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Dimitrie Cantemir on actuality. Interview with Jordi Savall, Catalan violist, conductor and composer

Friday, 20 August 2010 , ora 14.13
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Jordi Savall's name has been associated with excellence in the interpretation of ancient music for over 30 years. The role of the one who chooses this road – less taken - is very complex, ranging from knowledge of organology associated with past times, to musicological documentation, from defining the historic context in which certain compositions appeared to information on the interaction between social groups at a given moment in time. Old music experts conduct a laborious research to reproduce sound constructs, which were lost, forgotten or, for reasons more or less objective, left behind in the process of concert evolution. This is also the case of the famous treatise on Turkish music by Dimitrie Cantemir - known as The Book of the Science of Music - which the Spanish violist, conductor and composer Jordi Savall, laid at the foundation of a project album, released on his own label , Alia Vox, in November 2009. From the interview granted in exclusivity to the show Successful stories in music broadcasted by Radio Romania Muzical (replay can be heard on August, 15th and 22nd from 15.00 pm), I rediscovered the scholar Jordi Savall, industrious researcher of the mysteries of ancient music. For over three decades, he has been committed to the goal of bringing to public attention an almost unknown repertoire and to shed light on an instrument full of refinement: viola da gamba. Together with his wife, soprano Montserrat Figueras, he founded, in time, over three ensembles specializing in old music repertoire: Hesperion XX, which now with the entry in the new century has become, Hesperion XXI, La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Le Concert des Nations, all received as warmly by the public both in live concerts as well as in their recordings.

In the 60s when you started specializing in the realm of ancient music, there were very few people who showed interest in this area. What encouraged you to continue? Had you not have doubts that this kind of music would find no followers?

No, because old music seemed very interesting to me, which made leave out this issue, on the contrary, when I discovered the beauty of music, particularly that written for viola da gamba by Couperin, by Marin Marais, by Bach, during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, I was convinced that it would be successful.

You became keen on music studying cello. What did the viola da gamba offer extra, so that you preferred it over cello?

I must say that I’ve had my first contact with music by singing. Then my voice changed, I could no longer sing with the voice of the child and so I chose the cello that I liked most, because it resembled singing, I think. After 8-9 years of cello, towards the end of my studies during which I played more music for viola da gamba, in many arrangements that they discovered, I wondered what kind of tool this was, for which such music was written. And so I discovered viola da gamba, and its great sound. By this I recovered a voice, a timbre rarely used, a voice that was silent at that time because nobody had been making it play any longer.

To perform early music in an original style, a very thorough musicological research is needed. Did you feel the need to commit to paper the results of your own research?

For each disc, for each project or for my concerts I wrote texts explaining the steps I have taken. I commented in detail the manner and sources of my labour. I have an equally important task of concerts, recordings, research but currently, I see no way to publish such a study myself because I am still very busy with creating new projects. But I think if I have time in the future, I will write a book on my professional experiences and my life.

As soon as you started to focus on your first project, related to Marin Marais and up to the first recording, 10 years have passed. All in a nutshell, how was this decade for you?

From the moment I discovered the viola da gamba and the time I made the first recording 10 years went by, a time that I spent studying sources in libraries, studying the work, playing and discovering every day this type of music together with other artists and my wife, and reflecting ... I went through a period of creativity and learning which was very important because it represented the moment when things were consolidated. This allowed me to have a profound personal view on these matters.

To what extent do you resume to the process of documentation, which you have completed during your previous projects, before each new project?

All of the steps that I have gone in studying music were useful in the projects that I initiated later on. I now benefit from my work in the past 30-40 years because life is a continuous sequence in which we use the knowledge we have acquired over time. Sometimes, people around me are surprised that I can do so many different projects during one year, but they forget that they I have been working on them for years. In particular, the Cantemir project that I made in 2009 was preceded by 4-5 years of study, reflection upon the music, and the context. I studied Armenian music, Sephardic and things were put in place in time.

Your projects are mainly dedicated to old western music. Did it seem like entering a radically different world when you started the Istanbul – Dimitrie Cantemir: The Book of the Science of Music?

Yes, of course. You have to remember that I mainly relied on the repertoire for viola da gamba in Western music. Since the beginning of my study with the ensemble Hesperion XXI in the years 1970-72-73-74, we were concerned with the links between Western and Oriental music, because the first recording we made at the time, for EMI production house, in the Reflex Collection, a double album was dedicated to Christian Spain, Catholic and Spanish Jews, and Sephardic. There is plenty of Sephardic music preserved by oral traditions, particularly in eastern countries. In countries like Spain, where Eastern populations such as Muslim and Judaic have been an important part of our culture for centuries, we have a special sensitivity to these traditions, which allows us to approach the study and the resemblance of these cultures, including towards of the Ottoman, a more sensitive manner.

The historian of Romanian origin Lemny Stephen, author of The Cantemisi - European adventure of a princely family in the 18th century, published by the French printing house Complexe, which also published the presentation of your CD, which includes works of” science Paper music "the Moldavian ruler, said in an interview that when the two of you met, you had been searching books about Cantemir for a long time. How did your interest for Dimitrie Cantemir appear and which were the steps you took in your research?

I think my interest Cantemir came along with his first songs that I heard in 1989. I got acquainted to the collection of songs he created and I was surprised to observe these oriental musical pieces of oral tradition, especially since the collection was not the result of a Turkish musician’s work, but of a Romanian scholar’s who conceived such an interesting study of the Ottoman music at the time. I was very surprised. This turned into a real shock when I found a volume that included songs that he has collected, the scoring system that Cantemir invented approximating almost to perfection the way for the interpretation of this music, tones, styles, rates, heights, were all absolutely amazing. And all these have enabled me and the Turkish, Moroccan or French interpreters to thoroughly study this music study.

