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ClassicsOnline Home » Chamber Music - MONTEVERDI, C. / GODARD, M. / SWALLOW, S. (Monteverdi: A Trace of Grace) (Godard)
A network of graceful traces: looking into a laboratory…
From 13 May to 5 June 2011 six musicians joined at a very particular place in order to live altogether a musical experience of adventure: this particular place is an ancient Cistercian monastery, the beautiful and impressive Abbaye de Noirlac, Abbey of the Black Lake, which dates from the 12th century and is situated some kilometres south of Bourges, in the very middle of France. The six musicians are Michel Godard, a virtuoso of the serpent, Guillemette Laurens, the beautiful mezzo-soprano widely known in the world of ancient music, Fanny Paccoud, a violinist who moves with delight between the two worlds of ancient and contemporary music, the famous composer and bass player Steve Swallow, whom I call the “smooth rock of jazz”, Gavino Murgia, an incredible improviser at the saxophone and a singer with an amazing voice, and, last but not least, Bruno Helstroffer, a theorbo player with astonishing capacities of very inventive improvisations.
These six musicians—and we, from the Carpe Diem Team with them—meet up between cloister and refectory, between bats and swallows, eagle owls and nightingales, between lime trees too which are 300 years old and an uncountable number of short-lived insects, between, at last, night and day to create an original music around and starting from…Monteverdi. Because this is the project that Michel Godard has initiated and for which he has invited his five musician friends.
For Michel, the realisation of this project means the realisation of a teenager dream. To him, Monteverdi is a veritable passion: “When you are a musician you always hear this kind of music which comes to you in your dreams and which you can’t remember when you wake up, that’s annoying, of course it is (laughter). And here it’s like a kind of music I’ve always dreamt of and which now comes to life.” He always remembers how, as a child, he had been deeply touched by the final scene of “The Coronation of Poppea” of Monteverdi which he had seen on television in black and white in the first production of Nikolaus Harnoncourt: “To me, Monteverdi has always been of great importance, for my whole life as a musician. He was one of my first musical shocks and my discovery of ancient music too. His music so deeply touched me and it has never left me since then.”
Michel tells me how he has found the musicians for his ambitious project, because to make sound, side-by-side and in the very same verve, compositions from Monteverdi, jazz improvisations as well as contemporary compositions demands a very special team: “There is always the moment of choosing the musicians which is very important because such a project is not only about the interpretation of music but also about the imagination you put into it.”
Michel asks the grand jazzman Steve Swallow if he’d like to contribute and compose some pieces for the project. Steve accepts with enthusiasm. Monteverdi, he tells me in an interview, is a giant he approaches with careful steps: Steve calls it a “humbling experience”. And so we find two compositions from Steve on the CD: Les effets de manches and Doppo il tormento.
“Steve has written one piece taking Si dolce è il tormento as a starting point and reusing the harmonic system which Monteverdi used, and which by the way is…very, very beautiful in this piece, and Steve uses it by developing it in his own style. That’s a piece which we will all play together. And then I asked him to write a duet just for serpent and bass. To write this composition Steve did not start from a particular Monteverdi piece but more from what the harmonies gave him as inspirations. What is interesting in Steve’s language is that it is a very harmonic language which he has developed with the virtuosity of his own, and the language I use is closer to the modal music. And Monteverdi is a kind of hinge-joint between modal music and harmony.”
Next, for Michel, it is also quite natural to ask Guillemette Laurens, one of the stars in the world of Monteverdi interpretation. He tells us that it is in fact Guillemette’s voice he hears in his inner ear when he thinks of the Monteverdi tunes: “Guillemette is a singer who really knows Monteverdi by heart, who has recorded so much beautiful Monteverdi music. And she sings with such a conviction and it is all part of what she is, so it’s just pure happiness.”
