Friday, January 09, 2015
Jordi Savall on the record
That photo was taken when I was interviewing Jordi Savall for a radio programme in 2008. The interview has been available as a streamed audio file since then, but it has never been transcribed. However, the enthusiastic response to Timothy Stevens' invaluable transcription of my interview with Jonathan Harvey has now prompted me to undertake the task. The interview may have taken place seven years ago, but the messages in it - particularly the final paragraph - are, sadly, more true today than they ever were.
BS Welcome to the 15th century church of St Peter Mancroft in Norwich, and to An Overgrown Path special that celebrates one of the truly outstanding musicians of our time. The viol player, conductor, composer and early music champion Jordi Savall was born in Catalonia in 1941. He started his musical training at the age of six before going on to study at the famous Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland. He founded the early music ensemble Hesperion XX with his wife the soprano Montserrat Figueras in 1974, and has made more than one hundred highly acclaimed recordings. In 1998 he founded his own record label Alia Vox which has gone on to pioneer new methods of presentating CDs to fight back against the record industry move to file downloads. Jordi Savall is also well-known for his work in the cinema, and his soundtrack for the film Tous les matins du monde featuring the music of Marin Marais and Sainte Colombe has sold more than a million copies.
Although known as an early music specialist, Jordi Savall's music making ranges far, and his latest recording includes music by the contemporary composer Arvo Pärt. If that was the whole story, Jordi Savall would be a name to rank alongside other leading musicians who have used early music as a springboard to reach a wide audience. But what makes Jordi Savall truly priceless is his commitment to, and these are his words, "sharing musical experiences with musicians from other cultures and religions". His success in using music for spiritual communion has led to his being appointed an intercultural ambassador for the European Union, and Jordi Savall is here in Norwich tonight to perform a programme of music from the East and West in a celebration of diversity. I am absolutely delighted that he has been able to find time in his hectic schedule between rehearsal and concert to join us tonight.
BS Jordi, welcome to On An Overgrown Path. We are here in Norwich to hear a concert of music from East and West. Can you start by telling us a little about the programme and how it came about.
JS The programme is the result of a dialogue between our music from the Occident, conserved mostly in manuscripts and medieval books, and Oriental music conserved by oral tradition. In Spain different cultures and religions lived together from the 7th to 15th centuries, so we have a long tradition in Spain of this dialogue which stopped in 1492 with the expulsion of the Jews and the end of the Reconquista. There are many paintings and miniatures where you see Moorish, Jewish and Christian musicians playing different sorts of instruments. We have to be inspired in this context to establish a certain dialogue with music from Israel, from Morocco, from Afghanistan, from Greece, and from different traditions combined with Occidental music. The result is very interesting because you never feel a big break, a big separation between the first instrumental music for instance from the British Museum manuscript from the 15th century and pieces we are playing from the Andalusian tradition of Jewish tradition. It's the same language, there are different rhythmic concepts, different harmonic scales and different modes, but the speed is the same, because until the 14th century the same monodic style was used and it is very close to the art of improvisation.
BS In my introduction I talked about the work you have done in cross-cultural communication. Do you see it as your mission to use music to help create this communication and reconcile humanity?
JS I think music is, in the first instance, something that communicates with people. Music was used from very ancient times to communicate with God and with the spirits. Music is the art of memory, music is the art of dialogue, and I think it is the best training, the best school for everybody to learn how to establish a dialogue with other people and with other cultures. Because, when you are making music with people with who you have a sympathy, normally you have to respect them, you have to use the same tuning, you have to listen to them like music,and this is the best school for any dialogue between people holding different viewpoints.
BS I mentioned your work with contemporary composers, and Philip Glass once said that world music is the new classical. Many would see Orient-Occident, which we are to hear tonight, and othe rof your projects as world music. Would you agree, and is world music the new classical?
JS I think world music was probably one of the most important musical discoveries of the 20th century, and it was a discovery that put corrected an imbalance. For many hundred of years it was thought that music was in constant evolution; even Stendhal said in the 19th century that Mozart and Haydn were really great composers who had bettered all the preceding composers. This is a mistake, I believe the essential quality of music is to bring emotion to a person. You can be so touched by a simple voice accompanied with a lute or similar instrument, there can be as much emotion in this simple combination as in a big vocal ensemble with a hundred singers and a big orchestra with a hundred musicians. The quality of the art and the quality of the emotion has nothing to do with the loudness of the sound, the size of the orchestra or the complexity of the music. Of course we have in the Occident, at the centre of our art, the B minor Mass and the Beethoven symphonies and other masterpieces. There are no comparable works in the Orient, but there is still the quality of the emotion and of the art.
BS Occident-Orient and other recent releases are on the Alia Vox label - your own record label. Can you tell us a little about why you started your own label? What is the background to the decision?
JS The background to the decision was more than twenty years working with other companies, mainly doing the things we liked to do. But ten years ago we started to feel that when working with the major companies, it was impossible to create innovative projects that introduced the risks associated with unknown repertoire. This convinced us that we had to be free to make our own decisions, and had to be free to give decisions about the music priority over commercial decisions. This was the starting point for Aia Vox; it is a very small group of people, Montserrat Figueras my wife, myself, an editor, a person who prepares the editions, an export manager, and that's all. Which means we work in the best conditions, because musicians take all the decisions, from conception until the record is finished. Probably Alia Vox is the only record company in the world where musicians are controlling everything. This means we can create projects with the very highest sensibility for the sound, for the repertoire, for the presentation including texts and background history. We are trying to create CD/books that are collectable, and that do not simply exploit the possibilities of the internet; with the texts and background history and graphics making our recordings are physically appealing. This is our way to work, and it opposes the movement towards making music a non-physical commodity available only over the internet.
BS Your latest release Invocation à la nuit includes music by Arvo Pärt, and you commissioned a work by Pärt to commemorate the terrible Madrid terrorist bombings. Do you see early music as a limiting label, and will contemporary music be an increasing part of your future plans?
JS I think the term early music is not appropriate. If you listen to one of our recent releases Estampies & Danses Royales, you will see the manuscript in the booklet. You will see that only around twenty percent of the music we play is conserved in the manuscript. If we only play what is in the manuscript, a piece that on the CD lasts six minutes would only take around one minute or one minute thirty seconds. All the rest is creation, it is re-creation, it is contemporary music we are making. Of course we are making contemporary music, but we are also respecting the style of the time while still spontaneously creating new music. For this, I think the gap between real new contemporary music and contemporary music re-created from early music, will become smaller and smaller. In the piece we asked him to compose, Arvo Pärt used a very old Gregorian chant Pacem Domine, this, in a sense, makes his music at the same time modern and ancient. I believe that there is a renaissance of music in the 21st century, because we are awakening and bringing back to life music that has been forgotten for many hundreds of years. This will mean modern composers will be more influenced by this renaissance, and Arvo Pärt and many others are examples of this.
BS I am afraid Jordi Savall must leave us now to perform here in the church of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich. Jordi, thank you very much for finding the time to join us On An Overgrown Path before tonight's concert.
JS Thank you, before finishing I would like to say we live today in a time of terrible tragedy, with terrorism and other problems in many countries. To live in peace in such a problematic global environment is very difficult, but to live in peace without peace in your own heart is impossible. And music and love are the best way to recover inner peace.
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