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All’Improvviso, by Christina Pluhar and L’Arpeggiata

PostPosted: Fri Nov 09, 2007 10:38 pm
by Gordon Neill

I seem to be going through a phase of listening to early Baroque music. Possibly, it’s something to do with the male menopause, but at least it’s cheaper than buying a sports car and trying to keep up with fast women.

But don’t let the ‘Baroque’ label put you off hearing this wonderful CD from 2004. Sure, you’ll find it in the Classical box. But it doesn’t sit comfortably there, with its legs sprawled across the jazz and folk sections, and a hand drooping into the Spanish box. This is partly due to the source material. But it is also due to the loose, improvised approach that Christina Pluhar and L’Arpeggiata take to it.

The opening track, Voglio una Casa, is apparently an old Sardinian folk song. I wouldn’t know. But I do know that it sounds utterly brilliant, with a lively vocal and lashings of guitar and harp. It really wouldn’t sound out of place on a world music mix. The second track is another beauty, a short instrumental with an opening that promises a fiery flamenco piece and then moves into jazz clarinet. The next two tracks are possibly my favourites: restrained, elegant instrumentals which have clear signs of coming from the early Baroque period, but with enough of a loose improvised feel and the use of a clarinet to keep you wrong-footed. And the gems just keep on coming. Ninna Nanna is an old Italian lullaby, beautifully sung, but with an appealing darkness in its lyrics (‘sleep, sleep my pretty darling, or else I’ll give you back to God!’). Possibly the most interesting track to musicologists is Kapsberger, with an astonishingly modern sounding bass. You’d swear that this was some obscure piece by Charles Mingus but, unless he lied about his age, it can’t be. It dates from around 1641.

To my ears, the standard dips slightly towards the end of the CD, but only slightly. The whole album is really wonderful to listen to late at night, as long as you don’t wake the neighbours with the sound of all your preconceptions being smashed to pieces.


PostPosted: Tue Nov 20, 2007 5:34 pm
by Tom McPhillips
This is an area of music that's close to my heart....

So, Gordon I took you up on the recommendation, and acquired the disk...

Now, while I think it's a very enjoyable listen, for me it's also very contentious. To state it somewhat crassly the phrase that comes right up to the surface is "New Age". Playing traditional or historical music on modern instruments is a tough thing to pull off, breaking out into "Jazzy" rhythms is still yet another stretch. I wouldn't describe myself as a traditionalist but I find something jarring about this music. I somehow wish I didn't but it definitely offends some of my deep seated preferences about how this music is best performed.

Some years ago the saxophonist Jan Gabarek played on an album with the Hilliard Ensemble that was titled "Officium" - the Hilliards did their gorgeous harmonies and Gabarek improvised over the top of the vocal line. the critics were divided, some thought it was wonderful and others, myself included, really couldn't see the point - the original music could stand on its own - the extra jazz layer remained out of context. Both parties had virtuosity in spades, but to my ears they remained as separate elements.

This a bit different - there's a definite mix of some traditional interpretation pieces and some which are performed with a "swing"... So there's more of an integration of Jazz and Historical styles. But yes, it sounds great, and once again I don't think it works.

Which leads me onto an album that isn't so dissimilar to All'Improvviso, but one that really works on all levels -


Aman Aman - "Música i Cants dels Jueus Sefardites d'Orient i Occident"

Aman Aman is a subset of L'Ham de Foc, a fairly famous folky traditional Catalan band that has the ambition of taking traditional or early music and playing it in a way that people will enjoy, rather than making the music too scholarly and dry.

Aman Aman succeeds in this even better than the original group that spawned them. This is a fabulous CD, and I think mentioning that I first came across it on WorldMix Radio, gives you the clue that this music fits perfectly into the music we love on this forum. It's Early Music at it's finest and totally accessible, if you like Yasmin Levy you'll like this even better. It's well produced with great voices and passionate performances on historical instruments (not their fuller range modern descendants).

