Yet another gem emerged from the cornucopia of ECM Records last month – The half-finished heaven, the fourth album that Sinikka Langeland, the kantele player, singer and composer from Norway has recorded for Manfred Eicher’s label.
It’s a gorgeous record from an artist I first encountered in 2006, when she released her first ECM recording, Starflowers. Like that album – and The Land That is Not that followed it – The half-finished heaven is an inspiring mix of Norwegian folk, jazz and poetry.
Each album has featured Langeland’s kantele and her compositions at the heart of an ensemble of jazz musicians such as trumpeter Arve Henriksen, saxophonist Trygve Seim, drummer Markku Ounaskari and bassist Anders Jormin. Each collection has centred on Langeland’s arrangements of poetry – by Hans Børli on Starflowers, Edith Södergran on The Land That is Not, and Tomas Tranströmer on this latest set. This time, though, there are fewer vocals, and Henriksen has been replaced by viola player Lars Anders Tomter, one of Norway’s most distinguished classical soloists, transforming the sound with what John Fordham, in his Guardian review, called ‘a pulsating viola rapture’.
On The half-finished heaven Sinikka’s kantele is less to the fore, positioned more seamlessly within the album’s flowing and graceful ensemble playing. Each of the musicians here – Lars Anders Tomter, Markku Ounaskari and Trygve Seim – has previously played with Sinikka in variety of contexts. But bringing them together on this recording involved ‘testing out new ways of music-making’ – most obviously in the case of classical viola player Lars Anders Tomter who has played Bach and folk songs with Sinikka for years (he played on another ECM album, Maria’s Song). But he was new to the freer approach of jazz improvisation. Conversely, according to the ECM background notes, percussionist Markku Ounaskari, a resourceful improviser, was challenged by the more ‘classically’-structured pieces. ‘It was a playful process, putting our hearts into new experiments.’
Sinikka’s compositions – and the poems she selects for her collections – often focus on our place in the natural world (see for instance the fine poems of Hans Børli set to music on Starflowers), and perhaps never more clearly than on this new album. Several of the wordless group improvisations take their inspiration from nature – the forests, lakes and animals of the Finnskogen (‘Forest of the Finns’) region of Norway where she was born. The album opens with ‘Hare rune’ on which Markku Ounaskari muffled drum-beat seems to evoke the purposeful movement of an animal through deep snow, while on ‘Hymn to the fly’ kantele and viola replicate the actions of fly leg-rubbing while the saxophone suggests the buzzing of its wings.
On The half-finished heaven, Langeland has said that she chose to develop music expressing ‘the mystery and joy of everyday encounters with animals in the forest’, while for three pieces she sets texts of Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, which in their own way speak of the transformative power of nature. Her vocal on ‘The Light Streams In’ is framed beautifully by Lars Anders Tomter’s yearning viola.
Outside the window, the long beast of spring
the transparent dragon of sunlight
rushes past like an endless
suburban train – we never got a glimpse of its head.
The shoreline villas shuffle sideways
they are proud as crabs.
The sun makes the statues blink.
The raging sea of fire out in space
is transformed to a caress.
The countdown has begun.
The sung poems reflect the changing seasons, while the music unfolds with the melodic and rhythmic suggestion of animal movements, arcing wings, broad landscapes and open skies. One of the most languid tracks is an early and previously unrecorded piece, ‘The White Burden’, newly arranged for viola and kantele.
The title track, an arrangement of another Tranströmer poem, ‘The Half-Finished Heaven’, is achingly beautiful, a perfect evocation of the poem’s life-affirming sense of the ‘window into the earth’ offered by nature, ‘a room for everyone’:
Despondency breaks off its course.
Anguish breaks off its course.
The vulture breaks off its flight.
The eager light streams out,
even the ghosts take a draught.
And our paintings see daylight,
our red beasts of the ice-age studios.
Everything begins to look around.
We walk in the sun in hundreds.
Each man is a half-open door
leading to a room for everyone.
The endless ground under us.
The water is shining among the trees.
The lake is a window into the earth.
