Jan Garbarek/The Hilliard Ensemble: Mnemosyne (ECM New Series 1700/01)





Jan Garbarek tenor or soprano saxophones
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded April 1998, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“And the strict lord Death bids them to dance.”
–Jof, The Seventh Seal

To anyone who ever wondered why the Officium project needed a successor, this album provides a formidable answer. Whereas in its first effort this fearless fivesome built a program around relatively structured material, hundreds of concert performances and subsequent additions to their repertoire led the Hilliard Ensemble and saxophonist Jan Garbarek to the veritable medicine bag of expansive ideas that is Mnemosyne. Their deeper surrender to the art of improvisation makes for an even more self-aware effort this time around, and the resulting double album is nothing short of remarkable.

Spanning over three millennia, the uncannily cohesive program takes the project to unexpected heights. Its opening Quechua Song epitomizes the inner harmony of this inimitable partnership; a union that, not unlike the music it produces, is fleshed out through countless fragments drawn from worldly sources. While familiar territories abound—among them pieces by Tallis, Dufay, and Tormis—the addition of tenor and soprano saxophones renders them beautifully arcane. Even during those pieces in which the Hilliards sing alone, Garbarek’s presence is ever felt, hovering like a shadow in the corner of our vision. A particularly impassioned rendition of an Antoine Brumel Agnus Dei provides one of the strongest cases for this vocal/instrumental combination, as Garbarek expels an intensely visceral song that both scales the highest reaches and plumbs the shallowest coves of his surroundings. Though the album may have its weak moments (the medieval Novus novus, for example, is a little too compact to allow much room for a “fifth voice”), these are few and far between. In any case, the commitment that binds them never wavers, so that by the end of the first disc, which is capped by Hildegard von Bingen’s stunning O ignis spiritus, we realize this project has attained an entirely new level of melodic unity and ethereality. As the pièce de résistance of this collection, O ignis rises in a class of its own, made all the more unrepeatable by Rogers Covey-Crump’s inscriptions of untold mythologies. The haunting Hymn to the Sun by Mesomedes of Crete (2nd century) is another radiant success that writhes in captivating pangs of resolution. I must also commend Garbarek for his own two compositional entries: Strophe and Counter-Strophe, which makes attentive usage of the Hilliards’ variegated range, and Loiterando, with its likeminded choral astuteness and finely attuned brassy ornaments, both widen the scope of possibilities to be discovered.

In his monograph The Passion of Ingmar Bergman, Frank Gado argues that The Seventh Seal “is not radically about death at all; rather, it focuses on the terror of emptiness in life.” Similarly, the music of Mnemosyne preaches transcendence even as it gazes quietly upon the earth at its feet. That the album artwork is plastered with images from the selfsame film is no mere coincidence. The synthesis of sound and silence is like that of life and death: the two can never be entirely separated. What we have here is neither fusion nor a hybrid musical form. It is a perfectly symbiotic meeting of minds that banishes the darkness of criticism with its vigorous light. David James shows particular strength with every step he takes down these newly indeterminate paths, Covey-Crump and John Potter form a beautifully harmonized center, and Gordon Jones is the ever-present anchor of this darkly striated vessel. As for Garbarek, one can only listen and be enlightened.

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