This glancing life is like a morning star
A setting sun or rolling waves at sea
A gentle breeze or lightning in a storm
A dancing dream of all eternity
-Caravanserai from An Ancient Muse by Loreena McKennitt
Last night I went to see Loreena McKennitt’s new concert, An Ancient Muse. This tour will cross Canada in September, then move south through the United States in October. I confess to a “slight” bias towards her music, but I have never seen her live before. Given the recent release of the CD An Ancient Muse, I expected that the performance would focus on the new music, and I was worried that her earlier work would be short-changed. Also, given the high ticket price and the less than perfect seating, I was dreading the possibility that the show would be less than stellar. Here is what actually happened.
It was a dark and stormy night. I arrive fifteen minutes early, wrung myself out and went to my seat. Much to my relief the audience was dressed in a relaxed and eclectic style, so my lack of dress shoes and a tie fit in well with others jeans, shorts, tuxedos, mini-skirts, ballroom gowns, and celticised serapes. The stages set-up was elegant and simple. A piano, keyboard, harp, and key accordion were at centre stage for Loreena’s use, with a slightly raised section behind her for the nine over-talented accomplices to her magic. Hanging from the ceiling were half a dozen Arabic chandeliers, and the backdrop was a simple Arabesque tapestry of a neutral light tan colour. Just left of centre stage was a classic pointed arch framing the main percussion session.
While simple and clean, the lighting system made this stage setting magically versatile. By varying lighting angles and colours, the backdrop would become a solid glowing royal blue, or dripping ruby fading to darkness as you looked upwards, or a wavering rich green dimming to darkness in the lower depths. Sometimes the background disappeared as vertical spreading beams overlapped to form a gossamer silken canopy draping towards the stage, or fog, or crystal-sharp stars on a moonless night. They also made sure that the lighting effects did not distract from the performance, only focusing spots on key performances in a gradual understated manner, and only making major lighting changes between songs.
From left to right on the stage were
- Brian Hughes: electric and acoutic guitar, oud, celtic bazouki
- Ben Grossman: hurdy-gurdy and percussion
- Rick Lazar: percussion
- Tal Bergman: drums and percussion
- Tim Lander: acoustic and Electric Base
- Socratis Synopoulos: lyra, Greek Lute
- Donald Quan: viola, keyboards, tabla, accordion
- Caroline Lavelle: cello
- and Hugh Marsh on violin.
I had no idea how the performance would commence, so I was sitting up anxiously as the lights went down, with all sense on the alert. A vertical golden spotlight slowly brightened, and a vertical viola appeared and started playing. As the light slowly increased, a silhouette of a harpist with a halo of yellow-orange hair appeared. Then a second spot shone on the harpist as she started singing “She moved through the fair”. Her voice filled the auditorium, and when her voice rose towards the higher notes, it felt like you were within and part of the song, instead of listening to something from outside yourself. As the music moved into the instrumental finale the light faded over Loreena, she returned to being a silhouette framed by the sunlight of her hair, then the viola was the only thing visible on the stage, then it faded into the night.
The audience, after a moment of awe, started applauding, and I knew that there would be magic that night.
Happily, the repertoire included a good selection from The Book of Secrets and The Mask and the Mirror. There were also a number from the new album, An Ancient Muse, as well as such favourites as The Lady of Shalott, Bonny Portmore, The Old Ways, and Cymbeline from The Visit. Her voice and the feeling she put into the music were wonderful, as were some of her entertaining and rambling discussions of the travels of the Celts both east and west. It seems that there are mummies of communites of proto-Celts at the eastern end of the Silk Road, dating back as far as three thousand BCE, including a six foot tall man with red hair and wearing plaids.
Regarding the musicians and the instruments used, as seen from the list above the variety was amazing. More amazing were their performances. My favourite player was the fiddler Hugh Marsh, who must have been trained in Fiddler’s Green via the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. For example, they gave him an extremely loud ovation at the end his solo during Santiago. Also, I was impressed that during one song he held a single note without perceptible variation for over thirty seconds while busily bowing back and forth; I couldn’t hear a pause, nor a perceptible waver in the note. I also loved the electric guitar under the fingers of Brian Hughes, especially when he played counterpoint to Hugh during “The Bonnie Swans”. On stage they played some riffs not in The Mask and the Mirror, and the audience stood to applaud them at the end of the song. Ben Grossman on the hurdy-gurdy was also great, and this was the first time I had seen this instrument played; from where I stood it seemed as if he was stroking the base like Aladdin polishing his lamp, and the music that came out was just as magical.
At the end of the show she gave two encores. During the second encore she discussed and celebrated the search and rescue efforts of the Canadian Armed Forces, and mentioned that she was made Honourary Colonel of 435 Squadron, which conducts Search and Rescue (SAR) operations as well as transport duties in Western Canada. For those who don’t realise it, 2006 the first time that she has toured since 1998, when her fiance and two close friends died during a boating accident. This caused her to be active in prevention efforts and fundraising, and eventually to her interest in military SAR operations. She then dedicated “Dante’s Prayer” in remembrance of Shawn McCaughey of the Snowbirds, who died last summer in Montana. Anyone who knows this song will realise how appropriate it is.
In summary, her voice is as good as ever, the musicians with her are excellent, and the arrangement and staging were simple and elegant. It was well worth the walk home through the rain.
One aspect of Loreena McKennitt’s music is the research and historical depth that informs her music. In the case of An Ancient Muse, she mentioned several times an excellent book by Susan Whitfield called Life along the Silk Road. The Silk Road is the collection of routes used for trade and communication between China and its predecessor states with the West, extending back possibly beyond 4000 years. In recorded history the first major connections probably occurred between 200 BCE and 200 ACE. One of the major periods of trade was the 8th century, which Whitfield’s book concentrates on. The appeal of this book is that it reads like the Canterbury tales, showing what life was like for soldiers, nuns, steppe horsemen, Imperial Tibetans, traders, etc. It shows how information, technology, and people spread east and west over some of the strangest and most hostile terrain on earth.
For me, while I listen to songs such as Caravanserai, Kecharitomene, and Beneath a Phrygian Sky, I imagine the multitudes of races meeting and trading at the bazaars, the caution and daring needed to get a caravan over 15,000 foot passes, seeing sand dunes reaching 300 metres into the sky in the Tarim Basin, going for days without water in the Taklamakan Desert, watching out for horsemen of the steppes along the northern routes, and the great battles in the mountains at the top of the world between Imperial Tibet and China for access to the eastern side of the Silk Road. To the West it was the Great Unknown; to those who lived along it it was magical, dangerous, and ever changing.
Here are some names that evoke the lure and mystery of the route to me:
- Lapis lazuli
- Khyber Pass
- Gobi Desert
- Taklamakan Desert (Uighur for “if you go in there you won’t get out”)
- Tien Shan Mountains
- Kunlun Mountains
- Lop Nor
- Hindu Kush