Jan Garbarek/The Hilliard Ensemble: Officium Novum (ECM New Series 2125)

Officium Novum

Officium Novum

Jan Garbarek soprano and tenor saxophones
The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded June 2009 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

A little farther
we will see the almond trees blossoming
the marble gleaming in the sun
the sea breaking into waves 

a little farther,
let us rise a little higher.
–Giorgos Seferis

Sometimes music bypasses all other faculties and journeys straight into our souls. It eschews intellectual games, removes the safety net from beneath critical acrobats, and seeks no justification for its effects. To say that Officium Novum is just such music would be as gross an understatement as is likely to drop from my brain. The achievements of the Hilliard Ensemble and saxophonist Jan Garbarek on this album’s predecessors, Officium and Mnemosyne, hardly need emphasis. They were nothing short of astonishing, blending presumably incongruous signatures in a sound of unparalleled parallels. Yet this third effort from the project stands out for its distinct separation of voices as it leads our ears and hearts more toward Eastern Europe, and farther to Armenia.

Hilliards Garbarek

In the latter vein, the multifaceted folk and liturgical arrangements of Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935)—whose music has elsewhere fallen within ECM’s purview on Kim Kashkashian’s Hayren—form the album’s central nervous system, although nowhere more so than in “Ov zarmanali,” a baptismal hymn that with Garbarek’s solo introduction marks the aforementioned separation as a running theme from first blush. In the rasp of his reed breathes a memory of nature, so that the Hilliards’ entrance spins a fantasy that can never gain traction in the here and now, confined as it is to wandering the past like a prisoner in his cell. Nevertheless, sanctity reigns, as prophesied by the third-century Byzantine chant, “Svjete tihij” (Gladsome light), which sacrifices its luminescence as it is sliced by the barred window. Its vocal blood later warms the body of Arvo Pärt’s “Most Holy Mother of God,” written for the Hilliards in 2003, thereby closing a divine circuit with its concluding dissonances.

Separations abound in other Komitas pieces as Garbarek carries the full chanting weight of “Surb, Surb” and skirts fields of dew in “Hays hark nviranats ukhti,” surpassed only once by countertenor David James in the “Sirt im sasani” (Hymn for Maundy Thursday). Like two wings joined to the same body, they are nominally separate but linked by thought, instinct, and action. Such notes of independence are implied also by the album’s cover photograph, which shows a lone outlier, back turned yet bridged to his fellows by light on the water. Even that reflection bears a horizontal rift of shadow: a cleft of nascent wave eating its way toward shore.

The lifeblood of Officium Novum courses through “Litany,” a three-chambered heart of Russian, Romanian, and anonymous sources. At its center is “Otche nash,” drawn from the Lipovan Old Believers tradition and sung alone by baritone Gordon Jones before Garbarek threads the backdrop of an anonymous “Dostoino est” in ways eerily similar to the first collaboration in 1993. Another anonymous relic, this of 16th century Spain, braces the architecture of “Tres morillas m’enamoran.” Heard on many a Renaissance record, the piece finds new life in the current rendering, seeming to reach for us from the future rather than out of the past. This is where the separations begin to soften, as Garbarek harmonizes more docilely at first before darting through and around the voices with bird-like grace. Breaths between verses lend a reflective, antiphonal quality, as they do also in Pérotin’s “Alleluia. Nativitas,” newly rendered since its appearance on Mnemosyne. It is joyous, almost incongruously so, among these monochromatic brethren, but gives a name to the light from which it fashions flesh for bone.

Two pieces by Jan Garbarek complete the musical share of the album. “Allting finns” (Everything there is) sets “Den döde” (The dead one), a poem by Swedish writer Pär Lagerkvist (1891-1974), into beautiful interpretive metalwork, filigreed by the composer’s alchemy of paramusical elements, while “We are the stars” (based on a Native American poem of the Passamaquoddy people) is here transformed from its last appearance on RITES into a fully embodied soul, whose words and bare coherences constitute a fabric unto itself. Garbarek’s playing is so respectful that it walks on water and leads us to Bruno Ganz’s reading of “Nur ein Weniges noch” by Giorgos Seferis (1900-1971), which ends the program. Both narrator and poet are recurring touch-points in the ECM corpus. By their virtue, we are left with a vastly intersectional view of the (im)material world and a single takeaway message that resounds, May you be blessed to be found.

(To hear samples of Officium Novum, click here.)

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