A sad-eyed Spaniard with a French-ish accent, Jordi Savall is one of the greatest living forces in the rebirth of early music and has devoted his life to rediscovering, researching and sharing forgotten musical treasures. Savall studied the cello and then mastered the viola da gamba, his chief instrument. He founded the early-music ensemble Hespèrion XX (now XXI) in 1974 with his late wife, the soprano Montserrat Figueras, who passed away in November of last year. In 1987 he founded the vocal group Capella Reial de Catalunya and in 1989 the period-instrument orchestra Le Concert des Nations, which brings together young musicians, primarily from Latin countries. Following his lauded contribution to Alain Corneau’s 1991 film Tous les matins du monde starring tous les deux Depardieux, Savall was able to launch his own record label, Alia Vox, which has introduced early music to a wider public in resplendent luxury and style. His various projects have yielded close to two hundred recordings. In 2008, UNESCO appointed Savall an “Artist for Peace” and in 2009 he was appointed an Ambassador of the European Year for Creativity and Innovation by the European Union. I met with Savall at his hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but the interview was conducted at a nearby Italian eatery. We spoke over his morning green tea but under the blare of r&b.
You’re known for Baroque music, “early music” and “world music,” but these categories don’t seem fair, as they’re both overly vague and yet too restricting for what you do. Maybe you could talk about these projects of yours, what it is you’re trying to accomplish.
What interests me is the power of music to make dialogue possible and the power of music to change our lives. It’s these two elements that move me to develop certain repertories, related to certain historical moments. For me, the best way to define what I am doing is to say: ‘I am a musician.’ And I don’t like to be classified — the only thing one can say is that my specialty is the viola da gamba. But still, I’m a viola da gamba player who plays also rebec, rebab, lyre, Celtic viol.
The repertoire is determined, then, by that choice of instruments — that guides the decisions.
Always. In the first place, it’s the music. What moved me to the cello when I was young was the music. My voice had changed, and I sought out something that could reflect that change [Savall has said that ‘all music comes from the voice’], and I found cello. And when I started cello in those first years, I realized I was working more like an archaeologist — looking for pieces of music myself. And I found pieces by Marais, by Couperin, by Bach for viola da gamba. And I also developed an interest — with Montserrat — in the Sephardic world, the Arab or Andalusian world, the Oriental repertories, stemming from our strong sense of genetic conscience from the Spanish multicultural history.
So Spain itself is responsible for your multicultural approach. Is that fair to say?
In his description of Spain and Italy, Erasmus says you cannot find one Christian person in Spain [laughs] — in 1515. When I am in Arabic countries, I look very normal. Our mix in history now moves our conscience. In 1492 we broke bridges with the expulsion of the Jews — and with the expulsion of the Moors, we broke the bridges between Orient and Occident.
And so, are you in the process of rebuilding those bridges?
Music is the best school for learning dialogue, learning to share, to accept others, to build something. With Montserrat, maybe we were not so conscious of this in the beginning, but more and more we saw the importance of using music as a way of reaching over cultural walls. We have seen this in musicians from Japan, Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine, Morocco, to lose the problem of language in music.
In a speech in 2001, Bill Clinton said that terrorists ‘thought that the differences they have with us, political and religious, were all that mattered — and served to make all their targets less than human. Most of us believe that our differences are important and make our lives interesting but that our common humanity matters more. The clash between these two views over this simple question more than any other single issue,’ Clinton concluded, ‘will define the shape and the soul of this new century.’ Is part of your goal to recognize that there aren’t islands of music, to find similarities?
The first thing is to recognize that we are educated in the Occident to have a vision of the world from a point of supremacy. This is received. Even very sensitive people have said for hundreds of years ‘Oh, I am tolerant.’ To be tolerant
— implies superiority.