“The combination of music and other sensations - let’s call it synthesis - leaves room for the imagination. it has, or so we hope, a timeless, universal and indefinible power that can still move people today. and perhaps makes us receptive to the mystery of life and of the world.”

In conversation with Jurgen de Bruyn (Zefiro Torna), Peter De Bie (Laika) and Sara Sampelayo (visual artist):

To create BALSAM, Laika and Zefiro Torna went on a journey in pursuit of the ancient knowledge of herbs and plants and the related and equally old world of alchemy. What form did that journey take?

PETER: We immersed ourselves in the wondrous world of plants and herbs. We learned about their medicinal qualities, about the ancient rituals they were used in and about the mythical stories told about some plants. We also explored the equally fascinating world of alchemy, which uses a knowledge of plants to make healing remedies, potions. Alchemy is also concerned with the process of transmuting imperfect matter to obtain a pure essence. For example, making gold from lead, or creating the Philosopher’s Stone, a mythical substance which alchemists believed had magical properties. As well as being an art and a science, alchemy is also a philosophy.

Alchemists believe in a connection between the outside world and the inner world. Paracelsus, one of the most famous alchemists, expressed it beautifully: “Everything that is in the big world is also present in the human body. The same sorts of wood, stones, herbs, etc. that are in the outside world are also in man, though in a different form.

JURGEN: Musically, we wanted to ‘ennoble’ existing old and traditional music by creating a new musical language. This is consistent with Zefiro Torna’s profile: it is a vocal and instrumental ensemble that specializes in early music and mixes it with traditional folk music and with jazz. BALSAM is actually part of a triptych, a sequel to the previous productions ‘Les Tisserands’ and ‘O Monde Aveugle’. Each part has a different theme: Catharism for ‘Les Tisserands’ and the Apocalypse for ‘O Monde Aveugle’. For BALSAM we wanted an ‘alchemy of sound’, consisting of unusual and original combinations of instruments and voice techniques.

Among other things, this involved pouring over sixteenth-century herbals, including the best-known work ‘Cruydt-boeck’ by Rembert Dodoens, and the obscure writings of the twelfth-century abbess and composer Hildegard von Bingen. We explored the literature of early and ethnic music. We ended up with a ‘mixed programme’ in which the traditional character of ethnic folk music, the archaic sound of early music and the improvisational spontaneity of jazz converge.

PETER: It was a godsend to find we could relate to this music. It goes without saying that the content of the field we had to explore was vast. A plethora of truths and lies, opinions and speculation, of Eastern and Western sagas, myths and legends spanning hundreds of centuries. The music demarcated things, pointing me in the direction of specific information about botany and alchemy. We wanted to approach the theme associatively. Have the audience smell, taste, see the music and make it tangible.

JURGEN: Which is precisely the reason for Zefiro Torna’s and Laika’s collaboration. For this project I wanted to add elements from another medium which could take the expressive power of the music to another level and reveal different content – without it becoming a scientific exposé. I had known Laika’s work for several years and believed that Peter De Bie’s expertise could add value.

PETER: My challenge of trying to match my language – which is culinary and has to do with ‘eating’ – to the music was a fascinating one. I decided that rather than produce a full-scale meal, I would provide tastings. Unusual and unfamiliar taste and smell sensations. What you taste heightens the effect of the music, which alternates between mellow, soothing, stimulating, bitter and sweet.

Sara, you are a visual artist and you are also very interested in cooking. During the creation process you and Peter experimented with all kinds of substances, with fire and water and smells and colours and with chemical reactions like heating and fermentation… Can you tell us something about that?

First I’d just like say this: Sara and I had never worked together before, but I was excited by the darker side of her visual work. I also knew that she could inspire me to translate the music into a physical, tangible and possibly culinary form. We experimented with ways of making the chemical processes visible while preparing the ingredients and with ways of emphasizing the magic of that, always in response to the music.

SARA: For me the lightbulb moment during the creative process was when I learned that there would be spot-lit workbenches on the stage. Tables on which we would prepare the ingredients – edible or not – live, and that that image would be projected onto several screens. That image starts off as concrete and gradually becomes more abstract. The ‘magical’ actions of cutting, chopping, pouring, peeling, stirring and making fire or smoke, the movements involved and their projection are in harmony with the music, they visualize that music.

But it goes further than the visual. The dripping sound, the sound of siphoning liquid, the sound of crushing an ingredient in a mortar, etc. enrich the music. On the subject of music, you started off with existing scores which were then arranged for a specific set of instruments, I think?

JURGEN: As well as existing music, the BALSAM programme contains music written by the musicians themselves. Jowan Merckx is one of them. He composed both instrumental works and songs based on poems by Emile Verhaeren and contemporaries of Charles Baudelaire. And the musicians who perform decided which instruments should be played. Zefiro Torna often works with guest musicians who have a specific skill and stock-in-trade. In BALSAM they include Raphaël De Cock. He trained as a biologist and so has a real interest in and knowledge of natural phenomena. Another of his areas of expertise is ethnic music traditions and instruments he has discovered on his extensive travels. Consequently, he plays scores of different instruments. He has also mastered unusual voice techniques, like overtone singing and Mongolian throat singing.

Which specific instruments are played in BALSAM?

JURGEN: Bagpipes and old plucked instruments like the lute and theorbo, and modern instruments such as the saxophone, (bass) flute and bass clarinet, as well as numerous folk instruments. They originate from several different countries or regions: the chatkhan, primitive wind instruments from the Balkans such as the kaval and the duduk and the hardanger fiddle from Scandinavia. It is fascinating to discover just how closely associated these instruments are with various sagas and mythologies. They unlock a world in which many things are inexplicable and imbued with mystery.

PETER: The spectators sit very close to the musicians, which is a phenomenal experience and one that requires them to keep any noise to an absolute minimum.* The set we designed creates an atmosphere of intimacy. The three ‘alchemists’ stand in the middle on a pentagonal stage. On the five points of the pentagram are five small tables where the ingredients are prepped. Those actions are projected onto triangular screens hanging above the performance area. The musicians move round the stage, close to the audience who sit in a circle around the performers. That layout is based on the alchemist symbol, which can be summed up as an infinite linear pattern of triangles. Though very old, at the same time there is something recognizable about it, and it creates the openness required to experience BALSAM with all your senses.

JURGEN: The combination of music and other sensations – let’s call it synthesis - leaves room for the imagination. It has, or so we hope, a timeless, universal and indefinable power that can still move people. And perhaps makes us receptive to the mystery of life and of the world, for that is what drove the alchemists’ search for the quintessence.

PETER: It is this mystery that fascinates us in our collective quest. The music, the lyrics, the alchemy and the world of plants and herbs all testify to the complexity of human life. They illustrate man’s attempt to fathom it and his realization that there will always be something unfathomable. What is left is desire and consolation. The consolation of being together and of conviviality.