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On Divine Rites, VOX creatively revives the early Christian womens chants of the Middle East. With the magnificent singing of Lebanese contralto FADIA EL-HAGE, divine love and the elemental emotion of the human voice meet in an atmosphere of reverent absorbtion. According to Sufi philosophy the purpose of music is to remind the spirit of the realm for which it constantly longs. Certainly no contemporary musician is more aware of that mandate than Bulgarian-born, Munich-based composer VLADIMIR IVANOFF. A trained musicologist who studied lute and historical performance practice at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, Ivanoff has served as musical director for such projects as SARBAND, L'ORIENT IMAGINAIRE and METAMORPHOSES.
Within each of these groups - and particularly through the work of his ensemble VOX - he has sought to reconcile musical and technological issues, to blend the sensibilities governing both early and modern music, and to unveil the sensual and spiritual essence of medieval music. Ivanoff has bridged the gulf of centuries by recasting ancient themes via electronic synthesis and digital sound processing. With Vox - now a trio comprising WOLFRAM NESTROY's electric guitar, Ivanoff's own synthesizers and samplers, and the lustrous contralto of Lebanese vocalist FADIA EL-HAGE - Ivanoff creates a soundscape that invites the modern listener to experience the visionary character and timeless appeal of medieval music.
On its debut album Diadema (1990), Vox reinterpreted the cosmological repertoire of the increasingly popular 11th century German composer Hildegard von Bingen. From Spain to Spain (1992) explored music of the Arab-Spanish culture. The group's latest release, Divine Rites, takes medieval Christian womens chants as its thematic locus. The origins of these chants are traced to 4th and 5th century A.D. Lebanon and Syria, modified by later cross-pollination between Christian, Islamic and Jewish cultures.
Historical context explains much that is singular here. At the dawn of Christianity, instrumental music was associated with sensual heathen cults, the theatre and the circus. The human voice was deemed to be more in accordance with piety. St. John Chrysostom, in his exposition of Psalms 41, (381-398 A.D.) described the capacity of the voice as mortifying the members of the flesh and making a full harmony of mind and body. The obscure liturgical music of Christian churches in Syria and today's Lebanon and the influence of the surrounding culture on that music appealed to the musicologist within Vladimir Ivanoff.
The voice of Fadia El-Hage is the musical bridge uniting Ivanoff's modernist impulses and the music of ancient Middle Eastern Christian denominations such as the Maronitic and Melchitic churches. A native of Beirut, she trained as an opera singer after a career which included participation in Lebanese musical theatre and a degree in psychology. Her fluid vibrato and extensive vocabulary of melodic ornamentation earmarks El-Hage as an appropriate interpreter of chants for solo female voice and choirs inspired by early Christian Syrian heretics like Bardasian and Paul of Samosota. That these chants survived at all is remarkable. Despite following a period when women played a prominent role in the rituals of the early church, after the late 4th Century there was an ecclesiastical ban on female singing in the liturgy.
Among the highlights of Divine Rites is the Vox rendition of "Kyrie Eleison," (literally: Lord Have Mercy) which contains words of supplication used in the Mass of the Roman Catholic church; words also shared in the services of early Eastern churches. Her voice swathed in the reverberations of a cathedral's interior, El-Hage begins the piece with a solo reading of this ancient ecclesiastical melody. Multi-tracked into a choir, she then overlaps the theme upon itself in the manner of a canon, colored by the chest-centered vocal techniques characteristic of Byzantine singing.
Throughout, Ivanoff's arrangements of these medieval chants are not slavish in their adherence to any preconceived notion of liturgical music, but seek instead to capture their spiritual essence in a more contemporary musical language. The introductory notes of Holy Sepulchre portend the ecumenical nature of Divine Rites: the glottal inflections of a classically trained Arabic vocalist are readily apparent in Fadia's singing. Vladimir Ivanoff layers spectral electronic tones which envelop her vocals with a reverential air.
On "The Dove," pulsating drum patterns borrowed from electronic dance music form a thrumming hive of activity, above which floats the silvery voice of El-Hage. Wolfram Nestroy's electric guitars are colored by distorted timbres drawn from modern rock, yet his playing is spare, the notes judiciously spaced so as to give the impression of precious objects glowing and levitating.
Thanks to the marvels of contemporary recording technology, Fadia again creates multi-tracked polyphony, as she sings both the extended melismas and the morse code-like droning parts of "Resurrection." Fadia would ordinarily be considered a contralto, yet she extends her range in response to the vaulting intervals found in the melody of "Moses"; her entry is the signal for Ivanoff's tolling synthesized bells to begin a polyrhythmic meter common in North African drumming.
Divine Rites reawakens a catalog of remarkable vibrancy. With the inventive, plangant interpretation of Fadia El-Hage and Vox, these ancient chants sustain an oral tradition undimmed by the passage of time.