It's been seven years since Paul Giger's last New Series album, "Schattenwelt", a solo album. In the interim, the Swiss violinist's priorities have shifted, an early 90s collaboration with the Hilliard En-semble opening new perspectives for his music: "Up until that point, I was that old-fashioned type of musician who writes for himself and travels, playing his own compositions." This modest account makes no mention of the extreme originality of his playing, nor of such biographical details as his years as konzertmeister of the St Gallen Symphony Orchestra, his facility with violin repertoire from the baroque to contemporary music, his improvisational experiments, or his knowledge of jazz and folk idioms. "Writing for voices", Giger continues, "felt very natural for me. It's very close to writing for a stringed instrument. Or to say it another way, in playing violin I've often tried to get close to the human voice. It has been one of my models - along with the shakuhachi, which is an instrument I adore...
"Anyway, the work with the Hilliard Ensemble perhaps gave me confidence to write for other instru-ments, and since then I've been receiving commissions each year, writing for chamber music groups or for symphonic forces and choirs."
The present recording brings Giger together with one of the most distinguished contemporary vocal groups, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, under the mercurial direction of Tõnu Kaljuste. Both choir and conductor will be familiar to ECM listeners, their discography including such highly acclaimed recordings as Arvo Pärt's "Kanon Pokajanen", "Litany" and "Te Deum", Veljo Tormis's "Forgotten Peoples" and "Litany To Thunder", and Erkki-Sven Tüür's "Crystallisatio".
The road towards the collaboration was convoluted. Giger's travels had taken him to Estonia where he played a solo concert in the resonant interior of the Niguliste Church, where "Ignis" was finally re-corded. At the time the violinist did not meet Kaljuste, but he did meet several of the choir members who expressed interest in his work, and one of the choirs tenors, Arvo Aun, suggested he consider writing a piece for the EPCC. In the same period, Manfred Eicher had also given Giger recordings of the choir, including "Forgotten Peoples". A weekend of music in a Swiss mountain abbey near Mun-sterthal brought choir, conductor and violinist into closer proximity. "I played my 'Chartres' music on the Sunday morning, and on the Saturday night they played a programme of Bach and Pärt. It was beautiful, unforgettable. When I finally asked Kaljuste about working together, he was very open. I sent scores to Estonia, and it developed from there."
Giger describes the recording session itself as "euphoric": "I came down to Estonia directly from Ti-bet, where I'd just spent three weeks at a height of 4,000 metres, filming some performances. So I arrived in Tallinn full of red corpuscles and feeling really strong. To have the opportunity to work with a choir of this calibre, so flexible in their approach and able to do so many outstanding things, was a great experience."
For the recording, Paul Giger also assembled a string trio including cellist Beat Schneider, with whom he studied at the Berne Conservatory and Rumanian violist Marius Ungureanu .The string trio is heard alone on "Organum" and "Allelujah" and with the choir on "Tropus" and "O Ignis". On "Karma Shadub", Giger is the only string player, accompanied by the Estonian singers.
"All the pieces of music on this CD are sacred music", the composer/violinist notes, "and some em-ploy words, and some do not." "Organum", which opens the disc, belongs to the latter category. It is a piece of found music, an anonymous composition of the Notre Dame school (c 1190-1210), reworked and arranged for string trio by Giger.
"Karma Shadub", which translates from the Tibetan as "Dancing Star", makes its second ECM ap-pearance. Originally written for solo violin in 1984, it is featured, in radically differing version, on "Alpstein" the album Giger made 10 years ago with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and drummer Pierre Favre. A demanding piece to sing, it requires the holding of a single note for extended durations, a task the men of the Estonian Philharmonic Choir accomplish by performing the piece in relays, split-ting the parts between them. Against the drone of the voices, at first reminiscent of both Buddhist chant and plainsong, Giger's violin climbs patiently - and then soars...
"Karma Shadub" and "Tropus" are concert recordings, and the attentive listener monitoring the music on headphones may perceive some unusual incidental sounds that seem to mesh organically with the music. "The Niguliste Church is right in the middle of town, and there's nearby park which is a meet-ing point for the many people who come by ferry boat from Finland to drink. You can hear them shouting in the distance if you listen closely. There's also the murmur of traffic and at one point a car alarm even goes off, but its tonality fits in so perfectly that I'm quite happy to have it there!"
"Tropus" and "Allelujah" are based upon monophonic melodies, dating back to the 10th century, and attributed to the monks Tuotilo and Notker Balbulus from the Benedictine abbey of St Gallen, where vocal music came to an early high flowering. Of Notker (d. 912), early music authority Richard L. Crocker has noted that "his choice of words was fastidious, his use of assonance and other ornaments of sonority was cautious and carefully planned. His rhythm was regulated according to the best classi-cal ideals." Tuotilo (d. 915) was a pupil of Iso and Marcellus, and a friend of Notker. Apart from being a distinguished musician, he was also hailed as a poet, painter and sculptor. Ekkehard IV, choirmaster and early biographer of the St Gallen monk-musicians, described Tuotilo's melodies as "strange and easily recognisable".
In his "Tropus" Paul Giger gives Tuotilo's melody to the choir and sets the same melody, at a much faster clip, for the strings, giving the piece an unusual rhythmic impetus. "Allelujah" also displays Giger's skills on violino d'amore to good effect.
"O Ignis" takes as its basis music of Hildegard from Bingen. The violinist has been working with this piece - " exploring this mixture of early music and improvisation" - since the early 90s when he first performed it in concert in a version arranged by Peter Roth for four voices, saxophone and violin.