Once heard, never forgotten. From the Scottish borders to the caravanserais of the Silk Road and the wine-dark seas of Homers Odyssey: music that crosses borders and centuries.
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“Tell me, O Muse, of those who travelled far and wide”
Aptly, it is an echo of Homer’s timeless Odyssey that introduces Loreena McKennitt’s seventh studio recording, the latest volume of a project she describes as “musical travel writing”. This time, the journey takes her in search of the Celts’ easternmost paths, from the plains of Mongolia to the kingdom of King Midas and the Byzantine Empire. Along the way, she muses on the concepts of home, of travel in all its incarnations, of the cultural intermingling that underpins human history and our universal legacies of conflict and hope.
Recorded at Real World Studios and featuring a host of acclaimed musicians, the album proffers a treasure trove of instruments, from harp, hurdy-gurdy and accordion to oud, lyra, kanoun and nyckelharpa (the Scandinavian keyed fiddle). Highlights include the seductive rhythms and Silk Road influences of first single “Caravanserai”; “Penelope’s Song”, a paean to steadfast love; and Loreena’s musical setting of Sir Walter Scott’s poem of star-crossed romance, “The English Ladye And The Knight”. Together, the nine songs that comprise An Ancient Muse conjure up a wide world’s worth of human stories that are as unique as they are unforgettable.
Loreena’s notes on the songs of An Ancient Muse:
The first stepping stone on this journey of discovery was my exploration of the Celts and their history, and the many roads leading off from theirs, both historically and geographically. It is with an eye on this history that this musical document evolved, with ruminations on the universal human themes of life and love, conquest and death; of home, identity, the migrations of people and the resulting evolution of cultures. Our paths may differ but our quests are shared: our desire to love and to be loved, our thirst for liberty and our need to be appreciated as unique individuals within the collectivity of our society.
Travels in preparation for this creative endeavour have encompassed the hospitalities and acquaintances of people in many places: a nomadic family in the inner reaches of Mongolia and the Uighur people in North-west China where the predecessors of Celts are believed to have been found; on the great plains of inner Anatolia and Ephesus in Turkey; amongst the intoxicating orange blossoms on the Greek island of Chios; and, in Jordan, amongst the echoes of Circassian voices and the stones of the ancient city of Petra.
Ever-mindful of the weight of history behind us that allows us to draw lessons from its ancient voice, I have not wavered in my conviction that we are a culmination of our collective histories and that there should be more to bind us together than tear us apart. Nor have I ceased to hope that in striving toward harmonious, integrated diversity, we will be guided by collective beliefs that will be life affirming at their core. – LM
Delphi, Greece, April 2003: It is hard to imagine a more atmospheric place today, as a mist hangs over the valley below this ancient site. In 279 BC, the Celts attempted to sack the shrine, in a campaign that saw them suffer terrible losses. Were they seeking out the oracle for its divinatory powers? Given their faith in the supernatural world they might well have been hoping that powers beyond the human eye could assist them…
Cappadocia, Turkey, October 2003: We visit exquisite early Christian chapels carved in the volcanic rock of this astonishing landscape. In their changing fortunes over the centuries, these communities will have sought refuge here.
Real World Studios, Wiltshire, August 16 2006: I wonder where our Muslim and Jewish friends are deriving their strength these days, and I think back on the Oracle in Delphi. At this time of global unrest and strife, one seeks such an oracle to summon more empathy and harmony…
I am reminded of a Rumi poem (Mathnawi I, 3255-3258),translated by Kabir and Camille Helminski:
O brother, Wisdom is pouring into you
From the beloved saint of God.
You’ve only borrowed it.
Although the house of your heart
Is lit from the inside
That light is lent by a luminous neighbour
Give thanks; don’t be arrogant or vain
Pay attention without self-importance.
It’s sad that this borrowed state
Has put religious communities
Far from religious communion.
The Gates of Istanbul
Jibacoa, Cuba, March 2005: Reading a wonderful magazine from Turkey called Cornucopia, I find an article on the reign of Mehmed II (1432–1481) in the Ottoman Empire. It was a time of creative renaissance as well as religious tolerance when people were invited to repopulate the city now known as Istanbul, bringing with them their hopes and aspirations. I am reminded of Spain prior to 1492.
Stratford, Ontario, February 2006: In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford writes: “As he smashed the feudal system of aristocratic privilege and birth, [Genghis] built a new and unique system based on individual merit, loyalty and achievement… took the disjointed and languorous trading towns along the Silk Route and organized them into history’s largest free-trade zone… [and] granted religious freedom within his realms.”
Spring 2006: Heightened tensions over the Iraq war; the cartoon of Mohammed versus freedom of speech debate. I have long mused over our need to be spiritually engaged. How do we embark on our individual paths toward spirituality, while respecting the fact that others may take a different road?
