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Past Presence

Mnemosyne is the Goddess of Memory, the mother (by Zeus) of the nine Muses, and the title of a magical two-disc release on ECM that might persuade you to discard all your other CDs and stay with this album alone. The performers are the four Brits of the Hilliard Ensemble plus the saxophonist Jan Garbarek -- those wonderful people who brought you Officium a few years ago, now back with more of the same and equally wondrous. The repertory this time is broader than on the previous disc, a haunting mix of ancient liturgy -- Greek ritual, Hildegard von Bingen, Thomas Tallis -- and music from folk sources as diverse as Estonian and Iroquois. Some manic genius has arranged the order of these pieces, which last anywhere from two minutes to 11, so that totally unalike music juxtaposed can seem to arise from a single unifying impulse. The abiding sense is not so much what you‘re listening to but how you’re listening -- with your ears, with your gut and with everything in between.

Am I making complete sense? Probably not; I just played the set again, and so I‘m writing under hypnosis. Just a few seconds into the first disc, and you could already be hooked. A distant, throbbing harmony among the four voices resounds among the stones and pillars of an ancient monastery (Austria’s Propstei St. Gerold), whose ambiance the sound engineers have miraculously captured. Then, like a shaft of sunlight through a high window, Garbarek‘s sax proclaims an ecstatic descant, and this is answered in turn in a solo line by the ensemble’s countertenor David James. The music is a fragment from a Peruvian folk song, obviously created on a mountaintop, although the program note doesn‘t say so. (The booklet -- handsome, in the usual ECM manner -- delivers a higher level of relevant information, in the form of stills of seascapes and vast distances from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.) Much of the music consists of mere fragments from larger works, chosen and improvised around on the spot: five guys miraculously in tune with one another, journeying through a timeless treasury amassed out of many musics, ending up not so much merely shaking the dust from the music as entering into enlightened conversation with it.

I cannot, of course, proclaim that the one-of-a-kind performance art on these discs tears the veil of time from these ancient repertoires; you still need the Tallis Scholars and Anonymous 4, along with the Hilliards‘ many other discs, for the straight historical skinny on Hildegard and her pals. Mnemosyne is all about a latter-day state of mind toward an important part of our musical past, the state of mind that guided the hands of Hieronymous Bosch and the makers of those marginal grotesques in ancient prayer books, perhaps even the state of mind that brought the picket lines to the Brooklyn Museum last month: the timeless power of ancient art to generate new art.

Some other music performed recently hereabouts also relates to this timeless power. Two of the four works at the County Museum on the Monday Evening Concert by Xtet, that splendid group of local freelancers -- IX regulars or XIII with guests -- turned out to be attractive new paraphrases of very old music: Eve Beglarian’s Machaut in the Machine Age twisted a few new contrapuntal lines through the gnarled texture of a 14th-century chanson, a congenial trifle. Stephen Hartke‘s Wulfstan at the Millennium, a work of greater length and substance, used the outlines of liturgical pieces by the Anglo-Saxon cleric Wulfstan, of just about a millennium ago, as frames for new music that somehow manages to stay interestingly close to its ancient inspiration -- in, for example, the antiphonal back-and-forth answerings in several sections. A lovely concert all told; it also included a wonderful work from the recent past too seldom revived: Vicki Ray as soloist in Manuel de Falla’s crisp, jaunty Harpsichord Concerto, with its slow movement that, secular in intent, nevertheless showed the hand of God.

Morten Lauridsen‘s Lux Aeterna began the Master Chorale’s concert at the Music Center, and rendered the ensuing Brahms Requiem redundant. Lauridsen, who teaches at USC, is what you would call in today‘s lingo a compassionate conservative. His best music, most of it choral, holds no more terrors than that great clod of Brahmsian turgidity and makes its points with far greater ease. Out front, it goes down smoothly; it’s also probably fun to sing -- as the Brahms, I know from experience, is not. Much of the vital organism in Lauridsen‘s 25-or-so-minute piece is grafted onto old roots: bygone harmonic modes, an occasional cantus firmus of Gregorian origin, long passages in that archaic harmonic style known as faux bourdon that always makes you think of spires and domes and eternal light through stained glass. Its performance demands are modest, which serves the purpose of Paul Salamunovich’s pretty-good chorus and his only-fair pickup orchestra, for which it was composed.

If the Hilliards‘ and Lauridsen’s music evokes models from a millennium or so ago, those are the new kids on the block compared to the amazements concocted by Harry Partch, who came to the conclusion early on that music had taken a wrong turn around 1000 A.D., and that the only salvation lay in restoring the elaborate but eminently logical principles preached and practiced by the ancient Greeks. It mattered not, of course, that these principles have survived only as speculation; what mattered far more was that Partch went on to invent what he imagined as an evocation of the old ways -- including a scale with a possible 43 tones as opposed to the familiar 12 -- built his glorious instruments (out of glass, bamboo, tuned stones and assorted found objects) to perform his imaginings, and put them to work in music wacko perhaps but also irresistible beyond belief. His stupendous stage work Delusion of the Fury was first performed at UCLA in 1969 under the benevolence of the noble patron Betty Freeman, and recorded at the time by Columbia Records. Now that recording, unavailable for years, has been reissued on the Minnesota-based Innova label as part of its ongoing series of Partch discs, books and videos. Hallelujah!

Partch concocted his Delusion from a couple of folk legends, acted out on stage by dancers with occasional chanting, with his fantastic “orchestra” led by his longtime associate Danlee Mitchell. The sounds range from sozzled gamelan to boiler factory to the swoopings of great predatory birds; what holds the work together is its exuberant rhythmic sweep. If the music of Mnemosyne transports you into a happy trance, Partch makes you want to fly. Both recordings, it seems to me, are essential.