It's hard to imagine two countries as different as Spain and Japan having enough in common musically for someone to create pieces combining elements of both cultures. Yet that's exactly what Jordi Savall, cellist, composer and one of Spain's foremost performers of Western early music utilizing period instruments, has done; early music defined as being either from the Medieval, Renaissance or Baroque periods - roughly from 500 AD to 1760 AD. In 2006 he released The Route Of The Orient which set out to recreate in music the voyages of Spanish Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier (Francisco Javier). Not only did Xavier (1506-1553) travel the East with stops in Mozambique, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and China, he was the first European to ever visit Japan.
In his attempt to win converts to Christianity Xavier relied heavily upon music, setting his religion's texts to a country's native melodies in order to make them more accessible. In the original recording Savall gathered together musicians from the various countries the missionary had visited in order to recreate what these pieces could have sounded like. It was during the research and performances surrounding this recording that he also met various Japanese musicians with whom he befriended. It was following the catastrophes that struck Japan last year that along with musicians from Japan and Spain he created Hispania & Japan: Dialogues, being released through Harmonium Mundi on the Alia Vox label October 11 2011, focusing on the specific pieces Xavier used in Japan.
Upon his arrival in Japan Xavier and the Portuguese missionaries accompanying him walked through the country singing Psalms. The Japanese people who flocked to see these strangers in their midst were fascinated by their singing. In 1605 a publisher in Nagasaki printed Mauale ad Sacramenta, a volume containing 19 of those pieces. This is significant for not only being the beginning of Western music in Japan, but for also providing Savall and his musicians with a template from which they built their recordings. In fact, while they have made use of a couple of other European and Japanese songs, "O Gloriosa Domina" (O Glorious Mistress), a Gregorian chant from that volume, provides the inspiration for more than half the music.
Much as Xavier incorporated regional melodies, the Japanese musicians on this recording have improvised music for the song. However, instead of simply having them create new versions of it, Savall has given them far more room for interpretation. You won't hear somebody singing the psalm in different ways to various arrangements of Japanese instruments. Instead they have created pieces which attempt to capture the essence of the music. The opening piece is a beautiful example of this with Ichiro Seki playing a type of Japanese bamboo flute known as a shakuhachi, creating a haunting piece of music which makes use of his instrument's ethereal qualities to establish the proper spiritual context for the music to come. Over the course of the first half of the recording Savall intersperses these improvisations with recordings of the song as it would have been performed in Europe during the sixteenth century. Ironically (at least to my ears), the Japanese interpretations are what seem more capable of transcending the earthly realm and leading one's thoughts heavenwards.