Recorded and mixed at Mosfilm Studios, Moscow, June/July 1999
Ensemble Opus Posth., Ensemble D.Pokrovsky - Night In Galicia. 'These songs are a window into the Russian soul' (Dmitry Pokrovsky). Composed by Vladimir Martynov (1946), Moscow. Lyrics by Velimir Khlebnikov (1885 - 1922), Ensemble Director and solo violin: Tatiana Grindenko
Recorded and mixed at Mosfilm Studios, Moscow, June/July 1999 Management of Ensemble Opus Posth: Tatiana Loukianova. Produced by Tatiana Grindenko, Vladimir Martynov, Ulrich Ruetzel and Maria Soboleva.
I'm not sure how many hours of music I've reviewed for Green Man: I will guarantee you I've never run into anything remotely like this disc. Lying somewhere between folk, orchestra, avant garde and downright weird, Night in Galicia is one of those fascinating little discs to review. It challenges every musical convention, it challenges any concept of idiom or style, and most of all, it challenges this listener.
I love a good challenge.
So here's the gist: this work is based on a 1920's poem by Velimir Khlebnikov ("a key figure in the Russian avant garde" claims the liner notes, mentioning Stravinsky as a kindred spirit), based on ancient Slavic folklore. This work, loosely based on stories so old that the true meaning of many of the words have been lost (as being part of the shamanist tradition), was set to music by composer Vladimir Martynov. Here it is performed by the ensemble Opus Posth., an avant garde group dedicated to irreverent interpretation of composed work, and the Dmitry Pokrovsky Ensemble, a folk ensemble that embraces ancient surviving Russian folk music. Set out almost like an opera, with four main characters, the goal of this work is to combine the literal translation of the words with the hidden meanings of the shaman secret societies.
Or something like that. The liner notes try to over intellectualize the work to the point of confusion (they succeeded with me!), talking about the use of "trans-sense" language and presenting that utterly untranslatable Russian concept of "look at me! I'm a weirdo artist!" at its highest. Not that that is intended as a slight; rather, there comes a point when posturing liner notes must be put down and the music listened to.
The opening track, "A-A-A O-O-O EH-EH-EH EE-EE-EE OO-OO-OO," begins with alternating male and female voices reciting the title (consider the dash as a syllable break) with varying pauses after each. Other voices join in, but for seven minutes, that's all you hear, until a crescendo breaks into the multi-part chorus singing/chanting of the lyrics in four part counterpoint. Then the strings come in, staccato stabs (rather metalish actually) alternating with the voices. The result is oddly beautiful, immensely powerful, and rather spooky.
Taking cues from the Finnish shouting choirs tradition, the vocals are more spat out than sung. Extremely tribal sounding, these chants set the tone throughout the work. The rhythmic chanting of "Your lips are the black grouse's brow" almost draw you back into the Stone Age, their primitive beauty enthralling. And even where more melodic, as on "Like a black wind," there is something achingly off-kilter with the delivery. Although sung entirely in Slavic, you never really get a sense that there is meant to be a solid meaning to the language, that every listening will bring a new angle to the songs; sometimes sad, sometimes raging, sometimes ecstatic.
The string ensemble work that comprises the music is an interesting juxtaposition as well. Recalling at times Stravinsky, at others Phillip Glass, at others Romany dance music, at still others the haphazard sawing at a hunting bow by an ancient hand, the music brings a odd sense of power to the work. Again, you can hear dread or joy, fear or anger, or all at once, and yet the overwhelming sense is one of the mystic. "From an old rowboat's transom" careens like the flight of birds, or a hauty gale, or a Scottish jig, or something utterly indescribable, depending on how you choose to hear it. Martynov throws an extra curve in at the end with "Shepherds, hurry to your fields," which switches between a soft and lilting (properly) choir-sung work, and an immensely pretty, yet sad and aching, denouement that reminds one of mountain echoes, or the wind, or the stillness of a woods, or...
I spent quite a few spins with this disc, eyes closed, trying to drink it all in, and I never could come to the same conclusion twice. Perhaps the liner notes ramblings about "trans-sense" are aptly put: this work puts the listener off balance, leaving one unsure of how to interpret this music and these words, but enjoying it immensely nonetheless. Coupled with beautiful woodcuts and stunning photography, the booklet itself is worthy of praise.
There is beauty here, there is ugliness here, there is a touch of the pretentious, but Night in Galicia is a vastly enthralling disc. But it is so hard to describe that I'm not sure if I can get across exactly how familiar and yet bizarre this work is. Personally, I love it: any challenge that brings this level of reward is worth it. Just don't put it on at your next party, do try to impress your next date with it, and whatever you do, don't come running to me to ask what it means. I just dig it.