Continuing our journey of exploring Loreena McKennitt‘s music, we introduce to you our “The Book of Secrets” (1997) thoughts.
“The Book of Secrets (1997)
“Over a number of years spent ruminating on the distinctive characteristics of the Celts, I began to wonder if their legendarily nomadic ways arose from an inner need. An involuntary response, rather than a pragmatic one; a restlessness that had its roots in an insatiable curiosity. I suspect it was my growing awareness of my own wanderlust and curiosity that made me aware of the real sense of connection I felt to the Celtic lineage, as part of that New World extension of a people who ranged so astonishingly far and wide.” L.M.
“The Book of Secrets“! This is album is the most celebrated release by Loreena McKennit, it hit North American charts and it gained great world success. Personally, it is not easy for me to write about my experience with “The Book of Secrets.” I am between fear, confusion, and resistance while writing this dedication to the anonymous traveler! The man who recommended me “The Book of Secrets.” As I mentioned before, it was the first Loreena McKennit release I heard and it was a recommendation by an anonymous knight. It was a beautiful autumn night in October, illuminated by the pale light of the full moon. After Midnight I received this message from the aforementioned knight telling me to: “Listen to The Book of Secrets!”
There was no further explanation or clarification! Just a hundred questions striking my mind: “What’s The Book of Secrets?”, “Perhaps, a Journey to discover a new artist and a new album for me?” “Am I, as a music reviewer always excited towards a new recommendation? or am I just excited because he recommended the musical piece he appreciates most? What made everything more difficult is that he completely vanished that night and left me haunted between the secrets of this album, secrets of him, and my mysterious inner motives to listen to it! So, I thought the best thing is to have the courage and go on this journey alone! A perfect late calm night with a good cup of Turkish coffee, let’s enjoy the journey.
Starting with astonishing oriental Qanun intro with its scary and mysterious sounds as a background. This is “Prologue.” Actually, the intro is the best intonation for this mysterious journey and inspiring pleasant vocals. The “Prologue” made me feel something strange, is it a recollection? Did I take my first step on the road?
It was like going on a darkened road with an ancient dusty book: Shades of ancient times, sounds from distances afar, and the experience as a wanderer internally and externally. Images floated before my eyes: memories, cold air, first meet, chapters from books, movie scenes, the scent of coffee and the first time I caught the grace of the traveler’s eyes.
Nothing stopped my brainstorming except the alerting Byzantium intro of “Mummers Dance”! Another cold wave hit my body and mind! What was that?! I imagined old people as we see in historical TV shows: leather clothes, masks, hats and props, moving tribes, and strange makeup! My mind continued to recalling more images: green lands, hanging trees, the smell of ancient times! The music itself carried something sacred, something not easy to be described!
During my latest depression phase, last week, I went to my room at the end of the night and put on “The Book of Secrets”! I don’t know what exactly happened, but I caught something magical and illusive while listening to “Mummers Dance”. I saw an old tribe moving to the beats of their heavy drums and the creaking of their carriage wheels. I think, my mind caught this image inspired by Marquez’ description of the Eastern tribes and gypsies who used to roam through Latin America, earning their keep by demonstrating mind tricks, and exhibiting their traditional cultural products to make a living.
Caption: A Photo of traditional dances
My imagination kept going deeper and deeper as another picture framed in my mind in which I watched the song performance in the darkness. Yeah, I know, sometimes my mind exceeds my natural limits.
The song expresses the beauty of springtime folk dances, mumming. The dance takes place in a shape of concentric circles. CIRCLES! Try to imagine: A huge tree is surrounded by people connect themselves spiritually to the beauty of nature and having certain movements. The shape of a circle is a mutual sign of unity and togetherness found in almost all civilizations.
Do you know where the concept of circle, heritage, mysticism, and religion was mentioned? The answer is “The Sufis” by Idries Shah, the book Loreena mentioned in the intro of “The Mask and Mirror” (1994)! We are on the right track of Loreena’s journey. AND, Loreena always connects herself with her Celtic roots; she appreciates the concept of TREE! You can trace that Loreena keeps reframing her own beliefs. TREE = “Bonny Portmore” from “The Visit” (1991), and “Ce He Milse Le Ulaingt / The Two Trees” from “The Mask and Mirror” (1994).
Next is “Skellig”! The first time I listened to “Skellig”, I was amazed by the melodies of strings and keys accompanied by the wonderful and brilliant vocals work. I likened the mood of this track too many things in my life. The track is very gentle and deeply touching as are the lyrics which also show true feelings of repentance, purity and mystical discourse.
