Officium Novum in St David’s cathedral

Bank holiday Monday evening in St David’s: the evening sun glows on the grey-flecked, honey-coloured stone of the cathedral as a tightly-knit bunch of scousers join the throngs making their way inside for a performance of Officium Novum by the Hilliard Ensemble with saxophonist Jan Garbarek.

On our first morning here I was accosted by a man who asked me, ‘where’s the cathedral?’  Many visitors must ask the same question because, unlike towns like Canterbury or Gloucester where you can see the cathedral towers from miles away, St David’s cathedral is different.  It crouches in a hollow, sheltered from the westerly storms coming in from the sea about a mile away.  Peter Sager writes eloquently about how the medieval pilgrim would have experienced the approach to the cathedral:

How must pilgrims have felt in those days, as they approached Dewisland on horseback, coming nearer and nearer to St David’s on the westernmost edge of Wales?  Before them, an almost treeless, wid-swept plateau.  Scarcely a hedge, but only earthworks and stone walls through which the wind was howling.  Fields full of stones, some piled into pyramids, ‘as if the solid rock foundation of the earth had thrown up these spears to transfix and hold the scanty earth of the fields upon it’ (Graham Sutherland).  ‘Angelus remotissimus; terra saxosa, sterilis et infecunda’, wrote Giraldus Cambrensis of Dewisland, St David’s Peninsula, and that is how it is even today: remote, far from the nearest railway station, wild and desolate, a Welsh Land’s End.  Where the rock terraces plunge down into the sea, that is St David’s head.  ‘Octipitarum Promontorium’, the foothills of the eight perils, was what Ptolemy called this cape, whose rocks were to prove fatal to many a Roman ship. …. Dewisland: from this bare, isolated corner of the country came the patron saint of Wales, Dewi Sant.

An appropriate place, then, to hear the Officium Novum, performed by the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek as part of the 2011 St David’s International Music Festival. Although the title of the repertoire refers back to the Catholic service or liturgy of the hours, the music – sung in various languages – carries no overtly religious message and can be appreciated for its beauty by those of any faith or of no faith.

It’s nearly two decades since Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble released the first of the three albums that now make up the Officium project.  The hallmark of the project has been to present music from different traditions without amplification in naturally reverberant spaces (usually cathedrals and churches).  The three albums albums were recorded at the St Gerold monastery in Austria, chosen for its acoustics. The resounding natural reverberation it adds to the music gives it greater depth and majesty than would be expected from four voices and a saxophone. The same goes when Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble perform live: they generally play in venues with a similar ambience, such as St Paul’s Cathedral or King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.  We saw them last year in Gloucester cathedral.

Garbarek started alone. Gradually, we became aware of voices in distant corners of the cathedral, a disembodied drone that slowly became more focused as the members of the Hilliard – David James (countertenor), Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor), Steven Harrald (tenor), Gordon Jones (baritone) – converged at the front of the nave.  This was ‘Ov Zarmanali’, one of  four pieces by the Armenian composer Komitas (1869-1935).  The four voices of the Hilliards weave a spare backdrops to the keening, bluesy phrases of Garbarek’s soprano sax. These musicians have developed the reciprocity of a modern jazz group, but this is not jazz: rather, Garbarek’s solos inhabit and explore the austere structures of the compositions, as if his saxophone was another human voice.

Tenor Rogers Covey-Crump says: ‘Jan responds very strongly to the buildings we play in. One thing he loves about this project is that he gets to play in places he never otherwise sees, such as big churches and cathedrals’.  Gordon Jones adds, ‘In a big resonant acoustic, he can create a harmony by playing a really loud bass note and then adding an arpeggio above it, so you have this harmony hanging in the air’.  Garbarek himself states, ‘It’s very important that the sound has a certain amount of space and reverberation. The music often uses modal forms, which gives a lot of freedom for improvisation. Some of it’s religious music and some isn’t, but I think it’s important that all music should be spiritual in some way’.

