A towering figure in Early Music, Jordi Savall is the founding father of three orchestras as well as of his independent record label, Alia Vox. He is a tireless musician who fills concert halls across the planet and who has made a lifetime's work of the rediscovery of unknown and forgotten music. But a meeting with Savall's is far more than a meeting with a mere musician. Just as much, Savall is an ambassador for culture and history, a standard-bearer for harmony and reconciliation between peoples.

Our interview starts with his most recent project, The Routes of Slavery, which retraces through music the “real, living history of a painful past”, the slave trade between Africa and America.

DK: The Routes of Slavery is a cultural project as much as it is a musical one. Tell us about what you hoped to achieve.

JS: The project was created in the hope of doing something more than to have fun and hear pretty music. There are many insulting stereotypes associated with this repertoire: one imagines black slaves who are always somewhat drunk and sing in unpleasant, corrupt Spanish. It's essential to reach beyond those stereotypes.

In the course of research, I discovered that alongside the music associated with the institutions of power – the Church and the Court – there were oral traditions which lie at the base of the whole of American folk music, whether from the Caribbean, Brasil, negro spirituals or gospel. Historically, that starts with slavery, which constitutes the transplanting of African culture into new soil. In the course of developing the project, it was important to retain the pleasure of listening to this music, but it was just as important to make one reflect on this sad, ugly history of civilised countries treating human beings worse than animals, and continuing to do so, to our utter shame, until recently. My ambition was to make people think as much as it was to help them discover this music.

Did your audience understand this approach?

Not initially. But everywhere we have presented this programme, people have been very touched. I remember performing The Routes of Slavery at Cartagena de las Indias, one of the capitals where the slavery was at its most horrible, in front of an audience largely composed of descendants of slave-owners: people were shocked by these horrifying texts. I don't think it's going to transform people's way of life, but they will at least be somewhat more conscious of the injustices.

Let's talk about process. How do you turn this kind of project from idea into reality?

I start with the music I know and then add depth by historical research. In this case, the story starts with the first mass captures in 1444, with the King of Spain sending slaves to work for him in the gold mines. To shed light on this history, I asked myself “What music was played at the time? What music is played today by the descendants of those slaves?” Of course, it's impossible to know exactly what those people sung in 1444. On the colonial side, we have notated music starting from around 1600, but for the music from an oral tradition, we've had to make compromises in order to impart a certain atmosphere to the project as a whole. In some cases, I have even chosen to insert new music composed within the tradition.

It's a long process and one which continues. In our concerts last November in New York and Montreal, we added a significant component of North American history, with texts from Jefferson, Lincoln and Uncle Tom's Cabin. We've also added North American slave songs and gospels. It was a great success, even if people were not expecting to see a group of gospel singers in an early music concert – it succeeded in giving proceedings a North American flavour. That's also helped me to work on the version I'm creating for 2019, which is going to continue the story into the northern part of the New World – the West Indies, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the United States.

For a project that contains music from an oral tradition, you need musicians who aren't necessarily numbered amongst your usual collaborators. How do you find them?

I've made many visits to Brazil, Colombia, Mexico. I arrange auditions, I listen to instrumentalists and singers. It's the same in Africa: I have long-standing friends like Ballaké Sissoko in Mali, who is a wonderful kora player. You also find the griot [or jeli] singers: African troubadours who tell stories through music and have been portraying the culture of their country for centuries. A little at a time, one begins to understand which are the essential elements. And everywhere I've been, I've had the good fortune to find singers and musicians who are magnificent.

Your CDs are released as beautifully crafted books. Is this a way of attracting an audience which may be more interested in the literature and history than it is in the music?

Alia Vox is the only label that consistently brings out recordings integrated with books. We publish one every year: they are products that require a lot of work because of the number of images and the quality of the writing. Since we are undertaking many highly diverse projects, we reach a highly diverse audience, one which is interested in history or in a specific culture.

Amongst these book-records of ours, you'll see projects a different as Cervantes' Don Quixote, the travels of St Francis Xavier to China and Japan, the massacre of the Cathars with Le Royaume Oublié. The latest is Venezia Millenaria, a thousand years of the history of Venice in music. These are projects that open doors and show people that music speaks to us with the sensibilities of each era. When you hear well performed troubadour songs, you are in 1200 – it's time travel! When you hear the Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, you're transported to Venice in 1615. Now that's really something!

To accompany the recordings, you get a book with beautiful images of the period, all sorts of painting, instruments. The text is written by specialists who are able to transmit knowledge that you won't find by yourself because it's hidden away in the Rare Books sections of various university libraries. This is an extraordinary way to get across history, culture and music.

Tell us your opinion of the future of the classical music recording industry, which gives off something of an air of crisis...

One of the fundamental aspects of this crisis lies in the new ways that people now use to listen to music: increasingly, new technologies have allowed people to listen with relatively good audio quality without needing to buy CDs, and that has completely changed the relationship between music and commerce. When we started Alia Vox, a CD like La Folia or Díaspora Sefardí would sell 120,000 copies in six months, which was normal at the time. Nowadays, if we sell 30,000 physical CDs, we're delighted. Digital sales provide some compensation, but only in part. Unfortuately, there are a lot of people who listen to records without paying for them, which makes monetisation difficult. But in spite of everything, we are fortunate enough to have a loyal audience throughout the world – from New Zealand to Chile by way of Korea and Japan – which is what keeps us in business. We can always be confident that our projects will be well received.

