Melding Faraway Times and Places Into Song

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The music of Loreena McKennitt always holds the promise of travel. But it isn't just the sights and sounds one might experience while, say, traveling through Italy, Greece, and Turkey. Her music swoops into time travel and bends into territory some might call philosophical travel.

The Canadian songstress journeys on many levels, and her latest recording, "Book of Secrets," released yesterday, is a continuation of what she sees as a document of her own searching and self-development.

Ms. McKennitt is known for her Celtic-inspired world music and lovely, ethereal vocals. But embedded in her work are themes that could be called classical, academic, or "thinking-person" themes. She might set a Byron poem to music, or expound on a medieval myth, or muse about the life of an Irish monk in the 7th century.

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"Book of Secrets" is McKennitt's seventh album. Her last two records, "The Visit" (1992) and "The Mask and Mirror" (1994), went gold in the United States (selling over 500,000 copies).

This new record, produced by McKennitt, follows in the footsteps of its predecessors in that it's a collection of songs hinged on historical reference, inspired by travel, and propelled by McKennitt's personal search.

"If one begins with the big questions of 'Who am I?' and 'Why am I here?,' the understanding of the roads back in history seem as important as the ones forward," McKennitt says.

Take the song "Marco Polo." The piece was conceived with the exotic voyages of the 13th-century Venetian merchant in mind. McKennitt incorporated a Sufi melody into her own melody that evokes the tales of the East.

"The Highwayman" is a musical setting of the narrative poem by poet Alfred Noyes. "Dante's Prayer" resulted from McKennitt's trans-Siberian trip when she read Dante's "The Divine Comedy."

Much of McKennitt's evolution as an artist can be traced back to her research on the Celts. In 1991, she went on an impromptu trip to Venice to see an international exhibit of Celtic artifacts. It became a pivotal moment in her life.

Like many people, McKennitt had thought the Celts were people who came from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany. At the exhibit, she saw artifacts from far corners of the world. "Many of the artifacts that had been in the Ukraine, Hungary, Lithuania, and Czechoslovakia had never been seen before, and because those countries were opening up, the West for the first time could see the pieces."

That history lesson immediately clicked. "It was like a huge door had opened up for me creatively and as a source of inspiration," McKennitt says. "So I've used that pan-Celtic history as a creative springboard."

What followed were "The Visit" and "The Mask and Mirror," which fused international sounds with Celtic-music sensibility. All the while, McKennitt was increasingly weaving in her own material with classic works and poetic voices she had traditionally included.

One gets the feeling that McKennitt has an insatiable curiosity. During a telephone interview, she is reflective about many things, commenting on not just music but also issues of humanity - from spirituality to urban design to civic duty to information overload. "We're infatuated with information, infatuated by data, and leaving ourselves no time and very few circumstances to analyze information and debate things that ultimately would lead one to a state of some kind of enlightenment and wisdom."

As an artist, McKennitt says that through the years she has tried to avoid having an agenda, explaining that her work serves as a vehicle for her exploration, and people's enjoyment of the recordings or "documents" is a "very wonderful" byproduct.

"I've used my career in music, which is really my passion and my love, as a vehicle to explore history themes and subjects that are of great interest in me." she says. "I feel extraordinarily lucky that I've been able to marry the vehicle of my own self-development with a vehicle that can actually support me physically."

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