Gordon's CD is I have to say, also incredibly well produced and recorded, but it pales in comparison - Aman Aman get right into the heart of the music, and perform it from within it's original boundaries, Christine Pluhar's band add a Jazz spice that overpowers and fails to enhance the flavor, it's the difference between New Age and authenticity. But, there are no rules - so please - make up your own minds!

PostPosted: Tue Nov 20, 2007 5:56 pm
by Rob Hall
Thanks for the input Tom (and welcome back, it seems like an age since you've posted). Thanks to Gordon too. The initial posting raised my interest - but not to the point where I actually got around to ordering the album. Tom's view adds a little more detail and also suggests a further route for investigation. But it is the mention of Jan Gabarek's colalboration with the Hilliard Ensemble that prompted me to reply. I have (and have enjoyed) the "Officium" album and jumped at the opportunity to hear it performed in St Paul's a few years back. I was ready for a deeply moving evening, listening to this sombre music in such a spiritual setting. However, the sound just seemed to float up and get absorbed in the body of the great dome while I, for my part, remained well and truly earthbound, wondering why it wasn't working. Rarely has my bum felt a seat so hard. It certainly failed to click; I'm not sure it was for the reasons that Tom mentions, but it was a singularly hollow experience and I don't think I've played the album since.

PostPosted: Tue Nov 20, 2007 8:02 pm
by Gordon Neill
Hi Tom! Good to hear from you again. And it’s great to get some dialogue on a CD review, particularly from someone who knows what they’re talking about. Sometimes it feels that there’s no-one out there!

I’d have to say that when I hear the dreaded phrase ‘New Age’ that I instinctively reach for my gun. But, at my age, I’m just glad to be associated with new anything. So I’ll keep the safety catch on.

I’m coming at this music from an entirely different angle: one of quite profound ignorance. So I don’t have any informed views of right or wrong, just what sounds good (to my ears, anyway - after all, these things can be so subjective). I’ve listened to folk like Vivaldi, Bach and Corelli over the years, but I’ve really just stumbled into this early Baroque music. And it really is quite an ear-opener.

Two weeks on, and I’m still listening to this CD and, if anything, enjoying it even more. Quite apart from the music - and the music is surely strong enough to stand on its own terms - there’s something very appealing to me about the idea behind the album. That there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to approach this music. That it isn’t set in stone. That it is still living and breathing. Some of these pieces, after all, come from folk music, a tradition with a much looser approach to arrangements and instrumentation. And I suspect – and, given my current ignorance, it is only a suspicion – that quite a loose, improvised approach would have been taken by many musicians in earlier times. I wouldn’t want to overstate the case, but I don’t think human nature and the instinct to ‘muck about’ or improvise has changed all that much over the centuries.

The other thing that I like about the CD is its accessibility, particularly to a non-classical audience. The restrained instrumentation of largely harp and lute and other stringy stuff (I did say I was ignorant) sounds so familiar to anyone used to much of traditional world music. But, even with the use of a clarinet on some tracks, it still feels like a classical album. It’s a bridge between two music genres that anyone with an open mind can saunter across and enjoy.

I’m still new to this genre of music and keen to keep exploring (when time and money permits). I’m now listening to an album by Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI (Villancicos Y Danzas Criollas) – a lively mix of Hispanic and South American from the 16th and 17th centuries. Interestingly this also includes some improvised pieces.

I will definitely follow up on the Aman Aman recommendation. If someone is good enough to throw some money at one of my recommendations, then I’m happy to reciprocate. I’d also love to get more recommendations. But not too many!!!

PostPosted: Tue Nov 20, 2007 9:26 pm
by Tom McPhillips
Yes, Gordon nice to be back!

I absolutely take on board everything you say... but.. but there's something about jazz in particular that doesn't fit with this music, what you say about the original musicians improvising absolutely hits home, and despite all my reservations I really did enjoy the disk - but I wouldn't feel the need to go out and buy any more of their work.

