Yesterday afternoon, I attended a remarkable concert by the Nikolai Kachanov Singers, that had a title that captured my attention when I first learned of it – Senseless War. That thought alone got me to attend. The program consisted of two major works by composers who were previously unknown to me: they performed selections from the Patarag (Armenian Divine Liturgy) by Komitas and Amao Omi (Senseless War) by the Georgian composer Giya Kancheli for chorus and saxophone quartet.
Although Komitas studied music in the west, the sounds of Komitas’ Partarag seems grounded in a music that pre-dates Christianity. It feels ancient and mythical. The composer’s story is equally compelling. From the bit I’ve read about him today, he seems to have been the father of ethnomusicology, collecting and preserving Armenian folks songs in an ancient notation that has not survived. In yet another of innumerable examples of “senseless war” Komitas was arrested by the Turks at the beginning of the Armenian genocide. He was rescued, by among others, the American ambassador Henry Morgenthau, but lapsed into insanity from the experience, and never recovered. Much of his collection of Armenian folk music was lost.
Although obviously a composer well-known to others, hearing the music of Giya Kancheli at the concert was a happy discovery for me. The pairing of this work with the Komitas was brilliant – as despite their very different musical language, they seemed to both rise out of the same emotional impetus. Often, the voices blended so with the saxophones that you could hardly tell which you were hearing. Amao Omi is made all the more powerful by the composer’s frequent use of silence – which often spoke as loudly as did the climactic moments in the score.