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Friday, August 9, 2019

Bastarda - Ars Moriendi (Lado, 2019) ****

By Stef

A little out of the ordinary, this music by Bastarda, the trio of Paweł Szamburski on clarinet, Tomasz Pokrzywiński on cello and Michał Górczyński on contrabass clarinet. On the last track they are joined by Olga Myslowska on vocals. We know the two clarinet players from the Mikolaj Trzaska Ircha Clarinet Quartet, frequently reviewed on this blog before.

The title "Ars Moriendi" (literally: the art of dying) refers to a book published in the Middle Ages to help people transition to the realm of the death, which was omnipresent because of the plague that ravaged Europe. The text is at the same comforting and consoling, and at the same time demanding reflections on the individual's sins and on the purity of Christ's suffering. It is between this moment of suffering and hope for eternal life that this music finds its inspiration.

As can be expected, the music is deeply melancholy and deeply sad. It is not jazz, it is not classical, it is not folk, but rather a genre-blending exercise with a very coherent voice. Not only that, the most extraordinary balancing act they perform is to go head-first into the most emotional musical setting without falling into the abyss of cheap sentiments. It takes courage to show this kind and this level of emotions, and somehow it is also very Polish to manage this successfully (think of Waclaw Zimpel or Tomasz Stanko).

The compositions are strong, hard to pigeon-hole, inventive and perfect for the instruments of this small ensemble. The cello and the contrabass clarinet offer a solid background for the clarinet to improvise on. The music is inspired too by medieval songs for the dead. The known composers are Guillaume du Fay (Belgium, 15 Century), Josquin Desprez (French 15th century), Cristobal de Morales (Spain, 16th Century) and Constanzo Festa (Italy, 15th Century) and the songs are performed in a specific order to represent the various phases the dying person goes through. It is only when you compare Bastarda's interpretation with the original material, often polyphonic chants, that it becomes clear how they reworked the songs into their own very specific idiom, modernising them while keeping the overall tone of desolation.

The band's name is derived from the "viola bastarda" compositional technique, which consisted of reducing a polyphonic composition to a single line, "while maintaining the same range as the original, and adding divisions, improvisations, and new counterpoint" (according to Wikipedia).

Even if this a little outside the scope of our blog, the musicianship and the uniqueness of the sound make this really worth mentioning. The music itself is so sad, that it will not cheer you up, but on the other hand, the quality is so good, that you will want to listen to this again and again.

Listen and download from Bandcamp.


Colin Green said...

I was impressed with this album, full of haunting sororities.

Colin Green said...

Sorry, that should read “sonorities”. Our approach to death is one of the things that defines us as humans, but I wasn’t quite sure about the video with its multiplicity of images and associations. For me, this music is better heard like a Tenebrae service with the gradual extinguishment of candles, or perhaps music to be played in the Rothko room at Tate Modern.

Stef said...

You're right about the Video, Colin. But that's the only one I could find with a good illustration of the music. The music is much less "devotional" than the video might suggest.

Anonymous said...

Great album, I loved it... The vocal in the last track maybe not the best choice, but still didn't spoil the overall experience. Very interesting, and incredibly well played!