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The competent and successful musico-cultural eutection promoted by ECM founder Manfred Eicher since the release of Jan Garbarek/Hilliard Greene's Officium (ECM, 1993) takes another quantum step with keyboardist Jon Balke's imaginative and far reaching Siwan. Balke enters a realm of cross-cultural pollination evolving from Officium, through that same collaboration's expanded vision on Mnemosyne (ECM, 1999) to John Potter's excellent Dowland Project outings: Care-Charming Sleep (ECM, 2001) and Romaria (ECM, 2006).
The focus of Siwan is not one of strict musical scholarship, but rather the imagining of what music would have sounded like at a certain place and time lost to antiquity. That time and place is medieval Andalusia, the southern most region of Spain, where Muslim, Christian, and Jewish intellectual cultures mingled unmolested before the Spanish Inquisition. Balke's studies of the history and writings of the region revealed a thematic universality among the Sufi poets and the Catholic and Sephardic mystics, a fact clearly evident in the texts chosen for this special recital: literary works as seemingly diverse as the martyred Moor Al- Aallaj's "Thualthiayat" and San Juan de la Cruz's (St. John of the Cross), ecstatic "Todo ciencia trascendiendo" ("Rising Beyond All Science").
For this ambitious project, Balke assembled an equally ambitious set of artists. Central to the recording are French-Moroccan singer Amina Alaoui and violinist Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche. These two musicians are the Eastern herbs that give Siwan its most potent Moorish notes. Next in the mix is the liquid mercury tone of trumpeter Jon Hassell, who approximates with brass what M'Kachiche achieves with gut strings. As necessary to this musical image as in Latin jazz is the percussion provided by Helge Norbakken. The wrapping of this musical gift is provided by the guidance of Balke and Bjarte Eike's Barokkosolistene, providing the Western element to this recording.
So much of the musical alchemy today is attempted and achieved with strokes too broad to be trusted or enjoyed. What Balke and his predecessors Garbarek and Potter achieve is a thoughtful rendering of imagination: what the historic music received from the past may have sounded like when the original artist tired of rote performance and began to improvise (a situation that certainly occurred). As a musical statement, Siwan stands as a monument to uncompromising ingenuity and art. This music is radioactively fine, searing with its beauty, inspiring in its sublimity.
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; Miloš 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.