Ghedtair Composite: Music from Armenia is an upcoming album of traditional Armenian folk songs reimagined for the Bandcamp era by Brooklynite Justin Mayfield. The benefit album, releasing 18 February, draws from Mayfield’s high-school period “obsession” with influential Californian band Mr. Bungle, and a compulsion to explore his Armenian heritage. Justin was galvanised by the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, “The country is going through a lot right now,” Mayfield says via zoom, “and there are certain things they need to completely flip over and rethink in order to grow. And this [the album] is obviously not going to help in any way,” Justin laughs.
While not likely to win a Nobel Peace Prize, the album is a hypnotic blend of Armenian folk standards and a math-rock meets indie-folk hybrid. Recorded with a group of Armenian musicians and singers, mostly through file sharing, it features especially haunting vocal contributions from Shauna Topian, Sevana Tchakerian, and Chicagoan up-and-comer Sima Cunningham. While there are some uneven aspects to the album, as a whole it is an entertaining and idiosyncratic reinterpretation of storied music history.
Armenian folk music can largely be attributed to the work of Komitas, an 18th-century priest who travelled the country transcribing the music of the people. Komitas is known as a pioneering figure in ethnomusicology, and his music has been interpreted by contemporary musicians such as soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, who earned a Grammy nomination for Gomidas Songs in 2008, and System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian, who recently worked with contemporary jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan on a version of “Garuna“. Ghedtair Composite, however, could mark the first time Komitas has been given the hipster treatment.
Justin, who holds a BA in music theory and composition from Muhlenberg College, always had an interest in the ‘other’ and what was different. He would get excited whenever he heard exotic structures. “As a kid, for whatever reason, you can probably psychoanalyse this, I was always looking for something that felt unusual or different melodically, and the way you flat the second note of the scale and sharp the fifth note always felt nice, like it tickled my brain. That is where some Armenian music goes, so maybe that comes from within me.
Despite the interest in his lineage, Mayfield comes across as somewhat challenged by his own cultural identity. “I didn’t get the ‘ian’ end to my name,” he laments when explaining his Northern European paternal origins. “For the Armenian diasporans, it’s like ‘I am in this country because my great-grandparents had to escape the genocide in Armenia in 1915’ and a lot of third-generation Armenians lost connection to their culture because they either chose to assimilate [into the US] or they did their best to keep their culture intact. My family chose the former. I needed to learn about [Armenian] culture. In a way, it helps you understand your family better, and eventually yourself too.”
He got the opportunity to trace his roots by travelling to Armenia in 2014, taking part in the Birthright Program, a semi-funded three-month volunteer program for those of Armenian heritage. His eyes light up when I ask him about his time there. “There are a lot of aspects of it that are stuck in time. A small example is the cars, they’re mostly old soviet cars, the smell of gasoline permeates everything. The buses are crammed with people [poses as though crammed in a bus]. You’re with people all the time. You’d be in this restaurant and they wouldn’t bring you the bill because they wanted you to stay, so you’d end up staying there all night drinking and talking by candlelight because the electricity was out. Goofy stuff like that.” It was on this trip that Justin met his fiancée, videographer and photographer Kohar Minassian, who was also taking part in the program. While Mayfield created the artwork for Ghedtair Composite, Kohar did the design and layout.
After his short but rich experience in Armenia, Justin returned to New York and passed the years playing in the indie rock band Sheen Marina, working audio production jobs, and being involved with a local group known as Armenian Creatives, who organise cultural projects around Brooklyn. “It’s a way to find all the young Armenians in the city who work in the arts. It started with ten people. We would get together in someone’s apartment. I wasn’t really involved with the setup of the group – that was two women, Caroline Partamian and Katie Giritlian. They found us through friends, because going to Birthright we connected with a lot of people, and that network grew once we came to New York. We meet at each other’s apartments or in the park and would bring food and talk about what we’re all working on.”
Life went on like this comfortably. Justin, a night owl, would stay up late working on music in his basement until the small hours. “If I do get up early I normally have a good day after that, but it’s hard.” It wasn’t until stumbling upon an obscure book of Armenian folk music for guitar did Mayfield have his eureka moment. He would combine his passion for and knowledge of music with his search for his Armenian identity. Using the book as his main reference point, Mayfield chose songs that were both popular and less known to give a broader representation of the Armenian folk music canon. “It was really hard to find sheet music for a couple of them that didn’t come from the book. I had to do a lot of Googling.”
Once the songs were sourced and digested – often painstakingly due to Mayfield’s admitted rustiness with sight-reading – he was able to rearrange them around his own brand of alternative rock music. “Who were your biggest influences, from a rock perspective?” I ask. “It started in high school. I was obsessed with Mr. Bungle, which got me into Dillinger Escape Plan, Daughters – all of the Mr. Bungle side projects,” Justin answers.
“I was pretty loose with my interpretations. Some of the songs I flipped and I sped up the tempo and changed the key to a major key, making them sound more joyful. A lot of Armenians feel like we’re only known for the tragic events we’ve experienced, and a lot of the art reflects, that so I wanted to flip that because there’s a lot more to… when you go to Armenia people are blue-collar chip-on-their-shoulder, but they aren’t pretentious there. So I consciously tried to make some of the songs peppier, or weird.”
