Jon Balke and Amina Alaoui - Siwan
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Jon Balke and Amina Alaoui
Siwan
ECM

Norwegian composer-keyboardist Jon Balke and Moroccan singer Amina Alaoui front an illuminating engagement with violinist Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche, trumpeter and electronics artist Jon Hassell, a pair of percussionists, and Barokksolistene, a baroque ensemble comprising violin, viola, cello, bass, archlute, recorder, theorboe, harpsichord, and clavichord. Siwan is an extraordinary experimental encounter between pre-Renaissance and baroque music and Andalusian Gharnati song (the latter tradition made its way to North Africa in 1492 when Spain's Christian reconquista drove out Arabs and Sephardic Jews alike).

This ensemble effort represents an inventive and superbly nuanced meeting of artists deeply invested in their respective traditions, yet instinctively open to the improvisatory potential inherent in this unusual project. Balke's arrangements and Alaoui's effortless, haunting lyricism project a sense of longing and find new life in the passion of Arabic poetry (from the ninth century forward) and early Spanish texts by the likes of Lope de Vega and San Juan de la Cruz. The compatibility between Andalusian and early European elements may surprise, although the profound expressive traces of seven centuries of Moorish-Jewish-Christian cohabitation in the Iberian Peninsula, manifest throughout, clearly continue to inspire today.

This is music wherein time itself - past as present - listens, unfolds, entwines, and develops with a subtlety whose unhurried lyrical spirit eludes and instructs as it enthralls. The original texts (with English translations) invoke a philosophical disposition gone missing in contemporary cultural discourse. As with the extended closing meditation, "Toda ciencia transcendiendo," the 16th-century sensibilities of de la Cruz pose an enigmatic reflection for our own time: "My mind has found a surer way, a knowledge of unknowing, transcending all science." Not authenticity but discovery of a higher order is the artistic objective, and the shape of music to come, in a suggestive and deliberate meeting of cultural traditions that history now replicates among peoples at large, in various lively and volatile combinations, across the planet.-Michael Stone

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