Jordi Savall: Music to String Peace, Ambassador for the Soul

Lisa Houston on February 14, 2014
Jordi Savall
Jordi Savall

The past 50 years have seen a surge in the number of musicians and ensembles devoted to exploring early music on the instruments for which it was created. No one has done more to achieve excellence in this regard than Catalonian-born viola da gamba player Jordi Savall. Savall’s three ensembles, founded with his late wife, the singer Montserrat Figueras, once collectively called Hesperion XX (now XXI, La Capella Reial de Catlunya, and Le Concert des Nations), have performed all over the world, bringing a previously obscure repertoire onto center stage. In 2008, Savall and Figueras became European Union Ambassadors for Intercultural Dialogue and Artists for Peace, a title that well describes Savall’s view of music’s important role. He is outspoken about the state of the world and the grand potential of music to improve it, saying, “Music is the first language for human beings. Without music we cannot live. The problem today is, the arms are making noise so you can’t hear the music.” Bay Area audiences can look forward to hearing a diverse and world-class ensemble when Savall appears at First Congregational Church of Berkeley as part of Cal Performances’ Early Music programming on March 1.

Winning fame for his contribution to the music of the film Tous les Matins du Monde in 1991, in addition to his full schedule of performances and recording and founding his own label (in 1998 called Alia Vox), Savall in recent years must make time for receiving honors. He has been awarded the Händelpreis der Stadt in Halle, Germany, and, in 2012 alone, the Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres and Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by the French Ministry of Culture, as well as the York Early Music Festival Lifetime Achievement Award and Denmark’s highest musical honor, the Léonie Sonning Music Prize.

SFCV recently sat down with Savall for an interview.

You studied cello before viola da gamba. What was about about the viol that first made you fall in love with it?

To be concrete, my first musical experience was as a boy singer. When the voice changed, I felt I was missing something. I was in rehearsal with the Requiem of Mozart, listening to the music, and it was so fascinating, and there was a string quartet making the orchestra parts and I loved the cello and decided to study cello. I was 15 already. There were some scores in the music shops in Barcelona and many of these music pieces were pieces for viola da gamba arranged for cello: Marin Marais’ Les folies d’Espagne, Bach sonatas. Already in my cello studies, I had been playing some viola da gamba music on the cello. And this is what attracted me to viola da gamba: the music.  

The way you play the viol, the hand faces out. How does that change the tone, versus the overhand position used on violin and other instruments?

Very much. I’ll show you, because this is important to see. [He gets up and goes to get his bow.] In cello, you position the strings, and you make pressure on the wood [demonstrates holding the overhand position, which asserts pressure on the wood of the bow]. In the viola da gamba position, you press with this finger [he demonstrates holding the bow underhand and using the third finger to press up on the strings], and it’s more sensitive. The French people say this finger is the “soul of music.” With this you can change every small nuance. Everything! This changes a lot of things. You can play with one string, with three strings, you can make it like this [he presses the strings into the wood of the bow]. You can be sweet or aggressive or strong or accentuate or be softer. The other different thing is the frets. [A cello has none.] The frets produce a sound, a resonance. In the beginning I started with a viol without frets because the frets disturbed me [laughs].

What is your instrument like? Where was it made and how old is it?

Last week I was recording medieval music and I used a rebec from the second half of the 15th century, a viol from the beginning of the 16th century. But then for the Renaissance music I have a Renaissance viol from Venice from 1553, a beautiful viol. And then for the Baroque I use mostly my bass viol for the solo concerts, from 1697, and it’s a very fine intonation, made in maple. And then I have different instruments [for other things].

When playing a score such as Monteverdi’s Orfeo, how do you allow the improvisatory style in those situations?

In the big pieces I don’t allow it; only in the continuo parts. Monteverdi has written very well what the singers should do. Some small ornaments in the cadenzas you can use improvisation, and sometimes when the phrase is repeated, or in a da capo aria, or strophes, you can change and ornament these parts. But it’s very important in the instrumental music. This program in the beginning of March, it’s a program about “Folias Antiquas e Criollas.” In this program we improvise a lot in the different dances.

You’ve recorded all kinds of European music from different parts of music of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Cantemir in Moldavia, Bach in Germany, Matthew Locke in England: What are the main differences from that time in those places?

From Orient and Occident?


In medieval time the differences were much smaller. Because in Orient and Occident you used same system of music. Melody, rhythm, improvisation, and dance. There are no harmonies, no counterpoint. If you see in the pictures of Arabic and Jewish musicians, they are playing the same instruments they play now. Still today. The ney, all these types of instruments, oud, and this goes until the beginning of the 14th century when we start creating counterpoint, and polyphony and harmony. Then Occidental makes a big change and goes in another music and Oriental music stays in the same direction of melody and improvisation. When we play Cantemir — he comes around the end of the 17th century — we play the same way we play Trecento stampita, with improvisation and playing the melody and doing ornamentation. This is a big difference between Occident and Orient. I cannot combine Bach with Cantemir. But I can combine stampita or troubador song or Spanish cantiga with Oriental music. They have the same language.

Music is the first language for human beings. Without music we cannot live. The problem today is, the arms are making noise so you can’t hear the music.

What is your process like for researching? How do you begin?

