My recent listening has included Mala Punica which is composed by James Weeks and sets texts from the Song of Songs. In his introductory essay James Weeks explains that he was attracted to the ancient biblical text by "its mysterious ordering, the entangling of male and female voices, its echoes and symmetries..." The new music vocal ensemble Exaudi of which James Weeks is a co-founder has featured here in projects including John Cage's Songbooks and the infrasound-enhanced performance of Antoine Brumel Earthquake Mass. In the premiere recording of Mala Punica on the Winter & Winter label the choral settings sung by Exaudi are framed by three pieces titled Walled Garden for string and flute trios played by the Hortus Ensemble. In Mala Punica James Weeks explores the outer limits of the prodigious technical and musical capabilities of Exaudi, both as composer and conductor. In his Guardian review of a Spitalfields festival performance George Hall described Mala Punica as "intricate, subtle and often sonically ravishing" and the same description applies to this recording which was captured in the sonically auspicious acoustic of Orford Church, Suffolk where Benjamin Britten recorded The Burning Fiery Furnace in 1967. Hortus Conclusus from Mala Punica can be auditioned via this link.
The Song of Songs is the last section of the Hebrew Bible and the twenty-third book of the Christian Old Testament. As well as direct scriptural links to Christianity and Judaism the Song has more tenuous links with Islam. It is also known as the Song of Solomon as the authorship was at one time erroneously attributed to the biblical King Solomon. A superscription identifies it misleadingly as "Solomon's", and the Muslim prophet Sulayman (Solomon) is an important figure in Islam who is mentioned seventeen times in the Qur'an. There is another even more tenuous link between Islam and the Song of Songs, with some Muslims claiming that the Song of Songs predicts the coming of Muhammad by citing the consonantal similarity between Muhammad's Arabic name and the Hebrew word Mahammaddim - which translates as 'Altogether lovely' - in the sixteenth verse of the Song. However the provenance of the the Song is unproven; but latest research dates it between the 10th to 2nd centuries BCE. Stylistically it has similarities to Mesopotamian and Egyptian love poetry from the 1st millennium BCE, while the many ecstatic references to 'my beloved' - "My beloved is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand" - are a precursor to the style of the great Sufi poets such as Rumi and Hafiz.
Mala Punica is one of two settings of the Song of Songs which I have spending time with recently. The second setting takes a more syncretic view of the biblical text. In the sleeve essay for their CD Canticum Canticorum the conductor of the Latvian Radio Choir Kaspars Putniņš expresses the view that the Song is important as a fundamental influence on Christian, Jewish and Muslim culture. He explains that fragments from the Song were chosen to be set in Canticum Canticorum because the text is "an unbeatable masterpiece of love poetry, and it speaks to each and every soul". This view not only reflects that of James Weeks, but also echoes my observation about similarities with Sufi poetry, a theme that is picked up by three Sufi readings for instrumental ensemble by Vladimir Ivanoff which frame the settings of the Song of Songs in Canticum Canticorum.
The Latvian Radio Choir has built an enviable reputation for championing contemporary music and in the past its recordings of the music of Pēteris Vasks, Ēriks Ešenvalds and Bernat Vivancos have featured On An Overgrown Path. Canticum Canticorum originated as a project for the Tenso Days festival of contemporary choral music in Marseille in 2013 and was developed in subsequent festival performances in Riga and Oslo. Five specially commissioned settings of the Song of Songs are linked by Vladimir Ivanoff's three instrumental Sufi readings. Two of the three commissioned composers are women, the British-born Lebanese Bushra El-Turk and the Latvian Santa Ratniece. The other three composers are the Estonian Toivo Tulev, Latvian Mārtiņš Viļums, and the Norwegian Lasse Thoresen. Vladimir Ivanoff contributes the linking Sufi readings and his transcultural early music ensemble Sarband provides instrumental accompaniment.
These contributing composers are a cosmopolitan and eclectic group, with their biographies in the sleeve notes listing influences ranging through Harry Partch, Gregorian Chant, Giacinto Scelsi, Turkish Neva maqam, Olivier Messiaen, Claude Vivier, and Byzantine and Maronite liturgy. Canticum Canticorum is a daring and challenging conflation of different musical styles that reflects the heterogeneous nature of the Song of Songs. It is available in CD and high-resolution download formats from Vladimir Ivanoff's Muse Alliance label website; this is the label which released the Haz'art Trio's Infinite Chase album which featured in a recent post that attracted a large readership. A video excerpt from Canticum Canticorum can be viewed via this link.
My recent travels in Morocco took me to Moulay Idriss at the base of Mount Zerhoun in the Middle Atlas. Moulay Idriss el Akhbar was a great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammed; his grandparents were the Mohammed’s daughter Fatima and his cousin and first follower Ali. After the Ummayad victory in the war that split the Muslim world into Shia and Sunni sects in the 7th century Moulay Idriss el Akhbar fled to Morocco, where he founded the town of Moulay Idriss and the city of Fes. Moulay Idriss I married the daughter of the king of the Berber tribe that controlled the region, and this union is viewed as starting a chain of events which resulted in the creation of contemporary Morocco.
As it contains the tomb of Moulay Idriss el Akhbar with his direct lineage to the Prophet, the eponymous town is an important pilgrimage centre which is accepted as an alternative destination for those unable to make the full hajj. It is said in Morocco that six pilgrimages to Moulay Idriss during the annual festival honoring the saint is equivalent to one hajj to Mecca. The town was only fully opened to non-Muslims in 2005; its altitude of 530 metres in the Middle Atlas coupled with streets that, thankfully, cannot accommodate motor traffic mean it still retains its spiritual ambiance. In the accompanying photos taken during my visit the shrine of Moulay Idriss I is the building with the green roof in the foreground of the first photo, while there are other views of the shrine in photos 3, 6 and 7. In photo 12 the madrasa - Qur'anic school - attached to the shrine can be seen. Photo 10 shows the only round minaret in Morocco can be seen; if this looks somewhat anachronistic it is because it was added to an ancient madrasa in 1939 by a wealthy hajji who had seen a similar structure in Mecca.
For me the experiential calls and the virtual palls, so I am off travelling once again. Some people seek God in great works of art and sacred places. Others seek God on social networks; while others seek something other than God. Wherever and whatever you seek, I leave you with this wisdom from Augustine of Hippo's City of God:
'Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead, He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?'
Mala Punica was a requested review sample, Canticum Canticorum was bought online from Muse Alliance. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.