Spells and Charms from Ancient Times (Folk / Contemporary)

The charming ensembles CAMERATA VARIABILE BASEL (Switzerland) and PUTNI (Latvia) invite you to an archaic sound ritual – an extensive work by Swiss composer HELENA WINKELMAN, based on both Latvian and Swiss ancient folk texts. Eight strong and pure women voices, medieval Swiss folk instruments, various percussions, elements of Swiss folk dance, jazz, contemporary music and Latvian a cappella songs are organically intertwined in the glorious flow of images and moods.

Music by: Helena Winkelman, Pēteris Vasks, Valts Pūce, Mārtiņš Aldiņš
Performed by: CAMERATA VARIABILE BASEL (contrabass, hackbrett, violin, violoncello, clarinet, cornetto, animal horns) and PUTNI (voice, percussion, kokle)

Composer's note

The entire project was initiated when Antra Dreģe gave me old Latvian spells and asked if I could imagine putting them into music. I was fascinated by them and subsequently tried finding similar things in Switzerland – which was much harder because the old Swiss folklore is almost completely lost.

Still, after searching a bit it was possible to juxtapose texts from both countries. I felt from the beginning, that the music had to move into a very archaic direction – I had to find the means to make it ritualistic, dramatic, simple and strong.

So I chose old Swiss folk instruments – like the hackbrett, the contrabass, the violin and the clarinet. The Cornetto part can also be played by a second clarinet – but this medieval instrument makes a fine bridge between the voices and the strings. Also in some places of the score animal horns (cow, sheep) come in and then there is a frame drum, rattles, a whip and another particular medieval rhythm - instrument that doesn’t even have an English name. Generally the writing is quite demanding for the voices – with extreme registers, effects, changing meters and quite some microtones.

The character of thirteen pieces is very diverse to make a colorful program in combination with traditional instrumental Swiss folk dances and Latvian a cappella songs. Some of the parts are very atmospheric like La sera da bial aura (In the evening when the weather is beautiful) or Nachtwächterruf (Call of the guardian at night). Others like Šam bij' vārdi, Ugurči ārā or Vakarā guldamās are ritualistic with a repetitive build – up that reminds one of minimalism. There are ballads like En alte Ma (An old man) or prayers like Lād man' ļaudis – and last but not least there are very virtuosic, rhythmical pieces like Destiny (based on a Latvian text) or Du lustige Filifausel (a Swiss mockery song).

I was very happy with the outcome of our first small tour in Switzerland in 2013 and it was marvellous to work together with PUTNI who were extremely well prepared, fast, versatile and very kind in all situations.
"... Helena Winkelman is one of the rare talents that managed to find her own voice as a composer as well as an instrumentalist... chamber music is of great importance to her. Apart from knowing the standard repertoire she also premiered countless new works and she meets traditional swiss folk music with an open heart. As a composer she makes good use of her experience in these fields: She is respectful towards the interprets and their instruments and she is a fine craftsman. Different stilistic influences contributed to her compositoric language. With a  very subtle imagination of sound and a refined sense for musical evolutions in time she develops works that emanate warmth and feel as if they came from nature itself. "


Joy of life and belief in spirits. This work is partially based on ancient prayers and sayings for protection that over centuries have been passed down from generation to generation. Alpine blessings, calls of the sentinel at dawn and bans of the dead are examples. Between the songs and chants, Swiss composer Helena Winkelman inserted some traditional instrumental dances. Her score unites folklore, Jazz and new music under a great arc full of color and contrasts. With a twinkle in her eye she summons spirits and demons and then dissolves the spooky atmosphere with a joyful waltz or schottisch. But the true stars were the singers from Riga with their clear, precisely controlled voices..... The group is at home as well in traditional styles as in the more experimental realm. Quiet, touching a cappella Latvian wedding song and improvisations of Kokle (Ilona Haņina) and Hackbrett (Florin Grüter) were the highlight of this evening. /Alfred Ziltener, BZ, 21.08. 2013/

Latvian mythology

Latvian nation has an extremely rich folklore heritage. It includes folk songs (both in a poetry and music form), fairy tales, legends, stories, anecdotes, riddles, proverbs, sayings etc.

Lat­vian folksongs or Dainas are lit­tle qua­trains of an­cient Lat­vian wis­dom cap­tured in a song. Cre­ated over a 1000 years ago, Dainas were a part of cel­e­bra­tions, daily work, re­flec­tions on life pre­served in an oral form. There are more than 1.2 mil­lion Dainas and the col­lec­tion of the folksongs with 268,815 leaflets under the name The Cab­i­net of Folk songs is in­scribed in the UN­ESCO Mem­ory of the World Program.

The Latvian mythology also includes magic words as healing formulas, spells, curses, prayers, words of protection and other texts with a magical meaning. Folk medicine describes diseases and their treatment, information about herbal teas and their use. Some of these texts are used in the Winkelman's work, too.

Camerata Variabile Basel

It is not a piano trio, not a string quartet, not a wind quintet – the CAMERATA VARIABILE BASEL is everything in unification. The group is made of the musicians who all pursue international careers as soloists but at the same time are passionate about chamber music.

A special quality of the CAMERATA VARIABILE is the choosing a specific theme for every season such as The Art of Love, Consciousness, Storm, Cosmos, Le Contrat Social or Homo Ludens and place every program in a larger context. Since the beginning the group was searching for an inspiring balance between new and old music to provide their audience with a maximum of context and an introduction to the new works that enables even those listeners who aren’t considering themselves to be experts in contemporary music to enjoy the challenges of new sounds and concepts.
    Their current artistic leader, Swiss violinist and composer Helena Winkelman therefore is constantly on the outlook for promising young composers – the ensemble commissions new works for every new season – and she also researches rarely played chamber works to enlarge the repertoire.


      The vocal group PUTNI (BIRDS) was established in 1993 in Riga by eight singers from the leading professional choirs in Latvia. The women's vocal ensemble is revered for their beautiful tone and adventurous programming and has received wide acclaim for their concerts in Latvia, Europe, Australia, Japan and the United States.

      The group has won numerous prizes including the Grand Prix in five international competitions. Their programming weaves together traditional Latvian music, new compositions by Latvian and foreign composers, music of classical and early music composers, and elements of jazz and rock music. Since its founding, group have premiered over 100 new pieces by Latvian and foreign composers and recorded seven CDs.