When artists perform ancient songs, ballads or dances, they often bring them to life in a fresh, personal way. It was a shared love of ancient music that led Arianna Savall and Petter Udland Johansen to form a new group three years ago. Now they've brought out their first release titled Hirundo Maris. In Latin, the title means sea swallow. Each piece on this new disc in some way has a relationship to the sea. It's the sea that connects the two homelands of Arianna and Petter: Spain and Norway.
Petter Udland says a variety of musical styles make up the sound of this ensemble. "We come from early music and classical music and popular music so we bring all those elements with us." They also bring with them a variety of traditional instruments. For Petter it's the Hardanger fiddle, a traditional Norwegian instrument that he says is not your average fiddle. "The bridge is a bit flatter than a normal bridge. And that means that you can play on more strings at the same time. So it's easier to do chords and to do double stops and all that kind of stuff. We play with gut strings so it has a very tender, very fragile sound so it fits very well to the voice. It's like a third voice, actually, when we play together."
According to Arianna Savall the song that got this whole project started is a folk song titled El Mariner (The Sailor). It features triple harp, Hardanger fiddle, dobro, bass and a frame drum that creates the sound of the sea. "It's a Catalan folk song but it tells the story of the sailor from the north that is coming to the Mediterranean. He meets a girl and they will travel many, many years and in the end, he says, I'm the son of the King of England, and you will be my Queen. And it's a very nice song and it's a lullaby song also that my grandmother and many grandmothers were singing at this time."
Hirundo Maris opens with a medieval Renaissance song titled The Schoolmaster. Arianna first heard it played by her father, Jordi Savall, a famous performer on the viola da gamba. "I had always the wish to sing this piece, but I tried to find a version very different from my father," she explains. The song is a dialog between a teacher and a young woman. When he heads off to war, she begins to share her thoughts with the birds. "This theme, to talk with the birds, it's a theme that we have in many songs of Catalonia. And in a way the birds are connected with the angels or the universe, with this spirituality or with God. It's very symbolic, this dialog with the birds." Petter says people really respond to his and Arianna's vocal harmonies, especially on this song. "It's very nice to sing solo and do your solo stuff," he explains, "but when you are able to sing with someone and do duets and feel the harmony that happens between two or three or four voices, in this case two voices, for me, it's the highest peak of music making, It's fantastic! It's a great privilege I must say."
There are a few instrumental pieces on this new collection of ancient songs and dances. My favorite is a tarantella arranged by Arianna Savall. In earlier centuries it was believed a frenzied dance would prevent death if you were bit by a poisonous tarantula spider. That dance came to be known as a tarantella. The manuscript upon which this tarantella is based is a version by Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz. "The interesting thing about this manuscript," Savall explains, "is you only have eight bars. It means that at this time, the people were improvising a lot and it was very important, this improvising."
As you listen to each of the 17 tracks on Hirundo Maris, you might hear echoes of Arianna Savall's mother, the late Montserrat Figueras. Arianna says her mother did add her personal touch to each piece on this recording before her death last year. "I admire very much this way that she sang," Arianna adds tenderly. "This is always with me, and many pieces that I learned with her, when I sing these pieces now, I have the feeling that and she's there, in a way, with me and we are singing still together."