Latvian Radio Choir and Ensemble Sarband collaboration a meditative journey

The Latvian Radio Choir, led by conductors Kaspars Putniņš and Sigvards Kļava, has long been known worldwide as one of the premiere interpreters of modern choir music. They perform not only works by composers from many different countries, but are also innovators in the performance of experimental music of varied genres, and have collaborated with many different groups and ensembles.

One recent collaboration was with the Ensemble Sarband. Sarband, based out of Germany, is a group of musicians led by Bulgarian Vladimir Ivanoff, who also have a large diversity in their programs. According to their website, Sarband’s repertoire covers “from early Chinese music to Sami joiks, from Early Oriental Christian chant to the music of Gurdjieff” and often select works of a spiritual and sacred nature, and Ivanoff “illuminates the connecting threads between Orient and Occident, Judaism, Christianity and Islam”.

Together, the Latvian Radio Choir and Sarband recorded the album Canticum Canticorum, a collection of choir and vocal compositions that feature elements of Middle Eastern and Western music as well as traditional instruments. Many of the works include fragments from the Biblical text “Song of Solomon” or the “Song of Songs”.

On this recording, the Ensemble Sarband is made up of Ivanoff on percussion, Mustafa Dogan Dikmen (Turkey) on vocals, Efstratios Psaradellis (Greece) on the kemence, and Salah Eddin Maraqa (Jordan) on the qanun.

Vladimir Ivanoff, besides being the artistic director of Sarband and a percussionist, is also a composer, and three of his works are included on this collection. These are the “Sufi Readings No. 1 – Of Love and Union”, “No. 3 Suffering” and “No. 5 The Fragrance of Your Name”. All three are comparatively brief solo performances by the ensemble. The calm and peaceful instrumental “Of Love and Union” has plaintive melodies built upon a heartbeat-like effect on a drum, while “Suffering” features an almost wordless vocalize and is one of the albums few moments of turbulence, perhaps befitting its title. The wistful and perhaps even slightly sentimental “The Fragrance of Your Name” is perhaps the most mystical of the three works, and Sarband succeed in conjuring a an appropriate sonic interpretation of the text “your name is like perfume poured out.”

The collection also includes two works by Latvian composers. The first is Mārtiņš Viļums’ “Simeni khakhotam al-libekha” (Place me like a Seal over your Heart). The work features texts sung in Ancient Hebrew and Greek. The work is a treatise on love and sadness, ending on the note “et sheahavah nafshi reitem” (so I looked for him but did not find him). The Latvian Radio Choir tinges this composition with a broad array of emotions, from happiness to despair, and develops a very detailed performance, full of nuance and contrasts.

The second work is “Nada el layli” (Arabic for “Dewdrops at Night”) by Santa Ratniece. The comparatively lengthy work (thirteen and a half minutes), has the choir create a place and space for one to feel safe, as explained in the liner notes. Much like the work by Viļums, this is tinged with sadness, with the choir singing in a kind of soft moan for most of the song. Both the work by Ratniece, as well as the composition by Viļums, show the versatility and creativity of both composers, creating these distinctive works incorporating both the talents of the Latvian Radio Choir and Sarband.

As a whole, the album is very meditative and quiet, but due to its restrained nature may be difficult listening for some listeners, as the works are often very similar and flow into one another, making it at times difficult to determine when one work has ended and the next begun. Perhaps this was the goal – to have a cohesive meditative experience when listening to the album. One may have hoped for some more active, energetic sections, but those might have potentially disturbed the flow of this set of recordings. As the compositions are of a modern and experimental nature, there are periods of discordance with some harsh sounds, which may make the music sound formless to some listeners, so appreciating and enjoying this album will require attentive listening.

The ensemble Sarband and the Latvian Radio Choir, conducted by Kaspars Putniņš have created a rich tapestry of sounds for the meditative journey contained on Canticum Cantorum. With its blend of the spiritual and sacred, the modern and the ancient, Eastern and Western, and the harmonious and discordant, the collection of works included on the record create a very intimate and spiritual journey. The Latvian Radio Choir show again that they are adept interpreters of all kinds of music, and seamlessly blend together with Saraband in these spiritual works, with texts in many different languages, both ancient and modern. As a result, Canticum Cantorum is an engrossing musical meditation.

For further information, please visit the Latvian Radio Choir website and the Saraband website.

