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Spanish composer creates a ‘museum’ for ancient music
By Zhang Qian

COMPOSER and conductor Jordi Savall believes ancient music is the best tool to learn about human history and experience different cultures.


Having been classically trained in music since childhood, Savall says he fell in love with early music when he discovered the viola da gamba in 1965. He has since been dedicated to bringing instruments from the viol family back to life on stage along with some ancient Oriental instruments.

Savall is cofounder of the ancient music ensemble Hesperion XXI along with Montserrat Figueras, Lorenzo Alpert and Hopkinson Smith. The ensemble dates back to 1974 in Basel, Switzerland, and is focused on recovering and disseminating music composed prior to the 19th century on the basis of historical criteria and the use of original instruments. It has since been renamed Hesperion XX.

Savall and his troupe performed in Shanghai last Thursday. The concert titled, “Mare Nostrum,” featured a dialogue between Occidental and Oriental music, says the composer.

“It would be very difficult to do such a dialogue in the Baroque period with very different music systems between the West and East, yet it could have happened in Medieval times when musicians shared the same languages like melody, dance and improvisation,” he says.

“As a musician, I like to explore history and experience different cultures so that we can learn about our past and who we are,” says the 73-year-old Spaniard.

He says listening to music from another culture is one of the best ways to learn about people from other countries. He thinks music connects souls and reveals a great deal about a musician.

He shares with Shanghai Daily his thoughts on the revitalization of ancient music.


Q: Why are you so interested in ancient music and promoting it today?

A: A lot of ancient music is really beautiful and emotionally intense. I think we need to know our history to create a better future. An important element for all civilizations is memory. Music and memory are the same. Music only exists when we play. When we finish, it is all memory. We cannot visit a museum for music like we do for paintings. We can only rely on musicians to recreate it. What I am doing is like creating a museum for music.

Q: Where do you find ancient music compositions?

A: We get information from two sources: one from manuscripts and printings while the other from good musicians capable of playing the music.

It is easier to find manuscripts for Occidental music as there was a tradition of writing music down. But for Oriental music which is usually transmitted orally, my job is to find good singers or musicians able to recreate it. Oral traditions are very strong in Asian countries and music has long been transferred from generation to generation.

Q: Will you add new elements to ancient music?

A: All music, even written one, is not finished. All music needs human artists to complete it. We need the talents of musicians to express what the music has to say with the beautiful voice or instruments and their own emotions.

If the best music of Bach or Mozart is played on a computer, the music will express nothing. We always need a human to bring out the best in music.

Of course, it is impossible for us to play exactly the same as in ancient times, but we insist on playing with authentic traditions.

Regardless of all the changes we have been through in the past 2,000 years, there are things that never change, such as life and love. Music is about expressing love, as well as essential elements for life to be happy and bring peace to our heart.

Q: Do you have any suggestions regarding the revitalization of ancient Chinese music?

A: I know traditional Chinese music from some recordings. In my last visit to Beijing, I heard a very nice ensemble playing ancient music in the Forbidden City. It was really beautiful.

One of the projects I will participate in next year is about a tour of Islam, from Morocco to China. I have prepared some traditional Chinese music that will be included in the project.

Actually, I was very surprised to see some Chinese instruments very similar to the ancient instruments we play in the ensemble.

I am looking forward to our stop in China next year, which will offer me a chance to better explore Chinese music traditions.

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