In this lively album, and the stage spectacle from which it is drawn, the Irish early music group eX takes a look at the multifarious subject of possession, employing folk music as well as selections from the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque (and one surprise).
One online dictionary defines possession as being “spurred or moved by a strong feeling, madness, or a supernatural power.” The CD notes elaborate on this – “having one’s persona, that indescribable essence that makes you you taken over by an alien spirit, demon, god, totem or other numinous character.” In the positive sense, possession by a god or emissary or ancestor is a standard part of traditional religious practice, essential for those becoming shamans – who very often have an associated musical instrument – or other sorts of faith leaders. But there are also many less benevolent examples and rites of possession.
That sense of ritual, with its music and dance, and the “theatrical” aspects of costumes and role-play enter into the eX stage performance, which was first performed at the 2010 Galway Early Music Festival and during a 2012 Irish tour. The music features female voices – lovely, emotive singing from artistic director Caitriona O’Leary and Clara Sanabras – along with a lot of guitars and percussion, with viols and other instruments adding variety. Praise must also be given to the wonderfully lurid album cover, in which the head of Sigmund Freud looms over imagery from Hollywood B-movies.
eX’s presentation is divided into four sections exemplifying different aspects of possession. It may not have made complete sense musically for the CD, but I do wish the recorded program had tracked a little more closely with the staged concert. A DVD of that stage performance would be most welcome.
Part 1, “Ecstasy: The Theatre of Heaven,” is set in Dublin’s St. Patrick Hospital, where patients have identified themselves with Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, and Joan of Arc, all known for their Christian visionary trance experiences. The text of Hildegard of Bingen’s brief but ominous “Nunc Aperuit Nobis Clausa Porta” juxtaposes the serpent and Virgin Mary. In the “Prayer of St. Teresa of Avila” she offers herself to her beloved, the Lord, to the strains of rather anxious, incantory, Spanish-flavored music. The Lord also provides support in the “Song of Joan of Arc,” with the singers here backed by a propulsive beat from frame drum and tambourine.
Part 2, “Witches: The Theatre of Hell,” takes us to the time just before the Salem witch trials, specifically the trial of Ann “Goody” Glover, an Irish laundress who was hanged for witchcraft in 1688 Boston. In his “Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions,” Cotton Mather described how Glover supposedly, through black magic, caused the children of her employer to become sick, misbehave, and even shun the Bible and fly. Perhaps the highlight here is “Witchcraft Discovered and Punished,” the longest work in eX’s program, a Broadside Ballad about the imprisonment of three witches who had supposedly murdered both adults and children, lamed cattle, and taken evil delight in their laments. The music’s ominous repeating beat, with guitar and a counterpoint to the voice in the viol, sets an appropriately eerie atmosphere.
Part 3, “Candomblé: The Theatre of the Gods,” in part documents the way musical ideas flowed freely from Africa to the Old and New Worlds starting in the seventeenth century. For instance, “Fandango,” a Spanish dance by Santiago de Murcia played here on guitar, incorporate rhythms from Bahia. In Candomblé, an African-Brazilian religion, dance rhythms (possibly derived from the Yoruba language) allow the deities, or orishas, to possess people. A sweet Latin, samba-like flavor is brought to the Candomblé-inspired “The Goddess of the Orishas” (Iansa, goddess of the winds and the lands of the dead).
The concluding Part 4, “Tarantella: The Theatre of the Spider,” is derived from the writings of Athanasius Kircher. He was a witness to Tarantism, a trance-like state supposedly brought on by the bite of a tarantula. Musicians would be brought in to effect a cure, finding the right rhythm to which the victim would dance for hours on end, eventually driving the offending spirit away in an exorcism-like rite. Several versions of ecstatic tarantellas, vocal and instrumental, are performed by eX – including the seductive “Tarantella del Gargano,” in which a lover tries to describe adequately his love, and the lively traditional Italian “Pizzica Tarentata,” in which the tarantula appears as a comical representative of St. Paul.
An incongruous highlight of the program is the nicely arranged and harmonized version of “Music Makes Me (Do the Things I Never Should Do),” from the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio, that concludes the CD. While its hints of Tin Pan Alley stand out from the rest of the program, its theatricality certainly fits in with what came before, as does the humorous twist it gives to the theme of the program as a whole. Here the sin comes when the music “possesses” you and you’ve “gotta give in to syncopated time.”