Celebrating Jan Garbarek on his 70th birthday

Celebrating Jan Garbarek on his 70th birthday

I have two strong memories associated with the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, who is celebrating his 70th birthday today. The first is of discovering his LP Folk Songs, the first of his albums that I bought, and the one that opened up the world of music recorded by Manfred Eicher on the ECM label. The second memory is of listening to a specific Garbarek tune in a particular place, symbolizing for me a moment of European optimism. Continue reading “Celebrating Jan Garbarek on his 70th birthday”


In Movement from Jack DeJohnette’s Trio: history, yet very much of the present

<em>In Movement</em> from Jack DeJohnette’s Trio: history, yet very much of the present

I’ve been listening to what will surely be the finest jazz record of the year – and one that I reckon will come to be regarded as one of the classic releases on the ECM label. It’s In Movement, the first release from Jack DeJohnette’s new trio who have been playing together for a couple of years. Now they have produced a very fine album of contemporary jazz, full of historical resonances, on which all three musicians deliver stellar performances. Continue reading In Movement from Jack DeJohnette’s Trio: history, yet very much of the present”

Sinikka Langeland’s mix of Norwegian folk, jazz and poetry

Sinikka Langeland’s mix of Norwegian folk, jazz and poetry

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. Continue reading “Sinikka Langeland’s mix of Norwegian folk, jazz and poetry”

Sounds and Silence: journeying with Manfred Eicher

Sounds and Silence: journeying with Manfred Eicher

Records from the ECM label always begin with moments of silence.  The ECM motto is the Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence. Moments of silence are as important as sounds in the documentary film Sounds And Silence: Journeys with Manfred Eicher which I have just seen.

Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer followed Manfred Eicher, the founder of ECM and outstanding producer of contemporary music, documenting his travels via concert halls, recording studios, and back to the headquarters of  Editions of Contemporary Music in a tower block by the autobahn outside Munich. I have grown to love the music of ECM ever since discovering Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert and Jan Garbarek’s Folk Songs back in the 1980s.  I can’t imagine the last 40 years without the music of ECM. For me, Manfred Eicher is a hero: he has taken me on a 40 year journey that continues still. Continue reading “Sounds and Silence: journeying with Manfred Eicher”

ECM: 40 favourites

Posts here during the last couple of days have celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of ECM Records. To round things off I thought I’d put together a list of 40 of my favourite ECM albums, in no particular order. Continue reading “ECM: 40 favourites”

ECM cover art

The first ECM records were recorded in 1969 and released in 1970. ECM had focused on a predominantly European version of jazz, often incorporating folk elements, and attracted players including Jan Garbarek, Keith Jarrett and Terje Rypdal who have made their lifelong home with the label. Recording as well as musical quality was of the highest standard, reflected also in a cover design ethos which featured beautiful photography and creative typography.

The main ECM designer for the first 25 years was Barbara Wojirsch whose playful layouts and combination of fonts and handwritten titles were highly distinctive. Dieter Rehm joined her in the 1980s with a similarly varied approach.

People who regularly return to the same location tend to become sensitive to slight changes in the view, and quickly incorporate them into the philosophy into the familiar picture, so that everything remains intact.  Similarly, those to whom ECM music has become a cultural staple accept variations in the familiar ECM ‘image’with the same nonchalance as changes in the music itself, whose sound values remain unmistakable, however wide-ranging the styles.

This ingrained habit, like a paraphrase of conventional pattems of consumption, has not led to indifference among the many who have grown up with ECM over the years. On the contrary, it has produced a kind of connoisseurship in which visual recognition exists on a par with its counterpart. ECM’s music has taught many people how to listen – and some how to look! When they play the recordings, the modest rectangle in their hands enjoys an attention and affection for a time span few other visual objects can hope to enjoy. That is why rec0rd covers in general, and ECM’s in particular, are worth talking about [… ]

[To begin with, there were]  the many iconic covers that Barbara Wojirsch created with Manfred Eicher and Dieter Rehm during the long years of their association. Her retirement from ECM in 1999 did not mark a sharp break in c0ntinuity. The vocabulary of ECM’s imagery had been invented, and it was rich enough to be adopted by new artists with new points of emphasis, now focused through Eicher’s work with graphic artist Sascha Kleis. Wojirsch’s artistic development took her from expressive typography and photography in the spirit of the 1970s and 1980s to highly personal paintings and pictures. Her manner of preparing the ground – her scrapes, scratches and scribbles – has found a surprising parallel in the paintings of Mayo Bucher, who entered Eicher’s field of vision in the mid-1990s and whose work has appeared on a number of covers based on his paintings since 1997. Also characteristic of new directions for the label is the collaboration with Jan Jedlicka, whose paintings, sketches and photos have been displayed on many sleeves.

