Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI – Orient-Occident II: Hommage a la Syrie
By Douglas Heselgrave
In purely visual terms, there has never been a better argument put forward for the continued existence of the physical CD format than ‘Orient-Occident II: Hommage a la Syrie’ provides. The idea that the packaging, artwork and accompanying materials that accompany the music are essential to the overall experience the artists create is a concept that other musicians and their labels should pay attention to. The aesthetics are so strikingly beautiful and lovingly produced that this newest box set from the Alia Vox imprint would still be an object of rare beauty and a worthwhile purchase even if there were no music included.
Jordi Savall, the award winning Spanish string player and director of Hesperion XXI, must have been aware that most people – even lovers of early music – would have little idea of the musical traditions of early Syria and that if this recording was to have its desired effect, some context would be necessary. In order to correct this, the violist’s interpretations of this traditional music have been housed in a hardbound slipcase that contains a lavishly illustrated 400 page book that includes essays about Syrian music, a Syrian cultural timeline, a lyric sheet as well as reproductions of illuminated manuscripts and colourful photographs of the musicians who contributed to the project. There is something deeply sensual and satisfying about leafing through the pages of this substantial book and taking in the colour, elaborate detail and filigrees while listening to the truly extraordinary music featured on ‘Hommage a la Syrie.’ It’s impossible to recommend highly enough how each of the elements of this presentation – the visual, historical and musical – combine to enhance the experience that this newest recording from Savall and Hesperion XXI offers.
From a musical perspective, the recordings on ‘Orient – Occident II’ are meticulously researched, rehearsed and executed. In addition to being one of the world’s most celebrated players of medieval and classical string music, Savall is also a first rate musical detective who has spent his life – since forming Hesperion XX in 1974 – tirelessly researching traditional music from the ancient societies of Europe and the Near East. ‘Orient Occident II: Hommage a la Syrie’ is – as the title suggests – a follow-up to ‘Orient Occident I’ an album that explored the sounds of traditional Turkish music that was composed during the time of its greatest confluence with the western world. As he did with the Turkish recording, Savall began by connecting with players schooled in the traditional music of the region and gathered together for some informal music sessions. On some tracks, Savall doesn’t play at all, content to take a back seat and allow these fine musicians and the compositions they play to have the spotlight. Savall’s own accompaniment is striking in its simplicity as he offers sympathetic accompaniment on the vielle or rebab – traditional Syrian stringed instruments – that demonstrates both his understanding of the musical connections between Syrian music and other medieval forms from Europe and the Near East as well as his obvious love of a ‘good tune.’
The music featured on ‘Hommage a la Syrie’ reflects the aesthetics and concerns of a world that has long passed by, a time when music was thought to have a voice that could conjure the sacred and express the mysteries of life in a way that made them manifest to all people. The songs, dances and prayers on ‘Hommage a la Syrie’ form part of an ancient dialogue between the old Christian and Jewish Hesperia and may have come from a world without steam or running water, but as removed as the experiences and emotional states expressed in these ancient Syrian songs are, Savall and company’s rendering of this music never sounds stuffy and lifeless. The musicians consistently find what is ‘living’ in the music and play with such commitment that in the end it doesn’t matter whether the songs were written a thousand years ago or last week. It’s all about whether the music has the ability to communicate something, whether it entices the person who hears it to keep listening – and ultimately whether hearing it is enjoyable rather than simply educational or ‘good for you.’ Ultimately, Savall and company succeed on all fronts because in addition to their stunning level of technical achievement, they clearly love what they do and have never forgotten the simple joy of playing music with other people. It would be impossible to play with such freshness and vitality otherwise.
A lot of different styles and approaches to music are featured on ‘Hommage a la Syrie.’ Some of the music is rough and percussive and sounds as if it was composed around campfires during ancient camel treks across the desert. On tracks like ‘O Aube Ya fajr’ it’s possible to pick out rhythms and patterns that can be found in traditional music from North Africa and Indian classical music. Other compositions are built around hypnotic grooves set by repeating themes on drums or horns, while others like the solo flute melody ‘Creire m’en fach’ express an ethereal tenderness that seems to hearken back to the dawn of time. It would be a mistake to think of this music as strictly religious or contemplative – a lot of it is actually quite raucous. The same flute that encourages reflection on ‘Creire m’en fach’ calls listeners to dance on ‘Ghazal’ one of the most lively tracks on the album. It’s difficult to communicate the energy in this music to people who haven’t heard it, but suffice it to say that the energy and sense of abandon that Savall and his musicians achieve wouldn’t be out of place at a country barn dance or old time hootenanny, and to extend the comparisons each player in the ensemble has chops that would make Stephane Grappelli and Ravi Shankar (to say nothing of Jimi Hendrix) sit up and take notice.
Savall and Hesperion XXI are hardcore. They don’t make concessions or offer condescensions to easy listening music and they defy categorization. They’re not interested in watering down traditional music or pilfering its most crowd-pleasing riffs as many from Sting to Paul Simon have done. This music comes ego free and sounds so much richer for it. This is music to be explored and dissembled over time. In a less fragmented world, the dynamics of the music as well as Savall’s intricate stringwork would be enough to attract a lot of attention and draw in a huge new group of fans and listeners from the worlds of folk, jazz and bluegrass music, but sadly this may never happen.
This type of segregation is emblematic of the root problems in the world today. In his opening essay that comes with the hardbound book that accompanies the music, Savall suggests that humanity is enduring a period of great forgetting. He argues that the world’s people are going through a period of amnesia that diminishes our humanity and posits that artists are in a position to do something to prick both our collective memories and consciences. So, given all of the news about the Assad regime and its use of starvation, chemical weapons and terror as a means of suppressing the Syrian people, it’s impossible to overlook the political dimension that ‘Hommage a la Syrie’ gently puts forward. As previously noted, there are essays and timelines that come with the music that cover the period from the dawn of Syrian culture to its present modern day conflicts. In more general terms, Savall argues in his introductory essay that our essential humanity is being eclipsed by greed and sectarian violence when he quotes Nelson Mandela’s enjoinder that ‘to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Savall concludes by explaining that this CD was conceived as ‘an act of solidarity to help raise awareness of the dramatic conflict and the terrible war of repression suffered by the Syrian people, sharing musical experience with musicians from Syria and learning about the history of one of the world’s most ancient civilizations.” Notably, the music is presented without further comment or any self-aggrandizement on Savall’s part. He presents himself as a musical enthusiast and trusts his listeners to make the connections and see the value in protecting cultural ideas and artifacts such as the Syrian music represents. Jordi Savall’s is always a class act. The effect of this subtle contextualizing is so much more refreshing and effective than we are usually asked to endure with projects of this type. Hopefully, the world is tired of seeing celebrities like Bono – fresh off of his personal jet – prance onto a stage and tell everyone how to dance and save the world at the same time.
After listening over and over again to ‘Orient-Occident II: Hommage a la Syrie’, I can only hope that there are many other similar manuscripts of ancient music like this that Jordi Savall will soon find and deliver from the dust and neglect it’s been suffering through for centuries. I can’t hear enough of it.