“I’m particularly pleased with the outcome and scope of the Siwan recording, an inspired meeting between musicians of the north and the south, a creative coming together of cultures. The potential of Jon Balke’s ideas and arrangements is, I believe, optimally realized in the architecture of the mix, which contrasts and finely balances very different yet strikingly compatible talents. Amongst them, Amina Alaoui, her voice conveying some remarkable poetic texts, the subtly powerful violinist Kheir Eddine M’Kachiche, Bjarte Eike’s twelve baroque soloists with strings and lute and harpsichord, master hand-drummer Pedram Khavar Zamini, and Jon Hassell, whose musical biography has long addressed the synthesizing of traditions.
In time, this music will be persuasively presented in concerts around the world, yet the recording itself, as the very first reference, is an unrepeatable event, of freshness and clarity, documenting the process of discovery.”
A powerful and magnetic album, and a reimagining of an epoch – and a project whose evolution was triggered, Jon Balke says, by “a simple, intuitive observation of the similarities of two beautiful traditions and soundscapes”. In the extraordinary voice and melodic inventiveness of Amina Alaoui, Balke heard correspondences with the “glittering universe” of early music, as explored by Bjarte Eike’s Barokksolistene.
Over the course of bringing these soundworlds together, Balke’s Siwan has developed into something broader yet, “a wide landscape of aspects touching European musical and political history, poetry from Al-Andalus, contemporary politics and human cross-cultural inter-relations”.
Signifying “balance or equilibrium” in Aljamiado (a Latin-Arabic hybrid language deployed in medieval Andalusia), Siwan creatively speculates on what was lost to the bonfires of the Inquisition. Andalus was a beacon of learning in the so-called Dark Ages, and unique in the degree of exchange between Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars. As Balke points out, there are striking correspondences in the writings of the Sufi poets and the Catholic and Sephardic mystics, clearly evident in the sung texts here which range from words of the martyred Al-Hallaj (”Thulâthiyat”) to St John of the Cross’s ecstatic “Toda ciencia transcendiendo”.
Andalusian classical music was allegedly born in the court of Cordoba in the 9th century, and Moorish Spain was a centre from which musical idioms and instruments travelled. The notion of music and ideas radiating from a spiritual-geographical nexus is explored by Jon Balke, Amina Alaoui and friends, outlining, in contemporary spirit, a common denominator for Andalusian music, early Baroque music and jazz: three idioms distinguished by flexibility, openness to interpretation and improvisation, each with a great richness of forms and variations.
Initiated by Balke, with Alaoui and violinist Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche as contributors from the outset, and with Jon Hassell, himself a distinguished synthesizer of traditions, as guest soloist, the music for Siwan was written in response to a commission from Cosmopolite, Oslo’s multicultural stage. Long one of the most sensitive composer-arrangers for large ensemble, Balke has excelled himself with Siwan, creating a form with open spaces in which very different soloists can express themselves, co-exist, collaborate...
The album was recorded between September 2007 and May 2008, with Manfred Eicher producing. Since the recording, the Siwan ensemble has performed in Bergen, Stavanger and Cairo.