Saturday, October 22, 2011

In review--Gurdjieff's Spiritual Journey

The Gurdjieff Folk Instrument Ensemble
Led by Levon Eskenian
Music of Georges I.  Gurdjieff

Many of you reading this review probably have never heard Armenian folk music, though you have heard most of the instruments on Levon Eskenian and The Gurdjieff Folk Instrument Ensemble's recording Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff if you have listened to traditional music of Iran, Kurdistan, Turkey, and India.  This folk ensemble features the traditional Armenian reed instrument duduk which both Real World Records and World Village have featured on several recordings.  Other instruments that might sound familiar to your ears are the Iranian spiked fiddle (kamancha), the Turkish saz (long-neck lute), the Arabic tombak (drum) and oud, as well as, the dohl drum and santur from India.  To say that Music of Georges I. Gurdjieff falls into exotic territory is an understatement, but the Gurdjieff who studied many spiritual paths, also composed transcendental music rife with his philosophies.

For the sake of this short review, I won’t go into biographical details of the Armenian composer’s fascinating life and projects.  Suffice to say that the worldly composer found inspiration in the folk songs of his homeland as well as, the chants and songs here date back to pre-Christian Armenia, but also represent music from Greece, Arabia, Iran, Kurdistan, Turkey, and surrounding areas.  Personally I love this music performed on some of my favorite Middle Eastern instruments.  The scales and modes though not totally familiar to my ears allow me to explore diverse moods while feeling spiritually-centered.  I’m currently listening to the meditative Sayyid Chant and Dance No. 10 with features two lutes exploring modes and soon a reed flute and a zither join the lutes reaching a delightful conclusion. 

The flute continues into the next track, Sayyid Chant and Dance No. 29.  I’m not sure what the chant in the title refers to since this is an instrumental album in which we reap the benefit of listening to master musicians at work.  While I’m barely familiar with Gurdjieff, only having heard one other recording of his work on ECM, I feel that the music here is accessible to fans of world and traditional music.  Fans of Silk Road music will also have the right map for following the music. 

I end this review with this intriguing quote from the liner notes, “…After preparing for  a life in both science and religion with studies in the fields of medicine, psychology and theology, Gurdjieff and a group of fellow “Seekers of Truth” set out on a search to understand the significance of life on earth and in man’s place in the cosmos.”  Heady work to say the least. 

In review--Middle Irish and the Legendary Finn

Paul Hillier
National Chamber Choir of Ireland
Stewart French
Tarik O’Regan
Acallam na Senórach: An Irish Colloquy
Harmonia Mundi

Sung in Middle Irish and English, the medieval frame-tale of the meeting of Saint Patrick and associates of Finn mac Cumaill comes to life on Paul Hillier’s latest recording, Tarik O’Regan Acallam na Senórach: An Irish Colloquy.  And what a splendid recording this is, with soprano vocals that sail through the glass ceiling and blend seamlessly with a mixed choir’s polyphony.  Opening with bodhrán the choral work takes on a mysterious quality.  The drumbeats prepare listeners to enter the realm of enchantment and to take a journey to Ireland’s medieval past.  And the story portrayed on the recording represents the meeting of pagan and Christian cultures, and communication from spiritual realms.

Besides the ethereal polyphonic vocals, we are treated to Stewart French’s classical guitar such as on Guitar Interlude 1, 2, and 3.  Listening to pagan and Christian worlds meeting in a musical realm reminds me of James DeMars’ opera Guadalupe, Our Lady of the Roses, another work that tells a story where Catholicism meets an indigenous people.  Instead of combining Mexican, indigenous, and European music idioms, Paul Hillier’s project, focuses on Ireland of a pre-Christian era when the tides were just beginning to change. 

But this isn’t a story about the strong arm of the Catholic Church converting Irish people by sword, but a story of prophecy and warrior legends.  We stand on the crossroads of the sacred and thoughtful exchange between cultures.  Overall, this musical work possesses a positive message performed by a passionate choir and supporting musicians.  The bodhrán and guitar interludes in themselves offer listeners a contemplative experience then the choir takes us straight into the heart of the human spirit. 

