Areni Agbabian: voice, piano
Nicolas Stocker: percussion
Areni Agbabian casts a quiet spell with her art, as an improvising vocalist, folk singer, storyteller and pianist. Her voice has been described as “bell-toned” by The Guardian and “lush” by the Los Angeles Times, the music she creates with it “intensely focused, moving toward some kind of hidden truth,” according to The New York Times. Agbabian’s ECM debut, Bloom, has a richness that belies its spare ingredients: just her evocative voice and piano, along with the subtly ingenious percussion of Nicolas Stocker (who was last heard on ECM with Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile ensemble). Born and raised in Los Angeles into an Armenian family, Agbabian came to international attention via performances and recordings with groups led by Armenian jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan. Bloom draws deeply on the singer’s Armenian heritage, as she reinterprets sacred hymns, a traditional spoken-word tale and a dark folk melody transcribed by the great Armenian composer and ethnomusicologist Komitas. She intersperses these among her own vocal and instrumental compositions, which channel a wide world of influences, from Komitas to Tigran Mansurian, from Morton Feldman to George Crumb, from Patty Waters to Kate Bush. The melody that recurs through the highlights “Petal One,” “Petal Two” and “Full Bloom” glows with an aural and emotional purity that’s characteristic of Agbabian’s music.
Agbabian recorded Bloom at Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI in Lugano, Switzerland, with ECM founder Manfred Eicher producing. The two had met some years before at a post-concert dinner in Paris, with Eicher then listening to her first solo album, Kissy(bag). About the experience of working with the producer for Bloom, Agbabian says: “First of all, the studio in Lugano is a warm wooden room with a natural reverb and projection, perfect for this sort of acoustic music. With his years of experience, Manfred guides an artist to the correct balance musically. As far as my songs went, he suggested a few changes that made them more appropriate for a studio recording as opposed to concert performance. He also suggested that I play slightly different takes of the same material, which created recurring motifs that gave the album narrative shape. There are a couple of pieces credited to Manfred, ‘Rain Drops’ and ‘Whiteness,’ that serve as parentheses within the storybook feel of Bloom. He had suggested that I play a mid-range chord in E-flat and slowly make my way up the keyboard with an airy feel. He conducted these moments live in the studio space.”
Stocker also contributes two solo percussion pieces to the album, “Light Effects” and “Colored.” About the collaboration with the percussionist, Agbabian explains: “When I was invited to check out the studio in Lugano, I met Nicolas while he was playing a Nik Bärtsch session. I could immediately tell that Nicolas was a very kind person, and I really liked the color palette of his percussion setup, which he extended with unique bells and gongs. We ended up working together intensively for a few weeks before recording, both in L.A. and Zurich. I added a few items to his percussion set, such as Tibetan singing bowls. Also, the piano preparations on some of the pieces ended up giving us a unified percussion sound, especially on my piece ‘The Water Bride.’ And ‘The River’ was a pure improvisation by the two of us from which his polyrhythmic groove in ‘Colored’ emerged.”
Agbabian has been a singer since she was an infant, already humming melodies at the age of 11 months. Growing up in a world of sound, she was hitting xylophones and drums by age four, making up melodies and rhythms. She sang rhymes and folk songs with her aunt, a trained opera singer and Armenian music specialist, and her mother, a storyteller and Armenian folklorist. These women imprinted the Armenian language, its tones and inflections, into her mind and body. At age 7, Agbabian began a study of classical piano that lasted for 20 years. Throughout this period, she continued her vocal work, and by her early 20s, she had sung in many choirs of Armenian sacred and Bulgarian folk music, eventually performing traditional Armenian folklore and music professionally. She gradually integrated these byways of her musical journey into an individual musical path.
After some years performing in the improvised music scene of New York City, Agbabian returned to Los Angeles, where she met Hamasyan. She was a member of the rising star’s quintet for a number of years, touring the world and recording two albums with him; she wrote the lyrics to “Lament” on Hamasyan’s Shadow Theater LP. As a vocalist, Agbabian has worked not only in jazz and folk music but also in contemporary opera, dance, new music and multimedia performance, with her credits including the opera What To Wear by Bang on a Can composer Michael Gordon. She released her solo album Kissy(Bag) in 2014. Of late, Agbabian has been performing Armenian and Persian music in Los Angeles with Lernazang, a group of young folk instrumentalists; she also collaborates with guitarist Gagik “Gagas” Khodavirdi, her husband.
Throughout Bloom, a sense of spiritual yearning makes itself felt, strikingly so in Agbabian’s own deeply introspective songs “Patience” and “Mother,” as well as in the Armenian sacred hymn “Anganim Arachi Ko.” The connection between the traditional material and the original songs is virtually genetic. She explains: “Armenian music is in my DNA. It speaks to me on a spiritual level that I cannot explain. In fact, the sacred music eventually is what changed my life. It was through it that I came to know God, and through the imagery of the Biblical stories of the Resurrection written in grabar (classical Armenian) that my heart was transformed. Intellectually, it is probably more difficult than any other music I have studied, European classical music included, especially because of Armenian music’s linguistic and rhythmic challenges, the microtonality and the memorization. Ninety percent of Armenian music isn’t notated, and the notation that exists isn’t Western. I’m in my fourth year of participating in sacred music study and practice. This requires an understanding of ritual time, and supporting the cerebral process of understanding music with conscious listening of my whole person.”