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The Sounds of Scripture 

click to enlarge Bet Williams and John Hodian of the Epiphany Project will perform at the Colony Café in Woodstock on November 19
  • Bet Williams and John Hodian of the Epiphany Project will perform at the Colony Café in Woodstock on November 19

The Epiphany Project is back, both physically and musically. John Hodian and Bet Williams moved from their Woodstock home a few years ago to live in New York City, before hopping on over to Europe to expand their work even more. What better for these masters of world music than to spend a few years tooling around Poland, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Armenia? It was in the latter country where their newest masterpiece was born, the haunting, breathtaking Hin Dagh (Epiphany Records, 2008). On November 19, Williams and Hodian, who haven’t played in the US in five years, will have a homecoming of sorts at the Colony Café in Woodstock.

Hodian is Armenian-American and had been working with struggling Armenian composers while living there. Yet he didn’t set out to consciously record an Armenian album. “We were traveling with a filmmaker friend who was doing documentaries on dying cultures in the area,” he says. “There are still tiny pockets of Zoroastrians and Avestans who have ancient practices and pre-Christian belief systems. Coming in contact with some of their customs, languages, and rituals was really inspiring.”

The album title itself means “old words,” and many of the songs are in dead languages, orchestrated with indigenous instruments from Armenia and the surrounding areas. Vocalist Williams, who has always been fascinated with language, started experimenting with new sounds on the group’s 2000 self-titled debut CD, using ancient Aramaic on one track. But this time Williams delves into Avestan, Armenian, Aramaic, Hindustani, ancient Welsh, Sanskrit, Swahili, and Coptic Greek. “The feeling you get when you sing these ancient words is really powerful,” says Williams. “Armenian is a beautiful language and these sounds are perfect for singing. Maybe the terrain influences the language. Terrain affects sound; sound affects terrain. I think the mind can move in different directions with different languages.” Interestingly, the lyrics on Hin Dagh were mostly drawn from ancient prayers and sacred texts.

Hodian, a passionate pianist, composed the pieces beginning with improvisation, creating sketches on keys and percussion and recording them with a variety of Armenian musicians doing rough tracks with raw performances and vocals. There are indigenous instruments aplenty here—santur, kamancha, udu, dumbek, zorna, tar, rik, saz, kora, duduk—and guest vocalists, too. “There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to musical talent in Armenia,” says Williams.

The duo finished up the album in France. Hodian had built a modern studio with all the latest technology, but they wanted to mix on an old analog-style board. “It was interesting taking these recordings we created in Armenia and looking at them through the sophisticated lens of a city like Paris,” says Williams.
The resulting 12 tracks are profound and piercing—the driving rhythms of the heated “Ashem” (a Zoroastrian prayer), the religious experience of “Charents I” (an Armenian poet), the carnal earthiness and mystic vocals of “Ararat,” the intoxicatingly beautiful “Avvon d’Bishmaiya” (an Armenian version of the Lord’s Prayer). The CD packaging, like the music, is an experience in itself. It is, in essence, a book of scripture.

The Epiphany Project will perform at the Colony Café in Woodstock on November 19 at 8pm. (845) 679-5342; www.epiphanyrecords.com.

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