Wiltshire, England, April 2006: An article in The Independent suggests that the Emperor Constantine (272–337 AD) may be an inspiration to those hoping for religious tolerance. His edict granted freedom of religion, marking the end of centuries of persecution for Christians and permitting Christians, Jews, pagans and those who followed traditional Roman gods to co-exist.
Gordion, Anatolia, Turkey, June 2003: Some 10,000 Celts are thought to have lived here in the 3rd century BC. I look out past the archeological site to the burial mounds rising in the distance and imagine all the people who had traversed these plains… the routine of setting up camp and then leaving; the sounds, the smells, the trepidations; preparing the animals, living next to the elements…
Mongolia, September 2003: I have spent a fascinating time with a Mongolian nomadic family… contemplating their connection to the Celts, moving livestock from summer to winter pastures.
Cappadocia to Konya, Turkey, October 2003: On the road to Konya, we visit a caravanserai; a stunning building. Susan Whitfield, in her book Life Along The Silk Road, describes these structures as “stopping places for itinerant merchants, their servants and animals… The bazaar was held here…. Ten or more languages might be heard at any one time, as people haggled over the silks, spices and other luxuries… ” This causes me to reflect on the concept of home, the nomadic impulse and our relationship to nature, the land… our collective histories merging into something new. Is it happening too quickly in our contemporary times?
The English Ladye And The Knight
Real World Studios, Wiltshire, July 14 2006: There is something intriguing about this tale of love, war, who we love and why, set in Carlisle, an old Celtic site that became a Roman settlement, known as Luguvalium. Carlisle Castle, which sits on the border of Scotland and England, has a history of protecting political and tribal boundaries. And yet there are the matters of the heart that know no boundaries. This story touches on the power of lost love to go on to fight battles in the name of one’s beloved; in this case, what some call the “Crusaders’” war in Palestine. I muse on how the history of places and human stories become fully intertwined and their past days come full circle with our own.
Urumchi, China, October 2003: I have just seen some of the red-haired Tarim Basin mummies, which date back to 1000 BC and who, some argue, could be from the peoples who were the precursors of the Celts. Did they follow the Silk Road this far north?
Stratford, Ontario, June 2005: Reading Susan Whitfield’s Life Along the Silk Road, which profiles the many people, religions and cultures that populated the countless threads of what we call the Silk Road – nuns, soldiers, merchants – in a slow fusion of cultures from 500 BC to about 1400 AD. In the core of this period the Celts roamed, sacked Delphi and inspired St. Paul to write his Letters to the Galatians; the events known as the Crusades came and went, along with those who fought in them, from Richard the Lionheart to Saladin. Clearly there is much more history to be understood, but from whose vantage point?
Real World Studios, Wiltshire, May 2006: My attention has been brought to Anna Comnena, a Byzantine princess and possibly the first female historian of the West, who observed society, politics, war and peace from her position at the intersection of Byzantine, Western and Muslim cultures…She was a major chronicler of the First Crusade and ended her days in a convent called Kecharitomene (Greek for “full of grace”).
Perleas Mansion, Chios, Greece, April 23 2005: It is the memory of orange blossoms that brings me back; all those centuries of springs that give fresh meaning to new life awakening. And all the while, the birds, the roosters, the children playing and the dogs barking in the distance give presence to the continuation of the story. Sitting in this orange orchard on the island of Chios, I reach back to a memory only known to me through story and song.
Not having studied classical literature before, one of the objectives I have set for myself on this trip is to compensate for this fact. It is a quest of understanding identity and a concept of home, in a world now so large and yet so small, which has fractured our sense of these words and have caused us to redefine them. And so, I immerse myself as close to the beginning as I possibly can.
As I listen to an audiobook of Homer’s Odyssey, I think of the journeys undertaken by many people in ancient times: arduous, often lengthy, and with the prospect of never returning always a possibility. Indeed, these are not just ancient experiences but also contemporary ones. And when we think of journeys, we hear not only the voices of those doing the leaving – to fight wars, to flee persecution, or simply in search of a better life — but also the voices of those who are left behind. Hence, the perspective of Odysseus’s faithful wife Penelope comes to mind.
Istanbul, Turkey, October 2003: I visited a wonderful bookstore across from the Roman cistern at Yerebatan Sarayi. The gentleman there thrust a book into my hand as I left –Irfan Orga’s Portrait Of A Turkish Family. He did not want me to pay for it, but gave it to me as a gift, promising that I would dearly love it.
Athens, Greece, October 2003: I have finished a wonderful music session with some extraordinary musicians. In the course of the session, three of them, Haig, Socrates and Panos, played a melody whose sentiment I love. I want to remember this as I prepare the music for the new recording.
Chios, Greece, May 2005: At long last, I have finished Portrait Of A Turkish Family.
It is a powerful book portraying an Istanbul family at the turn of the century as they fall on hard times. The melody I heard in Athens comes to mind as I read of a family enjoying the abundance of their lives before the First World War. I could imagine many families over the years sitting in parks, sipping tea, conversing with each other, sometimes listening to music over the sound of water fountains. I am also reminded of the wonderful poetry of the Jewish poet Solomon ibn Gabirol, from 11th century Andalusia.