A central focus of Officium Novum is music from Armenia, pieces which draw upon both medieval sacred music and the bardic tradition of the Caucasus. The Hilliards have studied these pieces in the course of visits to Armenia, and the modes of the music encourage some of Garbarek’s most impassioned playing. Alongside the Armenian pieces in the Officium Novum repertoire are Arvo Pärt’s ‘Most Holy Mother of God’ sung a cappella, a 12th-century tune by Pérontin, a Byzantine chant, and two pieces by Jan Garbarek, including a new version of ‘We are the Stars’, his adaptation of a Native American poem of the Pasamaquoddy people which first appeared on the Rites album:

For we are the stars. For we sing.
For we sing with our light.
For we are birds made of fire.
For we spread our wings over the sky.
Our light is a voice.
We cut a road for the soul
for its journey through death.
For we face the hills with disdain.
This is the song of the stars.

As the concert progressed, it was as if the cathedral itself became another instrument under the musicians’ control. The closing moments, as they left the chapel ringing with sound, were mesmerising.

In this YouTube clip, BBC Radio 3’s Fiona Talkington talks with Jan Garbarek, Manfred Eicher and the Hilliard Ensemble’s David James, Rogers-Covey Crump and Gordon Jones, and explains the context and background of the Officium Novum project with excerpts from the album:

This clip, from a performance in Hamburg in September 2010, provides a glimpse of the magical opening of a performance of Officium Novum:

The album (though not this performance) ends with a reading of Giorgos Seferis’s poem ‘A Little Farther’ by German actor Bruno Ganz:

A little farther
and we shall see the almond trees in blossom
the marble gleaming in the sun
the sea breaking into waves.

a little farther,
let us rise a little higher.

Trygve Seim: of peace and harmony

If there’s any singular description of Seim’s music, it’s that of peace and harmony.
– John Kelman, All About Jazz

I’ve been listening to the beautiful new album from Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim, Purcor: Songs for Saxophone and Piano, comprising a series of duets with pianist Andreas Utnem.  Purcor was recorded in an Oslo church, emphasising the deeply spiritual feel of the music of very plain, Satie-like original pieces, traditional folk tunes and hymn-like improvisations.  The album reminds me of another wonderful piano-saxophone collaboration: that of Joanna MacGregor and Andy Sheppard on Deep River.

Trygve Seim (that’s pronounced Treeg-vah say-muh – those 5 consonants in succession can flummox an English larynx) has slowly crept into my awareness in the last few years. Born in the 1970s, Seim had an older brother who played in punk bands and his early musical tastes, apart from punk, included Bob Marley (there’s a unique version of ‘Redemption Song’, performed with accordionist Frode Haltli on their 2008 album Yeraz).

But at the age of 14 Seim heard Jan Garbarek’s Eventyr, and, in Seim’s words:

That kind of made my decision to play saxophone. It was just a coincidence really, that my step-father played me Eventyr; we were on a trip in the mountains when I first heard it. It was not so much an intellectual thing; the melodies on the album just touched my heart directly. Anyway, my father had a saxophone that he wasn’t using, so he said I could have it and that was the beginning.

Seim went on to study at Trondheim Music Conservatory, before forming the Trondheim Kunst Orchestra, which included trumpeter Arve Henriksen.  At the same time, with Henriksen, he was involved in a collaborative quartet called The Source which led to the 2002 ECM album The Source and Different Cikadas. The group was an odd combination of two drummers, two bassists, tuba, saxophone, clarinet, trumpet and guitar.

In 2004 ECM released Seim’s second album on the label as leader: Sangam. ‘Destined to be one of ECM’s classics’,  John Fordham predicted in the Guardian. ‘ At times Trygve Seim sounds like no sax player you’ve ever heard – more like wind in the trees, or wooden flutes… ‘.  In Sanskrit the title means ‘the meeting point of three rivers’ and this perhaps reflects the three primary voices on Sangam —Seim, trumpeter Arve Henriksen, and clarinetist Havard Lund.  It was this album that provoked John Kelman, in his review for All About Jazz to comment that, ‘if there’s any singular description of Seim’s music, it’s that of peace and harmony’.  The centrepiece of the recording is the four part suite,  ‘Himmelrand i Tidevand’ (‘The Edge of the Sky and Tides’) which adds two trombones and a string ensemble to the mix.  To me this sounds like an indefatigable northern brass band on a journey, pausing every now and then to take stock of the landscape and the state of the world, sometimes in a mood of melancholy, at other times filled with joy.

