Every accomplished composer has a muse. For one composer, that muse could be the true love of his life; for another, the mirror might be the only place to look. Some composers can and could create technically perfect music out of thin air, music that contains pleasant melodies and vague senses of mood—still, it’s impossible to evoke true emotion from nothing. For Luciano Berio, the muse, at least for a time, was a voice: Cathy Berberian, who also happened to be his wife. Spousal obligation aside, it was Berberian’s range that spurred Berio to write his cycle of folk songs, songs designed to showcase the versatility of that voice in tone and timbre. Osvaldo Golijov’s muse, then, in the creation of his most recent work Ayre, was twofold—again, there was a voice to be written for, in this case soprano Dawn Upshaw, but there was also the matter of paying tribute to one of his own influences, none other than Berio himself. Using Folk Songs as a starting point, Ayre exists as a testament to the influence of a past hero and a current inspiration, the combination of the two allowing Golijov the power to maximize his creative prowess and create something extraordinary.
Ayre is extraordinary, a song cycle exposing the tenuous relationship between Jewish, Christian, and Arab culture, using the similarities between the three to subtly color and transition passages throughout the work while incorporating the tension between the three in the conflict-ridden text of the songs. The setting is southern Spain in the late 1400s, where the three cultures once lived among each other, aware of each others’ differences but still managing to live amongst one another in relative peace—relative, that is, to the conflict between the three in other lands. In listening through Ayre, one is just as likely to hear a passage featuring Spanish guitar as klezmer clarinet, just as likely to hear a Sephardic (Spanish-Jewish) melody as a Christian Arab one. The end result is alternately disconcerting and peaceful, and at least as dynamic as anything the pop scene has released this year.
In fact, it’s entirely possible that fans of pop music will find something to love in Ayre, which by definition is of a genre many of those fans have been conditioned to despise. For one, the folk melodies are, understandably, fairly close to pop in structure, leaning heavily on repetition and subtle shifts over constant melodic development. More startling is Golijov’s decision to incorporate obvious, vaguely industrial-style electronic elements into the 15th century mix, a juxtaposition that actually melds remarkably well after the initial shock has worn off. “Wa Habibi” (“My Love”), melodically an amalgamation of Christian and Muslim Arabic melodies, is the most prominent display of Golijov’s electronic tendencies, building a cathartic explosion of hurt on top of the pulsating beat as Upshaw sings (translated) “My love, my love, what has befallen you? Who saw you and grieved for you, you who are righteous?” Every minute of the six that comprise “Wa Habibi” is utterly captivating.
As Golijov surely could have told us long before the release of Ayre, nearly every other minute in which Upshaw has a vocal appearance is similarly enticing. She spends most of Ayre and Folk Songs in operatic mode, using her pristine, crystal-clear soprano to evoke moods as much as words, often spending large stretches on wordless melodicizing. Beautiful as that soprano is, however, Upshaw’s greatest asset is her versatility. “Tancas Serradas a Muru” (“Walls are Encircling the Land”) features a growl of a vocal style, sung as much through the nose as the mouth, and “Kun Li-Guitari Wataran Ayyuha Al-Maa’” (“Be a String, Water, to My Guitar”) is a lovely a cappella spoken-word piece that becomes something of a leitmotif as Ayre progresses. Upshaw’s performance evokes Jarboe as much as it does Maria Callas, and the contradiction of coexistence that such a performance brings fits right in with the musical backing it adorns.
Disconcerting as Ayre is, it’s easy to be relieved/let down when Upshaw’s performance of the Folk Songs that inspired Ayre begins. Berio’s approach in his collection of eleven songs was to stick to one nationality per song, writing his own folk songs in styles faithful to the already existing folk canon of whatever country they belong to. The traditional, minor key flavor of an American folk song like “Black is the Color” stands, then, in stark contrast to an Italian dance such as “Ballo”, but Berio avoids making the in-song transitions that Golijov would later employ and master in his own work. For the most part, Upshaw is also more traditionally operatic throughout Folk Songs, and the end result is something that, on its own, is a dynamic and interesting collection, but sounds positively tame next to Golijov’s manic culture-crossing.
Even so, the presentation and packaging give the impression that Berio’s Folk Songs are here as a display of inspiration, allowing the listener some insight into the creation of Ayre. There’s no question that the primary work of this release is Ayre itself, a piece that now stands as Golijov’s first studio-recorded work, a startling statistic given the keen sense of dynamic and perfect, crisp production of the entire CD. To be sure, Ayre is spectacular, and we have Folk Songs to thank.