Loreena McKennitt,
The Mask and Mirror
(Quinlan Road/Warner Brothers, 1994)

The Mask and Mirror, Loreena McKennitt's followup to her popular CD The Visit, goes in a completely different direction than she has gone before. The music in this collection has a Middle Eastern flavor and McKennitt uses instruments appropriate to the music, such as an oud (a sort of lute used in southwest Asia and northern Africa), tamboura (an Asian instrument used to produce a droning accompaniment), electric sitar (they make electric sitars?!), bouzouki (a Greek instrument) and balalaika (a Russian stringed instrument).

The first track, "The Mystic's Dream," opens with a plaintive wordless singing that seems to evoke a Muslim call to prayer, though later the tempo picks up and McKennitt sings about home and finding one's way there.

This is followed by "The Bonny Swans," a traditional Irish tune in which a girl is drowned by her jealous elder sister. She is reincarnated first as a swan and then as a magical harp. The music, fitting the theme, is moody and dark.

The third offering, "The Dark Night of the Soul," is a poem written in the 15th century by St. John of the Cross. While it actually concerns the mystic's relationship with his god, it makes a beautiful love song, too.

Next up is "Marrakesh Night Market." The chorus of this lively piece is the cry of a street merchant. Or is it? In "Full Circle," two very different calls to prayer are represented. Muslims chant prayers at dawn as the sun rises over the desert. Elsewhere, leaving their tracks in the new snow, robed monks walk to morning services.

"Santiago" is a traditional Spanish piece arranged and adapted by McKennitt. The lively music is accompanied by McKennitt's wordless vocals. "Ce' he' mise le ulaingt?" returns to McKennitt's tradition of setting the poetry of others to music. In this case, it is William Butler Yeats' poem "The Two Trees" that provides the lyrics. The pipe introduction was composed and performed by Patrick Hutchison.

Borrowing from Shakespeare, the final track is "Prospero's Speech," which McKennitt's notes indicate is presented with the air of the actor removing his mask. The song is delivered in McKennitt's ethereal voice with minimal accompaniment.

If this collection has an overall theme, it would be the search for one's own god. McKennitt notes in her introduction that her influences for this CD included the history of 15th century Spain in which Judaism, Islam and Christianity all blended and influenced one another, the Sufis of Egypt, Celtic tree imagery and the Gnostic Gospels, among others. Many of the songs seem to deal with the search for spirituality, from the night lanterns of "The Mystic's Dream" to the poetry of "The Dark Night of the Soul" and the images of Muslims and monks praying in "Full Circle."

McKennitt has provided in her liner notes entries from her journal to give the listener an idea of where she found the inspiration for each piece. These are fascinating glimpses into the artist's world and as much to be treasured as the music itself.

The Mask and Mirror shows us a new facet of McKennitt's artistry. It is one worth exploring.

[ by Laurie Thayer ]

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