Zen and the art of gamba playing

February 2013

  • Graham Strahle

Following his first Adelaide Festival appearance in 1996, the renowned Catalan viola da gamba player Jordi Savall returns to perform solo works by Bach, Marais, Abel, Sainte-Colombe and others.

If one thinks of Pablo Casals as the defining cellist of modern times, and Andrés Segovia as having established the classical guitar as we know it today, the same may well be said of another Spaniard, Jordi Savall, and the viola da gamba. The instrument itself, which looks coincidentally rather like a cross between the cello and guitar, reached its zenith with the redoubtable French virtuosos Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe and Marin Marais during the reign of the ‘Sun King’, Louis XIV, and his successor Louis XV. Indeed, it was Savall’s (who is also appearing at WOMADelaide to present his Celtic Viol program with harpist Andrew Lawrence-King and Frank McGuire playing bodhran) recreation and performance of these composers’ exquisitely beautiful pieces for the 1991 film Tous les matins du monde that brought him worldwide attention – the soundtrack has sold more than a million copies.

Before Savall appeared on the early music scene in the mid-1970s with his celebrated group Hespèrion XXI (then called Hespèrion XX), the gamba was an obscure instrument whose practitioners, mainly cellists looking for something different to do, could be counted just about on the fingers of one hand. But through lengthy personal study of the gamba’s sources and music, Savall says he was able to understand the instrument more fully. “When I was starting to study viola da gamba, I had to develop my own ideas for playing it. The teachers then were making the transition from cello to viola da gamba. I started to practise it in 1965 but worked for 10 years before giving a concert, playing the music and thinking about the relationship between the instrument and one’s body.”

This relationship was something Savall explored through meditation, which he says became key in developing his unique sound and way of playing the gamba. “I was interested in finding out how to transform one’s energy to the instrument in the most direct way,” says Savall. The book The Sacred Art of Bowing: Preparing to Practice, by Buddhist writer Andi Young, helped, he says. “This book puts forward a Zen philosophy that says if you practise while concentrating on your physical being, after many years you don’t need to think about this and the fingers find their own way. You become so together with the music that you talk through the music.”

Savall says he continues to practise regular meditation. “I do 45 minutes every day. I do this always. Then, when I play, I start off with very slow sounds. I let my body feel the sounds and play a simple phrase or scale, feeling how my body responds. I also meditate when I am conducting. If you’re quiet, there is a serenity that flows onto the musicians. If you’re nervous, all the musicians are nervous. You transmit these signals.”

More than other early musician, Savall has looked keenly into the importance of Middle Eastern, Moroccan and other Mediterranean influences on European music of earlier centuries, and the result has given his solo playing, and Hespèrion XXI’s performances, a unique colour and inimitable vivacity. Perhaps this is why the Spanish master is distinctly unpreachy on the subject of authenticity, unlike a lot of other early musicians. Savall regards authenticity as more connected to one’s personal feelings for the music, which he says he realised when he started teaching at Basel’s Schola Cantorum in 1974:

“I came to the view that you can teach the musician everything concerning style, sound, improvisation and so on, except for emotion, beauty and communication. Purity itself is a mistaken notion. We all belong in the present. If we play Bach today, the only way to listen to his music like audiences would have in his day would be to travel in a time machine, and to have never heard jazz, pop and so on. Authenticity means not to play like Bach or Marin Marais but in your own musical way. You have to be in love with the music, and then you will communicate it. The important thing is not purity; rather it is the way of regarding the music, and how a person has looked at the music and the sources. A good musician has to study the period, the music, with respect.”

He says that playing the soundtrack for Tous les matins du monde changed his views even further. “The experience made me realise that my approach had to be different. This is not a concert. You have to be Marin Marais playing before a person who is dying. It is just like Hamlet saying “To be, or not to be”; a play is not like a concert, because you have to engage like a person in real life.”

With a discography consisting of more than 160 albums, many of which he has released on his own Alia Vox label, Savall has covered a vast territory of music across the centuries. He has even recorded Beethoven with his orchestra, Le Concert des Nations, which he formed in 1989, and which he conducts. Savall says the composers who have given him the most joy to record are Purcell, Dowland, Tye and Jenkins for viol, and for orchestra, Monteverdi, Rameau and Beethoven. “But every recording occupies a special moment in my life,” he adds. “It’s to be in love for the first time. Every piece is like falling in love with a new person for the first time.”

Savall’s wife, the soprano Montserrat Figueras, whose singing also elevated Hespèrion XXI to become the world’s leading early music group, sadly succumbed to cancer in 2011. He says her passing was a very great personal loss. “I’ve accepted the sadness as a good friend. You have to live with this sadness. But I now do more concerts than ever. Last year I did 160; this year it will be similar. When I play in concerts, I am in contact with Montserrat. I’ve started again to have pleasure with my friends and children. The thing is, we’re not here forever. The price you pay is ultimately to have sadness, but one can learn to live with experiencing that.”

Jordi Savall

Adelaide Festival
Les Voix Humaines
St Peter’s Cathedral
Thursday, March 7

WOMADelaide
The Celtic Viol
Friday, March 8 to Monday, March 11

 

 

 

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