Name: Papiers d’Arménies
Members: Macha Gharibian (piano, voice), Dan Gharibian (guitar, voice), Aret Derderyan (accordion, voice) Artyom Minasyan (doudouk, clarinette, shevi, peloul, zurna, pekou) Gerard Carcian (kamantcha)
Interviewee: Macha Gharibian
Nationality: French-Armenian
Occupation: Singer, songwriter, composer, arranger, producer
Current release: Papiers d’Arménies' Guentas Pashas is out via Meredith.
Recommendations: I would recommend the painting “Rayonnement” by Hans Hartung and this extract from Jon Hassell’s concert in Lausanne in 2009 “Last night the moon came”.

If you enjoyed this interview with Papiers d Armenie and would like to hear more of their work, visit the band on Facebook. Or head over to the personal website of Macha Gharibian.

When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I have always seen my father on stage, watching and listening to him play with Bratsch probably led me to the desire of being a musician. Piano was my first instrument, I started learning it when I was 6. With my dad I had the chance to listen to Gipsy, Armenian, Greek, Russian and Romanian music …

My piano studies gave me a strong classical background. I enjoyed playing Bartok, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, then later I was fascinated by the contemporary music of Messiaen, Dutilleux, Ligeti. I was also very attracted by Spain and Flamenco. I took Flamenco dance classes for a few years, and went to Jerez and Sevilla to learn with ones of the greatest dancers. I think I always had this natural Gipsy mood and feeling.

When I began to improvise, jazz was the perfect family to mix up all my influences, from classical to contemporary, Armenian, Eastern Europe and pop music. I was fascinated by Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Kenny Barron and many more. It took me years to get the feeling of jazz and the freedom to combine all these influences.

The energy and the power of traditional music was still blowing me. And when I started to write my own music, playing with all these influences began to be natural on the piano. Adding my voice allowed me to re-arrange some old traditional folk songs. I was also very close to a Serbian musician who taught me a lot about ornamentations and the differences between each country.

The more I did it, the more I found my personal way. I enjoyed it and I realized the audience enjoyed it too, so I went on …

When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?

I hear space. I feel movement and time and I am very sensitive with sounds.

It makes me want to dance, it makes me want to cry, smile, meditate. Music makes me so much alive. It connects me with deep part of my sensitivity, and there is probably a connection with something I want to reach when people listen to the music I write. Probably something that comes from long ago …

How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?

When I was a young musician I spent hours, days, months and years on classical composers … I wanted to reach the deep emotions and colors of this music. Then I discovered Aziza Mustapha Zadeh, Bojan Z … and wanted to play like them, with that same energy and fluidity of sound and rhythm.

I went to New York and did a workshop led by Ralph Alessi and many musicians from the Modern Jazz scene were my teachers (Ravi Coltrane, Uri Caine, Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer, Gerald Cleaver, Craig Taborn, Ben Street …). I was 25, it was the first time I'd travelled far from my hometown and my family. That was a total breakthrough.

I met wonderful musicians and I realized how much improvisation was the best way to find a personal voice. I discovered jazz clubs, freedom, Manhattan, the Met, the Moma, Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Brooklyn, Propect Park, the A train, and all the great Jazz Musicians from New York. I was amazed by their ability of creating music in the moment.

[Read our Gerald Cleaver interview]

When I came back, we were about to record the first album of Papiers d’Armenies. My experience in NYC had given me enough strength to assume my posture as a creative musician. But it took me years to accept that I was a singer too. Playing concerts with Papiers d’Armenies allowed me to be a touring musician and helped me to assume myself as a singer. Then I began to write and play my own music on stage, and that was the beginning of my combination of piano and voice.

My first album as a pianist and singer “Mars” was released in 2013. It gave me the force to go on searching my personal voice. It is a never-ending path with lots of questions, daring, joy, doubts, meetings, choices, surprises ....

We are like the river, what surrounds us has an impact on us, staying curious and keeping the desire alive are everyday challenges. We experience life, and music is the reflection of our ability to be honest with it, to accept who we are and how we deal with all the difficult parts of being a professional musician.

Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.

Of course, my father’s Armenian roots and musical heritage are a big part of my background. And as a young classical pianist, I was attracted by the composers from Eastern Europe. I loved virtuosity but I was also attracted by complex rhythms and rich harmonies.

Later I listened to a lot of music from Serbia, Romania, Macedonia, Turkey, Georgia, Spain, Greece. I am still fascinated by the soul of this music. When it tells something deep, sincerely, when you feel something which is more than any words, you feel humanity. I try to keep that same direction in my music.

I am an intuitive composer and improviser. Although traditional music is very demonstrative, I don’t like demonstration, so I try to keep searching my personal voice, combining all that makes me feel true. And singing sad songs makes me feel true.

What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?

I realized I can go far when I really enjoy doing something, when it is fun and it gives me joy. So I would say that this is the master key.

I also try to always search for new ways of writing, playing, composing, and not get bored with my own music and playing.

How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?

Whatever we do, we are an extension of what has been done before. So in a certain way, we are continuing a tradition. A carpenter would not do the same desk he would have made fifty years ago, but this is all the same technique he is using with the tools he got today. Our specificity today is the kind of tool we choose.

