The first Officium release was one of those inspired and lets face it, unlikelycollaborations that proved successful beyond anyone’s expectations selling over 1.5 million copies since it’s 1994 release. The man who takes credit for the vision behind what proved to be a magical marriage of the measured, discipline and near perfection of The Hilliard Ensemble’s voices with the improvisational adventure of Jan Garbarek’s saxophones is Manfred Eicher.
As head of the hugely successful ECM, Eicher can of course claim that this was anything but the first time his particular musical vision has paid off. The label boasts recordings by some of the giants of modern jazz and classical music, but has equally taken many lesser know artists and given them the chance to develop within the ECM framework. His guiding aesthetic has created a phenomenal catalogue of music, lovingly recorded and handsomely packaged.
Brought together to record a podcast Manfred Eicher, three of the four Hilliards and Jan Garbarek all recalled their first meeting at the monastery of St. Gerold in the Austrian Alps. David James of the Hilliards remembers being handed the score for Morales’ Parce Mihi Domine and as they started singing a moment of magic, “I can still feel it in my body – that moment. Quite unawares, behind us Jan had started joining in with us – I can tell you the other guys, there were tears in their eyes and that’s how it started.” Jan recalls them starting to sing very casually, “I listened for a minute and then I jpoined in with my saxophone for another minute and we stopped, looked at each other and knew it would work.”
For Manfred who’d conceived of the idea for a film that he was working on the reaction was just as strong and he rose from the pew were he’d sat, proclaiming, “We have to record this as soon as possible.” He also recalls how having come to St.Gerold’s, “they liked the place very much” calling it, “where the journey began.” David James adds “Manfred found the perfect place and there was this wonderful monk who is music mad. Basically he says ‘just take over the chapel and you can record at your leisure it’s yours to do what you like.”
What transpired quite clearly took that first spine tingling moment and translated it to reach a huge global audience. Make no mistake, the music appeared pretty much without precedent and could easily have alienated music lovers of the Hilliard’s classical precision and Garbarek’s jazz, but instead seemed to unite them and find a whole new audience that sort-of slipped in between.
The marriage of two styles that seem so opposed has even surprised the protagonists. David Says “Jan’s influence suddenly made us realize we can be much freer in how we perform. We saw how he uses the environment in which he’s playing and that rubbed off on us. I certainly thought there was a finite point, that we couldn’t develop further. How wrong I’ve been. He’s become the fifth member of the group, he knows us so well and we know him so well, he can pick up on anything and his ears are phenomenal, the slightest nuance he’ll play into it and feed something back.”
Officium Novum is their third collaboration and the central is music of Armenia based on the adaptations of Komitas Vardapet (a monk, musician and musicologist), drawing upon both medieval sacred music and the bardic tradition of the Caucasus. The Hilliards studied these pieces during visits to Armenia, and the music’s modes encourage some of Garbarek’s most impassioned playing. Also included are Arvo Pärt’s Most Holy Mother of God in an a cappella reading, Byzantine chant, two pieces by Jan Garbarek, including a new version of We Are The Stars, plus Perotin’s Alleluia, Nativitas.
It’s something that Manfred feels really proud of and he’s right to suggest that “It almost feels like one composition for the entire album from the beginning to the end.” He cites the shape and the movement, from the opening where Jan’s reeds echo the sound of the plaintive tones of the Armenian dudek to the poem by Bruno Ganz providing an appropriate end. A spiritual journey, a hymn, a prayer if you will and a remarkable collaboration born of one man’s vision and the supreme skill of the players.