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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 (”Thulathiayat”) to St John of the Cross’s ecstatic “Toda ciencia trascendiendo”.

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.

Norwegian pianist Jon Balke first appeared on ECM in 1974. From a background in jazz and ‘world music’, he has gone on to compose for theatre and dance performances as well as major works for chamber groups and sinfoniettas. He leads the Magnetic North Orchestra, whose albums include “Further”, “Kyanos” and “Diverted Travels”, was the initiator of the Batagraf project, has recorded solo for ECM (“Book of Velocities”) and also produced African drummer Miki N’Doye for the label.
Amina Alaoui is a virtuoso singer, born in Fez and originally schooled in the Moroccan Gharnati tradition, who continues to research connections between Fado, Flamenco and the music of Al-Andalus. In Siwan much of the music was originally composed to Spanish translations of the poetry. Alaoui helped to reshape the material around original Arabic versions, which she sings with great authority.
Memphis-born trumpeter Jon Hassell’s path from studies with Stockhausen to Indian vocal master Pandit Pran Nath to the sphere of New York minimalism led him to shape what he called ‘fourth world’ - a music without borders between classical and popular, sacred and sensual, which has filtered into nearly all areas of contemporary music. His landmark ECM album “Power Spot” was an early highpoint. His recent album, “Last Night The Moon Came...” reminded many of how influential his liquid trumpet sound has become.
Kheir Eddine M’Kachiche is a virtuoso violinist from Algeria. Based in the tradition of Arab-Andalusian music he has developed his own voice in collaborations with Amina Alaoui, Barrio Chino, and lately also with Cheb Khaled and Jon Hassell.
Bjarte Eike is a young veteran of early music. After studies in Bergen and London, he quickly established himself as a leading violinist on Copenhagen’s early music scene. A member of Balke’s Magnetic North, he formed his Barokksolistene in 2005.
Pedram Khavar Zamini, from Tehran, combines traditional tombak (zarb) drumming with his own modern patterns and is considered one of the most exceptional exponents of Persian classical music.
Norwegian percussionist Helge Norbakken has played in the groups of Mari Boine, Maria Joao, and numerous other international artists. His percussion draws influences from diverse world traditions and jazz – as can be heard in his work with Magnetic North, Batagraf and Siwan.
German lutenist Andreas Arend studied with Nigel North and is well-known as a flexible virituoso player, performing in a range of leading groups in baroque and renaissance music.
Bjarte Eike’s Barokksolistene (Baroque soloists) is a highly-regarded constellation of top players in the European early music scene. Members Tom Pitt and Peter Spissky – who with Eike have performed as Baroque Fever- have already recorded for ECM with Magnetic North, and Miloš Valent has appeared on ECM New Series with John Potter’s Dowland Project (“Romaria”) and Iva Bittová (“Mater”).

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