Saturday, June 14, 2014

East is East and West is West (2)

Four years ago I published an article on this weblog under the title 'East is East and West is West'. The reason was the release of various discs which juxtaposed or blended music from the West and from the (Near) East. There is every reason to return to this subject. Its popularity seems to be unbroken. One wonders why the music of non-European cultures is attracting so much interest. Only few of the artists involved are clear about their motifs.

Among those who are most active in this field is Jordi Savall. He regularly brings musicians from different cultures together to give them the opportunity to become acquainted with music from a culture they did not know. This has resulted in various recording projects which are either devoted to the music of a specific culture outside of Europe or at the margins of the continent or juxtapose music from different cultures. His motifs are partly politically motivated, under the impression of the aggravation of conflicts between various cultures in our time.

A musical confrontation between East and West can be quite interesting. But whether it makes sense largely depends on how it is worked out. Generally speaking there are two concepts here. In the first the music of East and West is mingled. This is what is often called crossover, which Daniel Manhart (chant1450) defines as "uniting two worlds and thereby generating new music which has never been heard before". Unintentionally he puts his finger on the sore spot. In projects which are based on this concept the artists perform music which has never existed before. This has nothing to do with historical performance practice, and even the word interpretation would be out of place here.

The first disc from the list at the bottom of this article, called "raga vira", is an example of this approach. Maria Jonas and her ensemble Ars Choralis Coeln perform chants by Hildegard of Bingen. This is mixed with music from northern India, sung and played by Amelia Cuni. This results in 'new' music without any historical foundation. Whether one likes the result or not - I certainly do not - one should not expect a historically plausible interpretation of Hildegard of Bingen's chants. Music from two entirely different cultures is thrown into one pot, probably on the basis of the assumption that there are many similarities between them. But what seems the same is not always the same.

The second concept is the opposite: music from different cultures is juxtaposed, but in both cases performed - interpreted indeed - according to its own standards. This approach seems rather rare, although Jordi Savall's performances are quite close to this concept. Most performers and ensembles follow a path between these two opposites. In this context one important aspect needs to be mentioned. The confrontation between two cultures can be historically plausible, even if we don't know if it has ever really happened. In this respect there is a difference between the recording of Ars Choralis Coeln and Doulce Mémoire's disc. It is inconceivable that Hildegard of Bingen was aware of any music from outside her immediate region, let alone from non-European cultures. Likewise the people of northern India will never have heard any music from Europe. However, Denis Raisin Dadre's project is based on a confrontation which actually could have taken place. In the liner-notes he writes: "The capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans (...) did not put an end to exchange with the Christian west. In the Byzantine period there already existed a hill opposite Byzantium called Pera, on which stood the walled city of Galata. (...) By leaving the inhabitants of Galata [Greeks, Jews, French et al] their possessions and their freedom to trade, the conquerer of Constantinople, Mehmed II, permitted this colony to remain a bridgehead of the Christian west in its relations with the 'Gate of Felicity' (...)." He then assumes that the musicians from both cultures must have been interested in each other's music. He put a programme together which comprises pieces from both sides, performed with the appropriate voices and instruments, and the corresponding singing and playing techniques. Only in some pieces the members of the two ensembles join, and as a result we hear instruments from the East in western music and vice versa.

The ensemble chant1450 follows more or less the same concept. Before 1492 when the Jews were expelled from Spain three cultures coexisted: the Christian, the Moorish and the Jewish. Specimens of the music of the former two are brought together here. We hear motets by Spanish composers, such as Antonio Ribera, Pedro de Escobar and Juan de Anchieta, and improvisations by Mahmoud Turkmani on the ūd. He improvises between the motets but also participates in the performance of mass sections in plainchant. This is highly unsatisfactory. The coexistence of three cultures in renaissance Spain is a historical fact and their mutual influence in musical matters is also generally acknowledged, but it seems highly unlikely that muslims played any role in Christian liturgical music. This is indeed music which did not exist before it was performed in our time. It is especially regrettable as the motets are so beautifully sung.

Canticum Novum also brings music from Spain as it could have been performed before 1492. It rather focusses on secular and non-liturgical religious music. "We have selected several pieces which seem to us to express, in all its richness, diversity and vivid colours, that blessed era when men and women of different cultures and origins came together to nurture shared acts of creativity. We had no difficulty in choosing such pieces from the Sephardic repertory, the repertory of the Muslim tradition and Alfonso X el Sabio's song collection, the Cantigas de Santa Maria", Emmanuel Bardon writes in the booklet. This could have been an interesting disc, if the performers had not made use of instruments from exotic cultures, such as the bandolim - a type of mandolin used in Portugal, but not before the late 16th century - and Tibetan bowls. It is acknowledged that they were not used in 13th-century Spain, but "[we] used them to increase the range of colours and the variety of timbres". This way the recording has lost its historical credibility.

That is quite different in the case of the various projects of Jordi Savall. Here musicians generally perform their 'own' repertoire. Seldom instruments of one culture are used in music from another. That lends his performances a great amount of authenticity and credibility. The books which accompany the discs include much information about history and culture, but unfortunately very little about the music, the instruments or performance practice. The listener becomes acquainted with the music of other cultures, but it seems unlikely that having listened to the discs and read the books he has a really better understanding of the music of other cultures.
Orient-Occident II is almost exclusively devoted to music from Syria; only a couple of 'western' pieces are performed. In Esprit de l'Arménie there is no meeting between various cultures at all. Only Armenian music is performed, not only 'early' music, but also much later repertoire, including music from the 20th century. Armenia had to deal with 'eastern' cultures, marked by Islam, but music from the environment is not included. The third project is devoted to the Balkans; for a long time this region was a meltingpot not much different from Spain before 1492. Here not only Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures coexisted, but also the culture of the Roma whose role is often neglected and is given special attention in this project.

I am not particularly interested in or fond of the music of those cultures, but the value of Savall's projects can hardly be overestimated, especially considering the sincerity with which he and all musicians participating treat the musical material. Savall's approach is the most plausible and credible of the recordings mentioned here.

"raga virga"
Ars Choralis Coeln, Maria Jonas; Amelia Cuni (dhrupad-chant, tanpura), Poul Høxbro (flute, percussion)
Talanton - TAL 90010 (2011; 68'07")

"La porte de félicité - Constantinople 1453 entre Orient et Occident"
Doulce Mémoire, Denis Raisin Dadre; Ensemble Kudsi Erguner
ZigZag Territoires - ZZT314 (2012; 73'39")

"Flores de España - Orient & Occident in Spanish Renaissance"
Mahmoud Turkmani (ūd), chant1450
Christophorus - CHR 77374 (2011/12; 60'03")

"Paz, Salam & Shalom"
Canticum Novum, Emmanuel Bardon
Ambronay - AMY033 (2010; 75'33")

"Orient-Occident II - Hommage à la Syrie"
Hespèrion XXI, Jordi Savall
Alia Vox - AVSA9900 (2013; 79'28")

"Esprit de l'Arménie"
Hespèrion XXI, Jordi Savall
Alia Vox - AVSA9892 (2012; 76'55")

"Esprit des Balkans"
Hespèrion XXI, Jordi Savall
Alia Vox - AVSA9898 (2012; 79'15")