Music as a window into diverse cultures

Classical music faces massive funding pressures as traditional sources of finance dry up. So it is puzzling that when making the case for music funding and music education, the value of art music as a window into diverse cultures is all too often seriously undersold. One of the pioneers of music as a window into diverse cultures has been the Catalan viol maestro and all-round music animateur Jordi Savall. His latest essay in the genre is the 'Ibn Battuta: The Traveler of Islam' project which has just been released as a lavish double CD book and disc package.

Jordi Savall's Ibn Battuta chronicles in music the travels of the Muslim Moroccan scholar and explorer Ibn Battuta (1304–1368/1369) during which he covered 75,000 miles journeying across Africa, the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia. With music ranging from Moroccan taksim through Hindustani raga to traditional music from China's Shandong province, this is a typically impressive Jordi Savall survey of music from diverse cultures. But 'Ibn Battuta: The Traveler of Islam' also provides a revealing window into how art music is now forced to compromise by the demands of contemporary culture.

These compromises take on two dimensions in the Ibn Battuta project. The first are the production compromises dictated by commercial reality. In the past Jordi Savall followed the traditional model used by the whole classical industry of scheduling concert performances and audience free recording sessions in tandem - a win/win approach which meant efficient use of rehearsal time delivered a concert performance and a separate audience-free recording session. But today financial pressures mean that the majority of classical recordings are made at concert performances. (I deliberately avoid the BBC Radio 3 terminology of 'live performances' as, thankfully, 'dead performances' are still comparatively rare.) For the Ibn Battuta project the compromises exerted by recording concert performances become a double whammy as the two CDs were recorded with a two year gap in venues more than 3000 miles apart and with markedly different acoustics .

CD1, which contains the bulk of the Islamic content, was recorded in November 2014 in the Emirates Palace Auditorium in Abu Dhabi. This auditorium is part of a 5+ star hotel owned by the Kempinski Group; it is a multi-purpose venue also used for conferences, with a seating capacity of 1100. Acoustic treatment was part of the lavish specification, but it proved to be a problematic recording venue. The instrumental sound is often boomy, and artificial reverberation is used on the voices but not the instruments. Moreover the quality of the reverberation suggests it was added via the hall PA rather than during mixing. The performance captured in Abu Dhabi includes several Jordi Savall standards and the musicians are his 'A' team including Driss El Maloumi, Dmitri Psonis, Waed Bouhasson and, of course, Jordi himself. Unfortunately the performances on CD1 often compare unfavourably with the same pieces recorded by the same musicians for previous releases in more auspicious circumstances.

These acoustic compromises are compounded by the use of narrations from Ibn Battuta's journal prefacing almost every number, which break up the flow of the music. And, bizarrely, the narrations on Disc 1 are in English and Arabic, and in French on Disc 2. Unfortunately these compromises seem to have affected the musicians, as the music on CD1 rarely takes flight in the way we have come to expect from Jordi Savall projects. The delay in release and different recording venues also suggests this project did not have an easy gestation. My criticism of the sound quality of CD1 is based on auditioning the hi-resolution SACD layer via a high-end audio system, and the shortcomings will not be so apparent with less revealing systems. However, this is not the first time I have voiced concerns about production compromises on Jordi Savall releases.

Fortunately CD2 of 'Ibn Battuta: The Traveler of Islam' fares much better. This takes the explorer to Afghanistan, India, China, Granada, Mali and finally back to Morocco where he died. CD2 was recorded in November 2016 again at a concert performance, but in the more familiar environment of la Cité de la Musique-Philharmonie in Paris. The instrumental and vocal sound is more focussed, and although the narrations are still there - in French this time - they are less intrusive. The musicians also seem more comfortable on familiar ground, and Daud Sadozai (sarod) and Prabhu Edouard's (tabla) rendering of the raga Muddugare Yashoda is particularly noteworthy.

The second uncomfortable accommodation forced on the Ibn Battuta project is the compromise between principle and practice. On An Overgrown Path has for many years championed Jordi Savall's both as a musician and humanitarian. But in 2014 I expressed my concern about him forming an artistic alliance with Abu Dhabi. My post quoted an assessment by Human Rights Watch of very worrying humanitarian problems in the United Arab Emirates, of which Abu Dhabi is the capital. The situation has not improved in the intervening years, with Human Rights Watch's latest assessment reading as follows:

The United Arab Emirates’ intolerance of criticism continued in 2017 with the detention of prominent Emirati rights defender Ahmed Mansoor for exercising his right to free expression. The government arbitrarily detains and forcibly disappears individuals who criticize authorities. The UAE continued to play a leading role in the Saudi-led coalition, which has conducted scores of unlawful attacks in Yemen. The UAE was implicated in detainee abuse at home and abroad. Labor abuses persist. Migrant construction workers face serious exploitation. The UAE introduced a domestic workers law providing them labor rights for the first time, but some provisions are weaker than those accorded to other workers under the labor law.The UAE continued to ban representatives of international human rights organizations from visiting.
The admirably comprehensive documentation for Ibn Battuta contains a two page contribution from the Culture Sector: Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority which is effectively a message from the project's sponsor. (Elsewhere the Abu Dhabi Authority is listed as one of four project partners.) Also in the booklet is an essay from the dissident Moroccan author and Nobel nominee Tahar Ben Joullon. In it he states that "Today, the dazzling Arab world [Ibn Battuta] described is mired in decadence on every front". Ben Joullon proceeds to decry humanitarian standards in Syria, Iraq and Iran, but fails to mention the United Arab Emirates at all, despite Ibn Battuta visiting the Gulf on his travels. It is foolish to take the idealist high ground while ignoring the commercial pressures of contemporary reality. Of course one of the compromises that artists must make today is accepting support from ethically-challenged sponsors, and without UAE funding Jordi Savall's commendable Ibn Battuta project would almost certainly never have happened. But that does not mean inconvenient truths should simply be swept under the carpet.

Ibn Battuta was bought at Presto Music for £10 less than the Amazon price. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).


Pliable said…
At the 2013 BBC Proms Joyce DiDonato dedicated her performance of the gay anthem 'Somewhere over the rainbow' to 'voices silenced' over gay rights. On 24 January 2019 Ms. DiDonato performs at the Abu Dhabi's Emirates Palace Auditorium. Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
LGBT rights are heavily suppressed in Abu Dhabi and the rest of the UAE.

Of course one of the compromises that artists must make today is accepting support from ethically-challenged sponsors. But that does not mean inconvenient truths should simply be swept under the carpet...
Graeme said…
I have been tempted to buy Savall's CD about the catalán philosopher Ramón Llull. Have you come across this one
Graeme said…
I have been tempted to buy Savall's CD about the catalán philosopher Ramón Llull. Have you come across this one
At least one of the major symphonies where I live records in concert as well. But then, if the conductor feels the need, they will re record certain sections after the audience has left. I assume they also have some recording of the hall with the audience during silent sections that they can slip underneath the newly recorded sections.
Pliable said…
Graeme, I don't have the Ramón Llull CD/book. But I know it was recorded on Jordi's home territory of Barcelona, so the sonic compromises evident in Ibn Battuta should not be present. However this review does raise some useful points about the musicological credentials of the project -
Graeme said…
Thanks for the info The cd does seem a bit opportunistic but at least it is some kind of tribute to Llull. My revered Spanish professor Robert Pring-Mill did studies on Catalan thought, including Llull and his attempts to codify life and thought and belief, when he was young. It still seems a good way to remember him

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