I’ve been entranced recently by Starflowers, a haunting album by the Norwegian/Finnish singer Sinikka Langeland, with extraordinary accompaniment from Scandinavian jazz musicians such as Arve Henriksen, Trygve Seim and Anders Jormin.
This is the extensive review of the album at All About Jazz:
ECM has always looked for new ways to interpret traditional music from different cultures. As far back as 1973, saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s Triptykon used a traditional Norwegian folk song as the starting point for open-ended improvisation.
Born to a Norwegian father and Finnish mother, singer Sinikka Langeland is in many ways Williamson’s Northern European counterpart. Her approach has gradually evolved towards original music that explores the dichotomy of her dual-lineage through more archaic forms, and the freedom of open-minded interpretation. Starflowers, her ECM debut, combines her cross-cultural, cross-temporal writing with the poetry of Hans Børli. Langeland has recruited, with the additional advice of label owner/producer Manfred Eicher, a group of Scandinavian/Finnish artists commonly associated with jazz, but who have all proven themselves capable of meshing in any context.
Langeland also plays the kantele, a 39-string Finnish table harp. It’s a lush yet fragile sound that defines much of Starflowers as does her voice, which possesses strength equally capable of subtly delicacy.
Starflowers reveals its breadth gradually. Opening gently, with only Langeland’s kantele and voice, it establishes a flexible time sense that’s long been a powerful interpretive device in solo performance, with Langeland stretching and compressing time as she pleases. The ensemble magic unfolds on ‘Den lille fløyten’, with trumpeter Arve Henriksen’s shakuhachi-like trumpet, Trygve Seim’s resonant tenor, Anders Jormin’s robust bass and Markku Ounaskari textural percussion working naturally in similarly elastic time. Slowly they move towards a firmer pulse for a hauntingly beautiful solo section, with Henriksen and Seim simpatico at the most subliminal of levels.
Langeland creates narrative continuity throughout the set by using the same theme on the melancholy kantele/bass/percussion trios of ‘Søl'” and ‘Støv’, the former featuring Jormin’s pizzicato, the latter his arco. ‘Støv’ leads into ‘Stjernestund’, which begins with a percussion solo that’s all color, ultimately returning to Langeland’s theme from ‘Sølv’ and ‘Støv’ as a vocal interpretation of one of Børli’s darkest yet most evocative poems.
There are moments when the ensemble approaches greater abstraction. ‘Elghjertet’ begins in darkness, with Langeland’s recitation supported by Seim and Henriksen, who continue to transform their instruments in unexpected ways. A kantele pulse finally emerges, but the approach remains free, even as the others begin to coalesce around it.
The album closes with the expansive ‘Hard du lyttet til elvene om natta’, which melds initial melancholy with a finale of greater optimism. It’s the perfect ending to an album that, in its allegiance to both modernity and antiquity, is one of ECM’s most appealing explorations of seemingly disparate concepts that ultimately feel completely at home with each other.
Track listing: Høstnatt på Fjellskogen; Den lillle fløyten; Sølv; Treet som vekser opp-ned; Salstein; Sus i myrull; Støv; Stjernestund; Langt innpå skoga; Det er ei slik natt; Vindtreet; Elghjertet; Har du lyttet til elvene om natta?
Personnel: Sinikka Langeland: vocal, kantele; Arve Henriksen: trumpet; Trygve Seim: tenor and soprano saxophones; Anders Jormin: double-bass; Markku Ounaskari: percussion.
This from Sinnika’s website:
Born in 1961 to a Norwegian father and a Finnish mother from Karelia, Langeland was given a Finnish name – Sinikka – and felt the pull of two nationalities and cultures from the outset.
After an early education in classical music she began to look at contemporary folk music and the singer/songwriter genre, but this was soon supplanted by an interest in older forms, intensifying as her research continued and underlined by a wish to “create an original music rooted in my own area, taking account of local possibilities and looking back into history to find out more.” She emphasizes that her particular musical journey has “always been about searching. I love folksong but I’m not exclusively a traditional folk singer. There were always influences coming from other places, too.” These included the local jazz club where, around 1980, she heard singer Radka Toneff, saxophonist Jan Garbarek and many other home grown improvisers. Although not yet putting definitions on her own music she identified with the “sense of space and nature and timelessness” reverberating in Garbarek’s sound in particular.
At 20 she switched from guitar to kantele, the Finnish table harp. She plays the 39-string concert kantele, with its five-octave range. “At first it was just an experiment – I thought it would be fun to have a Finnish instrument for one or two songs. But I became completely fascinated by it.” Meanwhile she was expanding her repertoire to include rune songs, incantations, old melodies from Finland and Karelia, as well as little known medieval ballads and religious folk songs.
Her work has flowed in several streams concurrently. She gives, for instance, solo performances with voice and kantele, and she gives duo concerts in churches, together with organist Kåre Nordstoga, in which old folk songs and Easter hymns are juxtaposed with J.S. Bach’s transformations of the same sources. And, since the early 1990s, she has been working – and recording – with jazz musicians as part of her ensembles.
Swedish bassist Anders Jormin has been a regular associate for more than a dozen years, joining her for the first time on the recording Har du lyttet til elvene om natta? (Grappa, 1995). And recently Sinnika has been playing regularly with drummer Markku Ounaskari, a mainstay of the Finnish jazz scene, who also makes his ECM debut here.
“One of the central issues of working with jazz musicians as opposed to traditional folk musicians is the different feeling for time. The pulsations of the old folk music, the organic, breathing, asymmetric rhythms that we have in the polskas are quite different from modern popular music which is nearly all in 2 or 4. So a lot of adjustment is necessary. Anders Jormin is very aware of this, and Markku Ounaskari is coming closer and closer to the true pulsations of the polskas, remarkably close for a jazz player. But at the same time I want to allow myself to be influenced by his way of hearing and feeling the music.”
