Tricks of memory

Music byDermot Clinch

Officium was a CD phenomenon of the 1990s. It was a collaboration between an English vocal quartet, specialising in a cappella music of the medieval and renaissance periods, and a Norwegian jazz saxophonist, specialising in, inter alia, jazz. The combination was novel and piquant and the CD sold in its hundreds of thousands. The same musicians have now collaborated on a second album, spread over two CDs. It is called Mnemosyne, after the Greek goddess of memory. If you have forgotten what the earlier disc sounded like, you need only turn to the later ones to be reminded.

There are differences. The cover of Officium was a photograph of a grey stone head covered in cobwebs. The cover of Mnemosyne is a grey sky with a hawk in it. Mnemosyne's packaging carries stills from Ingmar Bergman's grey film The Seventh Seal, and the mandatory acknowledgement of the copyright in this film is worded to seem an allegation of artistic fellowship rather than a legal duty: "Thanks to Ingmar Bergman for many things, including these images." The presiding genius of the album is the German poet Holderlin, and Holderlin's poem Mnemosyne tells us that, "though time be long, the truth will come to pass".

Time is long. Where Officium grafted Jan Garbarek's saxophone on to the European music of the middle ages and renaissance, Mnemosyne plants it among the music of 22 centuries from across the globe. Quechua folk songs from Peru, carols from 13th-century England, psalms from 16th-century Russia, eagle dances of the native American Iroquois: Garbarek swoops through them all with splendid indifference. The earliest item is dated 127BC: a "Delphic paean" of Athenaeus. The Athenaeus in Grove's Dictionary flourished in Egypt of the second century AD. Time is long, centuries are short.

Garbarek is icily characterful, sometimes witty. His gull's cry croaked out over the "Amen" of Thomas Tallis's "O Lord in Thee is All My Trust" places a welcome sting in the anthem's tail. His dispatch in the 13th-century song "Novus Novus" is wickedly exhilarating. When Garbarek decides he has had enough chirruping and descanting on the sidelines, and goes his own way, builds his own climaxes, makes his own melodies, he is great. The best track of all is a Christmas Alleluia from 13th-century England. Garbarek steals a motif from the voices and runs. He runs all the way to - where? Morocco? India? - and the Hilliard Ensemble can't catch him.

But Garbarek's stock of tropes - the valuable capital of any improviser - is exhausted by the end of Mnemosyne, as it was by the end of Officium. Garbarek's best trick - his pretence of being one of the Hilliard Ensemble's cathedral-trained English voices, while swooping unseen among them to muddy up their harmony with some modern inflection of his own - is also his most abused. The swell on a single note; the fantasy flight over a slow, sung ground; the trill and happy cadence on to the home note just as every one else is decamping to another: all are gambits with diminishing returns.

Stravinsky admired the saxophone's juvenile delinquent character. There is no reason why Garbarek or the Hilliard Ensemble should admire Stravinsky. But a little delinquency would be just fine. As it is, the moments of danger in Mnemosyne are few and the reverberant, forgiving acoustic of the Propstei St Gerold in Austria has little to forgive. Scandinavian asceticism and Anglo-Saxon good behaviour have produced a nice, rather grey CD.

"Mnemosyne" is released by ECM on 12 April

This article first appeared in the 09 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Judge the US by deeds, not words