The Dowland Project: Romaria (ECM New Series 1970)


The Dowland Project

John Potter tenor
Miloš Valent violin, viola
John Surman soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, tenor and bass recorders
Stephen Stubbs baroque guitar, vihuela
Recorded January 2006 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The atmosphere of Romaria, the Dowland Project’s third album for ECM, is exactly like its cover: monochromatic, with a splash of cloud over a stretch of scored earth. Stripping down its ethos to barest elements, the Project takes up plainchant, anonymous monody from the Carmina Burana manuscript, and Iberian folk songs, spinning from them a lush improvisatory world sprinkled with troubadour songs and motets from, among others, Orlando di Lasso and Josquin Desprez. The new addition of Slovak violinist Miloš Valent makes for a sustained and burrowing sound that blends uncannily with Stephen Stubb’s strings.

Got schepfer aller dingen starts us off with a brood, setting the tone for a somber yet somehow vigorous album. Where this vigor comes from is hard to say. Could it be in John Surman’s hopeful bass clarinet in Veris dulcis? Or perhaps in Stubb’s plucked accompaniment in Ora pro nobis? Yet further in John Potter’s aching vulnerability in Lá lume? Whatever the source, it’s clear that the versatility and depth of songcraft here is as delicate as a moth’s wing in a lantern’s flame.

Potter, it must be said, is the heartbeat of this album, drawing out from the instrumental surroundings a most thorough vocal line. The instruments seem to grow from his soil, particularly in Dulce solum, seeming to constitute the touch of breath through lips and mind. Similarly, Der oben swebt sways like the wind in the barley, carrying up in its wisps of recollection the promise of a lively day.

Much of the album is free-flowing and at times so organically realized (note, for example, In flagellis) that one wonders if the original melodies didn’t also arise in this unscripted fashion.The instrumental Saudade is another highlight that showcases the inspiring talents of Surman, whose soprano enlivens the darkest corners of Kyrie Jesus autem transiens and Ein iberisch Postambel to mesmerizing effect. Sometimes, the instruments recede just slightly, as in O beata infantia, allowing for Potter’s voice to carve its own tracks.

Listening to an album like this, one realizes the potency of the songs chosen, existing either in fragments or thicker sketches. Freedom is given to the performer, allowing new voices to come through. Each is but a drop in a larger body of water, necessary yet invisible in its surroundings.

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