L’Arpeggiata: The Beautiful Sound of Time Travel

Justin Davidson

By Justin Davidson

on 04.16.12 in Spotlights

Monteverdi: Teatro d'amore

Christina Pluhar/L'Arpeggiata

Suddenly, all the world’s a playlist. Styles mix, traditions intertwine, hybrids meet. For the Austrian lutenist, harpist, and theorbo player Christina Pluhar, history, too, is a collection of options to be shuffled at will. The ensemble she founded, L’arpeggiata, is a shifting corps of early music virtuosos that stirs together early music with jazz, folk songs, Renaissance dances and religious motets. Listening to one of the group’s dozen albums, you don’t always know what epoch you’re in, because sometimes you’re in several at once.

These are not random, just-because-it-sounds-good collections; they’re carefully mapped excursions through some corner of musical experience. La Tarantella: Antidotum Tarantulae takes us to Salento, the heel tip of Italy’s boot, where until well into the 20th-century peasant women had a habit of becoming possessed with the spiritual poison of a tarantula’s bite. The call would go out to the village band, and when it arrived and started playing the pizzica, the victim would start to writhe in elaborately choreographed ecstasy. The music could go on for days, but eventually, she would stop dancing, return to consciousness and to the fields. Specialist groups like Aramiré might have a more authentically roughened sound, but L’arpeggiata connects a local ritual with far broader musical horizons.

Whether sacred or profane, each album is conceived as a mini-drama, full of contrast, conflict and romance. Via Crucis, for instance, bottles a spiritual fervor that borders on the carnal. From the first tones of the opening “Stabat Mater,” you know you are not in the precious, cloistered world of pure-voiced choirs. The timbre is raw and rustic, the sound of a village church on a parched southern Italian hillside. Spanish, Jewish and Arabic inflexions run through the instrumental improvisations. Luigi Rossi’s 17th-century song “Voglio morire” (“I Want to Die”) throbs with ravishing dissonance. The recording accompanies a processional along the way of the cross, not as a lugubrious trudge but a suite of slow-moving, sometimes tragic, sometimes joyful dances.

Nowhere does the group execute its recording-as-revue more deftly than in Monteverdi: Teatro d’amore, a greatest hits compilation of one of history’s greatest composers. From the brilliant, brassy toccata that opens the opera Orfeo (and this album) to the exquisite intertwining of Philippe Jaroussky’s and Nuria Rial’s voices in “Pur ti miro” from L’incoronazione di Poppea, to the bouncy madrigal “Zefiro torna” and the sepulchral harmonies that open “Hor che ‘l ciel e la terra,” Monteverdi’s music pulsates with color and expressive nuance.

Since its founding in 2000, L’arpeggiata has traced musical threads that unspool along trade routes and the paths of migration. In Los Pajaros Perdidos, the group goes to Latin America, binding traditional numbers like “Duerme negrito” and the heartbreaking “Alfonsina y el mar” with a souped-up quasi-mariachi version of Padre Antonio Soler’s 18th century “Fandango.” (For the harpsichord original, see here. This is dicier territory. Many listeners will know these melodies from the rousing versions by the Argentinian folk singer Mercedes Sosa or Susana Baca’s quiet, jazz-inflected take on Afro-Peruvian songs. But if L’arpeggiata is willing to risk coming off as a troupe of interlopers, it’s because they see the musical connections between the colonies and the conquistadors’ European homelands.

L’arpeggiata belongs to the third generation of the early-music movement. After the infant earnestness of the 1960s and ’70s, and the mature polish that performers like John Eliot Gardiner and Jordi Savall (and many, many others) achieved in the ’80s and ’90s, early music specialists have acquired enough self-confidence to un-specialize and play around. Like any good collection of improvisers, L’arpeggiata is at its best as a live band, driven by the personalities of its members. Onstage, the dancer Anna Dego gives a sensual and athletic physicality to dance forms like the ciaccona. Doron David Sherwin plays the baroque wooden cornett as if it were Bix Beiderbecke’s cornet letting medieval modes spill into bluesy solos. The throaty-voiced singer Lucilla Galeazzi moves easily among periods and dialects, so that the famous World War II resistance song “Bella ciao” belongs to the same world as the contemporary pop lullaby “Sogna fiore mio” and the traditional tarantella tune “Pizzicarella mia.”

This isn’t only the way we hear music today; it’s the way people outside the novelty-obsessed European courts have always experienced music. Ancient folk tunes, refined compositions, mangled imports, songs and dances of uncertain age and parentage — all had a place in the musical palette of every era, just as they do in ours.