Some use electronics, that does not necessarily make music of the future. Some are very modern with a double bass. Some search for originality and innovation in their music, but are not necessarily addressed to an audience. Although I recognize the works or the technicity, if the concept is the goal, something might be missing. The music of the future is maybe just the music of the past reinvented with new tools …

Anyway I work with what I have, that means, my piano, my voice, and of course the musicians I play with. Computers also lead us to great destinations, but they can also kill the feeling of instant sound. So I like precision and I like to care about the sound without being too precious about it … I just want to feel it.

Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?

Recording! To record an album was probably the best teaching. I also record my concerts, listen to my own playing and try to be objective with what does sound good and what doesn’t. Then I practice the parts which I think are good, and try to really get them better.

Recording with creative software (Logic, Abelton, Protools, whatever…) makes you able to work with a looper, slow down, superpose instruments, and it makes you focus on how you want to sound. When you record your own music, you hear your sounds from an external point of view, so you realize where you are, what you need to increase, and this is the best way to progress. And if you have an idea of what you are looking for, it makes you go further to get it.

I have been increasing a lot by recording my own piano improvisations. And this is also how I write music: It always come from improvisation, so I record everything!

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.

I wake up around 8, it depends on the season. I used to go running but I stopped recently because of back pains. I still need to replace that moment with something else.

Then I take a shower, open the windows to refresh the air and I have breakfast by listening to the radio, it is one of my favourite morning routine. Nothing original, but I like to take time and slowly begin my day. I sometimes write for 30 minutes and I usually began my daily work around 9.30 or 10.  Morning are often dedicated to administration, calls, organisation staff, or classical piano practices … I cook for lunch and would go for a coffee down my apartment.

I usually work on music in the afternoon, it can be anything, a piece I need to practice, a new piece of mine. I also write music for film, so I might spend time on a new composition. I have my home set up to record piano and voice. And I am learning a lot about sound engineering. Every album I made brings me new challenges.

Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?

Improvisation is the first step to everything I write. Beside Papiers d’Arménies, I tour with my own Trio, with Dré Pallemaerts on Drums and Chris Jennings on Double Bass. When I begin to improvise, there is a natural structure that often springs up. I always write and compose first on my own on the piano. Then I bring the score to the musicians. Then they bring their own vision and sound to the piece which goes to a place I didn’t think it would go. This is the “jazz” process I love. Like a conversation, when everyone gives its own point of view, we end up richer.

With Papiers d’Armenies, it is very different. We mostly play traditional songs or instrumental music. We used to play some of them for a long time without piano. I wanted to add the piano for the second album, so I had to find a place above arrangements that already existed. It was obvious that the music would breathe with silences.

So I asked the musicians at some point to stop playing! They were not used to that, they enjoy playing and want to play all the time ! But they were very listening to my propositions, they enjoyed the new arrangements, and it gave new spaces for improvisation. We could hear each instrument better.

With the song “Gulo” my dad was playing chords on the guitar, he is used to sing with it, and like any musician he got his habits, his favourite chords and harmonic paths.

I was hearing different chords on the piano so I asked him to sing without guitar and we tried this proposition with piano. Then I asked the musicians (accordion, kamantcha, peloul) to come step by step slowly into the song without playing the melody. I asked them to think like a space to fill in a subtle way. I was talking to them with images and the communication was easy.

In traditional music, most of the instruments play the melody, but if you think of a kamantcha like a rhythm instrument instead of a melodic instrument, it gives a new perspective. It can play pizzicato like a violin, or tremolos to get the feeling of a percussion. I also thought of the piano like a percussion instrument and a bass. My father used to play them on the guitar, but the piano gave a whole new fat and solid mat!

The process was fun, we found new things while we were in the studio, and we are still finding new ways of playing the songs, it is a never ending process.

Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?

Like many musicians, I listen to music in an active way. I have learned a lot by listening to the great traditional musicians. And playing with Artyom Minasyan (Doudouk player of Papiers d’Arménies) is always a big lesson!

In a creative process, it’s crucial to get the vision from the musicians I play with, it’s a whole new perspective that is very helpful for the music. With my own trio, Dré and Chris influence a lot the direction of the music because they have their own background and it makes the music richer.

How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?

Music connects people to their inner world and heart, music brings peace. In this world which always try to alienate people with new and fake needs. Music is a healer.

Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?

Music is the original soundtrack of our lives. When I play or write music, I channel my own memories, my own story, the person who changed me, my roots, my ancestors. There is something I can’t control which comes through me and I just try to be honest with it.

I think that’s exactly what the audience feels, sincerity, so they can also get in contact their own story, memories, ancestors…

How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?  

Music is the architecture of time and sounds. So there are harmonic or rhythmic or time progression which are related to numbers.

A good song has good proportions!

Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?

I definitely agree that creativity is everywhere. I am fascinated by people who create a personal way of cooking, preparing a    cup of tea, living a place, walking … To me this is related to poetry and it brings joy.

A good cook is a poet!

Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?

We all have from our birth the ability to connect without any words. And music is probably the greatest vehicle that connects people. Each message is related with one’s own story and our stories look like each other. It is all about love, death, loss …

So when we sincerely reach people by speaking of our own story, we realize how much our troubles, struggles, deceptions, as much as joy, or whatever, have the same ground. That would probably make us more respectful and kind.