The most obvious change over the last ten years has, however, been ECM’s attitude towards photography and its use in cover pictures. Until well into the 1990s, the photographic motifs on ECM’s covers were often narrative and representational, at times even going so far as to illustrate the title of the album, albeit obliquely. Today the photographs resist easy interpretation and classification. Instead, they are photographic objets d’art that reveal their meanings only upon closer inspection, luring the viewer into an enigmatic labyrinth of interpretations. Other photographs recall stills from motion pictures – ‘unfinished’ images that relate to what has just preceded them or is about to follow, and to the continuum of cinema, the medium perhaps closest to music itself. [Manfred] Eicher used this pictorial approach in his choice of covers from a very early date, but only intermittently. His affinity to photography and the cinema has led him to cultivate a closely related field where an extended family of artists, photographers and graphic designers now join forces with the ECM producer to contribute to the label’s imagery, creating a visual pendant to the music in its collection of covers.

Many things have changed. Today ECM’s photographs are mainly black-and-white, with colour used sparingly or as a jarring accent, while uniformly austere typography also contributes to a visual identity. Even so, ECM’s covers are ‘beautifuI’, yet complex enough to disclose their full meaning only to those who seek to listen visually: ‘Think of your ears as eyes’.
– Lars Muller, from Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM

Barbara Wojirsch  and Dieter Rehm (design)

A larger collection of  Barbara Wojirsch and Dieter Rehm covers can be viewed here.

Jim Bengston (photography)

Roberto Masotti (photography)

Caroline Forbes (photography)

The shapes in the photograph still please me and I am always reminded that if you stay out on the hillside long enough something will change and not always for the worse.
– Caroline Forbes

Christoph Egger (photography)

Jan Jedlicka (artwork/photography)

Gerald Minkoff  (photography)

Surrogate Cities

Confucius said that an image is worth more than 10,000 words. I am allowed only 250. Perhaps I should be relieved. This photograph, taken in January 1990 in Moscow, seems to me in perfect tune with the title of Heiner Goebbels’s disc Surrogate Cities, whose musical armature is interwoven with the words of Heiner Miiller, Hugo Hamilton and Paul Auster. The picture is of a Soviet swimming pool, a heated one, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin, a pool that no longer exists. On the site, before the Revolution, there stood a basilica, which Stalin demolished with the intention of  substituting a colossal hollow statue of Lenin (on the scale of NewYork’s Statue of Liberty), whose outstretched hand was going to contain a library. But the ground was unsuitable, and the foundations were filled with water and turned  into a swimming pool. One evening when I was walking there, a swimmer emerged from the dark depths (he can be seen in the lower left of the shot) and seeing my camera asked: ‘Are you from the New York Herald Tribune?’  I answered ‘N0’ and he vanished. When communism collapsed the swimming pool vanished too, because the Orthodox clergy wanted to reconstruct the basilica on the site.You can still get sprinkled with water there, but now it’s holy water. As Paul Auster says in In the Country of Last Things: ‘When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted.’ That is why I always know that I am seeing everything – and hearing it – for the first time; but also for the last time.
– Gerald Minkoff

Muriel Olesen (photography)

The light touch of foot-soles as a woman dances at the centre of the ritual maze, a fragile flower with petals of chalk, a propitiatory choreography traced each morning on the ground.  As if in echo, the faint coughing of a white tiger from the zoo nearby. Rustlings, variations, in persistent notes that extend through the air and disappear into the night. Silences and erasures. A few magical movements will make both the pattern and the music reappear on the doorstep at dawn to greet the ephemeral beauty of the new day. Black the dress, black as as a monsoon cloud suspended over those white furrows, alreadyworked, henceforth fertile: Monodia . . .
– Muriel Olesen


40 years of ECM: Just Music

Just Music, the second ECM release

Forty years ago today the Mal Waldron Trio started to play in Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg.  They were recording the first album, Free At Last!, issued early the following year on the new music label founded by Manfred Eicher.   Since then, ECM has issued over a thousand albums spanning – and blurring the boundaries between – many idioms. Personally, I can’t imagine the last thirty-odd years of my own musical journey without ECM.