An even more unusual combination followed on the 2008 album Yeraz.  With Trygve Seim was accordionist Frode Haltli; they had been collaborating for some time, and the accordianist had appeared on Sangam.  Seim composed most of the material – with the exception of two pieces by G.I. Gurdjieff, and that Bob Marley tune. The album opened and closed with two free improvisations, ‘Praeludum’ and ‘Postludum’, reminiscent of  Jan Garbarek’s classic Dis.  All About Jazz concluded: ‘The disc has an overriding arc, gradually moving from brooding introspection to quietly joyous optimism’.

In 2007, Seim contributed to Starflowers, the extraordinarily beautiful and haunting album by the Norwegian/Finnish singer Sinikka Langeland.   All the lyrics sung by Sinikka Langeland on the album were by the Norwegian poet Hans Børli,who lived as a woodcutter, writing poetry alive with his experiences of the Norwegian forests.

And so to Purcor, on which Trygve Seim is paired with pianist Andreas Utnem.  Although this is the first time the two musicians have recorded together, their partnership extends back to the 1990s when Utnem, working with Norway’s Church City Mission foundation, invited Seim to perform with him at several church services. ‘Andreas’s background is quite different from my own’, Seim has said, ‘but there is something about his composing that brings out a ‘focusing’ quality in my playing. Over time we’ve arrived at a special simplicity and clarity in the music which pleases me very much’.

The album may be loosely inspired by elements from the Catholic mass, with songs like Seim’s ‘Responsorium’, Utnem’s ‘Credo’, and the sprightly ‘Gloria, Improvisation’. Elsewhere, they explore several folk tunes including the Norwegian song ‘Solrenning’ on which Utnem plays the harmonium. There is a reworking of Seim’s breathlike ‘Bhavana’, first heard on his 2001 ECM debut Different Rivers. The album opens  with the melodic and catchy ‘Kyrie’, with Seim’s breathy and keening gospel-like saxophone blends beautifully with Utnem’s jaunty piano.

This album may be the best of a superb crop of ECM albums in 2010.  Is there any other jazz record label that can guarantee such quality and inventiveness, year after year? The best of 2010, for me, have been: Anat Fort (And If), Charles Lloyd (Mirror), Ketil Bjornstad (Remembrance), Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble (Officium Novum), Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden (Jasmine), Food (Quiet Inlet), Stephan Micus (Bold As Light) and Manu Katché (Third Round).

ECM: 40 favourites

Posts here during the last couple of days have celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of ECM Records. To round things off I thought I’d put together a list of 40 of my favourite ECM albums, in no particular order. Continue reading “ECM: 40 favourites”

ECM cover art

The first ECM records were recorded in 1969 and released in 1970. ECM had focused on a predominantly European version of jazz, often incorporating folk elements, and attracted players including Jan Garbarek, Keith Jarrett and Terje Rypdal who have made their lifelong home with the label. Recording as well as musical quality was of the highest standard, reflected also in a cover design ethos which featured beautiful photography and creative typography.

The main ECM designer for the first 25 years was Barbara Wojirsch whose playful layouts and combination of fonts and handwritten titles were highly distinctive. Dieter Rehm joined her in the 1980s with a similarly varied approach.

People who regularly return to the same location tend to become sensitive to slight changes in the view, and quickly incorporate them into the philosophy into the familiar picture, so that everything remains intact.  Similarly, those to whom ECM music has become a cultural staple accept variations in the familiar ECM ‘image’with the same nonchalance as changes in the music itself, whose sound values remain unmistakable, however wide-ranging the styles.

This ingrained habit, like a paraphrase of conventional pattems of consumption, has not led to indifference among the many who have grown up with ECM over the years. On the contrary, it has produced a kind of connoisseurship in which visual recognition exists on a par with its counterpart. ECM’s music has taught many people how to listen – and some how to look! When they play the recordings, the modest rectangle in their hands enjoys an attention and affection for a time span few other visual objects can hope to enjoy. That is why rec0rd covers in general, and ECM’s in particular, are worth talking about [… ]

[To begin with, there were]  the many iconic covers that Barbara Wojirsch created with Manfred Eicher and Dieter Rehm during the long years of their association. Her retirement from ECM in 1999 did not mark a sharp break in c0ntinuity. The vocabulary of ECM’s imagery had been invented, and it was rich enough to be adopted by new artists with new points of emphasis, now focused through Eicher’s work with graphic artist Sascha Kleis. Wojirsch’s artistic development took her from expressive typography and photography in the spirit of the 1970s and 1980s to highly personal paintings and pictures. Her manner of preparing the ground – her scrapes, scratches and scribbles – has found a surprising parallel in the paintings of Mayo Bucher, who entered Eicher’s field of vision in the mid-1990s and whose work has appeared on a number of covers based on his paintings since 1997. Also characteristic of new directions for the label is the collaboration with Jan Jedlicka, whose paintings, sketches and photos have been displayed on many sleeves.

