Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Jul 7th 2009 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
We'll leave it to him to make the attempt.
"Ha!" he exclaims, phoning from his Oslo home. "Well, you've given me the heavy job. That's actually what I'm trying to avoid, defining what it is."
A relenting sigh.
"It's not traditional music, that's first of all," he says. "Nothing, no element that is taken from traditional music here. The starting point is the way of playing, or the similarities between the basic musicianship in a way of these different traditions, from Baroque and Andalusian and the jazz improviser. That's the first thing that struck me: Why shouldn't it be possible to get these people together and start playing? So I guess from that starting point I started to make music with sort of all these different traditions ringing in my head but trying to avoid stepping in the strict patterns or footsteps of these traditions. That's where it all started. The end result, I guess, is kind of a blank in between there somewhere."
Okay, now you've got a good idea of what it sounds like, right? Baroque-Andalusian/medieval-jazz that avoids sounding like Baroque, Andalusian/medieval and/or jazz. Well, to quote the great sage Bullwinkle J. Moose, just listen:
Jon Balke and Amina Alaoui, 'Ya Safwati'
That track, 'Ya Safwati,' gives a pretty good idea of what's going on here, with Alaoui singing words by 11th century poet Al-Mu'tamid Ibn Abbad against a setting in which Hassell's electronicized trumpet floats over the classical-jazz tapestry. Coming at it from the other side, 'Ondas do Mar de Vigo' draws on the 13th/14th-century texts of Galician composer Martin Codax:
Jon Balke and Amina Alaoui, 'Ondas do Mar de Vigo'
The flow of styles and eras is both seamless and arresting, perhaps most remarkably in the two lengthy (too lengthy to post here) tracks that close the album: 'Thulathiyat' (text by ninth-century Arabic poet Husayn Mansur Al-Hallaj) and 'Toda Ciencia Trascendiendo' (16th-century Spanish figure San Juan de la Cruz).
This venture follows the 2005 'Statements' album, on which he and percussion-centric collective Batagraf created a distinctive set of soundscapes also involving keyboards, brass and spoken texts, and 2007's 'Book of Velocities,' a "book" of short solo piano pieces created with purposeful haste to boost the spontaneity factor, a musical equivalent of his habit of snapping photos from a moving car without looking at or through the camera. (See, not easy to describe.) It was hearing a recording by Alaoui that spurred the initial inspiration for this one.
"It was a recording of her music which already then was a kind of mix of Andalusian music and medieval music, you might say," he says. "There was a fantastic openness in a way of interpretation and also a calmness that struck me as very similar to the way I would approach the same material. That was not actually the tradition itself, but the personal interpretation of Amina."
Balke was already familiar with the Andalusian classical tradition, the form established during the "golden age" of Moorish rule of what is now southern Spain, a time in which the interactions of Muslim, Christian and Jewish cultures was marked by a vibrant flowering of arts and literature. The formal music of that region coalesced in the series of long sequences that mix disciplined structure with improvisation, known as nubah. While exploring that, he found what seemed to him a connection to the Baroque music that he'd been incorporating into one of his other ongoing projects, the Magnetic North Orchestra, which has included the Baroque Soloists in setting involving both composes structure and improvisation.
"Early Baroque music was very based on Spanish music," balke says. "The chacon and other Baroque forms are based on Spanish song forms, chord changes. And early Baroque players used these chord changes to improvise from. It becomes quite obvious that this was sort of a flow of impulses in this period. But there's very little documentation, so it's very difficult to be academic about this. Also I feel maybe that's not my job, but to just suggest a kind of link there."
So Balke set out to fill in the gaps, as it were, not in a historical way but an artistic one. He reached out to Alaoui, who gave him some listening tips. Among the music on his study list was Alaoui's album 'Alcantara,' various nubah excursions released in an extensive series on the French-based Ocora label, and the album 'Ostinato,' by Spanish early music player, historian and conductor Jordi Savall, one of the leading figures in what became a somewhat saturated movement of albums and concert programs seeking to bridge/juxtapose the musical cultures of that ol' golden age. He also started working with texts of medieval Andalusian poetry in both English and Spanish translations, setting the words to music before heading to meet with Alaoui in person at her home in Granada -- home of the Alhambra, seat of Andalusian rule.