There's one album that I think does fuse jazz and this kind of repertoire successfully -"La Mar Enfortuna" by Oren Bloedow and Jennifer Charles - I think what sets it apart is that it's incredibly atmospheric - and actually rather scary... But my rational brain tells me that the really good clarinet playing on Christine Pluhar's release is just so 20-21st century that I wonder why bother to use the Baroque as a jumping off point, or would it simply be New Age Jazz without that layer of acquired substantiation.

For many years, I'd haunt the Early Music bins looking for the Grail that was Early Music played by musicians who might not only be scholars but sounded as if they were really enjoying actually playing - a rare bird as it turned out despite the many CD's in my collection that I nonetheless enjoy.

If you want a pointer to that kind of music I'd recommend the Pneuma label, as well as anything by Calamus or Eduardo Paniagua, and yes, follow up on more Hesperion XX and Montserrat Figueras. La Nef, a Canadian band did some great work, especially "The Garden of Earthly Delights" one of my favorites. None of this is any good for your bank balance, but there's a lot to enjoy in what essentially was the basis and the prehistory of at least Hispanic world music. The best stuff is where the scholars go back to the source, like Joel Cohen when he played with Arabo-Andaluz roots musicians and found the source and it's result simultaneously.

Enough- I'm off to Philly to see Yousou N'Dour tonight - oh,such happiness!

PostPosted: Wed Nov 21, 2007 12:02 am
by joel
Hello Tom,
It's good to have a different viewpoint on these things :-) I've dived those same early music bins looking for the same things as you. In the end though, to my ears, jazz most certainly does work as one of the launching points for modern interpretation for this music.
However, from my POV, Pluhar succeeds with her subtle intelligence in bridging the gap between authenticity (and what that might actually be is itself an open question) and a certain joie de vivre - which is something performances of this repertoire need in order to really succeed. That said I prefer her CD of Tarantellas...
IMO, hers is not the only way, but what she does is as valid as Paniagua's approach, which I find involves making everything sound like it's being played by Umm Kalthoum's backing orchestra! I like that way of doing things, too.
He wasn't a very happy guy, but another name to look out for is Thomas Binkley
It' fantastic to find other people who also love this stuff on here, and also that we all have a slightly different take on it.

Classical gas

PostPosted: Wed Nov 21, 2007 12:31 am
by Gordon Neill
Thanks guys. Lots of interesting suggestions to follow up. I fear I'm going to be drowning in music pretty soon. In due course I will follow up on these suggestions, but I did a search in Amazon on the Pneuma label and found... er... 110 hits. Oh dear. There was a time when there didn't seem to be any unexplored areas of music for me. And I still need to make time to listen to John Lee Hooker, Ersatzmusika, Orchestra Baobab, Rachid Taha, Joe Turner, Areatha, Howlin' Wolf, Manhatten Brothers, Boban Markovic.... (continues for another 94 pages....).

I followed Joel's link (cunningly disguised as an image!) and found the Binkley piece interesting. It confirmed one of my instinctive suspicions:

The heart of Binkley's philosophy of performance was a marked distinction between the paper record of a piece of music and the sounding event. "The work is not the performance"; "The document [i.e. the musical score] is not the sound." Believing that, as with American jazz, medieval musics were notated as only scant mnemonic indicators of the musical sound, which was always different when enacted in performance, he sought a richer performance context than the reproduction of the mere notes on the page.

I note, however, that he also made his own wine. Reminding me of yet another link with world music ... php?t=5369

Re: Classical gas

PostPosted: Wed Nov 21, 2007 1:07 am
by joel
Gordon Neill wrote:I followed Joel's link (cunningly disguised as an image!)

Ooops! Now fixed.
I hope everyone keeps the suggestions coming.
Another really interesting group is Micrologus, who are more involved in tre- and quattrocento repertoire with an authentic approach of which even Tom might approve :-)
Cantico della terra
It does sound like 13th century Led Zeppelin at times, but as a middle-aged, middle-class MOR fan, this is something I would be expected to appreciate apparently.

