Raffi Wartanian

On New Album Wartanian’s Experiment Goes the Distance

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NEW YORK — From the high plains of Anatolia to the smoky mountains of Appalachia, Raffi Joe Wartanian’s second album Critical Distance captures the spirit of these two symbolic regions — and all the rich forces of nature in between.

The independent artist’s layered and distinct life experiences contributed to the uniqueness of Wartanian’s instrumental album that features him playing the oud, mandolin and guitar, tying together fragments from memorable chapters, such as a cross-country trek across the United States to bus rides through Western Armenia to volunteering on a farm in Portugal.

While many music producers assert that a second album is harder than the first, Wartanian had no trouble coming up with ideas for his follow-up to “Pushkin Street,” accumulating a “big bank of ideas” during his travels that ultimately became a part of “Critical Distance.” He drew upon the diverse locales he spent time in, serving the homeland, digging deep into his ancestral roots, spending time with his family in Lebanon and living with gypsy jazz musicians in San Francisco.

“The album features various styles, such as blues, Armenian, tango, bluegrass and rock,” said Wartanian, regarding the 10 original compositions. “I think it has all that because of the distance my family traveled, which ties into this idea of migration and cultural interactions that arose from that.”

A native of Baltimore, Md., Wartanian hails from a musically-inclined family, particularly his aunt, who is a classical pianist. He grew up hearing her tackle ambitious pieces and followed in the footsteps of his siblings when they too began taking piano lessons at a young age. Raffi, however, realized that he preferred  to learn by ear, earning warm encouragement from his grandparents.

“My grandfather lived with us and whenever I practiced he would sit and listen and clap,” said Wartanian. “It was a way for us to bond.”

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In high school he switched to guitar and continued to learn by ear training and tablature. Wartanian began to transcribe music and experimented with all kinds of musical genres, from joining a funk band to playing jazz and bluegrass, a genre well-known to Baltimore.

“Every step I’ve taken, I always look at the music around me,” said Wartanian, who also reflects on the past by exploring, honoring and transcribing preceding musicians, including John Berberian’s music from the late 1960s, to which he refers as “psychedelic rock meets Armenian kef music.”

The compositions on “Critical Distance,” ranging from Blues in O to A Whisper in the Desert to El Molino Viejo, were impacted by all the stages of the musician’s growth and the destinations he voyaged to, opening himself up to the people, the cultures and the artistic communities. His album cover art is a testament to the hybrid of influences — a Baltimore-based painter of Greek descent, Minás Konsolas, who painted the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, an icon in the city. All of it came together, however, quite organically.

“I composed the music without an agenda or thematic purpose,” said Wartanian. “Only afterwards did I reflect and see where it all emerged from.”

Nature is one motif that’s prevalent in “Critical Distance” and rooted in Wartanian’s appreciation of the outdoors, from camping in the San Gabriel mountains to walking across Spain’s historic Camino de Santiago. The peacefulness and solitude gave him the space to create and compose novel compositions.

“My road trips in California particularly reminded me of biking across the country, with the scenery of deserts, mountains and the hypnotic conversations with nature,” he said. “Nature has an endless supply of lessons to teach us when we are willing to listen.”

Topics: Music

The core of his influences, however, lies in being Armenian, an element that is “inextricable” from Wartanian’s art and creativity.

“After living in Armenia, I accepted that my culture is naturally a part of what I do and something I’m always thinking about,” said Wartanian. “It’s always there, no matter how conscious or unconscious, by virtue of the way I was raised.”

Specifically within the album, there are tracks inspired by the Armenian music Wartanian studied that he tried to put into conversation with different cultural idioms, such as a blues on the oud played with Armenian inflections.

“This music is like a melting pot and Armenian music is one ingredient as well as Greek,” said Wartanian. “I like to describe it as Armenian folk meets Appalachian bluegrass in a Brooklyn tango bar.”

The guitar-like, pear-shaped oud has a significant presence on the album. Wartanian has been playing the traditional Armenian instrument since he bought his first one in Lebanon in 2009 and subsequently studied in the homeland. His technique, however, greatly improved under the guidance of maestro musician Ara Dinkjian.

“Ara is fabulous and so generous with his time and knowledge,” said Wartanian. “He promotes a healthy and inspiring method for his students.”

During their sessions, Wartanian learned pieces by Sayat Nova as well as Ottoman Armenian composers and classical Ottoman music. They dedicated ample time to listen and study old recordings and value their historic legacy.

“As a musician, composer and multi-instrumentalist, Raffi has understood that the most valuable contribution an artist can offer his culture is not in trying to recreate something of the past, but rather to offer his own unique, and thus new impression of his heritage,” said Dinkjian. “With his new recording Critical Distance, Raffi composes and performs with an obvious knowledge of both Armenian and American music, but in an absolutely fresh way.”

Focusing more on instrumental and acoustic music, a “complete stylistic departure” from his first album that featured original lyrics, Wartanian enlisted the musical prowess of bassist Jake K. Leckie and Grammy-award winning percussionist M.B. Gordy on bass. While he had many months to work on “Pushkin Street,” he only had two days in a Los Angeles recording studio to complete the 40-minute album.

“I’ve never worked in an environment as fast-paced, so I knew I had to bring my ‘A’ game with Jake and M.B.,” said Raffi, recalling that it was Dinkjian who advised him to surround himself with musicians more skilled than himself.

“Raffi has always been a great storyteller and musician,” said Leckie. “His music to me is very narrative because even though the music is instrumental, I find myself visualizing the places he has traveled when I listen, making it universal as anyone can interpret it despite what language they speak.”

The title of the album comes from writing, another passion of Raffi’s, which he says is applicable to music.

“If we are writing personal pieces, we have to have a certain distance from it and share it with others so we can see it more objectively,” said Wartanian, who recently completed the coursework for an MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia University where he currently teaches undergraduate writing.

Looking ahead, Wartanian plans to take his music from the studio out to the public by organizing a number of summer performances.

“Conventional music wisdom states that albums are dead and the goal is to release singles,” said Wartanian. “Maybe I’m too young to say I’m old fashioned, but I don’t get satisfaction from releasing just a single because it only reveals a part of what I want to say through music.”

As he continues to forge uncharted paths with his music, Wartanian is appreciative of the positive response he received from his crowdfunding campaign that brought in 209 contributions from 15 different countries, along with support from AGBU Performing Arts Department, Creative Armenia and La Bella Strings, a string manufacturer in Newburgh, NY. He emphasizes the importance of “supporting people who create new cultural material because the arts are so underfunded and expensive.”

“Armenian culture isn’t a museum piece that lives in the past,” said Wartanian. “It’s alive today and there’s always an opportunity to encourage and cultivate new frontiers while putting it in conversation with other traditions and societies.”

“Critical Distance” is available on Spotify, Soundcloud, and YouTube. For a full list of streaming options and more information, listeners can visit https://www.raffijoewartanian.com/music.

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