When avant-songwriter Léonore Boulanger met Iranian musician Maam-Li Merati at a show in 2011, it kick-started an engagement with Persian classical music culminating in this gorgeous collection of songs that, while steeped in the traditions that birthed them, have a freshness and elegance that seems brand new. Merati and Boulanger immersed themselves in the Radif, a collection of ancient melodies that are the basis of Iranian traditional music, using them as musical settings (mainly in the dastgah and avaz forms) to accompany a series of Persian love poems from the 13th and 14th centuries. When it came to recording, the duo kept things simple, their intertwining vocals accompanied usually by Merati’s setar (Iranian lute) or kamancheh (a type of bowed string instrument), occasionally joined by Matthieu Ferrandez on harmonium and organ and the odd string and percussion flourish from producer Jean-Daniel Botta.
Make no mistake – this is beautiful, fragile music. Boulanger inhabits the lilting vocal style required for these recitations perfectly, her voice bursting with both sweetness and pathos on tracks like Avaz-e Abu Ata (Tasnif-e Bahare Delkash), soaring like a sparrow on the breeze one moment, then turning on a dime for staccato gasps and gulps. Merati, meanwhile, provides a grittier counterpoint, whether vocalizing in unison with Boulanger or completing elegant call and response routines. In Avaz-e Bayat-e Tork (Mehrabani), the voices execute a melancholic dance, accompanied only Merati’s kamancheh, whose woody sigh darts around and through the subtle melodies like a will-o-the-wisp.
Shamefully, my Farsi is nonexistent, but the release notes provide a translated example of the subject matter contained in these delicate melodies:
‘You, you traded me for nothing
Me, I still choose that I wouldn’t trade a single hair yours
for the entire world”
The different tonal moods of the compositions also give us clues at what’s going on semantically, ranging from the euphoric surges of new love, through sensuous pulsations of erotic entanglement, to the wracked tragedy of post-relationship heartbreak. Thus form seems to fit function perfectly, even when one isn’t entirely sure of the specifics of what’s being described.
Despite the lineage of its source material, La Maison D’Amour never feels like a museum piece. If this seems praise of a somewhat faint kind, consider how many treatments of British folksongs fall into twee nostalgia or sterile curation. In contrast, La Maison D’Amour is as successful as tapping into the vital, submerged currents of traditional song as The Incredible String Band or Fairport Convention’s Liege and Leif, yet it pulls off this trick while maintaining the integrity of the dastgahs and avaz from which it draws. Sure, Ferrandez and Botta’s additions broaden the sonic palette a bit – the latter’s hand-drum thumps on Dastgah-e Shur (Tasnif Ey Aman) are a pleasingly propulsive engine for Merati’s setar strums and provide impact for the mid-song tempo change, while the former’s harmonium and organ chords on pieces like Dastgah Mahur (Daramad) signal an awareness of contemporary musicking. But these ingredients are folded into the mix with unruffled aplomb rather than radically rewiring the underlying infrastructure, as happened back in the day when folk went lysergic. In La Maison D’amour, the everlasting flame burns pure and strong.