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A Timeless Odyssey
Anders Miolin (12-string guitar, ‘Dodeka’).
Recording details not provided
PRIMA CLASSIC PRIMA005 [74:15]

Where this disc is concerned, it seems to me that the instrument, rather than the music played on it, is the thing which most immediately demands discussion. Born in Sweden, Anders Miolin has long been a well-established guitar recitalist – some readers will be familiar with albums such as his Villa-Lobos: Complete Works for Solo Guitar (BIS 686 CD), issued in 1995 and The Lion in the Lute: British Guitar Music (BIS 926 CD), released in 1998; he is Professor of Classical guitar at the Zurich University of the Arts. Seeking, in his own words, “to expand the range and the sound spectrum of the traditional guitar”, he joined with Swiss luthier Ermanno Chiavi to develop a 12-string guitar, referred to by the Greek name of Dodeka. Technical details can be found on the Chiavi website.

Certainly, the Dodeka offers a profounder, more resonant bass than the ‘standard’ guitar does – as well as a greater general power and a wider range. But in this context it wouldn’t be appropriate (even if I felt competent to do it) to ‘review’ the guitar. I assume that, like me, most readers of these pages will want, rather, to know how appropriate it is, how well it serves, the music played on it. My preliminary reaction, confirmed by further listening, was that the new guitar sounds most convincing on the pieces which Miolin has composed specifically for the instrument (such as the six movements of Une Odysée de Rêves Lucides, or Regresando a Sevilla) or which he has arranged extensively (such as Miles’ Dream). It also works well in the versions from Satie, where Miolin’s interpretations are particularly effective. There are more difficulties and disappointments with the works originally written for the vihuela (Mudarra’s Fantasia X), Reniaissance lute (Dowland’s Fantasie no. 7), baroque lute (the pieces by David Kellner) and baroque violin (the ‘Ciaccona’ by Bach).

Une Odysée de Rêves Lucides is an attractive and engaging composition. As Miolin’s booklet notes make clear, he is much fascinated by the myth of the Odyssey. His opening paragraph reads “Life is an odyssey. We carry it literally within us, in our genes and souls, experiencing it throughout our lives. Exploration starts with a curiosity that extends our perspectives. History, science, culture, art and music are all expressions of this eternal odyssey.” I can’t help but wonder if that doesn’t load the word with more meaning than it can usefully bear. Later, we are told that the music played on the disc, since it comes from different times and places, is an ‘odyssey’: “This Odyssey starts in Seville, Spain in 1546 and takes us through England and Germany (16th century), Sweden and the Baltics (17th and 18th centuries), Paris (late 19th century) and New York (20th century) to a dreamscape in 2019”. Leaving aside the oddity whereby J.S. Bach seems to be associated with ‘Germany’ in the 16th century; the notion that a sequence of pieces of music constitutes an odyssey is surely a strange one? An odyssey is a heroic journey, a series of trials and tests which are finally overcome. Homer’s Odyssey is an epic narrative about, amongst other things, the relationship between Man and the Gods, the nature of heroism, human intelligence and inventiveness, about temptation, about wandering and discovery, being ‘lost’ and ‘found’, learning from success and failure; about love and sex, about the afterlife and the underworld, about tradition – and much else. ‘Odyssey’ is, in short, a word freighted with a richness and complexity of meaning far greater than the sense(s) in which Anders Miolin uses it in statements like the ones I have just quoted. All the meanings he surely doesn’t intend to invoke get in the way of the ones he does. I apologize if the above sounds like mere pedantry – but I don’t think it is.