I highly recommend this contemplative recording.  Listen to it in the 'tween times and definitely before bedtime.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

In review---In exotic percussive lands

Marilyn Mazur
Celestial Circle
ECM Records

Reminiscent of her label mate, Susanne Abbuehl, percussionist-composer Marilyn Mazur’s Celestial Circle features moody jazz with sedate vocals.  I’ve enjoyed listening to Mazur’s unobtrusive compositions performed by the artist’s ECM band, (John Taylor-piano, Josefine Cronholm-vocals, and Anders Jormin-double bass), while I work.  The beautiful textures created by this quartet doesn’t qualify as background music (too intriguing), but while I listen to the pure tones of this particular recording, I’m able to get the best of both worlds—listening to music and editing my work.  I’d imagine that this music would go well with a cup of chamomile tea at bedtime too.

The songs fall on the melancholy side, alternately feel contemplative with warm tones and exotic percussive brushstrokes. The players seem to have an intuitive connection with each other, almost breathing in sync with the bass, piano, and percussion forming a seamless flow that travels throughout the recording.  Vocalist Josefine Cronholm holds her own here too, and as a jazz vocalist, she proves versatile, tranquil on one song, then reminding me of Brazilian jazz on Kildevaeld, tossing in scat vocals.  

 But when is all said and done, Mazur is the lead player here composing and co-composing songs that range from truly unusual (Secret Crystals), to exotic (Gentle Quest), to chant-scats (Temple Chorus), and the delightful and playful duet (Among the Trees). For those of you already familiar with the “ECM sound,” there are no real surprises here, but certainly you’ll find the music is worth stopping the traffic of your day and take a few contemplative moments to enjoy this otherworldly jazz.  And if Antilope Arabesque doesn’t take your breath away, nothing will.

Monday, October 17, 2011

In review--Venetian Cello to Woo You

Jean-Guihen Queyras
Akademie Für Alte Musik Berlin
Vivaldi Cello Concertos
Harmonia Mundi

I’ve never been a huge fan of the Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi’s repertoire.  I heard it grace several music soundtracks growing up, heard The Four Seasons at weddings, on street corners, farmer’s markets and cafes, mostly in passing.  I only own one other Vivaldi recording, featuring a Norwegian girl’s choir singing sacred works on Kirkelig Kulturverksted.  But Vivaldi’s cello concertos have the power to win me over and to transform the cello’s melancholic reputation.  Many of us are familiar with the expressive cello as portrayed in Bach’s (a baroque contemporary of Vivaldi) cello suites, but during the baroque era, the cello’s role was to contribute a continuous bass along with bassoon and other low-end instruments.  This means that innovative Vivaldi went against the musical protocol of his time, when he transformed the cello into a lead player.  The results are spectacular.  Forget the Four Seasons, (though splendid), and give me the cello concertos. (BTW, while Vivaldi's cello concertos were performed during his day, Bach's cello suites were not).

According to the liner notes of Jean-Guihen Queyras and Akademie Für Alte Musik Berlin’s Vivaldi Cello Concertos, Vivaldi who was employed at a girl’s orphanage to teach the girls music, composed 27 cello concertos, and 7 of those concertos appear on this recording, along with 2 symphonies by Vivaldi’s contemporary Venetian Antonio Caldara and one symphony (Sinfonia in C major) by Vivaldi.  For the sake of this review, I’m only reviewing Vivaldi’s work that appears on the disk.  I recommend buying the recording to experience the full musical effect.  And just as Mozart’s music has been touted for its healing power, let’s not disregard Vivaldi’s music.  I listened to this recording with headphones and contemplated different parts of my brain lighting up, as if I was hooked to a MRI. I certainly felt my moods shifting with each movement of the concertos.