Stratford, Ontario, May 2006: I discover that the melody I have loved and recorded is also one that appears on a CD I picked up at the Alhambra in Spain. “Morada Del Corazon” is a collection of Sephardic music from the 11th and 12th centuries performed by Eduardo Paniagua and Musica Antigua. The CD liner notes say that the melody comes from a song of the Shabbat, “Yodujah ra’ayonay,” of the Jews of the Ottoman region.
Beneath A Phrygian Sky
Gordion, Turkey, June 2002: Today I have visited a most amazing archeological site just outside of Gordian, in Anatolia Turkey. By legend the home of King Midas and the place where Alexander the Great cut the “Gordian knot,” it conceals layers of civilizations: the Hittites, Phrygians, Cimmerians and Celts, amongst others…
Ephesus, Turkey, October 2005: This is our last stop on a too-short journey around Turkey… We wander around this amazing monument, and once again I am swept away by reflections on the civilization that once lived here: the commerce, worship and daily life. What stories these stones could tell…
Real World Studios, Wiltshire, May 2006: I have struggled with what this song should convey; a vast rumination in itself… Perhaps it is a call to arms, for the love of ourselves as a species and the natural world with which we are interwoven. What can we learn from history, given all the opportunities we have to do so? Can we? Will we? I think of Edmund Burke’s words: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
Never-ending Road (Amhrán Duit)
Real World Studios, Wiltshire, August 18 2006: No particular time or place can be pinpointed as the inspiration of this piece. Instead, it has been one that has evolved over many years of reading the works of many poets, mystics from across the religious traditions, who sought to reflect the divine through love poetry: Rumi, Hafiz, Yunus Emre, Solomon ibn Gabirol, St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila. The universal theme is one of love, and in this never-ending road of life and rebirth, surely this is the sentiment that must endure.
Tal Bergman: drums (2, 3), percussion (5, 8)
Stuart Bruce: vocal drone (1, 8), percussion (5)
Clive Deamer: drums (8)
Panos Dimitrakopoulos: kanoun (2, 3, 5, 7, 9)
Nigel Eaton: hurdy gurdy (3, 5)
Ben Grossman: hurdy gurdy (5)
Ed Hanley: tabla (5), udu drum (5)
Jason Hann: percussion (8)
Steáfán Hannigan: Turkish clarinet (1, 5, 8), vocal drone (1, 8), uilleann pipes (8, 9)
Brian Hughes: electric guitar (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 9), guitar synthesizer (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 9), vocal drone (1, 8), oud (2, 3, 5), Celtic bouzouki (2, 3, 5, 8), nylon string guitar (5, 8, 9)
Charlie Jones: acoustic bass (5, 6)
Manu Katché: drums (5)
Georgios Kontogiannis: Greek bouzouki (2, 3)
Tim Landers: bass (2, 3, 8)
Caroline Lavelle: cello (2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)
Rick Lazar: percussion (1, 5, 8)
Annbjørg Lien: nyckelharpa (6)
Hugh Marsh: violin (3, 5, 6)
Loreena McKennitt: vocals (1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9), keyboards (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9), accordion (3), harp (4), percussion (5), piano (8)
Marco Migliari: vocal drone (1, 8)
Donald Quan: viola (1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9), vocal drone (1, 8)
Hossam Ramzay: percussion (2, 5)
Sokratis Sinopoulos: lyra (2, 3, 7, 8)
Haig Yazdjian: oud (2, 3, 5, 6, 7)
Tracks 1 & 8
String arrangement: John Welsman
Violins: Carol Lynn Fujino, Bridget Hunt, Annalee Patipatanakoon, Wendy RosViolas: Daniel Blackman, Christopher Redfield,
Cellos: Roman Borys, Carina Reeves
Tracks 2 & 3
Krotala: Petros Kourtis: percussion, Evangelos
Karipis: percussion, Andreas Papas: percussion
Choral and viol da gamba
Arrangements: Brian Gascoigne
Fretwork: Richard Campbell: treble viol da gamba, Susanna Pell: tenor viol da gamba,
Asako Morikawa: tenor viol da gamba,
Richard Boothby: bass viol da gamba,
William Hunt: bass viol da gamba
Ensemble Plus Ultra (choir): Warren Trevelyan-Jones, David Martin, Julian Empett, Lawrence Wallington, Charles Pott, Thomas Hobbs
Choristers of Westminster Abbey: Nicholas Morris, Alexander Pott, Elliot Thompson
String arrangement: Brian Gascoigne
Strings: George Crawford: violin, Louise Hogan: viola, Natasha Kraemer: cello, Andy Pask: acoustic bass, Malgorzata Ziemkiewicz: viola
Join the journey with An Ancient Muse, the 9th studio album from Canada’s internationally acclaimed eclectic Celtic singer/composer, Loreena McKennitt.
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