Michel asks Bruno to come and join the group. Bruno and Michel tell me that they’ve played together in projects of completely improvised music where musicians come together at the moment of the concert in order to enjoy and fully live up to the immediateness of the instant. “I understood right away that Bruno had the perfect timing and that he had his way of harmonising things which was perfect. He’s an amazing improviser.” Fanny and Michel share the love of ancient and contemporary music. And then we have Gavino, of course. He’s a good old friend of Michel’s. Michel confides me an anecdote that relates the origin of the project and which reveals the importance of the bond of friendship between the two musicians:
“If I do this project of Monteverdi it’s in fact all Gavino’s fault or it’s thanks to him, I don’t know (laughter)! I really like to share my passion for ancient music with my musician friends who not necessarily know this kind of music. And so I spoke about Monteverdi and other composers with Gavino, and one day Gavino says to me: “But you have to do a project around Monteverdi!” And me answering: “No, he belongs to those who are too important and I don’t want to play the game of paying homage to composers etc.” But Gavino was very insistent: “You really have to do that!” He turned his evil eye on me (laughter), and here we are!
Michel Godard is the pivot of the adventure: everybody has already played with him, but the others do not necessarily know each other. The six days at the Abbey allow everybody to completely dive into this laboratory and explore new ways of music, and we from the Carpe Diem Team do dive into the sounds along with them.
“There are so many similarities between a musician from the 16th, beginning of the 17th century and a jazz musician of today; in fact this is what gave me the idea to make meet up musicians who are specialised in Renaissance or baroque music with jazz musicians who are open for other musical practices. But it’s not meeting on the ground where everybody stays where he or she is and where the jazzmen then improvise over Monteverdi.
The project was to try to make every musician understand the language of the other and to respect this language sufficiently so that together we can try to find a common language. You cannot meet a musician of the 16th century, but the musicians of nowadays who completely live in the world of ancient music come very close to its spirit, as close as possible. I think that one of the big similarities is the relation to composition, the fact that each musician is a composer too…And it is not about cultivating geniuses, or nurturing those who, in years to come, will be remembered as famous historical figure or such-like. The project is to write music that will serve for a concert one will do in the coming week or the next day, it’s about creating moments for improvisation. And the fact that everybody is in the same language allows meeting the others. The baroque musician as well as the jazz musician often works under pressure of time, often even without rehearsing at all, and that’s why a strong and common language is so important.
At the time of Monteverdi one staged an opera in only a couple of days. The “Combattimento” for instance had been staged in only a couple of hours which was so quick for such a completely new music. And improvisation has been completely integrated into the music of course. At the end of the 16th or beginning of the 17th century one could not imagine a musician who was not able to play diminutions over a given bass…This was simply part of the everyday work.”
Then I invite Michel to think aloud—like an exercise of improvised investigation—about the great quasi-eternal conflict between words and music, between the voice that pronounces intelligible words and the voice that pronounces sounds as pure sonic material, between text and sense and questions of rhetoric at Monteverdi’s time and the use of the voice in a jazz piece or in contemporary music:
“One of the bases of our work is to respect the text in the music of Monteverdi. There is no way to…for instance…make Gavino’s saxophone play along with Guillemette, to make it play when Guillemette sings so that one doesn’t understand the text any more. By making the violin play a second vocal part we are truthful to the practice of that time. Guillemette always says the text, and when the response is only instrumental, one has heard the text before.
The big question for which I had to find an answer was this: in our part of the project, with our music, did we need to use other texts, contemporary texts? I’ve thought a lot about it. I’ve always loved the connection to the “contemporary” voice. To transform the sound of the words fascinates me. But this opens a very large path…With poet friends and singers I have worked a lot on words which are said in a new way, where the comprehensibility of the text is not the most important thing. This is a completely different work. So to bring contemporary texts together with certain compositions of our own remains an option for the future…But still: before the first rehearsals, I had some texts ready…But we then understood that it was not necessary, and this came quite naturally, and we gave up on the idea. And for the few moments where Guillemette is with us on the jazz side I haven’t put any texts at all, and on purpose. Or for instance I haven’t required any specific timbre. I wanted her to be free…to just become an instrumental voice.”
Like the voice of Gavino who finds sounds inside himself—in his innermost depths, I’d almost say: in his innermost guts—sounds that are almost beyond human voice…
Monteverdi – A trace of grace is the fruit of this very intense week at Noirlac, and it is here for you, to make this fresh playing and its music come to your ear. Enjoy!
Schirin Nowrousian, Abbaye de Noirlac, Bruère-Allichamps & Bremen, June 2011
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Chamber Music - MONTEVERDI, C. / GODARD, M. / SWAL...