The most obvious change over the last ten years has, however, been ECM’s attitude towards photography and its use in cover pictures. Until well into the 1990s, the photographic motifs on ECM’s covers were often narrative and representational, at times even going so far as to illustrate the title of the album, albeit obliquely. Today the photographs resist easy interpretation and classification. Instead, they are photographic objets d’art that reveal their meanings only upon closer inspection, luring the viewer into an enigmatic labyrinth of interpretations. Other photographs recall stills from motion pictures – ‘unfinished’ images that relate to what has just preceded them or is about to follow, and to the continuum of cinema, the medium perhaps closest to music itself. [Manfred] Eicher used this pictorial approach in his choice of covers from a very early date, but only intermittently. His affinity to photography and the cinema has led him to cultivate a closely related field where an extended family of artists, photographers and graphic designers now join forces with the ECM producer to contribute to the label’s imagery, creating a visual pendant to the music in its collection of covers.

Many things have changed. Today ECM’s photographs are mainly black-and-white, with colour used sparingly or as a jarring accent, while uniformly austere typography also contributes to a visual identity. Even so, ECM’s covers are ‘beautifuI’, yet complex enough to disclose their full meaning only to those who seek to listen visually: ‘Think of your ears as eyes’.
– Lars Muller, from Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM

Barbara Wojirsch  and Dieter Rehm (design)

A larger collection of  Barbara Wojirsch and Dieter Rehm covers can be viewed here.

Jim Bengston (photography)

Roberto Masotti (photography)

Caroline Forbes (photography)

The shapes in the photograph still please me and I am always reminded that if you stay out on the hillside long enough something will change and not always for the worse.
– Caroline Forbes

Christoph Egger (photography)

Jan Jedlicka (artwork/photography)

Gerald Minkoff  (photography)

Surrogate Cities

Confucius said that an image is worth more than 10,000 words. I am allowed only 250. Perhaps I should be relieved. This photograph, taken in January 1990 in Moscow, seems to me in perfect tune with the title of Heiner Goebbels’s disc Surrogate Cities, whose musical armature is interwoven with the words of Heiner Miiller, Hugo Hamilton and Paul Auster. The picture is of a Soviet swimming pool, a heated one, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin, a pool that no longer exists. On the site, before the Revolution, there stood a basilica, which Stalin demolished with the intention of  substituting a colossal hollow statue of Lenin (on the scale of NewYork’s Statue of Liberty), whose outstretched hand was going to contain a library. But the ground was unsuitable, and the foundations were filled with water and turned  into a swimming pool. One evening when I was walking there, a swimmer emerged from the dark depths (he can be seen in the lower left of the shot) and seeing my camera asked: ‘Are you from the New York Herald Tribune?’  I answered ‘N0’ and he vanished. When communism collapsed the swimming pool vanished too, because the Orthodox clergy wanted to reconstruct the basilica on the site.You can still get sprinkled with water there, but now it’s holy water. As Paul Auster says in In the Country of Last Things: ‘When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted.’ That is why I always know that I am seeing everything – and hearing it – for the first time; but also for the last time.
– Gerald Minkoff

Muriel Olesen (photography)

The light touch of foot-soles as a woman dances at the centre of the ritual maze, a fragile flower with petals of chalk, a propitiatory choreography traced each morning on the ground.  As if in echo, the faint coughing of a white tiger from the zoo nearby. Rustlings, variations, in persistent notes that extend through the air and disappear into the night. Silences and erasures. A few magical movements will make both the pattern and the music reappear on the doorstep at dawn to greet the ephemeral beauty of the new day. Black the dress, black as as a monsoon cloud suspended over those white furrows, alreadyworked, henceforth fertile: Monodia . . .
– Muriel Olesen