Christianne Stotijn's new album If the Owl Calls Again is a mysterious and compelling collection of songs in seven languages, exploring themes of nature, prayer and wisdom. The mezzo-soprano explains the concept behind this hauntingly beautiful recital:
The call of the owl is a primitive cry, a call filled with a deep power. “I live in the woods,” says Christianne Stotijn, “and there I have spent hours listening to the tawny owl, just hearing the call. I have even tried to imitate it – it has a high A and sometimes a G.”
Owls, in some cultures known as the eagles of the night, have special feathers that allow them to glide quietly nearby, and they have excellent night vision: they form a connection between both darkness and light and are a symbol of the search for knowledge. Christianne Stotijn hears more in the owl’s cry than just the high notes: “The call of the owl is like a cry of pain, of life and of death. It’s a call for humanity to return to its mission, to the reason we exist, and the question of what our purpose is.”
In a bookstore in New England, the singer found a collection by the poet John Haines, containing ‘If the Owl Calls Again’: “I opened the book and read that poem. I have always been fascinated by owls. I find them to be very powerful animals. ‘If the Owl Calls Again’ touched me because it evokes a desire to experience flying together with an owl – to travel to another region, another space. The poem goes into the stillness of flight: to a layer deep in the unconscious, back to the basic principles of life.”
Haines’ poem inspired Stotijn: “It challenged me to search for songs which embody wisdom.” “Most people know of the owl as a symbol of wisdom. To me, the owl calls up philosophical ideas as well: philosophical recognition of nature, of where we come from.” To Stotijn, the flight of the owl is a splendid image: “The great gray owl has always really fascinated me, swooping low over the layers of snow. To me they are very powerful animals.”
With the art songs on this album, we return to some of the more intimate forms of conversation, such as prayer and contemplation. “In church you learn how to pray,” says Christianne Stotijn. “You learn the texts of the prayers, but the words often have no meaning. I think that praying could be more than just reading something back. For me, these songs are not connected to a specific religion. In this selection of songs, we encounter both the deepest resonance of the primal force and the voice of uncertainty and doubt.” Let us follow the call of the owl. In the first song, ‘Durch Einsamkeiten’ by Joseph Marx, we go strait to its habitat: a forest wrapped in mist, set amongst the ancient trees. “This song has something very comforting. It is the beginning of the journey – you open a curtain, you see nature. You walk in solitude through nature. For me, the sound of the viola here is reminiscent of the echo between the trees. The instrument is like a guardian angel who is traveling with you.”
The prayers really begin with ‘Abboen’ by the Dutch composer Fant de Kanter. It has the oldest text: it is the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic. Fant de Kanter composed ‘Abboen’ as an unaccompanied song. He has known Christianne Stotijn since their time together at the conservatory, and writes fittingly for her voice: “He wrote it in such a way that it seems as if I am making it up on the spot: it could be heard at any time, in any place. The funny thing is that the first time I sang it for him we were surrounded by trees.”
Also by de Kanter is ‘Onbot’ for voice and viola. This poem in Yiddish, by Molodovsky, is full of bitterness and cynical humor: De Kanter lets the viola play in a very harsh and angular way. Molodovsky’s text is about being away from your home and your origins: having to go away and escaping, always being kept busy searching for a different kind of resting-place. In the three songs by Mussorgsky, the prayer-element can be found in the cycle The Nursery, in which a child is struggling with the demands placed on him by religious customs: “To me the most beautiful song is The Soul Flew Quietly Through the Celestial Skies, based on a text by Tolstoy. In it, a soul arrives in heaven, and, when realising he’s left behind a family immersed in profound grief, he asks if he could be allowed to return to earth.”
The call of the owl is sometimes like a teacher: not punishing, but pointing to the wisdom that is all around us. The Quatre Poèmes Hindous of Maurice Delage promote Hindu wisdom,” says Christianne Stotijn, “but with their own unique humor. They’re about the birth of Buddha and I find them beautiful because they bring all beliefs together.” Delage dedicated the first of the four songs to his teacher Maurice Ravel, whose ‘Kaddisj’ and ‘L’énigme éternelle’ Stotijn also sings; not with the usual piano accompaniment, but accompanied by the duduk, an ancient Armenian double reed instrument, allowing a primitive sound to emerge.
In Frank Martin’s Three Christmas Songs (Trois Chants de Noël) there is a part for solo flute, an instrument also heard in ‘Écoute mon coeur’ by André Caplet, based on a text by Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet and philosopher.
The journey that began with Joseph Marx concludes with Frank Bridge, where we encounter a familiar instrument: “My partner and soul mate in the songs of Frank Bridge is once again the viola, which answers me. These songs of Bridge are a soul’s tour through all of life’s principles, and the viola sounds almost like a lost voice: sometimes plaintive, sometimes crying, sometimes comforting.” The flight with the owl is drawing to a close with the last phrase from ‘Music when soft voices die’ by Frank Bridge, which continues to ring like an eternal lullaby: ‘Love itself shall slumber on.'
Christianne Stotijn makes her Lincoln Center debut with the New York Philharmonic this week. The Dutch mezzo-soprano sings the solo part written for her by Thomas Adès in his towering Totentanz, a tribute to Lutoslawski with orchestra, mezzo-soprano and baritone.
She gave the work's world premiere with Simon Keenlyside as vocal partner at the 2013 Proms, where her 'range of vocal colours and power created a constantly metamorphosing play of sound and character' (The Arts Desk).
This week, Stotijn reprises this demanding role for the US premiere, with the composer himself at the podium making his New York Philharmonic conducting debut.
Totentanz reveals just one facet of Stotijn's eclectic artistic vision. April sees the international release of her Warner Classics debut album, If the Owl Calls Again, a haunting and singular collection of 21 art songs in German, French, Hebrew, Armenian, Russian, English, and Dutch, shimmering gems by Ravel, Frank Martin, Frank Bridge, Joseph Marx and more. Her collaborators include Antoine Tamestit on viola, Joseph Breinl on piano and her brother Rick Stotijn (double bass), with delicate strings, winds and harp.
Stotijn has crafted an album of dark-hued, mysterious beauty, its evocative title drawn from a poem by John Haines. Owls have a deeply personal significance for the singer. "I live in the woods,” she explains, “and there I have spent hours listening to the tawny owl, just hearing the call. I have even tried to imitate it – it has a high A and sometimes a G.
"The call of the owl is like a cry of pain, of life and of death. It’s a call for humanity to return to its mission, to the reason we exist, and the question of what our purpose is.” With this carefully chosen programme, Stotijn invites us into a truly contemplative musical landscape.