Sinikka, who has promoted the work of other poets of the natural world on the earlier albums, says in ECM’s background notes that she came late to Tranströmer, reading his The Great Enigma in 2004 and the Collected Poems in 2005. As she prepared the music for The half-finished heaven in 2011, the news of Tranströmer’s Nobel Prize win broke. Langeland responds to ‘his painting of the big questions of humanity and nature with small brushes and his pointing to the life-spirit in everything, lifting up the mystery in normal things and everyday moments. His poems can be consoling, like religious parables…’
This is a wonderful album, blending classical, jazz and folk sensibilities to create music of great beauty. There are so many superb tracks it’s invidious to single out one or two, but ‘The Magical Bird’ or ‘The blue-tit’s spring song’ that ECM have chosen to showcase on their YouTube channel just cause me to melt.
Sinikka Langeland was born in 1961 in Finnskogen, the forest region of Norway settled by Finns in the 17th century, a group now afforded the status of a national minority in Norway. Through her music she has aimed to preserve the culture of her mother’s Finnish roots, not least by making her chosen instrument the kantele, the Finnish national instrument. Finnskogen is rich in myths, beautiful nature and wildlife, and this, combined with the presence of a group of people working actively to promote art and culture, contributed to her decision to settle there in 1992. The Finnish language is no longer alive in the area, but the old rune songs preserve a dialect and poetry that is rooted in an ancient shamanistic forest culture.
I posted my appreciation of Starflowers in 2008. Langeland’s first release on ECM, that album featured settings of poems by Hans Børli, a fascinating figure who only came to the attention of the Norwegian public late in life. He had lived as a woodcutter, writing verses by night that were alive with his experiences of the Norwegian forests. Five years later, Langeland came up with an equally-stunning sequel that employed the same jazz musicians, and once again blended folk melodies, poetry, and jazz improvisation.
The Land That Is Not took its title from a poem by Edith Södergran, the writer of Swedish heritage born in Raivola, near St Petersburg in 1892. With Arve Henriksen (trumpet), Trygve Seim (soprano and tenor saxophones), Anders Jormin (double-bass) and Markku Ounaskari (drums), the same line-up as on Starflowers performed compositions that each framed a lyric, in Swedish or Norwegian, sourced from the modernist poetry of Edith Södergran and Olav Håkonson Hauge.
For the album, Sinikka took as her inspirational starting point the poetry of Edith Södergran (1892-1923) and Olav Håkonson Hauge (1908-1994). Södergran now has the reputation of being a pioneer of modernist Swedish poetry, but in a brief life terminated by tuberculosis did not live to see her work recognised. ‘The Land That is Not’ was one of her last poems, a work of spiritual detachment, claiming its distance from the chaos of human conflict that she had experienced.
Born into a middle-class Finnish-Swedish family in the Finnish village Raivola in 1892, Södergran grew up in a milieu in which Finns, Swedes and Russians lived in close proximity. But the violence of World War I and the Russian Revolution swept through Raivola . Her home was burned down, and many of the inhabitants were dispersed after many generations of residence there. Her poems evoke a serene natural environment which became a place of war and bloodshed in 1918 during the mutual slaughter of the red and white guards in the aftermath of the Revolution. Södergran’s poems reflect her inner exile from the civilization that unleashed such wasteful violence and carnage
I long for the land that is not,
for I am weary of desiring all things that are.
The moon tells me in silver runes
about the land that is not.
The land where all our wishes are wondrously fulfilled,
the land where all our chains fall away,
the land where we cool our gashed foreheads
in the moon’s dew.
My life was a hot delusion.
But I have found one thing and one thing I have truly gained –
the path to the land that is not.
In the land that is not
my beloved walks with sparkling crown.
Who is my beloved? The night is dark
and the stars tremble in answer.
Who is my beloved?What is his name?
The heavens arch higher and higher,
and a human child drowns in endless mists
and knows no answer.
But a human child is nothing other than certainty.
And it stretches out its arms higher than all heavens.
And there comes an answer: I am the one you love and always shall love.
Edith Sodergran’s last years were spent amid the turmoil of the Russian Revolution and in desperate poverty in Raivola, where she died in 1923. The landscape around her home – a forest of maples, birches, elms and spruce with a lake below where she liked to sunbathe – she called her ‘garden’. In ‘The Big Garden’, a poem written in 1920 (not included on the album), she writes of herself and her fellow-artists that ‘naked we walk in shredded clothes …’:
If I had a big garden
I would invite all my brothers and sisters there.
