-pop storefronts, and food trucks. He ended up getting the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for food writing.

The film isn’t really about food, though it offers some mouth-watering Southern Thai dishes I’d never heard of. No, it’s about people. It’s specifically about the way Los Angeles, a decentralized, unplanned collection of small towns, made diversity not only possible but delicious. Human beings can be endlessly fascinating, and that’s especially true when you’re tasting, looking at, or listening to what they create. Through his food writing, Gold “discovered” and celebrated entire communities. That’s pretty cool.

Watching that film—twice!—was a welcome break. My schedule got hectic last week because it’s Program Notes Season. I’ve been turning out notes for years, and lately things have heated up again; I’m glad I enjoy writing. More than that, I enjoy the research you have to do if you’re going to bring anything fresh to the table. (Freshness matters, especially with music written centuries ago.) My investigations this time led to some exquisite sounds I had known very little about.

Basically, I discovered Armenian folk and traditional music. First, I wrote liner notes for a new album of Armenian dances and folksongs from recorder virtuosa Nina Stern and her band, Rose of the Compass. Right after that, I organized program notes for an all-Armenian concert in which they joined forces with singers from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

To give you a taste of what they did, here is Kamancha by Sayat-Nova (1712-92), a great Armenian ashugh, or poet/composer. The performance features Stern, Ara Dinkjian (oud), and Shane Shanahan (percussion), all of whom joined her in the recording and CSJD concert:


I can’t resist providing a link to another complete track, Aparani Barnew for the recording and also performed at CSJD. A folk dance in joyfully irregular meter,  its roots lie in maqāmāt, an Arabic tradition of improvisation on a mode (cf. raga). Ara begins with an accompaniment figure, after which kanun player Tamer Pinarbaşi enters with a gradually expanding improvisation; oud and recorder re-enter with the infectious refrain. The CD will be released in January.

Most of the music on the cathedral program was composed or arranged by a single person, Komitas (Gomidas) Vartabed (1869–1935), a monk and ethnomusicologist who collected hundreds of Armenian songs, dances, and devotional chants. Early in the 20th century, his touring choirs brought Armenian music to audiences all over Europe and the Middle East. Today, his music is carried forward by groups like Nina’s—skilled musicians, some with Levantine ancestry and some without—and intrepid conductors like Kent Tritle. I wish he would make a Komitas recording. In the meantime, we have YouTube performances from various Armenian choirs. Here is “Yergrakordzi Yerku,” a plowing song that Komitas once explored in a distinguished scholarly article:


Some of this work’s intricate modal play (e.g., highly chromatic descending five-note scales, each one slightly different!) gets lost in the general fervor. But they’re giving you the big picture. Allow me to assist: Komitas was a Romantic. As such, he revered peasant life, so he essentially sacralized these all-important communal plowing songs:

The general intimation . . . is a commanding call, tender, coaxing, self-sacrificing, affectionate and loving. It is as if the peasant had concentrated his entire spirit in just one refrain, prepared to sacrifice his whole life for the beloved buffalo and his fellow ploughworker.

Yes, this music was sung to oxen. More to the point, it was sung by a community, one close to the natural world, utterly dependent on each other and on their livestock. Their deliberate, sustained, effortful song evokes emotions linked with survival itself. Understand that, and you’ll understand Komitas, you’ll appreciate Armenian song, and you’ll grasp something more about a big chunk of the Romantic movement.

Lately I’ve been watching Civilizations, the public-television series that revisits Sir Kenneth Clark’s venerable attempt to bring Art to the masses. It’s got a new bunch of talking heads—Simon Schama chief among them, but also Harvard’s Maya Jasanoff, who could explain anything to me and I’d find it fascinating. When they get around to Romanticism, they frame it in terms of cosmopolitan urban discontent. City dwellers who could afford it increasingly turned to nature, to rural life, woods and streams, as a restorative for (and refuge from) city life.

Not that Chopin and Schumann were tree-huggers. We know what happened to Chopin when he ventured away from those Parisian salons to the comparative wilderness of Majorca. But think of the little hut Mahler built for himself in the woods near his summer home. Think of Beethoven’s fondness for the countryside. Think of Richard Strauss’s famous memoir of a hiking trip: Eine Alpensinfonie.