The recording opens with Vivaldi’s Sinfonia in C major which doesn’t mince notes.  In fact, I think this is one of the most powerful openings of classical work I’ve heard in a long time.  The orchestra with its fast runs reminds me of rabbit darting up and down stairs, and then darting off into the distance.  I’m not sure why this image popped into my head, but music often brings me vibrant images, which is no exception with this recording. Vivaldi’s work here features surprises and innovations (such a bowing techniques and agility required on the cellist's part), that still feel provocative in the modern world.  I think too that Queyras’ expressive cello and his interpretations along with the expertise of the German baroque orchestra play large roles in creating this excitement.  A virtuoso cellist has the power to grab our attention and keep it for the duration of a performance—think Yo-Yo Ma for instance.

For instance, Concerto for Cello and Bassoon in E minor features one of Vivaldi’s innovations.  On the first movement, Adagio/Allegro molto, the cello plays slow moody passages while the orchestra contrasts with quick runs.  On the second movement the opposite effect occurs and by the third movement the cello and orchestra are back in tandem.  And while I didn’t take notes for the closing concerto (in A minor), I found the concerto charming and vivacious; the perfect concerto to end the program. Overall, I feel impressed with this recording and feel that I will listen to it often in the future, despite all the choices in my music library.  I believe strongly that music has the power to heal us and the planet, and this recording with its slow pastoral movements alternating with feisty ones, gets us off to a good start.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

In review: Las Mujeres de Las Huelgas Cantan (medieval chants from Spain)

Anonymous 4
Secret Voices
Chant & Polyphony from the Las Huelgas Codex
Harmonia Mundi

I’m pleased to receive a new recording by the all-woman vocal ensemble Anonymous 4.  While I’m not a Christian, I enjoy Christian music from medieval and renaissance eras.  I find the polyphony and Gregorian chants relaxing, as do many music fans.  In fact, there is a craze out there for this type of music that goes underground at times only to resurface later.  Many of the fans of early sacred music aren’t religious, but looking for peaceful and contemplative music.

I lose track of the number of albums recorded by Anonymous 4, but each album features provocative music programs.  We are usually treated to music sung by ancient women or composed by women as in the case of Hildegard von Bingen, which Anonymous 4 covered.  However, on the latest recording, Secret Voices, we are privy to medieval music from the cloisters of Las Huelgas, in Castilian Spain, circa 1300s.   While women were not permitted to sing polyphony during this historic period, the Cistercian nuns, mostly aristocrat women, sung polyphony, along with plainsong chants at Las Huelgas.

I imagine that several nuns, not 4 vocalists sung these original chants, but in a reverberated setting, Anonymous 4 (Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer and Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek), give a full-spectrum performance of these chants that would have been sung in the Catholic church, including the services throughout the normal day such as matins and vespers, and sung at masses.  These chants were sung originally by Cistercian nuns who according the liner notes took music liberties because of the lack of monks at Las Huelgas.

So let’s take a listen to a few of the chants.  First, the recording is organized by the liturgical day, starting with First Light, Morning, Mass, Evening and Night.  So starting with “First Light,” the vocalists open with a monophonic chant addressed to Mother Mary, Virgines egregie, under “Morning,” we hear another set of 3 chants, I especially enjoy the monophonic chant, O Maria virgo sung by 2 vocalists, with one of the vocalists singing drone, however, another vocalist enters in the middle of the chant.  “Mass” features 10 chants.  The tranquil polyphonic/monophonic chant, Salve Porta opens the set and Kirie: Rex virginum amator, with its vaulting vocal lines follows creating a gorgeous feminine music flow.  This set closes with Benedicamus domino: Belial vocatur, another polyphonic chant guaranteed to take your breath away.  And if you appreciate soprano vocals that sound like they’re sung in a vaulted cathedral, this is the chant for you.  (I'm unable to comment on the recording's 23 chants).

“Evening” opens with In virgulto gracie, a subtle polyphonic chant with counterpoint for three voices I believe, mainly alto and soprano.  Finally, “Night” closes with Ominum in te christe, seemingly the only chant not sung to Mother Mary.  The recording closes on a solemn note leaving a peaceful resonance in its wake.