Jon Balke Siwan ECM Records
Keyboardist Jon Balke's project Siwan is another category-defying masterpiece blending different elements from various traditions and styles into something special. It is an incredibly powerful work, where Balke makes the kind of cinematic music that simply defies tidy description because of its richness of resources and references. He invites a 12 piece baroque ensemble, Barokksolistene, Algerian violinist Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche, Iranian zarb player Pedram Khavar Zamini, Norwegian percussionist Helge Norbakken, a Moroccan vocalist, Amina Alaoui and music alchemist Jon Hassell into a soundworld that unfurls around his imagination.
Commissioned by Oslo Club Cosmopolite for its jubilee and inspired by the idea of a meeting of the minds of different cultures, Balke takes a dive into the world of medieval Andalucía or Al-Andalus. One of the initial ideas behind this project was an imaginary blending of three culturesand in an almost continuous flow all of the compositions tell compelling stories through sounds, voices and texts based on writings by Sufi poets, Christian mystics and troubadours.
In Aljamiado languageAljamiado is a Latin-Arab hybrid language spoken under the Inquisition; it refers to literature written in Spanish but using the Arabic alphabetSiwan denotes "balance of equilibrium." Al Andalus was the name given to certain parts of Iberian Peninsula by the Arab conquerors. That period, or the Muslim period, in Spain is often described as a "golden age" of learning where libraries, colleges and public baths were established and literature, poetry and architecture flourished. Both Muslims and non-Muslims made major contributions to this flowering of culture. Islamic Spain is sometimes described as a "golden age" of religious and ethnic tolerance and interfaith harmony between Muslims, Christians and Jews. In a way there is a political statement here to today's world political agenda by pointing to a culture that existed peacefully in coexistence in spite of seemingly opposing components. It also suggests and assumes what was lost under the acts of the Inquisition as a symbol of religious and political intolerance.
What began as an imaginary act actually inspired this group of musicians to delve deeper into a culture that shed its light during the "dark" ages. The research for this project has led Balke to many epiphanies. The baroque music, which can be traced to his work with the Magnetic North Orchestra, in its earliest form was enormously influenced by Spanish music. Another key element to this music is vocalist Amina Alaoui, a scholar of philology, linguistics and dance, and a prominent exponent of the ancient music style gharnati (which can be translated as "music from Granada.") Her singing is gorgeous throughout and she took a prominent role in shaping and directing the music on Siwan and its adaptation to the ancient writings.
Deceiving in its simplicity, beguiling in its quiet strength, this music is not going to grab you on the first listen. It needs time to build, to enter your consciousness slowly and with feeling. But once it is there it will hold you in rapt attention. The overall feeling is of music with a Middle Eastern feel, but with different flavors as other influences slowly surface. The 11 tracks here exhibit a patient grace as they are crafted in deep tones where the overall feeling is one of shadowy contemplation. This move makes the music consistently intimate and crucially direct. The various compositions are united by a tranquil drifting quality that ebbs and flows in ponderous undulationvery restful, mesmerizing. There are great depths here and strong sonic color.
The booklet is rich with info and gives a history of the poems and the poets who wrote them, the language they were written in, and an English translation. The front imagery features a specific symbol which adds rich additional layers and shadowy obscurity, combined to create an impression of mystery that holds the eye. An album like this is a rarity; hardly ever do you get such beauty in sound, vast dark geographies, a richness of ideas all in one.
Tracks: Tuchia; O Andalusin; Jadwa; Ya Safwati; Ondas do mar de Vigo; Itimad; A la dina dana; Zahori; Ashiyin Raiqin Thulathiyat; Toda Ciencia Trascendiendo.
Personnel: Amina Alaoui: vocal; Jon Hassell: trumpet, electronics; Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche: violin; Jon Balke: keyboards, conductor; Helge Norbakken: percussion; Pedram Khavar Zamini: zarb; Barokksolistene: Bjarte Eike: violin, leader; Per Buhre: violin; Peter Spissky: violin; Anna Ivanovna Sundin: violin; Milos Valent: violin; Rastko Roknic: viola; Joel Sundin: viola; Tom Pitt: cello; Kate Hearne: cello, recorder; Mattias Frostensson: double-bass; Andreas Arend: theorboe, archlute; Hans Knut Sveen: harpsichord, clavichord.