Texas Early Music Project's Convivencia Re-Envisioned

Spanish Christian music, Sephardic Jewish song, and al-Andalus melodies meld in this special concert

Daniel Johnson (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Think "co-existence."

That's the essence of the convivencia, the eight centuries of Spanish history when Christians, Jews, and Muslims are said to have lived together on the Iberian Peninsula in relative peace and harmony. This weekend, the Texas Early Music Project revisits that time for the opening concert of its 2015-16 season, and given the success with which TEMP has mined the era's music before – as in the concerts and recordings Convivencia: Love and War in Renaissance Spain and Night and Day: Sephardic Songs of Love and ExileConvivencia Re-Envisioned: The Three Worlds of Renaissance Spain promises a rich sampling of Spanish Christian music, Sephardic Jewish song, and al-Andalus melodies.

This Convivencia program is organized into thematic sections that capture the universality of human experiences across cultures, such as prayer and words of love. Helping TEMP bring the music to life will be internationally renowned recorder player Nina Stern, historical percussionist Peter Maund of Oakland; and local santur and oud master Kamran Hooshmand. Enhancing the aural experience will be a 3-D video visualization of the medieval Spanish city of Plasencia, directed by Dr. Roger L. Martínez-Dávila, a scholar of interreligious co-existence in medieval Spain. The Chronicle interviewed TEMP Artistic Director Daniel Johnson by email to learn more about the power of this music and the important reminder it serves to the community.

Austin Chronicle: How did this concept for the program come about?

Daniel Johnson: The concept came from my friend and colleague, Tom Zajac. Back in 2003, he was putting together a concert for his ensemble at the University of Maryland. I went to Maryland and did the concert with him there, then we decided to do it here in 2004, 2005, and 2010. We knew it was a perfect fit for TEMP, because we had already recorded Sephardic music and performed historical Spanish music; all we needed was the al-Andalus part of it. Since then, the program has evolved as we've continued our research to find new pieces, as well as new arrangements of old pieces.

AC: TEMP emphasizes the importance of historically informed performance practice. How does the ensemble work to honor authentic renditions of this music, particularly the Jewish and Arabic melodies from the oral tradition?

DJ: Our style is informed by listening to "folk versions" – listening to native Arabic singers performing in their style. Then we take it over and do it in our way by adding a bit of quasi-classical technique. I know we don't sound like 50-year-old Sephardic ladies singing out in the desert, but we still try to approximate the same fervor and passion. One of the big things we focus on is the period language. Language is so liquid and flexible over time. We've had a lot of help with the pronunciation from linguists and singers. The Judeo-Español has a very rich sound. There are sounds that you don't find in today's Spanish – or even 16th-century Spanish.

AC: How do you go about finding and shaping arrangements of this music when the orchestration is not provided in a score?

DJ: This process has evolved over many years. Some combinations of instruments work really well together. For example, sackbut (a type of trombone) and viola da gamba is one of the best combinations of pure sound. For this concert, there are two ensembles: a Spanish courtly orchestra and a folk ensemble for the Sephardic and Arabic music, which includes instruments like the oud (Arabic lute).

AC: What music are you most excited about on the program?

DJ: The final section of the concert is about the reconquest, the end of convivencia. The final piece, by Juan del Encina, is this simple hymnlike song that has amazingly effective harmonic and rhythmic changes. I've performed this with other groups between 25 and 30 times, and each time, performers and audiences are just stunned by it. I don't know whether I should be alarmed because it is a really grand Spanish propagandistic song written from the point of view of a Muslim ruler defeated by King Ferdinand. Musically, it is so astounding, even though the lyrics are a combination of being sort of offensive and at the same time inspirational.

AC: Given that these three cultures were living together in this period, do you find any similarities in the respective music styles?

DJ: There are strong similarities between the al-Andalus and Sephardic music, much more so than with the purely Spanish songs. This is because the Spanish songs are based on tonal composition techniques, whereas the other two use similar scales with intervals such as augmented seconds which are almost never found in Western music.

AC: How, then, is the concert organized to highlight the spirit of the convivencia?

DJ: We tried to find themes that were universally about daily life – something that each culture would experience. I think it's important when we pick music that we pick things that are going to connect with people and things that people will find inspirational or emotionally conductive so that 21st century audiences can bring something into their lives from medieval music. We wouldn't do this music if we didn't love it.

Convivencia Re-Envisioned: The Three Worlds of Renaissance Spain will be performed Sat., Sept. 5, 8pm, at St. Martin's Luther Church, 606 W. 15th; and Sun., Sept. 6, 3pm, at Temple Beth Shalom, 7300 Hart. For more information, visit www.early-music.org.

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Texas Early Music Project, Daniel Johnson, Tom Zajac, Renaissance music, Sephardic music, convivencia

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