On her last Norwegian-released album Runoja (Heilo Records) Langeland was joined by trumpeter Arve Henriksen. His services are retained, at Manfred Eicher’s urging, on Starflowers, the producer also bringing saxophonist Trygve Seim into the picture. Henriksen and Seim play together magnificently – as they have done on recordings including Seim’s Different Rivers, The Source and Other Cikadas and Sangam and the whole recording opens out to embrace much ‘jazz’ interaction inside the context of the songs. Trygve’s interest in the microtones of Arab music (Seim has been commuting between Oslo and Cairo lately) overlaps intriguingly with the use of microtones of the old Scandinavian music and makes us feel, once again, the interconnectedness of music from different places.
Of the album as a whole, Sinikka says, “I had a very clear plan of the structure I wanted and (producer) Manfred Eicher could go in and…refurnish it. Some of the pieces on the disc I have been playing for a long time and I was very happy to have Manfred help me see and hear them in a new way.”
All lyrics on the album are from the poetry of Hans Børli, a fascinating figure who came to the wider attention of the Norwegian public late in life. He lived as a woodcutter, writing his poetry by night, and his verse is alive with his experiences of the Norwegian forests. In a series of books, beginning in 1945, he wrote more than 1,100 poems. (Starflowers is also the title of a Børli poem.)
Sinikka Langeland championed Børli’s work for many years and it was in part due to her singing of his texts that the poet’s work was finally published in English. (In the introduction to the book We Own The Forests, published by Norvik Press, Norwich, in 2005, translator Louis Muinzer credits Sinikka’s influence). Børli, sometimes compared to Whitman and Thoreau, was a more authentic man-of-the-woods than either of those writers, while his symbols and images reach back to the roots of myth. Sinikka Langeland’s moving performance conveys the sense of wonder that’s alive in Børli’s verse.
English translations of the tracks on Starflowers:
Autumn Night in the Mountain Woods ( Hostnatt pa Fjeliskogen)
A dark humming of
across each moor,
softly swinging sprigs of pine.
The earth seems to climb and climb,
lifting into the sky.
Then suddenly there’s calm. As when
the elevator halts
somewhere on the higher floors and
you take instinctively a backward step
to keep your balance.
Everything sinks away in
an ear-splitting silence.
It smells of burned-out candle in the darkness.
Are we already there?
Shall I climb out into the starlight
Only with a heart in my breast,
a restless heart
heavy with dark blood.
The Little Flute ( Den lille fløyten)
You mend your instrument.
give it more and better strings,
a deeper ring –
but the little flute…
The little bone flute
till the bows are lowered
till the trumpets are silent
and the light goes out on the podium
it makes lonely music in the darkness by the backdoor.
A naked tone
as a bird-bone
in the bog wind.
There is No One playing.
The little bone flute.
The Tree That Grows Upside Down (Treet som vekser opp-ned)
The dream is a tree
that grows upside down:
Its roots fastened in the sky,
delicate root-hairs suck
from the mouldy darkness between the stars,
while its crown spreads out its branches as
a resting place for the birds
in the boundless spaces of the human heart
Rock Salt ( Saltstein)
My heart is as old as the earth.
And it knows something. It knows something
from the time before all words.
It is silent. Rugged and worn like
the rock salt by the cattle-yard gate:
A rough tenderness
scraped over it,
again and again.
A hunger, a craving for salt,
there in a kingdom of too-sweet grass.
Whispers in the Cotton Grass (Sus i myrull)
Life isn’t always
a breathless footrace with death.
Life isn’t just
ten thousand plodding steps
towards petty goals.
No, life is rich enough
to be just whispers in the cotton grass…
Life is rich enough
to forget the hours and bread
But all these busy people –
with pay packets and wristwatches
and dining rooms of blond birch…?
They are so stingy with the minutes.
The cry from their hearts is drowned
in the noise of pistons and steel.
But cotton grass whispers in the south wind
the simple song
that their hearts remember on factory floors.
And lonely birds
sail in the sun,
sail in the sun and shriek…
A Moment of Stars ( Stjernestund)
The starlight smells
of new-fallen snow. I sit
with black bog-earth on my boots,
sit beneath singing spruces
and hear my heart translate for me
the wordless speech of the silence:
your coming evening.
The real life
awaits you in the west
behind all sunsets,
a happy homecoming to the life before your birth.
You must simply
die your way through
an earth-drawn human life first”.
It Is One of Those Nights ( Det er ei slik natt)
It is one of those nights
when the mist rests white above the brook beds
and the wind talks with rain-swept fields
Myself, I walk through the silence
and drag my life after me with
a hoarse gravelly sound. The signpost
with withered thistles around its base
also knows no way.
It is one of those nights
when loneliness stands with its back turned to everything
and its face frozen fast in the western sky.
The Moose Heart ( Elghjertet)
He cut the heart out from
the hot and steaming cavity
and threw it indifferently in the heather.
came slanting through the grey air
and settled silently, melted
against the reeking redness.
But before we’d cut the carcass up,
the heart was snow-covered.
Just a little hump in the whiteness.
And when we set off homewards
with big wet sacks
that scratched against green branches,
we forgot the moose heart…
Have You Listened to the Rivers in the Night? ( Har du lyttet til elvene om natta?)
Have you listened to the rivers in the night?
They speak of other things.
They send no laughter trickling over their sand bars,
hum no song about
girls’ brown bodies
that glide outward at the bathing place
or wide meadows with their curlew-cries
or the ferryman who looks at the clouds
as he rows.
They speak of other things.
Things that are homeless in the day,
things that are Never and without words.
If you listen long to the rivers in the night,
it is at last as if your soul
is mysteriously remembering its future.