I remember the first ECM vinyl LP that I bought, in the days of independent record shop browsing, in the sadly-missed Decoy Records on Deansgate in Manchester. It was Folk Songs by the trio of  Jan Garbarek, Charlie Haden and Egberto Gismonti. I’d been going to the shop for a while, mainly to explore the blues, r&b and what’s now called Americana upstairs. But gradually I began to spend more time downstairs flicking through the jazz albums and educating myself in a genre that had opened up for me with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. The ECM albums, with their distinctive covers, drew me again and again; sometimes I bought one just because the cover art suggested that what was inside would be more of a certain sound I was searching for – like a landscape stretching to a far horizon. So titles like Paths Prints, Photo with Blue Sky and Places (that road snaking to the horizon!) were added to the collection.

Is there any other label like ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music)? Is there any other producer alive as significant as  Manfred Eicher?

Reading Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM, it seems that, as much as the label’s remarkable musicians have contributed to its success, the part played by Manfred Eicher is hugely important. Not only in defining the purity and clarity of the ECM sound, but also in bringing together musicians from differing geographical backgrounds and musical traditions – ‘ far-flung sound worlds’ – to create a truly new European contemporary music.

In Horizons Touched there is a perfect example of how such collaborations may come about, as told by Eicher himself:

‘I first heard the Officium defunctorum by Morales at Seville cathedral in the 1970s.  When I listened to it again twenty years later, while driving through the jagged lava fields of Iceland, I was enormously moved…The sky like ash or lead.  The luminous sound – night before one’s eyes.

While working…in Iceland, I listened alternately to the Hilliard Ensemble’s recording of Gesualdo’sTenebrae Responses and the chants of saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Suddenly Morales seemed like a southern continent with northern birds of passage skimming in broad circles overhead – on the shores of the basalt sea...What remained was the idea.

And that is how the recording of Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble in the Provostry of  St Gerold came about – Officium, a recording that presents new and far-flung sound worlds.’

ECM is renowned for its meticulous approach, not just to the recording process, but also for the distinctive quality and design of the album packaging. Eicher again:

‘I believe the producer’s role is to capture the music he likes, to present it to those who don’t know it yet. It’s a very important and difficult task, which must be dealt with reponsibility and integrity. If you work in that direction, caring for the sound, getting some precise information or inspired sleeve notes in a booklet, working on the pictures for the record cover, then a kind of symbiotic unity is at work, and people feel you have been producing the record for good reasons. So you can touch them, beyond cultural borders, they understand and appreciate what you have to offer them. It’s all about taking risks, but still being generous and rigorous.’

Hundreds of records made under his artistic direction include those of Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Dave Holland, Egberto Gismonti, Anouar Brahem, Pat Metheny, Paul Motian, Charles Lloyd, John Surman, Ralph Towner, Terje Rypdal, Bobo Stenson and Tord Gustavsen. Whilst for ECM New Series he has produced recordings by composers Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke, Giya Kancheli, Heinz Holliger, Meredith Monk, Gavin Bryars, Steve Reich and John Adams.

Manfred Eicher

Manfred Eicher

Eicher’s own background, as a musician active in both jazz and classical music, gave him an unusually broad vantage point from which to survey the genres, and the producer has been credited with helping to bring form to improvised music and a sense of ‘improvisational’ flexibility to recordings of contemporary composition.

The label has documented jazz and improvised music from both sides of the Atlantic and brought together many musicians in new and influential combinations, amongst them the ‘Belonging’ band with Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen, and the ‘Magico’ trio of Charlie Haden, Jan Garbarek and Egberto Gismonti.

Scandinavian jazz was emphasized in the early years and Eicher is still finding musicians from the Nordic zone. The last decade has seen the arrival of Trygve Seim, Christian Wallumrød, Matthias Eick, Tord Gustavsen, Arve Henriksen, and others. Southern Europe has also been explored: Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava brought with him pianist Stefano Bollani, now also recognized as a major player. From Greece, Savina Yannatou has explored folk musics of the Mediterranean and the wider world, and ECM has produced the work of Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou, including the soundtracks for films by Theo Angelopolous.

