“Chants, Hymns and Dances” features music of G.I. Gurdjieff (c. 1877-1948) in new arrangements for cello and piano by Anja Lechner and Vassilis Tsabropoulos, as well as compositions by Tsabropoulos (b. 1966) based, in part, upon Byzantine hymns. The focus of the album is music derived, directly or indirectly, from the oral music tradition.
Gurdjieff’s musical works were amongst the first pieces in the West to take account of the diversity of music resonating in the wider world. Neither wholly “western” nor wholly “eastern” in themselves, they suggest a window thrown open to the orient. German cellist Anja Lechner sensed the music’s potential for her new duo with Greek pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos. Its context seemed immediately familiar to them. Lechner had been working closely with Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian who had made use, particularly in his adaptations of Komitas, of some of the same roots. Other Gurdjieff pieces had clear affinities with the music of the Greek Orthodox Church, also the wellspring for a group of compositions by Vassilis Tsabropoulos.
Despite their very different backgrounds, Anja Lechner and Vassilis Tsabropoulos have in common the fact that they are classical musicians with an uncommon facility for improvisation. The Gurdjieff material has never previously been treated as freely as it is here. Tsabropoulos insists that “the only way to reach the heart of the material is by feeling free. But you have to respect the context, asking, ‘How can we develop the melodic lines while at the same time protecting them?’”
A similar modus operandi is employed by Tsabropoulos in his approach to the Byzantine hymns. The “Trois morceaux après des hymnes Byzantins” are based upon melodies that have survived since the 4th century to be sung at Easter in the Greek Orthodox Church. From the CD booklet notes: “The half-Greek Gurdjieff would certainly have known the Passion Week hymns well, these irreducible masterpieces of proportion, whose sense of balance, and interweaving of modes and melodic lines, have influenced the history of composition. In reinterpreting this material, the Lechner/Tsabropoulos duo is re-examining some of the building blocks of European music. Tsabropoulos once said, ‘It was the timeless essence of this music as well as its expressive simplicity that drew me to it” and the clarity of the Gurdjieff music strikes him similarly, ‘as if there is a clear path between the two worlds’”.
The philosopher Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff developed his music originally to accompany the dances and “Movements” that he taught to pupils at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, his study-centre based near Paris. The sources for his melodies came from music heard in his childhood or on his prodigious and now famous travels, documented in his book “Meetings with Remarkable Men” (and subsequently in Peter Brook’s film of the same name).
Born in Alexandropol at the border of Armenia and Turkey, Gurdjieff was the son of a Greek “Ashok” or troubadour who “improvised on religious or philosophical themes”. The overlapping musical cultures of the Caucasus also impressed the young Gurdjieff. Later, on his journeys from Asia Minor to Afghanistan, Tibet and other Central Asian countries, researching diverse spiritual traditions, he absorbed folk music, peasant dance tunes, sacred and ritual music and chants. All of these elements, remembered or half-remembered, became part of his own music, whose transcription was realized with the aid of his resourceful assistant, the Ukrainian composer/pianist Thomas de Hartmann.
The Gurdjieff pieces that appear on “Chants, Hymns and Dances” were all written between 1925 and 1927, a period in which Gurdjieff and de Hartmann collaborated on, astonishingly, more than 300 compositions. For decades, the music was heard almost exclusively in Gurdjieff study groups. In 1980, Keith Jarrett prompted a wider reception of Gurdjieff’s music with his ECM recording, “Sacred Hymns of G.I. Gurdjieff”.
Anja Lechner studied with Jan Polasek, Heinrich Schiff and Janos Starker, and was awarded a scholarship from the Deutsche Studienstiftung. She is the cellist of the Rosamunde Quartet which she co-founded in 1992. The quartet made its international breakthrough with festival appearances and, particularly, recordings with ECM. Prominent amongst these are albums with music of Haydn (“The Seven Words”), Shostakovich/Webern/Burian, and Valentin Silvestrov (the Grammy-nominated “leggiero, pesante”). A quartet album featuring the music of Tigran Mansurian is in preparation.
Lechner has also long been involved with aspects of improvisation in different traditions. Her interest in Tango Nuevo led to the Rosamunde Quartet’s “Kultrum” collaboration - both a critical and popular success - with Argentinian bandoneonist/composer Dino Saluzzi. The Saluzzi/Rosamunde partnership is now in its seventh year. Anja Lechner also plays duo concerts with the bandoneonist. She is, furthermore, a member of the trio Misha Alperin / Anja Lechner / Hans-Kristian Kjos Sørensen; their debut album “Night” was recorded live at the Vossajazz Festival in Norway. In 2004, Anja Lechner toured with the trio Abaton, with Swiss pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and American violinist Mark Feldman.
Vassilis Tsabropoulos was born in Athens, and attended the conservatories of Athens, Paris and Salzburg, before completing his studies at the Juilliard School, where his teachers included Rudolf Serkin and Tatyana Nikolayeva. He is well-known in his homeland as an interpreter of the classical tradition, and has performed internationally as a soloist and under conductors including Vladimir Ashkenazy and Robert Janssens.
He is also highly regarded as a jazz pianist, and was encouraged in his improvisational activities by Chick Corea. He has recorded two CDs for ECM with Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen’s trio, completed by British drummer John Marshall: “Achirana” and, just released in spring 2004, “The Triangle”.
Vassilis Tsabropoulos recorded the Passion Week hymns in his own solo piano transcriptions, released by ECM as “Akroasis” at Easter 2003. The disc was very well received by the international press, and Tsabropoulos went on to prepare new arrangements of the material, including versions for cello and piano, as well as new compositions especially written for the duo with Anja Lechner.