'The Bard of Brittany Returns' by Dan Liss
introduction by Mairéid Sullivan
Alan Stivell is a Celt of vast cultural hindsight and deep musical insight. Through all the musical styles he embraces, he brings an adventurous and innovative treatment to his great sense of the ancient psychological mood and unique musical mode of the Celts. His style, at all times, reflects a creative melding of the deep roots of tradition with the flowering of contemporary sound. This is why his music offers authentic nourishment for the reawakening Celtic soul. His is not a "fast-food" diet of mainstream musical taste. Anyone who is seriously interested in the Celtic cultural revival must hear Alain Stivell, from his early beginnings, to gain a deeper understanding of the huge contribution of energy and ideas he still brings to the restoration of the unique musical qualities of the Celtic spirit; qualities which allow it to take shape in so many vibrant contemporary musical forms. In my view, he has won his argument with the traditionalists who like to curtail the "personal sovereignty" of the contemporary Bard. Through his dedicated and burning love for the ideological and musical roots of Celtic heritage, Alan Stivell has not only survived but he has become a serious voice for world music: And the Bardic tradition is alive and well today.
'The Bard of Brittany Returns' by Dan Liss
Alan Stivell, one of the world's foremost Celtic harpists, when asked how this became his passion, responded: "It was in my personality to be a dreamer, I was not happy with the world as it is." It was from his dreams that he drew the inspiration to become the person who is credited with rescuing the traditional Breton harp from obscurity. Today, it is becoming increasingly fashionable to be a student of Celtic culture. Stivell began his work back in 1953, when many historians and anthropologists still believed that the Celtic culture was primitive and unsophisticated. During the last few decades, this opinion has changed, and Stivell is an important contributor to this revised perspective.
Most people initially identify the word Celtic with Irish, Welsh or Scotch, but Brittany was once an independent Celtic nation in the northern part of France. His father was a harp maker who taught him to merge Celtic and classical music, and he still plays harps that his father made. In his father's time, the harp was thought of strictly as a classical symphonic instrument. He was prompted to create new music in the old style because few people were playing traditional Celtic harp at the time. An avid reader of science fiction and fantasy, something triggered his imagination, and he began to inquire about the harp as a folk instrument. Stivell synthesizes his sources to become something new. Some of his songs are traditional melodies and others are original compositions which draw on the ancient spirit of bardic work and the inspiration of the man and his harp. Although he is a student of history, Stivell is not stuck on simply performing historic reproductions. He works with new harp makers, and now he also plays new instruments he designed, including one made from aluminum and plexiglass with electronic pick ups. This approach to music and instruments is representative of his approach to history and culture as well. He is not a man stuck in the past; rather, he believes in the evolution of traditions and updating old material for the contemporary culture.
The folk music revival of the 1960s was influential in spreading from the U.S. to Europe and encouraged him to continue to explore his roots, but he didn't stop there. "Music should evolve. People came from farms to cities, and their music changed when it did. Now as part of this natural evolution, we are creating music for a global society. When rock came to Europe, I was involved in that and it became part of my style. Then came folk, American spirituals, global fusion and world music." "What is the value of knowing the old ways? The ancient cultures believed in keeping in harmony with nature and the universe. That idea is still important today. When considering new developments, we should ask if a thing is made for the best interest of the world. For example, genetic engineering and nuclear energy. Are these keeping in harmony with nature and the universe?" What about the renaissance of interest in Celtic culture? "I am happy with the revival of Celtic culture. People are more aware of its value now. It was despised for a long time. It is good to be more aware of that way of feeling and thinking; it was not better, but understanding the difference is useful. Celtic spirituality is more a general feeling than something precise. These ancient Celtic ways had parallels with the ancient Chinese belief systems. We take ideas from these things which have much in common with western religion, but we must be careful not to fall into a new dogma. We must give importance to things that bring more harmony on the planet." His recordings include both solo and ensemble arrangements. For this tour, his band includes guitar, violin, keyboards, bass and drums. His latest release, Zoom, is a 2 CD set which includes 35 tracks. The first part features his softer, more acoustic, introspective sounds, while the second disc shows more of his electric, world music influence.
Even though he sings in French, if you listen closely, you can get a feel for the essence of the songs. "Lands of My Fathers" is a live cut featuring thousands of fans singing along. Others concern the legends of Avalon and Brian Boru. The softer songs possess a delicate glow, reflecting their historical inspiration; the world fusion sounds take on a new energy, often more driven than you might expect from a harp, bringing the sounds of pipes, violin and other traditional timbres forward with an air of urgency and passion.