Sometimes, I feel that I am in a bad need to escape my illness, psychological wounds, negativity and go on spiritual journeys. I am connected spiritually to stories about saints and monks besides escaping to poetry and history. My mind recalled one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese”
“In love, when love the lowest: meanest creatures
who love God, God aspects while loving so.
And what I feel, across the inferior features
Of what I am, doth flash itself, and show
How that great work of Love enhances Nature’s”
Skellig is a kind of rock formations located about 5 miles off the southwestern coast of Ireland. The most famous Skellig as the Great Skellig! It carries restored remains of a 6th-century monastic settlement, there is also a huge church and huge lighthouse which was used for trading, the main source of living for the monks.
I recalled the heritage of the monks in the desert who escaped away from torture and agony isolated in the deserts! I lived a part of my life near a Catholic Cathedral, St. Fatima Cathedral. There was a school where nuns work as teachers, every morning you can watch those pure faces coming cross, like a breeze of serenity, besides my grand family home carries a mutual wall with a shrine of one of the Sufi sect leader, his soul is still wandering around, praying, calling us to repent!
I felt this feeling of escapism, working hard to save the intellectual works of the ancestors. There is beautiful serenity in detaching the tired soul away from the madness and illness of life, “Oh light the candle, John”! Candle, a weak light that breaks the darkness equals the light shines from the spiritual writings. Loreena also mentioned brotherhood! The brotherhood is an existed feature in Mysticism.
Caption: Irish Skellig
While preparing extra-curricular studies in order to return to postgraduate classes, a very famous book called “Revelations of the Divine Love” by Julian of Norwich fascinated me. One of my favorite quotes is, “These two desires of the Passion and the sickness I desired with a condition, saying thus: Lord, You know what I would – if it be Your will that I have it; and if it be not Your will, good Lord, be not displeased: for I will nothing but as You will.”
The nature of a man is the same; we are always facing unfathomable tests and breaking points! I am personally writing this while bleeding; simply because I am disappointed and lost every last glimpse of hope in life but still with the need to purify the soul from the blackness of sin, and the heaviness of guilt, appeared as a shining light, a moment of fear, security, and grace. I am the sinner who after losing faith every day stands before the symbol of sacrifice and salvation and catching his smile and his loving merciful eyes!
After all those thoughts I caught the meaning of “The Book of Secrets”, a journey we take part in; places could be different and time could be different, but it is a matter of steps, experiences, experiments, a fate we all face and have.
Last year, I came across a book called “Swaneh Fattah” (A Girl’s Thoughts) by renewed Palestinian Lebanese author Mai Zeyada. She expressed in one of the book’s chapters entitled, “Month of Roses Morals”, about the prayers of May dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The mood Zeyada so spiritually expressed in her writing reminded me “Skellig”. She described the serenity of the prayers, the peace that lives inside the walls of the cathedral, and scripted the speech of the priest about following the steps of the Virgin Mary.
Continuing with Loreena’s “The Book of Secrets” journey and “Marco Polo”! The track, which is inspired by the questionably unfamiliar Marco Polo’s description of the countries, he visited.
Marco Polo was an Italian merchant and traveler who spent 28 years of his life traveling from Italy to Asia and discovered the wonders of Asian kingdoms such as Mongolia, China, Palestine, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. He solely traveled in order to taste the adventure and to forget his failure of attracting the girl he loved.
“Marco Polo” – the track– is a Byzantium oriental instrumental song that includes the parallel existence of Eastern and Western instruments. From the earliest moments of the song, you can catch the sense of wondering, questioning, the smell of the deserts, the heat waves, the taste of spices, the paintings of the bellydancers and traditional dancing, and the sounds of the tribes and monkeys.
And now! The most charming and interesting song of the album: “The Highwayman”. “The Highwayman” is one of the most celebrated dramatic poems by Alfred Noyes. Loreena impressively sets a melodic pattern to the poem by adding samples such as the sound of horses, late-night touches. The heaviness of cellos with percussion drives your mind to imagine the story; the synths were added beautifully to enrich the mood of the song.
This is where a point of discussion comes up; Loreena masters dealing with poems and she is widely known for her dramatic soprano vocals, but in my point of view, she dealt perfectly with “The Highwayman” dramatically, poetically and musically. It is her best-performed literary piece, it is even better than “The Lady of Shallot”.She uses her dramatic narrative voice to paint a theatrical image of the events. She shifts between her different pitches, a soft charming one to reflect the story. For instance how she uttered the part started with:
“‘Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot!’ Had they heard it?
The horse-hoofs ringing clear;
‘Tlot-tlot, tlot-tlot,’ in the distance!
Were they deaf that they did not hear?”
Then she uses her calmer and more soothing vocal pitch, which is close to whispering to portrait said calmness and fear of the night. The other part that attracted my attention was the death of the highwayman:
“And back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high.