The project The Book of the Science of Music and Cantemir Sephardic and Armenian musical traditions intended to render a scholarly presentation of instrumental music at the Ottoman court in the 17th century, as it was presented in Cantemir's work, but in a direct relationship with traditional music, the musicians of the Armenians and Sephardic community established after their expulsion from Spain in the cities of the Ottoman Empire, as Istanbul or Smyrna. For those less familiar with Cantemir's work it must be said that the document we refer to – The Book of the Science of Music - was written in Turkish during the time the scholar spent in Istanbul and it includes, on the one hand a very extensive study on Turkish music, in terms of theory, style and existing forms; on the other hand, the volume contains 355 pieces, out of which nine belong Cantemir himself, and were written in the scholar’s personal notation system. The Book of the Science of Music is the most important collection of Ottoman instrumental music of 16th century and 17th century, regarded by some as an archive document.

For this project, have you been tempted- you or Hesperion XXI ensemble members- to play instruments specific to the Islamic region (tanbur, ney, oud or santoor)?

I, personally, have not played the instruments you mentioned. I played only instruments I have known for a lifetime, stringed instruments dating back to the Middle Ages. I refer to the rebab, and the viola, which entered Europe in the 8th and 9th centuries, coming from the Oriental world. So in the Middle Ages, these instruments were handled both by Western artists, as well as the Oriental. I learnt how they were used in the world they came from, especially the viola, and the lyre with a bow, and understand the relationship between registers. As for the other tools – oud, santoor, ney, tanbur, canun - they were played by specialized interpreters because it is a matter of deep tradition, not something that is learned easily. All of these works, approximated by the oral traditions of the Middle Ages music have led to this remarkable result because the Cantemir project that we have worked on is a modern approach to the music of the Ottoman period, not because it is related to current traditions, which is a deformation of the 8th century and 9th, but because it offers a perspective on the 17th century, seen in the light of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Although you titled it Cantemir. Istanbul. The Book of the Science of Music, the CD is designed as a dialogue between classical instrumental music at the Ottoman court in the 17th century as it was retained in Cantemir's work, and the traditional music of the Armenians and of the Sephardic community after their expulsion from Spain to cities of the Ottoman Empire, such as Istanbul or Smyrna. What is the significance of this dialogue?

Its significance is that of reminding that, unlike today, when we can see a clear separation between popular culture and classical music, at that time there was no separation. Back in those days, the same musicians interpreted both folk and classical pieces and there was a mutual inspiration between the two cultures. All types of classical music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were linked. I made these discoveries during my documentation, reading comments from old texts such as those of Cantemir, thus I also found the explanation that the court musicians, who were favoured, the most well regarded, were not necessarily the Turks, but some such as Cantemir, who was Romanian, or other Sephardim, of Greek or Armenian.

What were your sources on the sonority of music in this project?

Orchestration is based on the descriptions used in that era, which are still used today. We already know that in Cantigas de Santa Maria it is stated that in the 12th century Spain, a great mix existed between a diversity of instruments with a bow (viola, rebeb, rebec), there were also all sorts of flutes, the rebeb, canoon, zither, many percussion instruments. It is not hard to imagine this music in connection with the documents.

What were the criteria in choosing –from over 350 works of The Book of the Science of Music - the pieces for the CD?

The criterion was often that of the most beautiful music. I am also aware that I had a vision somewhat private, not being of Turkish origin, but a way of seeing things rather from a Western point of view. My first choice on this project was to select the works that I have found easiest to understand for a Western ear and the most beautiful of them. This, because I found very beautiful pieces, but in ways so remote from the current mode that they were very difficult to follow in terms of melodic purposes. I was aware that I created a project destined to a wide audience, from Spain, France, England or Germany and therefore the music must be understood immediately. We used those ways not far removed from what you may listen today. It is a voluntary choice, marked by a matter of personal taste. But I think a first approach to this culture is important as it gives an opportunity for it to be understood.

You present the Cantemir project your concerts. Were there any audience reactions, regarding this music, that have surprised you? Is it successful?

The reactions that we have perceived in all occasions when we presented this program and the echoes which we had from the specialists regarding the CD were enthusiastic. I think everyone is amazed to discover a music so beautiful, full of energy, full of nostalgia, with personality, and very different from what we know in Western creation, and at the same time to discover Cantemir - a personality of the period with an impressive culture, science and more musicality. I think it was high time for people to learn about this scholar, with liberal views. Moreover, at that time he was a genuine European character, open to all European cultures.

This year, Istanbul is one of Europe's cultural capitals. Did you have this in mind when you started the Cantemir CD?

I was not aware of it. It came at a good time, but it was by chance that it happened as regards the disc appearance and status of cultural capital of Istanbul. It is a fortunate event that after 10 years of working on this project, things happened like this.

On what are you working now? What other projects do you prepare?

We are currently working and presenting a completely different project. It is titled Royaume oublié and it pays a tribute to Occitane culture and Qatar, a region that once was considered heretical and where faithful Christians were persecuted in a terrible manner. It is a tribute to this culture and to the victims of these persecutions. The other project on which we work is intended as a link between Spain and New World, the music of Mexico, South America, establishing a relationship between the music of the 16th and 17th centuries and traditions, which were continued in these South American countries and which are still on actuality. We also work on other projects focused on classical music such as Bach’s Mass in Mi minor, projects dealing with music at the court of Louis XV and others.

Thank you for this interview and I hope we will have the opportunity to listen the Cantemir project here in Romania, in Cantemir’s real country.

Yes, that would be a great pleasure for me. I know that certain steps are underway in this regard and hope that it will happen soon.

Interview by: Monica Isacescu
Translated by Elena-Loredana Pastrav and Andreea Velicu
MA Students, MTTLC, Bucharest University