Here’s another escape scenario that 19th- and early-20th-century artists visited on us: exoticism. They were like, let’s go somewhere uncivilized, full of sexually available women, and men with big swords and well-defined abs. Because, you know, non-Western cultures have more fun!

The lure of the non-Western was significant among French Romantics, but it was based in prurient fantasy. Gauguin discovered the sad truth when he sailed for Tahiti, thinking he’d find himself an uncivilized paradise. It turned out badly. For their part, French composers gradually moved away from the exotic: whereas Saint-Saëns had freely appropriated Middle Eastern motifs, Debussy occupied himself with inventing music far less dependent on orientalisms.

What’s this got to do with Komitas, or with Jonathan Gold? Okay: were the “uncorrupted” folksongs Komitas discovered in tiny mountain villages more attractive because they sounded so exotic (i.e., strange), as they surely must have? And Gold, sitting down with Ruth Reichl to a nice plate of Oaxacan chapulín? Was that all about creating community? Maybe, just maybe, they also got some hipster joy from eating crispy little critters.

Bartók searched for “pure” folk expression too, in Transylvania. And although he didn’t do fieldwork, Stravinsky poked around in the published ethno literature while creating PetrushkaRite, and Les Noces. He was no Komitas, but he was onto something: a few years later it morphed into Modernism. By the end of the century, everything was connected, mixed up, combined, and recombined. Which shell had the pea under it?

Speaking of searchers: you know Norway’s Morten Lindberg, engineering genius behind enterprising audiophile label 2L (Lindberg Lyd). One of his latest offerings is a Pure Audio Blu-ray/SACD package (2L-146-SABD) of two symphonic works by Henning Sommerro. The sound is, of course, better than first-rate. It glistens. It thumps. It sings. I was somewhat less enchanted by the music itself, so exuberant, so generous and open, so naïve. Sommerro began by playing in rock and folk groups, then moved into theatre and film work. He grew up in the Nordmøre district, home to a strong folk-music tradition; he studied the organ in Trondheim, then went on for conservatory training. He’s got Big Ears. His six-movement Ujamaa (Swahili for brotherhood) is a sort of travelogue—Gulliver’s Further Travels?

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Feel free to guess which continent he’s depicting. I’m reminded of The Lion King, of Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite, and of many, many movie soundtracks. The other selection, The Iceberg, is more individualistic: using poetry in three languages, it offers meditations on explorer Fridtjof Nansen and his oft-neglected wife Eva Sars.

Comparisons between Sommerro and Komitas—or any other Romantic Nationalist—seem pointless. So much has changed. This music sounds as if it wants to reach a wider audience, but it probably won’t travel well outside the Baltic. It’s frankly commercial, “universalist,” and yet perhaps Norwegian. (How would I know?) In his new collection of essays on storytelling, Philip Pullman asks, “Should we refrain from telling stories that originated elsewhere, [because] we don’t have the right to annex the experience of others?” This is what academics call appropriation, and some consider it a mortal sin. Yet Pullman answers his own question like this:

A culture that never encounters any others becomes first inward-looking, and then stagnant, and then rotten. We are responsible for bringing fresh streams of story into our own cultures from all over the world, and welcoming experience from every quarter, and offering our own experience in return.

Which I think Sommerro is attempting to do. Whether he’s entirely successful is another matter. You may prefer to enjoy his music mostly as ear candy. These performances, by the Trondheim SO, Choir, and soloists, seem to express Sommerro’s aesthetic perfectly.

It makes a nice dessert, even if it’s not chocolate-covered chapulín.

ps: I don’t know how Ye Olde Editor came up with the graphic for this piece, but it’s terrific. You’re looking at a still life with Armenian instruments—the t’ar, a figure-eight-shaped lute, k’amanch’a, a spike fiddle, and duduk, a double-reed wind instrument that produces a soft, slightly nasal sound. You can hear it echoed in the way Nina Stern plays her chalumeau. Oh, and we’re also looking at pomegranates, I think. Nice!

[Ye Olde Editor was far away in South America. All credit must go to Ye Far Younger Associate Editor Maggie McFalls. Respect!–Ed.]  [Good to know. Thank you, Maggie. —LS]

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