Monday, April 09, 2007

Beauty Beyond Words

Ten people enter on stage, taking their place in the dark. They will not move one inch from that place anymore during the entire length of the performance. Lights turn on, music starts and then there is that one voice from a woman with long red hair, sitting behind a harp, piercing through the silence yet seemingly leaving it intact:

My love said to me
My mother won't mind
And me father won't slight you
For your lack of kind
Then she stepped away from me
And this she did say,
"It will not be long, love
Till our wedding day"

Loreena McKennit sets off on the first words of "She Moved through the Fair" (from the album "Elemental") and I was there to enjoy the graceful touch of the sublime.

Let me shelve China for a little while, at least for the length of this post, if that is okay with you. There have been times in the past year since I run this blog that I wanted to write about something not directly related to China and that I put it off because of that reason. Now I realize that's not what I wanted at the outset. All I wanted was a space to ventilate some thoughts and though I am quite happy with the China focus I gave it, it should not be an obstacle to some musings on different topics also.

So there I was, last Friday, in that music hall for a performance I had been happily anticipating for over a week. In fact, I think I had been anticipating it for quite a few years already, ever since I'd heard for the first time Loreena's "The Book of Secrets"-CD which I'd bought after reading some rave reviews in some magazines. I had no idea who she was, I had no clue what music she produced, I just thought I'd give it a shot. That shot has never stopped resounding ever since.

So when I received an e-mail from my wife while I was at work last week, asking me (tongue-in-cheek, for she knew all too well what the answer would be) whether she could confirm the booking of two tickets for Loreena McKennitt's "Ancient Muse Tour 2007", I immediately replied with "YES!!!" five times in a row.

"A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving."

I guess Sam at "The Useless Tree" would now wholeheartedly agree to this:

I am now more convinced than ever that the authors of the Tao Te Ching are wrong about traveling ("the farther you go, the less you know"). After a week in the Netherlands and France - a wonderful week I should say - I can say that moving about, even in a rather touristy manner, lends a certain randomness to life, an uncertainty about what might lie just around the corner, and a new view on the routines of daily existence. All of these things help to remind us of the contingency of our being and the fluidity and multiplicity of Way. Maybe that is why Chuang Tzu encouraged aimless wandering.

These words attributed to Laozi (mistakenly, after reading Sam's words?) which are the main theme of "Book of Secrets", sum up pretty well the experience of Loreena's music. Using the Celtic culture as a springboard, in her own words, she travels the world extensively in search of where that culture has spread it's influence or what has been the result of the cross-fertilization with other cultures. Her latest, "An Ancient Muse" has led her mainly to places along the Silk Road, but the Celtic heritage has led her in the past just as well to Ireland, France, Spain, Greece etc... The result of all those travels and encounters is what was summarized in a two and a half hour performance the day before yesterday.

How do you capture in words something that has left you breathless, as if you were there with the Saints, saintly sitting on their clouds, already ? It can not be anything but a faint shadow of the real experience. Still, for the sake of remembrance, let me give it a try.

The musicians enter on stage, Loreena among them, before the spotlights are turned on. Against a Moorish inspired background, clearly reminiscing the look and feel of the "Ancient Muse"-CD cover, there is no grande entry of the lead performer. She is one of her troupe and she behaves as such. With a voice like hers, I was wondering how it would sound live, without any technical studio remastering. After this concert, I feel ashamed to have even nurtured the thought that it might be less powerful and pure than on her CD-recordings. Loreena McKennit live, beside harpist, pianist, bandleader, is above all an astonishing vocal performer without equal in her line of music. The way she hits the high notes -the ease, the control and the purity- are almost not of this world, while with her band she takes the audience along on a relentless sublime musical experience.

From "The Gates of Istanbul" ("An Ancient Muse") over the enormously successful "The Mummer's Dance" ("The Book of Secrets"), I get to the first gooseskin moment when Sokratis Sinopoulos joins in on his bouzouki in "Penelope's Song" ("An Ancient Muse"). There will be more of those: I remember my grandfather when "Dante's Prayer" ("Book of Secrets") sets in, for we played that song at his funeral (what more meaningful thing could there be to ask at such an occasion than this "Please remember me" ?); I mumble "yes" between my teeth when Loreena starts on Lord Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott" ("The Visit") for I have been listening to that song time and time again ever since I downloaded it from i-Tunes and by the time she ends with Shakespeare's "Cymbeline" (The Visit"), you expect the world to be totally at peace.

Loreena does not say a lot: apart from some obligate words of gratitude for having the audience there tonight, and lending credit where credit's due (talking about how she engaged in a conversation with somebody from the Far-Öer islands, telling her how they have a different version of a song of her, thereby directly placing her songs in a tradition and not as something uniquely created by herself, after which she sets off on the very pleasant "The Bonny Swans" ("The Mask and Mirror")) she lets the music and the musicians do the talking. And what a band it is she has gathered around her on stage. As I said, there's no moving around, except for Loreena moving from her harp to behind her piano, while always keeping close eye-contact with her other band members. Yet, from that still life of ten top musicians, handling such diverse instruments as the Greek lute, lyra, hurdy gurdy, viola, tabla, but also cello, violin (a tremendous Hugh Marsh), electric bass, drums etc ... comes a musical sound that could make Heaven itself weep.

Friday evening was by far the best experience of 2007 yet and the best gift my wife could have given me for being married eleven years on the very same day. For which I thank her with all my heart.


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