Blood-red were his spurs I’ the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat;
When they shot him down on the highway,
Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway,
with the bunch of lace at his throat.
Here, Loreena shows the ferocity and harsher side of her vocals to describe the death of the highwayman.
Moving on to a catchy and emotional instrumental work of strings, “La Serenissima”. “La Serenissima” is a calm marvelous interlude in the album especially since it comes after the epic “The Highwayman”, so “La Serenissima” can be seen as a welcome relief, a breather after the tension. It is warm.
After that comes “Night Ride Across the Caucasus.” To me, it is a charming melodic track with a traditional breeze. There is a mysterious sense of traveling, journeying, exploring, and magic. When I heard the intro of the song, I immediately imagined the historical silk-road, the mountains, lakes, seas, and the taste of the unique Asian civilizations.
Quoting a part from Leo Tolstoy’s “The Cossacks”:
“It was one of those wonderful evenings that occur only in the Caucasus. The sun had sunk behind the mountains but it was still
light. The evening glow had spread over a third of the sky, and against its brilliancy, the dull white immensity of the mountains
was sharply defined. The air was rarefied, motionless, and full of sound. The shadow of the mountains reached for several miles over
the steppe. The steppe, the opposite side of the river, and the roads were all deserted.”
You can trace the image portrayed by Tolstoy in the riffs of the song. Imagining the old tribes of travelers moving among high mountains, hills, deserts, long winding roads, cities and facing the dangers of storms and wars. It will give you a closer vibe for old traveling tribes.
For giving more visualization of the song I need to refer to “Wahit El Ghroub” into. Based on the successful “Wahit El Ghoroub” (Sunset Oasis) novel by the iconic BahaaTaher, the series scripted the process and danger of traveling from the city to the remote oasis, Siwa (which is located in Egypt).
A couple that consisted of a colonel and his Irish Egyptologist wife took the road to Siwa for work. Traveling from Ireland to Cairo in order to discover the mystery of Alexander the Great and diving into the magic of ancient Egypt, Catherine, the heroine, aiming to journey into the heart of the desert between wisdom and fear, symbolizes an opportunity of self-exploration “The Alchemist” Santiago treasured-journey.
We can trace a similarity between Cathrine, the Irish/Celtic, who searches for truth, history and serenity in the Egyptian deserts and the Celtic Loreena who is interlinking between history, religion, truth, mysticism, culture and her Celtic roots. Bare feet touch the fire sands of the desert, moving as the inner guide directs, no maps and no plans and no intention to reach a final destination! This is the core of “The Book of Secrets.” Now, we recognize the importance of the quotation Loreena uses on the cover!
“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” (Lao Tzu)
Finally comes, the epic and iconic, “Dante’s Prayer”!! Through the portrayal of emotive horror of people trapped in hell, Loreena McKennitt perfectly scripts a bridge between Dante’s “Inferno” and the horrors of the afterlife, the hardships of a divine journey, and the feelings of the broken, skin and burnt flesh. A truly extraordinary song!
Each and every note in the song is heavenly, cold shivers run down my back and brain while engaging in the song. There is such sensitive imploring, praying; the real and truthful feeling of prayer. It reminds me of apart from the bible, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…” (Matthew 6:13).
And another part from the Quran, “Our Lord, and lay not upon us a burden like that which You laid upon those before us. Our Lord, and burden us not with that which we have no ability to bear. And pardon us, and forgive us, and have mercy upon us. You are our protector, so give us victory over the disbelieving people.” (Al Baqarah 286).
Caption: Satan in the Inferno is trapped in the frozen central zone
in the Ninth Circle of Hell, Canto XXXIV (Gustave Doré)
Now, let’s finalize “The Book of Secrets” shall we?. As I mentioned, it was not an easy experience for me to write about it, being so very sensitive! While writing this I am stuck in the dilemma my abilities of writing and my career. I couldn’t break the code, couldn’t find the clues of the album. The idea is not musical perfection or the ideological perception of the album.
What’s the Book of Secrets?
Personally, I believe that The Book of Secrets is the record of the trapped and un-narrated stories of ancient times. We have records for what happened in the past, but there are a lot of hidden narratives we lost, and by losing them, we lost a vital part of the truth, forming the full image. What is left are some scattered pieces and scattered stories of an infinite puzzle!
The past is an experience, which everyone tries to understand according to his or her background, beliefs, emotions, and personal experience. There is not one exact or one correct interpretation for the past; there is no final answer for the hidden truth of those secrets.
The secret is you! Your past, your present, your inner self. And how to raise yourself spiritually! It is your own story.
Next part: “An Ancient Muse”