When I phoned the Royal Northern College of Music to book tickets they asked me, ‘where would you like to be seated – on the balcony or in the pool?’ There’s a first time for everything, and this was the first concert I’ve attended in a swimming pool.
The concert – which was undoubtedly one of the most memorable and pleasurable that I’ve ever attended – brought together the haunting sounds of Oslo’s Trio Mediaeval’s female voices with Arve Henriksen’s hushed trumpet and live electronics to perform music both ancient and modern.
The swimming pool was the Victoria Baths, a restored Edwardian ‘water palace’ in in Ardwick, Manchester. Before the concert Toby Smith, RNCM’s director of performance and programming, had said that the concert was part of an ongoing series which aims to ‘create an immersive experience for the audience’. There was, thankfully, no water in the pool, but the baths proved to be a perfect venue for the kind of music being played, with acoustics akin to that of a cathedral.
Which was perfect, because Trio Mediaeval’s repertoire features mediaeval devotional music from across Europe, as well as traditional Nordic ballads and songs, and contemporary works written for the ensemble: precisely the musical mix in this concert. Founded in 1997, Trio Mediaeval have built a passsionate following for their unique repertoire that stems from a deep-rooted knowledge and continuous reinterpretation of the ancient music of religious orders and the folk music of the Nordic lands.
‘Singing doesn’t get more unnervingly beautiful’, wrote Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle, when Trio Mediaeval debuted in San Francisco. He added, ‘To hear the group’s note-perfect counterpoint – as pristine and inviting as clean, white linens – is to be astonished at what the human voice is capable of’. Certainly, listening to the astonishingly beautiful and spine-tingling sounds that the four musicians conjured last night was an exquisite pleasure.
It is almost impossible to convey the intense sensual experience of this collaboration between Trio Mediaeval and Norwegian trumpet player and electronics wizard Arve Henriksen. It was an unforgettable, spine-tingling performance. Obviously similar to saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s collaborations with the Hilliard Ensemble, the soundscape created by this partnership has a different feel: a consequence of the female harmonies, the electronic washes and pulses, and the way in which Henriksen extracts all kinds of sounds and textures from the trumpet.
Henriksen, switching between conventional and pocket trumpet, is unique in terms of the sounds he can coax from his instrument: at times warm and mellow, at others querulous, scratchy, percussive or breathy like a Japanese shakuhachi. Just as remarkable is his ability to extract from his laptop ambient washes of electronic sound that perfectly complemented the Trio’s vocalisations. For their part, too, Trio Mediaeval didn’t just sing – they used hand-chimes and a hardanger fiddle to add delicate variations to the soundscape. One of the high points came as a passage of electronic improvisation and Sami yoik or throat singing by Henriksen led into the as tonishingly violent Norwegian folk song ‘Till, Till Tove’. Positioned at three corners of the pool, the Trio evoked a type of traditional Norwegian singing known as lokk or lalling – short motifs sung to call home cattle at night on mountain farms, and an effective means of communication over long distances – as Henriksen supplied a deep and urgent electronic pulse.
The collaboration between Trio Mediaeval and Arve Henriksen started in 2007 at the Bergen International Festival where the Trio were artists in residence, and since then they have performed together on several occasions. In the programme notes, the Trio write that:
The presentation of sacred mediaeval music around the world today differs extensively from its original context: performers bring music from around 1000 years ago alive in the present — an act of simultaneous preservation and re-creation. We completely re-contextualize the music: none of it was written to be a part of a concert programme or a recording, and nor was it intended to be performed to an audience (as we understand the term today). Performers of today have completely different backgrounds, Iifestyles and agendas from the original singers and the purpose of performing the music diverges from the mediaeval model on several central points. Today we presume that the men and women who were involved with sacred vocal monophony and polyphony in its original context were convinced of their Christian beliefs and connected to religious establishments. Modern mediaeval music performers and their audience are, unlike our mediaeval forbears, not necessarily religious: in the present anyone can perform sacred mediaeval music whether they are religious or not. We are free from obligations towards a certain system, and there are probably as many individual perspectives on spirituality as there are performers. Likewise, today’s listeners are free to relate to and connect with spirituality in whatever way feels comfortable to them.
As well as sacred music of the 12th and 13th centuries from England and Italy, the programme was complemented by Swedish and Norwegian folk songs. Several displayed a characteristic that makes Norwegian vocal folk music distinctive – the tradition of singing without words, a style known as tulling, sulling or tralling in which a sequence of consonants is invented or improvised by the singer. A typical ‘tralling’ sequence might be tra di da di dadi damm di dadndida. This is very similar to the Scottish and Irish tradition known as ‘mouth music’.
One of the traditional songs from Norway was ‘Sven Svane’:
Svend Svane went out on the road one day
and met a wanderer upon his way.
Listen, wanderer, to these questions I ask,
and consider if you might answer them.
What is it that’s rounder than the roundest wheel
and who sings the brightest of all creatures?
What is it that’s whiter than the swan,
and who cries louder than the crane?
The heavens are rounder than the roundest wheel
and the angel sings brightest of all creatures.
The moon is whiter than the swan
and the thunder cries louder than the crane.
Arve Henriksen, too, has been inspired by Norwegian folk music, as well as pursuing explorations in electronics, different treatments of the trumpet, and developing his singing. He often plays trumpet without a mouthpiece, and uses electronics as a context for the very delicate sounds he coaxes from the horn. Arve has said of these explorations:
An interest in sound-making was there from the beginning of my work with the trumpet. I have spent many hours on developing a warm sound, for instance, but not only that. In my opinion, the trumpet has vast potential for tone and sound variations that we still have not heard. At one point, I think it was in 1988, Nils Petter Molvær lent me a cassette of shakuhachi flute playing. Then things changed.
Henriksen began collecting recordings of Japanese music, with koto, biwa, shakuhachi and other instruments: ‘I let the music ‘ring’ and develop in my head. I was astonished by the sound of this flute…’. The shakuhachi’s roots in the tradition of Zen Buddhism fascinated the trumpeter, as did its meditative and minimalistic expressive quality.
His first solo CD Sakuteiki (2001) reflected this direction, taking its title from an 11th century Japanese treatise on garden planning. Recorded in various churches selected for their acoustical properties, the album had a sparse, acoustic and spacious feel. Henriksen succeeded in extracting a distinctive shakuhachi sound from his trumpet.
His next CD, Chiaroscuro (2004) saw him exploring the same ethereal sounscapes, accompanied by sampling artist Jan Bang. On his third album, Strjon (2007) shards of Henriksen’s trumpet were overlaid by elegant synthesised sounds. So far, there has been no recorded documentation of the collaboration with Trio Mediaeval, apart from delicate samples from the Trio on his most recent CD, Cartography, most notably on the track ‘Recording Angel’ which they performed last night.
At the end of last night’s performance, the four performers returned to the stage to rapturous applause, and, in an extraordinary encore, Arve Henriksen, trumpet in one hand, conducted the audience to create a full-voiced choir.
What an evening: shivers down the spine, hairs on the back of the neck stuff!
- Guardian review of London show
- Arve Henriksen website
- Trio Mediaeval website
- Victoria Baths website
- Officium Novum in St David’s cathedral
- Garbarek and the Hilliard in Gloucester Cathedral