Cranky Crow World Music
It’s not unusual these days to find concert tours, recording projects and other events that either find commonality between different religions, especially the Big 3 from the Middle East (Islamism, Christianity, Judaism). Nor is it unusual for musicians from those various traditions to find common religious roots. However, the point of bringing these 3 religions together is to bring peace by recognizing those common roots. Musicians are natural peacemakers and the vehicle of music carries its own spirituality sans any religion. Sacred Bridges unites Great Britain’s The King’s Singers with the oriental-occidental ensemble, Sarband (led by Vladimir Ivanoff). The a cappella choir and the ensemble of Middle Eastern musicians explore the religious origins of a collection of Psalms of David which had been envisioned and composed by 16th and 17th Century Jewish, Muslim and Christian composers.
One doesn’t need to be a follower of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions to appreciate the collection of Psalms on this recording. People who practice earth based spirituality, Hindus and Buddhists recognize that in order to secure peace on the planet, the Jews, Christian, Muslims and Hindus need to stop taking up arms against one another.. Anyone who listens to or watches the news, either alternative or mainstream has had this concept pounded like incessant nails into their minds. If religion is about loving one’s neighbor and living in accordance with an-all loving God, then why are different religious groups killing one another? Is it truly about seeking acceptance for an unconditionally loving God or is it about pushing dogma down each other’s throats or is it about dominion of Mother Earth? These are questions that we must ask ourselves and come up with an answer soon.
Sacred Bridges offers another view and that is one of acceptance. Jewish, Islamic and Christian interpretations of Psalms appear along side one another and in some cases, the arrangements feature the work of two composers representing different religious beliefs. The choral arrangements performed by the renowned The King’s Singers provide peaceful polyphony that is embellished by musical ornamentation provided by Arabic and Persian instruments such as the kanun, ney, three-string bowed fiddle, frame drum and Arabic-Persian vocals. Many of the tracks feature a cappella polyphony and the result is astounding, even breath-taking. A solo ney (Arabic-Persian flute) carries its own song of peace on Ali Ufki/Claude Goudimel’s Psalm 9. Throughout the recording, moments of beauty and peace emerge. By the time the recording, has ended, one is left with a blissful feeling and they might say to themselves, yes, there is a loving God which is reflected in all creatures.
Sacred Bridges is just that, a bridge between sacred traditions, an extension of one’s hand to another and a musical embrace that has the ability to touch many souls. One day other types of bridges will extend to earth based spirituality where a great deal of healing of the earth and its inhabitants need to take place. One day, musicians from all spiritual practices will united and at that point, peace will no longer be a fleeting dream, but a solid reality. This recording and others like it, will pave the way as it calms our minds and our hearts, allowing us to appreciate those who live differently than us. Viva la difference!
Early Music Review, October 2005
I often first play a disc without looking at the booklet. I assumed that Ali must be a member of Sarband and wondered what the point was of having a modern Muslim rehash of a Geneva psalm. But there is a very good reason. Ufki, alias Wijciech Bobowski (1610-75), was a sort of 17th-Century Cat Stevens, a convert to Islam who tried to bridge the two cultures. According to the booklet, he translated the Anglican catechism (how did a pole know it?) into Turkish and wrote a Latin explanation of Islam. He also translated the Psalms and adapted the Geneva melodies to Turkish musical style. Hence this disc, fulfilling Sarband’s aim of exploring connections between the music cultures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Jewish input, other than the Psalms being Jewish in the first place, comes from Salmon Rossi. I’ve heard several recordings of his music, and the King’s Singers offer the one that is most convincing musically, though I can’t comment on their Hebrew accent. It is also good to have some amazingly neglected Sweelinck psalm settings. An intriguing disc, and far more than a curiosity.
Forward (New York) – November 11th 2005
In the grand, world-historical scheme of things, the Renaissance represented a huge leap forward for European Christendom. For Muslims and Jews — well, not so much.
Islamic scholars furnished the classical texts that provided the underpinning for much Renaissance thought. Yet by the 15th century, the Islamic world itself had begun the long, slow, backward slide from which it has yet to recover. And Renaissance humanism didn’t quite extend to the Jews, who were confined to ghettos in those countries that didn’t expel them altogether.
It’s ironic, then, that the English vocal group the King’s Singers should have sought to connect the three great world religions by collaborating with the Middle Eastern ensemble Sarband on a program of Renaissance-era psalm settings by Jewish, Christian and Muslim composers. But the material on their new CD,"Sacred Bridges," did indeed result from a series of cross-cultural exchanges — some prosaic, others downright bizarre.
That Dutch organist and composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck or French Huguenot composer Claude Goudimel chose to set a number of psalms in the rich, polyphonic vocal style of their era should come as no surprise. Nor should it raise eyebrows that Jewish violinist and composer Salamone Rossi Hebreo, who served in the court of Vincenzo Gonzaga, duke of Mantua, did the same. Yet the circumstances of Rossi’s life were hardly ordinary. In 1612, Gonzaga established a Mantuan ghetto modeled after the one in Venice. A Jewish notable in a city where Jews were second-class citizens, Rossi was exempt from having to wear the yellow "badge of shame" that was the Jewish uniform of the day. While it is often pointed out that Rossi avoided writing music for the church, and revolutionized synagogue music by introducing the use of vocal polyphony (Jewish sacred music had, until Rossi’s intervention, been primarily monophonic and modal, like Gregorian chant), he did so by turning synagogue music into church music; his psalm settings are practically indistinguishable from the sacred Christian music of his era. The only things even remotely Jewish about Rossi’s synagogue motets are the Hebrew texts themselves. (Hearing the King’s Singers pronounce biblical Hebrew in their toff English accents is like listening to Prince Charles say Kaddish.)