Canticum Canticorum

Latvian Radio Choir / Ensemble Sarband
Latvijas koncerti, LK-024, 20166

Track listing:

      1. A Sufi Reading Nr. 1 – Of Love and of Union – Vladimir Ivanoff
      2. Ah, ne guzelsin! – Toivo Tulev
      3. Lisaniki – Bushra El-Turk
      4. A Sufi Reading Nr. 3 – Suffering – Vladimir Ivanoff
      5. Simeni khakhotam al-libekha – Mārtiņš Viļums
      6. Nada el layli – Santa Ratniece
      7. TA Sufi Reading Nr. 5 – The Fragrance of Your Name – Vladimir Ivanoff
      8. Moces Salomonis – Lasse Thoresen

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area who lives in Rīga, Latvia. When not working in the information technology field, he sings in the Latvian Academy of Culture mixed choir Sõla, does occasional translation work, and has been known to sing and play guitar at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Rīga. Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

Flutist Balčus releases first full length album Conarium

Singer, songwriter and flutist Elizabete Balčus has, in a short while, become a notable and creative voice in Latvian pop music. Initially performing with Latvian ‘indie pop fairy’ group Sus Dungo, Balčus shortly thereafter began her solo career. Her debut EP – Wooden Horse – won the Latvian Music Recording award for best debut in 2011.

Balčus has now followed up that effort with her first full length album entitled Conarium. Released in 2016 by the indie UK label Liminal Noise Tapes, it provides a showcase for Balčus’ creativity and musical versatility, with its collection of quirky and cheerfully odd songs.

Balčus’ music has been described as avant garde pop, neo-psychadelia, dream pop, among many other descriptions, but it is difficult to find an accurate label for it. Though quite often displaying refined pop sensibilities, the music can often still surprise, but can also be jarring and opaque, and might occasionally remind the listener of the Icelandic singer Bjork. It is music that does require active listening, as Balčus’ arrangements are carefully and intricately woven, providing an appropriately dreamy and ethereal listening experience.

The album’s title – Conarium ­– has two meanings. One refers to the pineal gland in the brain, that produces both melatonin during sleep and serotonin during the day, and, as per the notes in the CD booklet, this keeps us ‘happy and buoyant’. The word can also mean ‘the earliest larval state of the Velella velella’, a type of jellyfish that floats upside-down. Though those are two radically different definitions of the word, both seem quite appropriate for this collection of songs.

The songs, all but two of which are in English, evoke a child-like, yet mature approach. The song “Out”, begins with the sound of a small woodwind ensemble, then Balčus sings with a dreamy naiveté lyrics like ‘butterflies in the winter – I see – they are alive’, as the song then progresses into an atmospheric vocalize that is complemented by Balčus’ flute performance.

The lullaby “Negribas iet gulēt” (lyrics by poet Ojārs Vācietis), is a tender and beautiful ode about a child that is reluctant to go to sleep. Balčus melds the words of Vācietis with a lush musical tapestry, revealing the effective simplicity of the text and resulting in one of the most memorable songs on the album. One does wish that the artist had recorded a few more songs in her native language though, as this song and “Vienīgais ceļš” (with lyrics by Aspazija) are two of the strongest tracks on the record.

Balčus’ lyrics often have a stream of consciousness feel to them, adding even further to the dreamlike atmosphere, such as “Behind the Castle”, where she sings ‘in this city pure desert dimness fills all the shapes’, then repeatedly singing ‘is the castle real?’ as the song fades out. Though her usage of vocal effects is very effective throughout the album, the vocal echo does seem to be occasionally overused – though it does enhance the etherealness of the album, there could be more of a balance with the singer’s natural voice without effects.

One of the truly avant garde (or perhaps just odd) songs is “Jellyfish”, which is an occasionally discordant collection of sounds and somewhat nonsensical lyrics like “sneaky creepy royal harlot tangle jangle is your knowledge”, and then becomes less of a song and more a sonic experiment with non-sequiturs like Balčus declaring “I’m a vegetarian” as well as “eat a jellyfish!”, making for a rather tangled, but intriguing performance.

Balčus’ talents are not limited to music – her design for the CD booklet is one of the most intricate and beautiful booklet designs in recent memory. Filled with photographs, drawings, translucent pages, and the song lyrics in various forms, it is clear that much preparation was put into this artistic presentation. The booklet provides a visual representation for many of the songs, and is appropriately whimsical and esoteric.

Conarium is an accomplished album from the young Latvian talent, engaging and involving the listener from its opening to its conclusion. The songs, though often eclectic and diverse, flow together to provide a thoroughly satisfying listening experience. Ranging from curious experiments to more traditional melodic and vocal approaches, Elizabete Balčus displays an extensive creativity throughout the album, not just in the vocals and lyrics, but in the album booklet as well.

For further information, please visit Elizabete Balčus’ website.

Elizabete Balčus

Liminal Noise Tapes, 2016

Track listing:

      1. Out
      2. Tourist
      3. Behind the Castle
      4. Negribas iet gulēt
      5. They’re coming
      6. Jellyfish
      7. The Moon Asked the Crow
      8. Monument
      9. Purple & Gold
      10. Dusk & Recession
      11. Vienīgais ceļš
      12. Luna City
      13. The Hanging Garden

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area who lives in Rīga, Latvia. When not working in the information technology field, he sings in the Latvian Academy of Culture mixed choir Sõla, does occasional translation work, and has been known to sing and play guitar at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Rīga. Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

New album features Raimonds Pauls’ choral works

Latvian popular music legend Raimonds Pauls, who celebrated his 80th birthday in 2016, is unquestionably the most significant figure in Latvian music in the second half of the 20th century. Composing the music for literally thousands of songs, including timeless classics such as ‘Mežrozīte’, ‘Mēmā dziesma’, and ‘Tā es tevi mīlēšu’, to name just a few, he long ago ensured his place as the most significant Latvian composer in modern history.