"Amina sent me a lot of music and I spent a long time working on that and finding what it was all about, and going into Arabic music and the systems of their maqam and rhythms and patters," he says. "Then slowly I tried to forget all that and to create my music. I went to Granada, presented her with the first versions of the music. And she was very definite about avoiding the clichés of Arabic music, so I had tried to make a kind of wide palette of different suggestions, and she very clearly took some and rejected others. I was very happy for that -- no polite acceptance of something that wouldn't work for her."
They chose a dozen pieces on which to focus, but Alaoui had one other issue: the Spanish translations of the texts.
"She read to me the same poems in Arabic, and I recorded her reading them, and I went home and both she and I worked on adapting the songs I'd already written to the Arabic. It was a long process because the whole texture of the language, of the poems is so different. In Arabic, it's a very systematic way of writing. The poems are very well shaped, like Shakespeare's sonnets. The Spanish translations were free of that, more like modern poetry. So there was almost a year of ping-ponging back and forth of my melodies and Amina changing them to fit the Arabic and make it right. Sometimes she adapted the Arabic version of the text to the violin lines she found in the music instead of what I had written for her. A lot of rearranging of my initial suggestions."
Then came the process of filling out the ensemble arrangements, getting everyone together for rehearsals, testing the music out in concert and then back in the studio where "there were taken apart again and put back together again," a process Balke says continues even today.
The final element was adding the Memphis-born Hassell, who intersects experimental jazz (Miles Davis is a huge influence), the modern music avant-garde (he played on the original 1968 recording of Terry Riley's minimalist groundbreaker 'In C') and the ambient-world aesthetic (he first rose to international prominence via several '80s collaborations with Brian Eno). A few years ago, the two had played together at a concert in Rome and found an instant connection.
"While planning for this, I felt he would be my first choice," Balke says. "One, because he's a very open-minded guy. And also because he has a way of playing contemporary that is sort of timeless. What would you say in English? That it's not dated."
Hassell's role, if nothing else, clearly separates this from the proliferation of Golden Age projects. And unlike most of those, this one, Balke stresses, was undertaken without either a political or historical agenda.
"The starting point of all this is purely musical, not even academic historical musical, just from a musician's points of view that this is music I wanted to play and these are people I wanted to play with," he says. "But of course as you read history and all the material that his project sort of points at, it becomes something that kind of points at problems that exist today, religious intolerance and about the fact that this history of Andalusia is not known in Europe. It's not our history or what we are taught in school, which is a shame. It's one of the key creative periods in European history. The economic boom that happened in Spain at that time made Spain a leading country in medieval Europe. Of course, that speaks of the Inquisition, that this is something that the people who wrote European history didn't want to have existed, wanted to take it away from European history. So that does touch on the political."
Does this fill the historical gap, in some ways?
"Not trying to fill in or rewrite history or anything but rather to point at it and say, 'This is interesting,' " he says. "It this can work as encouragement for people to go in on their own and read and write and research, that would be nice. But, of course, the fact that the Inquisition did all it could to burn and erase all traces of this period creates a kind of blank, kind of an open space that for me as a composer and creator in a way is very interesting to go into and imagine."
The real challenge now is to find ways to bring this music to concert audiences -- given the numbers and varied geographical locales of the players, there are logistical and financial hurdles. There was a terrific performance experience in Cairo in November and a festival in Berlin just a few weeks ago, with an invitation to play in Jerusalem on the table. Meanwhile, Balke is in the final stages of a new recording, once again with the Batagraf percussion group. Dare we ask for a description?
"I guess the next one will be even worse to define!"