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Andrew Balfour and music from future past

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Andrew Balfour and music from future passt
The inimitable Winnipeg composer Andrew Balfour

We may not live in a period as turbulent as Thomas Tallis did during the English Reformation, but there is an uncomfortable rumble of turbulence today in societies such as in Canada, which enjoys the many notional – some might say, even facile – first-fruits of the “Commonwealth.” The tale of the incredible disappearing hyphen in that word has also created a powerful, invisible vortex begotten by “Colonialism” that is often obscured by “multiculturalism.” The two characteristically unhyphenated words have witting – or unwittingly – ignored the Indigenous Peoples of Canada; undeniably the First Peoples of Canada.  But the noun – Colonialism – encompasses non-state forms of influence and domination, as by corporate or religious entities, and [this time] wittingly become an extension of state power – and in the case of Canada [a Catholic country] – church power which has perpetrated the most heinous crimes, such as the infamous 60s Scoop, on the country’s Indigenous Peoples in the name of Christianity.

But politics and religion are – with very few exceptions – at odds with the true “humanness” of humanity. The prehistorian and archeologist, Professor Steven Mithen, in his remarkable book The Archeology of the Brain used a remarkably prescient idiom to describe the analogous development of humanity and the human brain. His theory: as humanity developed over tens of thousands of years, the brain – the citadel of vision, thought and belief – developed in an ever-expanding cranium that [he posited] evolving from an architecturally humble single roomed country chapel to a vaunted cathedral. Knowledge, Professor Mithen said, flowed in from eyes, and ears – notional stained-glass windows to the world – and then rushed seamlessly through an intricate network of naves into the sanctum sanctorum where ever increasing sophisticated knowledge was processed and which begat enlightenment of thought word and deed.

Andrew Balfour in church [CBC]

The best examples of this human development in every generation have inevitably displayed an artistry native to dramatists, poets, and musicians where the celebration of humanity has governed their craft [as opposed to holders of the imperial sceptre and the pastoral staff, always motivated by power over humanity. And composer and conductor of Cree descent Andrew Balfour is – like Thomas Tallis – a rare bird, a rare human being possessed of a vaunted cathedral of a mind in which vision, thought and belief is spread upon a proverbial canvas stretched between the celestial and the terrestrial. Here his painted musical notes roused by the voices in their chorales, fly off the canvas returning heavenward from whence their inspiration strikes him like lightning down from heaven to the earth of his ancestors.

Mr Balfour may have been a child of the 60s Scoop, but he considers himself fortunate [watch the video below]. He appears to have benefitted from the munificence – the spiritual bounty – of Christian theology. Fortuitously as well, it is likely that the spirituality of his Indigenous nature – one assumes, of course – was never snuffed out. Instead, his Indigenous Spirit world seems to have coexisted with his adoptive Christian one. As a result, he appears to have learned to do something most children of the 60s Scoop were never successful at doing, probably to the abject terror of living with in an unforgiving – to many even malevolent – world [with or without adoptive parents] of the Residential School System. And so, his beautiful, ancient Indigenous Spirit World appears to have coexisted with his Christian one into which he was adopted. The result is, as in life, so also in art a magical syncretization has overflowed from his uncommon humanity into the compositional ingenuity of his music.

Mr Balfour’s music is both powerful and ethereal. Choral, instrumental, and orchestral works are evocative of the natural spirit world of earth and sky. This is reflected in gossamer-like tapestries informed by melodies and harmonies swirling together amid earthy rhythms – creating a wondrous alchemy bubbling under both musical miniatures and heady epic narratives. His works are unlike anyone else’s – certainly not like Canadian Indigenous writers – Thomson Highway, Jeremy Dutcher, Tanya Tagaq, or the late ingénue, Kelly Fraser. But Mr Balfour is special. His sunlit imagination has adorned both secular and spiritual music. His oeuvre includes Take the Indian, Empire Étrange: The Death of Louis Riel, Migiis: A Whiteshell Soundscape, Bawajigaywin, Gregorio’s Nightmare, Wa Wa Tey Wak [Northern Lights], Fantasia on a Poem by Rumi, Missa Brevis and Medieval Inuit.

It is no secret that Mr Balfour has also harboured a deep passion for medieval polyphony and baroque music. Living in a world of syncretized spirituality and given his prodigious gift for the chorale it seemed only a matter of time he focussed his attention – like a split-diopter – to the liturgical works of composers such as Thomas Tallis, Henry Purcell, Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons. The result is an album of measured, unruffled a capella chorales rendered from Latin and English texts into Cree, Ojibway. There is so much power hidden away and stored up in the words all these most fitting melodies spring forth and have presented themselves to the eager, alert, and agile mind of Mr Balfour. It seemed only natural that he would employ his glorious interpretive skills to these arrangements that have been brought to life by the brilliant ensemble musica intima.