The real mind-bender among the composers represented on "Sacred Bridges," though, is Ali Ufki (né Wojciech Bobowski), a Polish church musician who was enslaved by Crimean Tartars and sold to the court of the 17th-century Ottoman sultan, Mehmed IV. Clearly a man who knew how to make the best of a bad situation, Ufki converted to Islam and absorbed the modal music of his Ottoman hosts as completely as Rossi had mastered the polyphonic style of his Christian counterparts. Not only did Ufki translate into Turkish the texts of the psalms he worked with, but he also took melodies from the early Calvinist hymnbook known as the Genevan Psalter and "modalized" them in the Turkish manner. (An early master at what modern sociologists call "identity switching," Ufki also wrote a Latin treatise explaining Islam.)
While the King’s Singers give voice to the intricate, multipart music of Sweelinck, Goudimel and Rossi, Sarband — which was founded by the Bulgarian musicologist Vladimir Ivanoff, and includes such Middle Eastern instruments as the qanun (a plucked zither), the ney (an end-blown flute), the kemanche (a spiked fiddle) and the bendir (a frame drum) — puts the flesh back on the bones of Ufki’s compositions. Sometimes the two groups alternate track by track; sometimes they combine forces on the same piece, and sometimes they switch back and forth between different settings of the same psalm, as they do with Ufki’s and Goudimel’s radically different treatments of Psalms 5 and 9. The contrast between the two ensembles and the traditions they represent couldn’t be greater, or more illuminating.
Early European music and early Middle Eastern music had more in common than one might expect. Both gave primacy to vocal melody, both treated sacred music as a vital means of spiritual expression, and both allowed plenty of room for improvisation. In terms of timbre and texture alone, the combination of ney, qanun, kemanche and bendir could almost pass for a Renaissance ensemble of recorder, cittern, viol and tambourine.
Nonetheless, as "Sacred Bridges" makes clear, these two kinds of music work in very different ways. Listening to the interplay between the multiple melodic lines voiced by the King’s Singers, one almost can see the individual parts in one of Sweelinck’s or Rossi’s compositions gliding past one another like smooth slabs of sound, and sense the mathematical relationships between countertenor, tenor, baritone and bass. This is coolly cerebral music whose attraction lies in its structural complexity. Sarband’s heterophonic interpretations of Ufki’s psalm settings, in which Turkish singer Mustafa Dogan Dikmen incants his verses in a nasal, glottal-stop-filled style and each instrumentalist plays a slightly different version of the same melody to hypnotic rhythmic accompaniment, sounds like something from another world entirely — which, of course, it is.
Ironically, the essentially irreconcilable nature of the two styles underscores the bridge metaphor of the album’s title. These musics can’t really be fused, but they can be made to stand side by side, giving us the chance to appreciate the unique charms of both — despite the considerable distance that separates them.
The Times 9th October 2005 *****
The King’s Singers, the superlative vocal sextet that has retained immaculate blend, perfect tuning and crystal diction even after 37 years of constant touring and personnel changes, joins forces with Sarband, an ensemble of Turkish instrumentalists, to create an extraordinary CD of settings of the Psalms, the shared heritage of Christians, Jews and Arabs.
They transform unison chants from the Genevan Psalter (1562) into rich contrapuntal settings by Sweelinck and Goudimel or wafting zither-based elaborations by Ali Ufki, a 17th century Polish convert. They also swap elements, with the basses doubling Sarband’s evocative nasal vocalising, and they demonstrate the Renaissance Jewish community’s enthusiasm for polyphony through the bold Hebrew settings of Salomone Rossi. Superb performances across the cultural divide show that great art transcends political differences. May thine enemy buy it also.
Gramophone – March 2006 – Editor’s Choice
Music can play such an important role in bringing together religions and cultures – which is the self-proclaimed mission of the group Sarband. The Psalms are common to all three Monotheistic religions, so here Sarband have joined the King’s Singers to explore the Psalms as composed by Jews, Christians and Muslims during the 1600s. A fascinating project.
Lately, TV arts/documentary schedules have teemed with films on Islam, mostly over-simplifying history to the point of distortion and suggesting a centuries-old conspiracy to deny the contribution Muslim civilisation made to European culture. Viewers with an interest in early music (and contemporary music, for that matter) may have raised an eyebrow: if Islamic influence has been concealed, it’s been hidden in plain sight.
Especially in the context of fears of growing Islamophobia after 9/11 and 7/7, any campaign to foster understanding is commendable. This CD reminds us of the common roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the importance of the Psalms to each religion, and the connection between the music of each. The programme includes Rossi Hebreo’s attempts to reconcile Catholic liturgy with the Jewish tradition (form which it ultimately sprang) and works by Ufki a Polish Calvinist captive and convert to Islam who recast melodies from the Genevan (Huguenot) Psalter in Turkish modes.
Sarband has collaborated with Concerto Koln in intriguing explorations of the interaction between European classical and Turkish music, while the King’s Singers have tackled an eclectic repertoire ranging from Gesualdo to The Beatles, so it’s hardly surprising that the groups work well together, meshing Reformation counterpoint with 17th century Ottoman music, comparing and contrasting the incorporeal sounds of one and the little rhythms of the other. They share pieces by Ufki, Sarband performs an improvisation inspired by Psalm 2, and the King’s Singers take the rest of the tracks. Altogether a fascinating, attractive, beautifully performed-album.