(San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble),
Music from the Time of Jesus
& Jerusalem's Second Temple
(World Library, 2004)
When my husband first heard the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble's Ancient Echoes, he left the room, declaring the album's solemn tone and mood of doom "jangled his nerves." At first, I was aggravated with him, but after a few gloomy tracks, I found myself, for the first time, taking his musical point of view. SAVAE stays firmly within the comfortable range of Western stereotypes in this cliched album.
To be fair, the group's vocalizations and instrumentation are superb. And the album clearly labels itself as "Music from the time of Jesus and Jerusalem's Second Temple." But there is more to Jerusalem than the Wailing Wall, a history filled as much with secular joy as sacred grief. SAVAE should have remembered this fact when selecting songs for Ancient Echoes, because, after a while, the album's ponderous gravitas becomes cloying, even laughable.
The album opens with the type of track typically associated with the Middle East -- slow, slightly gloomy, and full of the vague longings. Then, the next track continues this trend, with a downright depressing, lament-filled song I pegged as a funeral-dirge until I looked at the title's translation in the liner notes: "Sing with Joy." It all goes downhill from there: portentous voice-overs, moody wailing and every Middle Eastern sound ever heard on a period movie soundtrack.
Now, SAVAE certainly can't be faulted for our cultural saturation with this type of music. But they misrepresented their purpose with Ancient Echoes. They promised a comprehensive exploration of a fascinating culture: "The spiritual grandeur of the temple, the earthly simplicity of a caravan campfire, the refined formality of Herod's court." But instead, they gave us what they must have thought we wanted: a religious collection of spiritual solemnity. They would have done better to stretch a little more on this disappointing album. After all, in all the hills and valleys of Civilization's cradle, couldn't they have found a drinking song?