A couple of years ago, visiting Tallinn to play at a jazz festival with Paolo Fresu, the Tunisian oud player Dhafer Youssef wandered the streets hoping to bump into Arvo Pärt, his “biggest idol”. Instead, in an ancient church, he saw and was transfixed by the choir Vox Clamantis.
Youssef and the choir exchanged compliments and vowed one day to collaborate. The opportunity came when a consortium of arts organisations in the south-east of the UK, under the banner of RealiSE Live, offered a commission for a new piece of work. Oxford Contemporary Music, South Hill Park in Bracknell and the Turner-Sims Concert Hall in Southampton, with backing from the Arts Council, chose Youssef and Vox Clamantis. Over the course of several rehearsal sessions in Tallinn, Sacred Voices was conceived.
Gregorian chant, says Jaan-Eik Tulve, the director of the choir, “is ornamental. It’s near to oriental music – classical European music is not like this. Our direction is to go towards more ornamentation. So it was a miracle that we met Dhafer.”
Tulve’s wife Helena, a celebrated composer in Estonia, worked with Youssef to notate his musical ideas into a form with which the choir could work. “We use scores,” says Jaan-Eik, “but the result must be like improvisation.”
Youssef agrees. “They sing their Gregorian chant,” he smiles, “and I try to find a way to disturb it. Normally, improvising, I don’t try too hard, I just react to what others are playing. With this project, I have to do something that fits. It’s an adventure – in the good sense.”
The concert at the Turner-Sims started with a coup de théâtre – unheralded and unannounced, the choir appeared at the entrances at the back of the hall, singing an introit. Slowly they processed down the aisles to the stage, chanting antiphonally. The Estonians were dressed in white cassocks, with tonsures ranging from luxuriant to severe. Youssef sported a blue Chinese silk suit.
The concert proper began with Vox Clamantis’s Gregorian repertoire, with Youssef’s Sufi vocalisations bubbling up underneath. When they sang a psalm in Latin, he sang the same psalm in Arabic. Tulve conducted his choir of nine men and one woman with sweeping, expressive, windmilling gestures. At one point, four of them sang staggered four-part polyphony, the lines circulating and overlapping until the others died away and the tenor sang into the sudden quiet, his last words echoing: “Princeps paci . . . ”
Youssef played an interlude on the oud, accompanied on the nyckelharpa by Janno Pokk, who stood, keying and bowing his instrument, like a young cavalryman. The nyckelharpa, the Scandinavian keyed fiddle, has for Youssef “that old, authentic oriental sound – for me a fiddle needs that lamentous sound”.
The music gradually became more adventurous, the oud echoplexing into abstraction, the choir sounding more like a peal of bells. “Now we dance,” joked Youssef – and if the choir did not actually dance, the music at least loosened up, the rhythms started to swing, and Kadri Hunt’s alto swooped wordlessly over the top.
This was the last scheduled concert for this collaboration but Youssef and Tulve are reluctant to let it go. “I hope it will not stop,” Youssef says before the performance, “because it will be an interruption of the development of this project. I learn on the stage. I have a lot of ideas for this project.” Later, acknowledging applause, he simply says: “Listen to us in one or two years, insh’Allah.”
As an encore, Youssef played an oud intro to a simple rendition by the choir of Pärt’s fragmentary “Most Holy Mother Of God”, a suitable tribute to the man who unwittingly brought them together.