Before I started Alia Vox, every time I spoke to EMI or one of the other major labels, the answer was invariably “we need a project which will have a wide audience. William Lawes – no, not interested. John Jenkins – no. Purcell – that's too sophisticated.” The idea behind Alia Vox was to be able to do not just big audience material, but also some very specialist items, like Esprit d’Arménie (Spirit of Armenia), the William Lawes Consorts, John Jenkins – works that are very beautiful but of minority interest. The strength of Alia Vox is that we can set out on projects focusing on the project quality and not on the number of CDs we're going to sell.

Lots of musicians – whether in classical or in popular styles – create albums and then tour them. But you’re the only one I know who tours many different projects in any one year. How are you able to do this?

It's possible because I've been working on these projects for fifty years and I have three ensembles to do it with. That's what allows me, for example, to put on a Monteverdi Vespers with one rehearsal on the eve of the concert. This year started for me with conducting Marin Marais' opera Alcyone, which we'd already produced last year. We rehearsed for four days and the performance was fantastic, because the team has been together for a long time and has a language that allows me to move easily between projects.

To my ears, mediaeval and Renaissance music finds more echoes in the folk music and jazz of today than it does in the baroque, classical and romantic styles. Did classical music lose something when it substituted precise, well-defined form in place of spontaneity and improvisation?

From the middle ages to the baroque era, with the Renaissance in between, there are reasonably complex works, but the instrumentalists or singers who perform them have mastery of their instruments and are able to improvise. That's a constant that you find everywhere in the world, and in Europe, it persists up to the era of Beethoven, who is still a musician capable of improvising.

From a certain point, however, Western music becomes so formal and written down that apart from a concerto's cadenza, what is played is nothing more than what was in the composer's imagination. This loss of the ability to improvise reaches completion with the invention of twelve-tone music. At the same time, the bond is broken between classical and popular musical styles. Hitherto, that link had always existed, and you can feel it in all the great composers: Brahms, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Marin Marais, Monteverdi. Even in the music of the most austere Spanish polyphonic composers, like Tomás Luis de Victoria, there's a popular melody that emerges, a cantus firmus that underpins the polyphony. That evolution has turned classical music into a work of restoration, a world in which one interprets music but almost no music is created spontaneously.

It's different in the East. There, you find virtuosi who are perfectly capable of interpreting works that are written down, but also able to improvise a prelude that's extraordinary and different in every concert. That's why it was so wonderful to create my recent project based on Ibn Battuta, the remarkable 13th century traveller who spent 30 years voyaging from Fez as far as China. In each successive country, music permits us to take part in the journey: we had an Afghan playing the rebap and the sarod, two Turkish musicians playing the qanun and the oud, an Armenian musician playing the duduk, a Greek playing santur, two Chinese playing the pipa and the zheng. It was a festival of infinite riches, with a quality of improvisation that you simply can't imagine in the classical world. Contact with these musicians allows one to learn a different means of creating music every day.

We've lived for a long time with the idea that Western culture was the most important, while looking down on other cultures that are in reality just as valuable. Today, we can discover these other cultures, which can result in fabulous experiences. That's how I think the future of music will be built: on dialogue, on respect for other cultures and in bringing together great musicians from different traditions.

The older generation complains that “young people of today don’t have the attention span for the great works of classical music”. Does your audience react differently to a Bach Passion than to a concert made up of 20 or 30 shorter pieces?

When I put on a programme with 20 or more pieces, it's done without a break. From the start to the end of the concert, everything follows on in sequence to create an atmosphere that facilitates concentration, that enables one to feel the depth that total immersion in music can provide. Our concerts which stage dialogues between different musical traditions attract many young people who are passionate about those repertoires. But you know, after Tous les matins du monde [the 1991 Alain Corneau biopic of the composer Marin Marais, with music by Savall], I was also able to shine a spotlight on the viola da gamba, which touched a lot of young people. And now, either because they came to a concert or saw the film, they've become musicians themselves. That's the power of art: the ability to transmit the desire to do something that develops oneself.

Since we're on the subject of Tous les matins du monde and Marin Marais, is there another musician who would a great subject for a movie?

Just imagine a film about the life of Monteverdi: that would be fabulous, a sublime thing.

So have you suggested this?

No, I haven't. You know, it's very difficult – I don't think it would be possible today to make a movie like Tous les matins du monde. We're living in a world where everything happens at high speed, and Tous les matins du monde is a slow film, one where you take the time to gaze at things. The dialogues are short and not too complex – it's a movie that's almost zen.

A film that I'd jump at would be one that told the story of the Cathars. They're a sect from Bulgaria who followed the Christian religion in its purest possible form, which ended up constituting a danger for the Roman Catholic church. In the course of most of the 13th century, they were massacred. It's an incredible story – horribly sad, but fabulous.

You are starting to make succession plans for your three ensembles. Have you chosen young musicians to take up the baton?

I haven't made a choice, because I don't think the choice should be mine to make. What matters to me is to have the structures in place so that everything can continue to function well, in which case the succession will happen in a very natural way. I know many great musicians, and I'm sure that on the day that I step down, the projects will be able to carry on without me. But it's difficult, when the King is still alive, to predict who will be his heir!

What I'm trying to put across is a certain way of imagining music which reaches beyond a mere desire to discover beautiful music. Music is one of the most powerful languages to reconnect with our humanity, to reveal in the greatest depths the qualities of the human being, which are qualities of understanding, dialogue and respect, of the acceptance of difference.


Interview conducted in French, translated here by the author.