Though Pauls is best known for his popular songs, as a prolific composer he has written in many different genres, including jazz and choir music. Recognizing the significance of his contribution to Latvian choir music, the State Choir Latvija and conductor Māris Sirmais recorded an album of Pauls’ choir music entitled Rozes gars, released in 2016.

As popular as Pauls’ music is, his choir songs are not as well known. His best known choir song – ‘Manai dzimtenei’, a regular part of the Song Festival repertoire, actually began life as a pop song (and, it should be noted, is not included in this collection). Beyond that song, choir songs by Raimonds Pauls are not frequently encountered in choir repertoires. Perhaps that is one of the reasons Sirmais and Latvija decided to record and present these songs, as there are many hidden and neglected treasures among Pauls’ choir works, and reveal many facets of Pauls’ compositional style.

The choir song ‘Rozes gars’ (lyrics by Jānis Peters), which gives this collection its title, is dedicated to composer Emīls Dārziņš. It is an appropriate dedication, as the work could be considered a spiritual successor to Dārziņš’ romantic and emotional works written at the turn of the 20th century. The choir, with their at once precise and emotive performance, provides the necessary tenderness and delicacy for this work.

One of Pauls’ earlier choir compositions is his music for the famous Latvian epic poem ‘Tālavas taurētājs’ by Rūdolfs Blaumanis. The poem, about a trumpeter who sacrifices his life to ensure King Miervaldis and his people are awoken in time to defend against plague of demons that are approaching the castle, provides a number of different stylistic opportunities to musically present the events. Still, though, perhaps due to being one of Pauls’ early choir compositional attempts, though the music closely follows the story, it does seem a bit ‘academic’ at times. Here is the heroic section, and here is the tense section, and here is the mournful section, and so on. However, Pauls’ music does provide an appropriately theatrical interpretation of Blaumanis’ poetry.

Most of the compositions on the album are very brief – three minutes in length or less. However, Pauls is clearly most comfortable and adept with these miniature forms. For example, the song ‘Grezna saule debesīs’ (lyrics by Inese Zandere, and originally composed for the youth choir Kamēr… as part of their World Sun Songs project). This short song, with its jazzy elements and complex and colorful chords, paints a beautiful portrait with Zandere’s lyrics about the sun and the Daugava River.

Of course, Raimonds Pauls’ talents for catchy melodies also imbue many of the works in this collection, such as ‘Lielais vaicājums’, featuring Pauls himself on the piano. With its easy, rolling melody alongside the spiritual text by long time Pauls lyrical collaborator Jānis Pēters, the song is one of many examples of how Pauls’ melodic talents can easily fit into a choir setting.

The collection comes in a handsome velvety book, and includes all the lyrics, as well as biographical notes on Pauls, Sirmais, and the choir in Latvian, English, and Russian.

With the State Choir Latvija, undoubtedly one of the best choirs in the world, and with veteran and visionary conductor Māris Sirmais, these choir works by Raimonds Pauls come alive on Rozes gars. Not that Raimonds Pauls’ compositional talents were ever in any doubt, but this collection shines a new light on this somewhat less familiar section of Pauls’ oeuvre. Rozes gars is a fitting tribute to the choir music of Raimonds Pauls – a composer who has been an essential part of Latvian music for more than half a century.

For further information, please visit the State Choir Latvia website

State Choir “Latvija”

Rozes gars

Track listing:

      1. Rozes gars
      2. Izšuj mani, māmuliņa
      3. Gaismiņ, teci man pa priekšu
      4. Taurenis lilijas kausā
      5. Gleznotājs
      6. Bērzu birzīte
      7. Man pazudis cīrulis
      8. Piena krūze
      9. Tēvis, māmuliņa
      10. Grezna saule debesīs
      11. Ja man saule roku dotu
      12. Dārzs ziemā
      13. Nīcas dziedātājas pirtnieku mates piemiņai
      14. Akmeņi Vidzemes jūrmalā
      15. Tālavas taurētājs
      16. Div’ Piebalgas pravieši
      17. Šūpļa dziesma
      18. Rotaļu dziesma
      19. Vairs nesēro…
      20. Smejies, puce
      21. Maniem vecākiem
      22. Pie savas mates
      23. Ozols
      24. Lielais vaicājums

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area who lives in Rīga, Latvia. When not working in the information technology field, he sings in the Latvian Academy of Culture mixed choir Sõla, does occasional translation work, and has been known to sing and play guitar at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Rīga. Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.