I am far more comfortable with the word’s use in the title of Miolin’s set of six pieces – Une Odysée de Rêves Lucides. As someone who very rarely remembers anything of his dreams and has, so far as I am aware, no experience of lucid dreaming, I have had to turn elsewhere for a definition: “A dream in which the sleeper is aware that he or she is dreaming and is sometimes able to control or influence the course of the dream” (Oxford English Dictionary online). Dreams have a number of things in common with a poem like the Odyssey and the many later texts it has inspired – both are full of archetypal figures, both are fluid in their narrative style, there are transformations and deceptive experiences, a sense of travelling etc. The titles of the six movements of Miolin’s work give a fair idea of the kind of ‘dreamscape’ through which the music moves: ‘La Galaxie Irisée’ (The Iridescent Galaxy), ‘L’Océan Ludique’ (The Playful Ocean), ‘Le Rêve du Pan’ (The Dream of Pan), ‘Survolant les Nuages’ (Flying above the Clouds), ‘Le Temple d’Incantation’ (The Temple of Incantation) and ‘La Jungle Énigmatique’ (The Enigmatic Jungle). In the first movement the larger guitar makes possible an appropriately large range of shimmering colours and textures. In ‘L’Océan Ludique’ the ocean is represented more in terms of its power than by what one might think of as playfulness – perhaps we need to remember that the ocean’s ‘games’ can be deceptively dangerous (a lesson Homer’s Odysseus certainly had to learn the hard way!). ‘Le Rêve du Pan’, in which there is at least one clear allusion to Debussy’s Syrinx, is a beautiful piece, with some ominous writing at its opening, but quite lush in some later passages. The allusion to Syrinx (by which I here mean the character, not just Debussy’s composition) is, I think, important. She was an Arcadian nymph, a follower of Artemis devoted to chastity. She was pursued by the lustful Pan and, as she sought to escape him, she was transformed into a bed of hollow water reeds. The frustrated God picked the reeds and made them into pipes, in the form which we call pan pipes, but which the Greeks called a syrinx. When blown by Pan these pipes – as, metaphorically, the voice of Syrinx – produced a beautiful and haunting sound, embodying both her suffering and her escape. There is both a sense of danger and, later, a degree of tenderness in Miolin’s piece. Some of the beauty of this piece resides, I think, in our sense of the instrumental power that has been held back (like Pan?). ‘Survolant les Nuages’ has less sense of airiness and flight than I expected but is attractively atmospheric in its relatively quiet way. ‘Le Temple d’Incantation’ has some impressively bell-like sonorities and is mildly hypnotic in its gentle but insistent rhythm. ‘La Jungle Énigmatique’ has, aptly enough, a complex harmonic structure.

‘Miles’ Dream’ is quite a complicated case. In the list of contents on the case of A Timeless Odyssey, the piece is glossed as “inspired by Miles Davis, orig. jazz sextet”. In his booklet notes Anders Miolin is more specific –“in MILES’ DREAM I refer to a recording of ‘Flamenco Sketches’ by the Miles Davis sextet from the legendary modal album Kind of Blue (New York, 1959) which takes us to an imaginary vision of Spain”. On Kind of Blue, ‘Flamenco Sketches’ is played by a sextet made up of trumpet, alto and tenor saxophones, piano, double bass and drums. The piece had no written melody, save for a brief introduction by pianist Bill Evans. Miles Davis established a set of five modes and in the recording studio each soloist was expected to improvise on each of these five modes for as long as he wished, until the cycle of all five had been completed. Given this, it is no surprise that when an alternate recording, made at the same recording session, was released some years after the original album, it should sound radically different. Miolin’s point of reference, as indicated above, was the recording issued (and many times reissued) on Kind of Blue. Clever as it is, Miolin’s version can’t match the original for emotional intensity, yet it is an interesting piece in its own right, especially in rhythmic and harmonic terms.

The final piece on the disc, another composition by Miolin, Regresando à Sevilla (“inspired by Alonso Mudarra, orig. vihuela”) in part reminds us of Miolin’s insistent use of ‘odyssey’ to describe the contents of this CD. Insofar as the album had started with a piece by Mudarra (who was based in Seville from 1546 until his death in 1580) the title Regresando à Sevilla (Returning to Seville) loosely mimics the Odyssey’s ending in which Odysseus returns to his home and family in Ithaca. But Miolin cannot resist one further explicit reference to the odyssey in his booklet notes: “But the journey goes on – with the auto-repeat of the CD, the odyssey will continue” (!).