To get the most out of the project, both for himself and for the legitimacy of the project, Mayfield planned to work with as many Armenian musicians as possible. He found musicians through contacts of the Armenian Creatives. “Some people got back a day after I first emailed them, others were months, months down the line. People were busy. The ones who did agree [to contribute], I sent them rough mixes once I had basic tracks down, but the songs weren’t finished, so a lot of what they sent me back gave me ideas or ways to finish the song.”
The vocal contributions of Topian, Tchakerian, and Cunningham are highlights on the album, as are the smooth bass lines by Noah Garabedian and Daniel Ehramjian. Contributions elsewhere on the album are also of high quality, with “Alagyas” made majestic by Michael Sarian’s trumpet, and “Saren Guka” is given a beautiful steel guitar treatment by Craig Heed. Perhaps the most alluring feature of the album is the cross-breeding of math-rock and the loose time signatures of Armenian folk music.
Traditional Armenian folk music is not based on the European tonal system, but on a system of tetrachords. The last note of one tetrachord is also the first note of the next tetrachord. This means that, theoretically, most Armenian folk music is based on an endless scale. Math rock, on the other hand, is characterised by its rhythmic complexity. Merging these two styles of play manages to feel comfortable while also like it’s discovering new territory in the prog-rock landscape. This fusion is most successfully accomplished on “Havaradim” a track bookended by world-rock and a more psychedelic, meandering outro. As most of the tracks were recorded via file sharing, with musicians in different locations, I was curious as to how the drums, so complicated in their shifting time signatures, were worked out.
“I did record those in the room with the drummer,” Justin explains, “I play with him [Alex Ruiz] in my main band [Sheen Marina], which is a math-rocky band, so he’s used to playing that kind of stuff. I sent him a demo of it and he learned it and showed up and was able to play it. I did chart him the parts, but he just threw that to the side.”
On the excellent closing track “Saren Guka”, Mayfield comes across as world music curious Beck; it’s a sonic exploration driven by melody. Mayfield’s vocals on “Saren Guka” (and “Es Kez Tesa”) reveal him to be a gentle singer capable of stirring emotions with his restrained croon. After a somewhat a clumsy start, “Es Kez Tesa” reaches the heights and sensibilities of Sigur Rós, with its soaring melody and spacey background.
On four tracks there is spoken word dialogue running underneath the music. “Those are my grandparents that my dad recorded in 1982. I’ve always had that recording floating around the family,” Justin explains. There are times when the spoken word segments work well, adding a very human layer, but more often they do not, are unintelligible, too frequent, and ultimately distract from the music. After some segway in our conversation I go back and ask Justin again about his reasoning for using them.
“It’s been a recording that I’ve always had. I hear [his grandfather’s] voice talking while thinking about this music, thinking about them [his grandparents]. There were some parts where I wanted to have something going on spoken word-wise. So I would go through the recordings and find things that I thought would fit. He had a traumatic childhood. He spoke about being mocked or threatened as a kid by soldiers. Some of it was the classic ‘I came to America with one dollar in my pocket.’ It was in my head while I was working on this so I threw it in there,” he says with finality. I sense him becoming perturbed, in the most polite way possible, as though through my questioning he could tell I wasn’t too fond of the generous use of audio samples. I decided to wrap things up.
“What do you feel you’ve accomplished with this project?” I ask him, smiling. He pauses for a several seconds, looking up, thinking. I interject his rumination with “Perhaps a better question is: What did you get from this project?”
“One of the main goals I had with this was to internalise more Armenian music. When you record someone else’s music, it comes out in other ways, it’s like wearing used clothing. I like the idea of taking cultural artifacts and regurgitating them, making them relevant in whatever small way, for whoever hears this.”
As for his future musical plans: “I want to return to doing Armenian music and make the next one a more consistent album, like surf rock. That’s the kind of stuff my main band plays. I have a show tomorrow in Bushwick, right down the street here.” His head turns as he looks at someone who came into the room.
Ghedtair Composite: Music from Armenia is a brave album. It takes risks and isn’t afraid to be itself. There are a handful of very special moments and a smattering of brilliant ones among the abstract clutter. The album will be released on Bandcamp on 18 February before being released on other streaming services. All sales made through Bandcamp will be donated directly to the Armenian Wounded Heroes Fund.
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Bayrakdarian’s ‘Gomidas Songs’ Nominated for Grammy,” Loussapatz Weekly (Canada), No. 772, p. 41. 2009.
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McCollum, Jonathan Ray (2004). “Music, Ritual, and Diasporic Identity: A Case Study of the Armenian Apostolic Church”. (PDF). University of Maryland. p. 11.
“Professor Isabel Bayrakdarian’s album Armenian Songs for Children to be considered for Grammy Award nomination”. US Santa Barbara Department of Music. 18 November 2021.
“Serj Tankian and Tigran Hamasyan record Komitas’ song”. Style News.
Shrum, Tony. Song Premiere: Sheen Marina – “Everything’s the Water”. New Noise Magazine. 28 September 2018.