Armenian born, New York City-based vocalist, composer, and pianist Astghik Martirosyan brings her powerful album Distance to National Sawdust in New York on November 19. Distance is an artistic statement born of intense reflection on the relationship between present and past, self and nation, one’s inner emotional life and the call of homeland. Martirosyan wrote the music in 2020 while experiencing a stark duality: tremendous artistic growth and fulfillment at New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston amid gut-wrenching news from an Armenia embroiled in a 44-day war with neighboring Azerbaijan over the status of the long-disputed Artsakh. This was during the pandemic as well, giving the title Distance another fraught layer of meaning. “All these emotions were happening,” Martirosyan recalls. “I was experiencing it at a distance, by myself, far from my family and my country, and all of this came out in the music. This was my way of trying to heal, hope and dream, but also to express real sorrow. I lost friends in that war. I have friends who lost their homes. Music was my outlet.”
Born and raised in Yerevan, Armenia, where she began her career at 15, Martirosyan went on to earn a master’s degree from NEC, studying with Dominique Eade and Frank Carlberg, among others. She now divides her time between New York and Los Angeles. She captures the uniqueness of her journey to brilliant effect on her debut album, Distance, which features some of the finest musicians of the Los Angeles scene. Pianist Vardan Ovsepian (who co-produced the date with Martirosyan), veteran bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz and top-ranked rising drummer Christian Euman make up the core band, with vital assists from tenor saxophonist Daniel Rotem and cellist Maksim Velichkin on two tracks apiece.
The seven pieces included on Distance weave genres and idioms, blending lyrical influences of Armenian folk songs and Eastern European poetry with the modalities of classical, jazz and improvised music. “Silence,” the leadoff track and the only one on which Martirosyan plays piano, was loosely inspired by a line of Emily Dickinson’s: “I many times thought peace had come when peace was far away.” The title track “Distance” is inspired by Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem “To Boris Pasternak,” while “Song of the Final Meeting” is based on Anna Akhmatova’s poem of that name. The music for the poetry settings is all original.
“Silence” and the haunting “Spring Is On Its Way” feature Martirosyan’s original music and lyrics. The latter she describes as “an intimate letter to my homeland, written during the eerie silence of a temporary ceasefire, in which Azerbaijan claimed ownership of the mountains in the disputed territory.” Martirosyan evokes these sentiments in a musical language that is flowing, harmonically rich, full of melodic and formal invention and a surefooted vocal delivery (with layers of backing vocals heightening the emotional sweep).
“Summer Night” and “I’m Calling You” are Armenian folk songs, sung by Martirosyan in her native tongue. The former is heard in an epic, meter-shifting arrangement by the leader, while “I’m Calling You,” with tenor sax and cello enhancing the ensemble texture, is Ovsepian’s. “It was important to keep these melodies as pure as possible,” says Martirosyan, noting that Armenian music in general is monophonic, with the single melodic line predominant.
“Heartsong” has been recorded several times by its composer, the great Fred Hersch, whose vocal version with singer and lyricist Norma Winstone (a major influence on Martirosyan) can be heard on Songs & Lullabies from 2003 (under the alternate title “Song of Life”). “Lyrically, the song expresses hope and celebrates life, and I felt it was important to include that perspective,” says Martirosyan. “It’s the bright star on the album.”
“This is not a protest album,” Martirosyan says in sum, “but rather a statement about the human side of separation and conflict and the need to care for one another and our communities. I want to show how there can be hope and how we can move forward.”
The album features Vardan Ovsepian (piano, coproducer), Darek Oleszkiewicz (bass), Christian Euman (drums), Daniel Rotem (tenor sax) and Maksim Velichkin (cello).
The concert at National Sawdust will feature Astghik Martirosyan (piano and voice), Vardan Ovsepian (piano), Joe Martin (bass), Ari Hoenig (drums) and Steve Wilson (alto sax).