Though I shall be happy to listen again to the tracks discussed above (and I am sure I will). I can’t imagine returning very often to tracks such as Mudarra’s Fantasia X. The Spanish vihuela of the 16th century, with its five or six gut strings, must have had a soft and sweet sound, given to a sense of intimacy. Here, heard on Miolin’s 12-string guitar, Mudarra’s familiar ‘Fantasia X’ (I think I first heard it played by the (sadly) recently deceased Julian Bream) sounds excessively inflated, its poetry turned into rhetoric (I am thinking of W.B. Yeats’ observation that rhetoric is the expression of one’s quarrels with others, while poetry is the expression (and sometimes the resolution) of one’s quarrels with oneself). Oddly, Dowland’s ‘Fantasia No.7’ suffers less from this kind of inflation, though even here there is some sense of the confidentially meditative becoming the oratorical, the intimate turned magniloquent. I have to confess that I barely know the work of David Kellner – such knowledge as I possess is based on a couple of hearings some years ago, of Stephen Stubbs’ CD of Lute Pieces (CPO 999 097-2) by Kellner, a German-born lutenist who worked – and died – in Sweden. Perhaps for that reason I am less troubled by – but still uneasy about – the performance of his works on this larger instrument; the relationship between the music and the instrument sounds intrinsically uncomfortable. That relationship sounds even more strained in the case of the great ‘Ciaccona’ from BWV 1004. Most of the original’s elegance has gone, and the 12-string guitar can’t match the violin in giving timbral variety to the many short variations. Over the years there have been a number of arrangements of this remarkable work for instruments other than the violin which have failed to satisfy, and I fear that this may belong in that company.

So far, I have barely mentioned one group of works on the disc – the three pieces by Satie. Perhaps surprisingly, these – especially the arrangement of ‘Gymnopédie No. 1’ – work rather well. I say ‘perhaps’ surprisingly because I had a sneaking suspicion that the 12-string guitar might work well with this music (which I listened to after the rest of the disc). A few years ago I absconded for a couple of hours from a literary conference I was attending in Salzburg and went to hear an informal student concert in the Mozarteum. During the concert a young man played a strikingly beautiful arrangement for solo harp of the ‘Gymnopédie No. 1’. To this day I don’t know who was responsible for the attractive arrangement. I was reminded of it as I listened to Anders Miolin’s arrangement for his Dodeka – in which there is much use of harp-like sonorities, of a kind it would be impossible to produce on a standard classical guitar. Listening to this version of Satie’s ‘faux-Grecian’ piece I was able, more than a little fancifully, to imagine myself listening to a kithara!

So, a mixed bag overall. If there is a conclusion to be drawn here, it is perhaps that for the most part this new instrument will be best served by the composition of more works specially written for it, (by Professor Miolin and, one hopes, others) rather than by the ‘appropriation’, through arrangement, of works written for other instruments. The possibilities are intriguing, but it is too early yet to be sure how far, and how productively, the Dodeka will outlive its ‘novelty’ value.

Glyn Pursglove


Contents

Alonso MUDARRA (c.1510-1580)
Fantasia X [2:50]
John DOWLAND (1563-1626)
Fantasia no.7 [4:36]
David KELLNER (1670-1748)
Phantasia in A-minor [2:59]
Phantasia in D-minor [3:40]
Phantasia in D-major [3:40]
Giga [3:03]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Ciacconna, from Partita in D-minor, BWV 1004 [14:10]
Erik SATIE (1866-1925)
Gnossienne no.1 [4:26]
Son Binocle [2:35]
Gymnopédie no. 1 [4:32]
Anders MIOLIN (b.1961)
Une Odysée de Rêves Lucides [17:15]
Miles’ Dream [6:22]
Regresando à Sevilla [4:07]



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