Born in Argentina, composer Osvaldo Golijov had Jewish parents and moved to Jerusalem and then to Philadelphia to study music. The 11 songs in his "Ayre" suite are referred to as songs of exile a phrase authenticated in Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish's aching lyrics for "Kun li-guitari wataran ayyuha al-maa," or "Be a string, water, to my guitar."
"It's getting hard for me to remember my face in the mirrors," these aching lines of estrangement go. "I know who I was yesterday, / but who will I be tomorrow / Under the Atlantic flags of Columbus?"
And the buzz created by Deutsche Grammophon's release of this CD isn't limited to such haunting words of loss. It's a happy slap of surprise for those who know soprano Dawn Upshaw's work.
Known for her work in opera and art song, Nashville-born Upshaw always has moved in a kind of idiosyncratic parallel to the normal concert career with her work in John Adams' "El Nino," Messiaen's "St. Francoise d'Assise," and songs of Ravel, Stravinsky and de Falla in her CD "Girl with Orange Lips."
But not even her "Knoxville Summer" CD (Barber, Menotti) can prepare you for the courageous release she accomplishes in this collaboration with Golijov. Hitting highs and lows that waver and wash with the sandy majesty of Petra and Oran, Upshaw has transformed herself into a sister of Haza. She deploys a sinuous vocal intelligence here that winds itself around your heart within minutes, even as you're shocked to discover the dune-shimmering subtleties of textures never heard from her before.
Most impressive is her bratty-beautiful nasal-scrappy "Tancas serradas a muru," or "Walls are encircling the land," based on 19th-century Sardinian lyrics. Golijov sets her on a wicked gallop of itchy-accordion ululation, at once gamy and menacing: "Moderate your tyranny, Barons, / Otherwise, I swear on my life: / I'll bring you down from your horses!" You believe her, and Golijov, utterly.
And here is Gustavo Santaolalla, the Argentine ambassador of an expansive Latin musica freed of stereotype, just nominated for an Oscar for his score for "Brokeback Mountain." In "Ayre," his "Luna" is a watery pool of reflected image, like his lyrics and music for "Sueltate las cintas" ("Untie your ribbons) a guitar-massaged moment of calm amid pounding passions.
Ultimately, Golijov, Upshaw, Santaolalla and the ensemble Andalucian Dogs simply run far away from the inspiration Golijov credits to the late Luciano Berio's "Folk Songs." It's good to have Berio's fine suite of 11 works follow Golijov's on this CD. But it's the new work, the new voice, these new, devastating lyrics that ricochet off the stony assumptions of tradition, that make this "Ayre" so pure.
Such an expanse of ominous, lonely diaspora you hear in the closing "Ariadna en su labirinto" ("Ariadne in her labyrinth"). "Why do you cry fair child?" these traditional Sephardic lyrics ask. "I cry," Upshaw murmurs back from so very far inside a world too precious to lose, "I cry because / you leave me."