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.
This isn’t a slight against the Spanish musicians or the music they play. I think it has more to do with the differences in the natural qualities of the instruments being played and the two cultures’ approach to religion. Western religion, and by extension its music, has always felt more human-centric than its Eastern counterparts. For while Christianity stresses personal salvation, many Eastern religions focus on spiritual enlightenment. By obeying a set of rules Christians hope to secure their place at God’s side while Buddhists strive to become one with the universe. Listening to the Japanese musicians on this recording you can hear the difference between music praising individuals who control one’s fate and that which celebrates the wonder of creation. Even here, where they are each working from the same material, the distinction is obvious. It doesn’t mean one is better than the other; it’s a matter of personal preference which of the two will stir your soul the most. Yet there can be no denying there is something far more otherworldly about the Japanese music than the Christian hymns.
Yet in spite of the differences between the two traditions, musically and religiously, neither the juxtaposition nor combining of the two is ever jarring or discordant. Unlike some forced marriages of West and East which ring more false notes than true ones, this work recognizes and celebrates the distinctive elements of each style instead of trying to meld them together. It’s like listening to the same story in two different languages with each telling taking on all the flavours and characteristics of the tongue recounting it while the core elements remain the same. What you gradually realize as you listen to the pieces on this recording is how not only do the two complement each other, they also complete each other. In fact, listening to the two types of music being played separately and then coming together in pieces towards the end of the CD, you begin to realize how the two together make up a whole by filling in gaps in the other you hadn’t even known existed.
Hispania & Japan: Dialogues comes packaged with a book which supplies the details behind how this project came into existence, a breakdown of the musicians involved and the instruments being used and pictures taken during performances of the piece. Enclosing it all is a separate cover which is a reproduction of a piece of Japanese art depicting the landing and travels of St. Xavier in Japan. While the packaging and the music are equally beautiful, the fact that the money raised through its sales will be donated to aiding the relief efforts in Japan makes it even more precious.
The old saying of “Oh East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet” may have been written by Rudjard Kipling in reference to India and the West, but it’s often been quoted by those wishing to stress the impossibility of us ever finding common ground with anybody East of Europe. However, Jordi Savall and the collection of Japanese and Spanish musicians he’s gathered around him prove the lie in that statement over and over again with Hispania & Japan: Dialogues. For instead of looking at cultural differences as some sort of impenetrable barrier they have seen how they actually complement each other to help form a more complete picture of the world in which we live. So not only have they created some beautiful music, they offer a timely reminder that differences aren’t something to worry about but rather something to celebrate. Instead of worrying about how others can be more like us, or we like them, isn’t it better to see how all of us fit together as pieces in the puzzle making up a portrait of our world?