The micrologus site has samples from all their albums in the dicografia section, though it's all Italian to me.
micrologus site

Aman Aman

PostPosted: Sat Nov 24, 2007 12:41 am
by Gordon Neill
Well, I took up Tom's recommendation of 'Aman Aman'. It's quite different from All’Improvviso, the CD that sparked this particular discussion. Where All’Improvviso, is an album that presents early Baroque in a new light, with an improvised almost jazzy feel, Aman Aman seems (to me) to be a more straightforward representation of Sephardic (Iberian Jewish) music. So, in some ways, not a fair comparison.

But I'm not complaining. This is fantastic stuff. At times lively and energetic, at times melancholic, this is a fabulous CD. The songs may date from the middle ages, but every track would fit comfortably into a programme of modern world music. It sounds very Arabic to my ears, with prominent use of Arabic instruments such as the Oud (I've even learned that a Darbuka is a goblet-shaped drum). Brilliant stuff. Oh man, "Aman Aman". Amen.

One of the best CDs I've bought this year (and that's saying something!). Thanks Tom!!!

PostPosted: Sat Nov 24, 2007 1:42 pm
by Tom McPhillips
That's great! And, yes, I agree. the CD's aren't really comparable.

Baroque and roll

PostPosted: Sun Nov 25, 2007 1:44 am
by Gordon Neill
I can't afford to invest in all the suggestions; I'll have to at least pace myself. But I'll try Joel's recommendation for Micrologus's "Cantico Della Terra". His description of it sounding like a "13th century Led Zeppelin at times" did it for me. I've often had that same thought about bits of Vivaldi or Corelli.

PostPosted: Sat Dec 01, 2007 9:25 am
by joel
Hi Gordon,
I hope you enjoyed "Cantico della Terra", the silence from Deepest Darkest Fife is rather ominous...

Joel - who's currently enjoying some wonderful & slightly cheesy 80s Guadeloupan Zouk found in the cheap bins for 300 yen (they finally let me out of hospital and the first thing I do is visit my local record store...)

PostPosted: Sat Dec 01, 2007 8:12 pm
by judith
joel wrote:(they finally let me out of hospital and the first thing I do is visit my local record store...)

Glad to hear you're on the mend and that you've a good record store to visit. Best pharmaceutical there is, music.


The man from Delmonte, he says 'yes!'

PostPosted: Sat Dec 01, 2007 10:32 pm
by Gordon Neill
Hi Joel

Great to hear that you're out of hospital and prowling the record shops.

I only just received my copy of "Cantico della Terra" yesterday. So I haven't yet had time to listen through it properly a few times.

But it does sound rather excellent. I can't see the simarities with Led Zeppelin! A few of the vocal tracks remind me strongly of Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, from Bulgaria. That same weird, feral quality to the voices. A bit like the unearthly wailing of cats in heat. I mean that in a good way!

So far, my favourite is track 6, with its scraping violin. But, I dare say, that will change as I listen to the CD more. But a fascinating collection, throwing another light on the connection between folk musics and early / Baroque music. Thanks for the recommendation!


PostPosted: Thu Dec 06, 2007 8:41 am
by joel
Gordon Neill wrote:But it does sound rather excellent. I can't see the simarities with Led Zeppelin! A few of the vocal tracks remind me strongly of Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, from Bulgaria.

Listening back to the album now. The link is not as strong as I remembered it to be, but it is there. Compare track 5, O divina virgo flore - we're looking at musical style not lyrical content here ;-) - with the opening of In the Light (side 3 track 1 on Physical Graffiti) or even Kashmir from the same album. It's really the little hints of medieval music Page & Plant insinuated into Zeppelin's music.
The way Page's big riffs work over Bonham's ham-fisted drumming does seem to owe something to the 13th century, though I can't quite put my finger on what exactly.
Les Voix Bulgares. I hadn't thought of that, but you are spot on.