Andrew Balfour and musica intima: Nagamo

Andrew Balfour and musica intima: Nagamo This project is a real journey of discovery. Nagamo is an outstanding reimagining – in Cree and Ojibway – of the choral music of Elizabethan masters. It is a programme of profoundly beautiful sacred music, some of it inspired by the bards of the Psalms and yet others with original texts by Mr Balfour, set to music by the 16th century composers.

The range of voices from musica intima give impressive performances right from the first work. In Four Directions Mr Balfour sets his mystical compass by the voice of his heart which – in turn moves [the diaphragmatic voices] of the singers of musica intima to usher the lyric that rises – first sotto voce then mezza voce – as if from the singers throats, from there to join [suggestively of course] the murmurings of the strings of celestial harps setting the stage for a dramatic programme to follow.

The singers have an uninhibited, fresh sound, coupled with a great skill which includes sustaining lengthy phrases with even tone. Never once does one feel that the beauty of phrasing is given higher priority than conveying the depth of meaning of the texts. This is especially noticeable in pieces such as O Lord, Make Thy Servant Elizabeth, Reges Tharsis, and the wonderfully dolorous Psalm of King David, Miserere mei Deus, perhaps the greatest penitential poems in the Psalter. Listening to the plangent strains of this work, never has King David’s contrition seem more noble or sublime.

Everywhere the singers of musica intima allow the music and the words to speak freely for themselves. They put their faith, as it were, in tonal focus and sweetly balanced textures. The skill of the singers throughout the tutti passages, and the depth and emotional precision of their response to Mr Balfour’s [original and interpreted] text, results in something no less profound and no less moving in the utterly Lutheran vision of life and death as a welcome release from the world’s travails into God’s loving care.

This is certainly Mr Balfour at his most personal and, arguably, at his very best. Here he rises to the challenge admirably, melding his lyrical genius to uncomplicated yet artistically sophisticated works. He shows that he is able to align plainly heard words, unobscured by elaborate musical detail, while sill managing to convey a range of emotion by harnessing simple melodies enhanced by bold harmonies. Best of all, of course, is his ability to render in Cree and Ojibway the simplicity of Elizabethan settings.

The result is that in the hands Mr Balfour each work is subtly and sensitively shaped, and in singers’ remarkable clarity of tone that perfectly serves the simplicity of the melody, the slowly unfolding melodic lines convey a sense of hushed awe between earth and sky as the listener is caught up by this music’s sacred and spellbinding power.

Deo gratis…

Music – 1: Four Directions [Ojibway text – Andrew Balfour / Music – Thomas Tallis {1505-1585}] ; 2: Ambe Anishinaabeg [Ojibway text – Andrew Balfour / Music Thomas Weekes {1576-1623}]; 3: O Lord, Make Thy Servant Elizabeth [English text – Psalm 21:2, 4 alt / Music William Byrd {1540-1623}]; 3: Pakaskitawew [Cree text Andrew Balfour / Music Henry Purcell {c1540-1623}]; 4: Laudibus in sanctus [Latin text paraphrase of Psalm 150 / Music William Byrd from Cantiones Sacrae II {1591}]; 5: What Pow’r Art Thou? [Ojibway text Andrew Balfour / Music Henry Purcell from King Arthur]; 6: Trapped in Stone [From Scots Gaelic, based on and written in memory of the Scottish prisoners of war imprisoned at Durham Cathedral, September 1650 / Text and music – Andrew Balfour]; 7: Reges Tharsis [Latin text from Psalm 71:10 / Music – Baldwin Partbooks, dubiously attributed to William Byrd]; 9:  Da Pacem, Domine [Latin text: 6th-7th century hymn / Music – Alfonso Ferrabosco the Elder {c. 1543-1588}, edited by Jamie Apgar {from GB-Ob MS, Tenbury 341-344] Bassus reconstruction – Jamie Apgar]; 10: Miserere mei Deus [Latin text: Psalm 51:1-2 / Music – William Byrd from Cantiones Sacrae II]; 11: Ispiciwn [Cree text – Andrew Balfour / Music – Orlando Gibbons {1583-1625}, Drop, Drop Slow Tears]; 12: Omaa Biindig [Ojibway text and music Andrew Balfour].

Musicians – musica intima – Tabitha Brasso-Ernst, Christina Cichos, Katherine Evans, Kira Fondse, Lucy Smith, Risa Takahashi, Stephen Duncan, Jacob Gramit, Steve Maddock, Carman J. Price, Taka Shimojima and Asitha Tennekoon. Production – Joanna Dundas: producer; Don Harder: recording engineer; editing and mastering; Jacob Gramit: associate producer; Lucy Smith: project manager; Sonny Asau: cover art and graphic design.

Released – 2022
Label – red s h i f t [TK522]
www.redshiftrecords.org
Runtime – 43:44

Based in Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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