On May 7, 1253, William of Rubruck, set out from Constantinople with a Bible and an ambition.
While his king, Louis IX, rampaged around Palestine pursuing his crusades against the infidel, he would take the more peaceable path, bringing the word of God to Karakorum, the centre of the Mongolian empire. Two challenges faced him, one physical and one philosophical: first, surviving the arduous journey across the great plains of Mongolia; second, convincing the many people he meets along the way to follow his God rather than their own.
Karakorum takes on both challenges. First, it charts the long journey in a musical odyssey from Gregorian chant to bacchanalian dance. Second, it grapples with the intersection of various shades of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.
Ambitious? Yes. Enlightening? Perhaps …
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, under the artistic directorship of Paul Dyer, often venture well beyond their seventeenth century starting point. Previous collaborations have included work with Sufi mystics, Flamenco dancers and circus performers. This time they welcome European ensemble La Camera delle Lacrime, a motley band inspired by the ‘musical traces of the Middle Ages’, along with director Constantine Costi, actor David Wenham and a selection of ABO choristers and instrumentalists.
The result is a colourful introduction to the eclectic brilliance of La Camera delle Lacrime. The six musicians wield multiple instruments, including the hurdy-gurdy, the erhu and the kamanche, a four-stringed bowed instrument from Persia. They sing. They chant. They dance. Their music director Bruno Bonhoure even transforms himself into a convincing whirling dervish in the closing scene.
Meanwhile David Wenham, in monk’s garb, forlornly wanders through the action with increasing bemusement as he recites extracts from William of Rubruck’s travel diaries. The distance between the monk and the music is stark, yet the music is strangely familiar, snatches of traditional hymns and folk songs creeping in amongst the alien timbres.
Highlights include the intoxicating erhu melody of a drinking song, the clash of Sufi and Gregorian chants and the crunchy drone of the bagpipes mixed with violin.
I’m not convinced that, as a drama, Karakorum adds up to more than the sum of its parts, and it certainly leaves the big questions – like what to believe? – unanswered.
It is, however, a bold experiment, as vivid a depiction of meeting the “Other” as I have ever seen or heard and a welcome challenge to audiences to open their ears.
Karakorum plays at the City Recital Hall, Sydney, until August 3, Melbourne Recital Centre (August 4, 5) and Brisbane’s QPAC, August 8.