Marc Sinan guitar
Yelena Kuljic vocals
Lena Thies viola
Julia Hülsmann piano
Marc Muellbauer double-bass
Heinrich Köbberling drums, percussion
Recorded March 2008 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Guitarist and composer Marc Sinan, recently of the (sadly) European-only release Hasretim, made his ECM debut with Fasıl, an album of enduring originality and refinement. The title refers to a suite form used in both classical and modern Ottoman ensemble music, and which here would seem to nod in both directions. It’s almost unfortunate that the Turkish word should so closely resemble the English “facile,” for the music here is anything but superficial. By way of comparison, one might pair it with Jon Balke’s SIWAN, as Balke illuminates and draws out likeminded ethnomusical connections with care.
Siwan’s own fasıl tells the story of ‘Ā’ishah bint Abī Bakr (613/14-678), youngest and favorite wife of the Prophet Muhammad. In this fresh musical context, her sentiments twirl and float by turns along a river’s current of rhythmic libations. Librettist Marc Schiffer weaves into those sentiments influences ranging from the Qur’an to ancient Persian poetry in search of common ground. Pianist Julia Hülsmann’s trio with bassist Marc Muellbauer and drummer Heinrich Köbberling—the subject of such later albums as The End of a Summer and Imprint—flexes the project’s instrumental spine. They are joined by violist Lena Thies, Sinan on guitar, and the Serbian-born, Berlin-based singer Yelena Kuljic in the role of ‘Ā’ishah.
The album begins, as does any fasıl performance, with an instrumental “Peshrev,” which lowers us gently into the waters of this emotionally dynamic world. It is a world of comfort and challenge, a quilt of geographical distances made immediate by design. Other traditional movements include iterations of the taksim, an improvisational interlude which unspools purple braids from Hülsmann’s interpretive fingers. Through these run the finer threads of Sinan’s flamenco-esque strumming and Thies’s spirited bowing. Sinan augments these with two movements based on transcriptions of an imam (Islamic cantor) he recorded while conducting research for this project in Turkey. “Sure 6/51” and “Sure 81 Taksimi” revolve around Hülsmann’s rhythm section, guitar and viola taking respective turns in the lead.
Yet it is by virtue of Kuljic’s portrayal of ‘Ā’ishah that the album comes into its own. Beginning with the drawing of desire that is “This Bloody Day” and ending with the affirmative “You Open My Eyes,” her voice sheds light by which to see. She explores themes as wide-ranging as agency and politics (“Taking Leave”), the body as landscape (“The Last Night”), and, couched in the album’s most entrancing melody, the intertwining of lives under Heaven (“The Dream”). Sinan rocks a lovely fulcrum in the latter through a smooth, jazzy core, and lends his flexible architecture to “The Struggle Is Over,” carving a sliver of moon into the sky.
All in all, these are songs of holdings on and lettings go. The instrumental elaborations are thoughtful (and thought-provoking), unraveling richly dyed sacraments in sound. At their heart is a song entitled “The Necklace.” It is a pivotal moment, both in the lives of its characters and of this cycle as a whole. It refers to story recounted in the Qur’an, in which ‘Ā’ishah, during one of Muhammad’s desert raids, is mistakenly left behind when she goes looking for a lost necklace and returns to camp to discover that her caravan has departed without her. She is found by a nomad under Muhammad’s employ named Sufwan and taken to the next campsite, only to be met with gossip of infidelity. Unbelieving of these rumors, Muhammad takes his wife’s word on faith (albeit after a revelation from Allah confirms her innocence), and her accusers are summarily punished. It speaks volumes about a woman whose strength thrived in her resolve, in her resistance to a world of men, and in her refusal to let her integrity fade into the dunes.