Jon Balke, Siwan – Hafla Review
by Ferell Aubre
Norwegian pianist Jon Balke is back with his latest ECM Records release called Siwan – Hafla. This is the third album from the Norwegian keyboardist-composer-arranger’s ensemble Siwan, launched in 2007. Siwan celebrates the concept of coexistence and cooperation, making a case for the positive attributes of cultural diversity as it looks back into history to find inspiration and models for shared works. The legends and the poetry of al-Andalus continue to inspire Balke and company. The ensemble is Balke, keyboards, electronics, tombak; Mona Boutchebak, vocals, quitra; Derya Turkan, kemençe; Bjarte Eike, baroque violin; Helge Norbakken, percussion; Pedram Khavar Zamini, tombak; Per Buhre, vocals, viola; and the Barokksolistene string orchestra. Balke brings many musical aspects with his writing for this unique ensemble with many textures, melodies, and rhythms through the twelve compositions.
“Tarraquab” opens with dancing pizzicato string sounds and atmospheric swells with building percussion. The Middle-Eastern colors are enhanced with sensual singing and speaking. Balke creates a space of intrigue and textures with his ensemble and the string orchestra. The strings provide many colors as the percussion and electronics give depth and interest. Balke’s setting of lyrics by Wallada bint al-Mustakfi, the free-thinking 11th-century Ummayad princess of Cordoba and the lover of Ibn Zaydun, the great poet of al-Andalus, matches the ensemble’s mood and colors and makes for an excellent opening selection. “The story of their relationship is legendary,” Balke notes. “And Wallada also wrote some great, short, and precise poems. This time, we were looking for poetry descriptive of life as it was lived in that period. Somebody made the observation that the phenomenon of coexistence begins in the neighbourhood when someone needs help. It begins in the queue to buy bread. On that kind of basic level. It’s a good perspective, I think.”
“Saeta” is a beautiful melody centered around the string orchestra and Turkan’s haunting kamancheh. The percussion is supportive and builds complex layers of support and energy. The counterpoint is very rewarding and adds another layer of complexity and relevance. With the musicians coming from diverse traditions, Balke has to be resourceful in his presentation of new pieces. “I’ve had to find ways to write new music for musicians who don’t normally read scores. For the Barokksolistene everything is written down. For the others, usually, I record demo versions of the material, with me playing percussion and keyboards and sometimes cello so that everybody has at least a sketch of the songs.”
Siwan – Hafla is a celebration of an amalgamation of many cultures and styles. The Middle Eastern influence is exotic, and the multiple languages add richness. Balke’s music vision is concise and transfers beautifully to this tapestry of colors and emotions.