It depends. Every project is different. Now, for example, I’m starting work on Balkan music and I have to make a search on the repertories of Bulgarian music, Gypsy music, music from Greece, Turkey, Macedonia, Bosnia, from Serbia, and then contact musicians, singers, listen to recordings and repertories and fix on something, to produce something that can tell something about this region. But every time, it’s a connection to history, to some personality of the time, and then the musicians who preserve this tradition, and the libraries. When I was working in the New World repertory, I was in Puebla in Mexico, in Colombia, and in the Canary Islands. I’m working now with a very crazy project.

What’s that?

The route of slavery.

Where are you starting?

We start in the time of Columbus. Slaves come from the south of Russia, and this becomes the name of “Slave” — Slavo. It’s very ancient. It’s important to show the people’s suffering. The music is so beautiful and so full of emotion. All these people taken from Africa to the New World take the music with them to survive and to feel a connection to the [old] world. In the same way, the Jewish people were expelled from Spain, they go to Istanbul. Or Sofia. They continue to sing the music. These songs help the people to conserve hope and peace. It’s the same history everywhere. Take Irish people: They leave because they’re dying from hunger and they go to San Francisco, and they bring this violin and they sing and they play and, like this, they have a little freedom-happiness. Music helps people to survive everywhere.

I think music is the only language it is not possible to lie. … Music, when it is sung goes directly to our hearts.

You’ve said that “music can help us to be more sensitive, and at this point that is important for our human evolution.” Can you say more about that?

I think music is the only language [in which] it is not possible to lie. It’s a very important thing. I can tell you something, a completely wrong thing, and maybe you will believe me. But if I play for you or sing for you, without a machine, you will listen, immediately. Even the person who has no idea about music. The most simple person from a village, from a very poor family, with no alphabet, will listen if a singer is singing with real sensitivity. Music, when it is sung like this, goes directly to our hearts. It makes us feel better. It makes us more sensitive to each other. When singing together, it is not possible to be a fanatic. It is not possible to be a racist when you are singing in a vocal ensemble.

We are in a moment when we need all the presence of the artists, the people who can sing, the people who can write, the people who can make movies.

Music is not good. It is not bad. You have very nice songs from the times of the Crusades. They are saying, “You have to go to Palestine and kill all the Arabs. You have to make the land safe for the Christians.” Music can be used for the wrong things. But the principal thing is that music always has a spiritual dimension. Then music makes us better, but only if we have this dimension. Because when all you listen for is aesthetic, then there’s the same situation you have in Auschwitz, when the Nazi officer listens to a Mozart orchestra from the prisoners and enjoying Mozart like this. It is not spiritually connected. It is only being heard for the beauty, not for the spiritual dimension. Then it’s terrible.

How do you feel about the current financial crisis in Spain and Catalonia and the decision of the government to sell so much property in Barcelona, particularly the Education Department building?

It’s a very difficult situation now. In every country there is corruption and people try to make wrong things with the taxes, but in Spain it is so terrible. You cannot trust anybody. The right and the left, there is not any difference, practically. Now, the right has a majority and the situation is every day worse. In fact in Spain, the people without work, it’s 25 percent of people, 50 percent of young people. And then there is no money for culture, there is no money for the hospitals. There’s no tradition of philanthropy. The aristocracy of Spain is very egoistic. The rich people of Spain are very egoistic. Thinking only of money and tax-free, and this is the distance between the middle class and the low class, and the rich people are bigger and bigger, the rich people have more and more money.

With the Olympics going on, there’s been a lot of attention on Russia’s antigay policies, and there were protests at the Metropolitan Opera this past fall, because the operatic community has not spoken out, and some famous singers have said, and I’m quoting, “Artists shouldn’t meddle in politics.”

I don’t agree. One of the things that is most terrible today is that we are not any longer in solidarity with the people who are suffering. What happens in this moment in Syria, it’s something so terrible because we have all the possibilities and nobody is acting. Like 20 years ago in Sarajevo. You have accepted four years of the bombing of Sarajevo without doing anything. We have to be conscious and everybody has to say, “I don’t agree with this.” And if we are musicians, we can say, “No, I will not take part in this.” When the U.S. attacked Iraq, I cancelled my tour in the United States and I think many people understand this. Sometimes it’s necessary to say it. It’s the only power we have. How we can help the people in Russia in oppression, the people who are suffering because they are gay, because they are different, because they are the opposition? We can help all these people by making clear to the people in power that there are limits that we can not accept. It’s fundamental to civilization.

We are now [approaching] lines that civilization cannot cross. For me the most difficult thing today is that we have lost generally the sense of humanism, the sense of generosity, the sense of solidarity. One percent of the people in the world have what the 99 percent of the people in the world need. In some years, 10, 15 years, we will have a revolution. You can’t have people like this, like in Spain. Thousands and thousands of people without work, without resources, and most of them have lost their houses. What can you do? You will kill people to be able to give something to your children [to eat]. We are in a moment when we need all the presence of the artists, the people who can sing, the people who can write, the people who can make movies, to make a political conscience of the disaster, because it is a disaster. We are in a very difficult moment. There is no other time in history when we have had so many millions of refugees in the world. I think it’s important that, even if we cannot do anything, we have to react. Everybody has to react.

Given what you were just saying, it’s so valuable to be with an audience and connect in that way. What is your favorite response or compliment to get from an audience member?

I like very much to see the people after the concert. Many times I go to a city, and people say, “You don’t know us, but through your music, you have been in our home every day for 25 years.” It is like family! But I think through concerts we have to create communication. We have to talk with the people. We don’t have to have this arrogant barrier [demonstrates a stiff posture and puts his hands in front as if to block his chest]. We have to come to the people and say, “This is my instrument and this is my music and this is why we play it.”