Each one would bring a large treasure.
We own nothing, thus we could become one people.
We shall build bars around our garden
letting no sound from the world reach us.
Out of our silent garden
we shall bring the world a new life.
A Strip of Sea
There’s a strip of sea, gleaming grey
along the sky’s rim,
it has a deep-blue wall
that looks like land,
that’s where my longing rests
before it flies back home.
The UK publisher of Sodergran’s poetry, Bloodaxe Books, note on their web page:
When she died in poverty at 31, Edith Sodergran had been dismissed as a mad, megalomaniac aristocrat by most of her Finnish contemporaries. Today, she is regarded as Finland’s greatest modern poet. Her poems – written in Swedish – are intensely visionary, and have been compared with Rimbaud’s, yet they also show deep affinities with Russian poetry, with the work of Blok, Mayakovsky and Severyanin in particular. […]
Edith Sodergran saw herself as an inspired free spirit of a new order, a disciple on her own terms of Nietzsche, then of the nature mystic Rudolf Steiner, and finally of Christ. But her voice is subtle and wholly original. It transcends the limits imposed by her illness to make lyrical statements about the violence and darkness of the modern world – imagistic poems that are alrming in the surreal beauty of their fragmentary diction.
Triumph of Being
What have I to fear? I am a part of infinity.
I am a part of the all’s great power,
a lonely world inside millions of worlds,
like a star of the first degree that fades last.
Triumph of living, triumph of breathing, triumph of being!
Triumph of feeling time run ice-cold through one’s veins
and of hearing the silent river of the night
and of standing on the mountain under the sun.
I walk on sun, I stand on sun,
I know of nothing else than sun.
Time – convertress, time – destructress, time – enchantress,
do you come with new schemes a thousand tricks to offer me existence
as a little seed, as a coiled snake, as a rock amidst the sea?
Time – you murderess – leave me!
The sun fills my breast with sweet honey up to the brim
and she says: all stars fade at last, but they always shine without fear.
Interwoven with the poetry of Edith Södergran are verses by Olav Håkonson Hauge, a Norwegian who was also a poet of solitude with an affinity for far eastern verse, able to convey a landscape in a few words with the economy of the Zen poets. Hauge, who lived his whole life in Ulvik working as a gardener in his own orchard and inspired by classical Chinese poetry, began to publish poems in the 1940s. With both Södergran and Hauge, in the verses set to music here, there are thematic connections to Hans Børli, the lumberjack poet of the Norwegian forest, whom Sinikka celebrated on Starflowers.
The River Murmurs
twigs and rubbish,
brushwood and stumps –
I carry it all gladly
on my back
as long; as I can.
when l can’t any more,
I dump it, it
can just wait there
for some other time.
I’m most grateful
for ground-water and brooks.
they add to my strength.
If a wild tributary comes
the very breath is
knocked out of me.
we arch our backs
and bicker and bicker, which
which gives way?
Langeland’s arrangements bring together trumpeter Arve Henriksen and saxophonist Trygve Seim in a magical combination. John Kelman, writing in All About Jazz, has stated that ‘If there’s any singular description of Seim’s music, it’s that of peace and harmony’.
On all three albums discussed here, but especially on The half-finished heaven, Seim surrounds Langeman’s vocalisations of the poets’ verses in a veil of peace and harmony. Trygve Seim’s 2001 ECM debut, Different Rivers, and Purcor that followed in 2010 are ECM albums that I return to repeatedly.
It’s the Dream
It’s the dream we carry in secret
that something miraculous will happen,
that it must happen –
that time will open
that the heart will open
that doors will open
that the rockface will open
that springs will gush –
that the dream will open,
that one morning we will glide into
some little harbour we didn’t know was there.
- Sinikka Langeland’s Starflowers: my review here in 2008, with poetry by Hans Børli
- Tomas Tranströmer: It’s O.K. to listen to the grey voice
- Trygve Seim: of peace and harmony
- Sounds and Silence: journeying with Manfred Eicher
- ECM: 40 favourites
- 40 years of ECM: Just Music
- ECM cover art