I only became aware of Jocelyn Pook's music a few days ago when a CMN Tours sampler came through my door and what has followed has been a total revelation. On it was a track entitled 'Butterfly Song' which caught my attention not only because it is hideously beautiful but also because it is sung backwards. It began as the starting point for the music to Granada TV's 'The Butterfly Collectors' in 1999. Using a poem about a garden by James I, it then turns this backwards and fits the instrumentation around the melody of the new language. The verses are interspersed with Pook's wonderfully composed string section and her on piano. (The version on the album and on the free disc are rather different). It is as if other music suddenly has something missing. I think it would be wrong to pass off the sound which Jocelyn has created as merely a fusion of experimental classical with world music as her imagination takes the listener to some third place. Having worked in both classical and popular fields, she has envisioned and executed something which feels entirely fresh and new - and yet is based on traditional music of sort or another. This is album not to be missed - if I could award it six stars I would!
The album opens with the instantly enchanting, pulsating rhythms of 'Dionysus', which is rather atypical of the recording. As soon as I heard the opening bars in the record shop I knew that I would end up buying it. 'Red Song' (which closed the live set which I saw) opens the broader direction of the album using as it does diverse samples from Verdi and Byelorussian and Tartar music. Elsewhere there are samples from Persian classical and Yemenite Jewish music. For some much of the remainder of the album won't be immediately easy on the ear. 'Upon This Rock' showcases the magnificent vocal techniques of Iranian Bakhtiara-born, Parvin Cox. Her voice and the string section (viola, violin and cello) provide perfect complements to one another on this spiritually uplifting track. Like 'Butterfly Song', 'Yellow Fever Psalm' has its lead vocal sung by Melanie Pappenheim - backwards. The original words are in English and by James Stanley Gilbert and it is from here that the album actually takes it name. Again, the strings could have been lifted from a formal concerto and make this one of the most impressive tracks on the whole album.
Syrian-born, Abdullah Chhadeh plays qanun for the Ensemble and he is particularly evident on 'Hell, Fire and Damnation' giving the music an almost mythical construct of the Middle Eastern world and balances the mediaeval sound of Harvey Brough's psaltery and Melanie's Latin vocal. According to concert notes he is actually redesigned the instrument for Western-style music. The album also features the quite captivating voice of the Sri Lankan Tamil musician, Manickan Yogeswaran. There is a calm power in his voice which is awkward to describe unless you have seen him perform. Yogeswaran has sung Carnatic and Tamil music in devotional and concert settings both as a soloist and in international collaborations. He raises one arm in the air and his voice simply seems to flow out from within him. The final track on the album, 'Saffron' will be familiar to anyone who watched BBC's 'In A Land of Plenty'. The mixture of traditions, stunning vocals and driving rhythms is perhaps best exemplified by 'Take Off Your Veil', and perhaps the most lovely string arrangements are on 'The Last Day'.
Live performances on tour are accompanied by Yugosalv-born artist, Dragan Aleksic's film about the transience of life, 'Memories of a Passerby' which concludes with sequences of the artist's wax effigy on fire - part of a joint project with Pook performed in Venice last year - and something similar on a smaller scale on stage. The album's artwork uses motifs from the film. Together the music becomes the driver of a truly unique multimedia experience. If you get a chance to experience this live, don't hesitate! Aleksic is also credited with 'chest drumming' on 'Take Off Your Veil'.
There is a fuller string sound on 'Untold Things' than on Jocelyn Pook's more stripped-down, emptier-sounding previous album, 'Flood' and the overall mood of the music veers less towards melancholy (although Flood is also a brilliant album featuring tracks which were used in Kubrick's last film ' Eyes Wide Shut'). Having literally created a new language for song, the music itself speaks its own language which nobody has formally learned and yet which can be intuitively understood. I should really mention everyone involved with the Ensemble by name as I have rarely seen so many uniquely talented artists come together in one place. If you want to experiment with one album of which you have little previous knowledge, make it this one as you will either fall in love with it or loathe it. If you are interested in other cultures, respond to a mystical, ethereal sound and appreciate exquisite vocals and string instrumentation, it will surely be the former.