The ECM tradition of cross-genre collaboration has opened my ears to many new musics. Apart from Officium, there have been albums by Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem, the jazz/poetry/folk collaboration of  Starflowers which brought together Finnish folk singer Sinikka Langeland with the jazz musicians Arve Henriksen, Trygve Seim  and Anders Jormin. And in 2009 there was the stunning Siwan, initiated by Norwegian pianist and composer Jon Balke, inspired by the music and poetry of medieval Al-Andalus, and featuring Moroccan singer Amina Alaoui, American trumpeter Jon Hassell, and baroque strings.

And finally, my favourite record of all time is also ECM’s biggest selling record: Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert.  This is the one I would want on a desert island. It is entirely wonderful, but what happens at 7 minutes 20 in is, I believe, the most transcendental moment in recorded music.

Tord Gustavsen Ensemble at RNCM

For the past 18 months or so, the music of the Tord Gustavsen Trio has been played pretty constantly in our household – especially The Ground, with its exquisite opening track, ‘Tears Transforming’, the album that, amazingly, reached the top of the Norwegian album charts within a fortnight of its release. So, it was with great anticipation that we headed to the RNCM  last night for the concert by the Tord Gustavsen Ensemble, a larger outfit that on this UK tour consists of  Tord Gustavsen (piano), Tore Brunborg (tenor and soprano saxophones), Mats Eilertsen (double-bass), Jarle Vespestad (drums).

We were not disappointed. This was only the fourth time this quartet had performed live, though you wouldn’t have known it from their fluent interplay on this luminously beautiful lyrical music. Apparently, When Miles Davis was recording Sketches of Spain with Gil Evans, he said of of Rodrigo’s Arajuez Adagio, ‘that melody is so strong that the softer you play it the stronger it gets…’ Tord Gustavsen’s melodies are like that.

They began with the most beautiful of those melodies, ‘Tears Transforming’, and followed it with ‘ The Child Within’, from the Ensemble’s new album, Restored, Returned. Another tune, ‘Where We Went’ featured an exquisite, delicate drum solo by drummer Jarle Vespestad.

This is the Herald Scotland review of the Ensemble’s Edinburgh gig on the 18th:

It’s no surprise that Tord Gustavsen introduces his sound engineer as the fifth member of his ensemble. The pristine sound quality that comes as standard with the label Gustavsen records for, ECM, and micro adjustments such as the dash of reverb introduced on the drums at strategic moments play a large part in the Norwegian pianist’s concert presentation. In fact, there’s probably a whole review to be written about the tonal properties each musician entrusts to the mixing desk and the contrast between the comparatively imposing physical presence of double bassist Mats Eilertsen and the world’s quietest drummer, Jarle Vespestad. But these are bound up in a beautiful musical end product that communicates a wealth of ideas and champions celebration as much as melancholy and yearning. It just doesn’t make a big fuss about it.

In saxophonist Tore Brunborg, Gustavsen has a kindred spirit who expands the pianist’s palette while paying attention to melodic refinement and a sense of space. It says much for Brunborg that ‘The Swirl’, with its infectiously loose hipped, laid back boogaloo beat, sounded just as complete without the absent Kristin Asbjornsen’s very individual singing as it does on the ensemble’s new album, Restored, Returned. Gustavsen, though still compact, plays out of himself more in this setting than in his trio, digging deep into his gospel tendencies on a brand new tune and approaching the rhapsodic on the Spanish dance-influenced ‘Where We Went’, the number during which Vespestad, who alternates between sticks and brushes with near-surgical discernment, put forward an emphatic case for, unlikely though it may seem, the drum solo as means of seduction.

Another insightful review – this time, of the Birmingham gig on the 17th –  was this one, by Peter Bacon for thejazzbreakfast:

A friend had voiced moderate concern that the addition of saxophone to Gustavsen’s quiet and subtle music would somehow spoil it – a few notes from Brunborg and such misgivings were dispelled. He manages to combine warmth and richness of tone with precision of articulation in a compelling way. Gustavsen pointed out, in his thejazzbreakfast interview, how all the members of the band, even master drummer Jarle Vespestad, are melodists, and so it is: lines of improvised tunes weaving in and out, whether Eilertsen’s perfectly placed upper register bass counter-melodies, Brunborg’s always lyrical solos, Vespestad’s cymbal scrapes and tom-tom phrases, or the leader’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of freshly created songs.

As on the new album, the concert was woven through with what Gustavsen calls “left over lullabies”, gentle, calming music in one sense though with the knowledge of experience behind it to suggest that the day before this call to sleep has not been without its rigours and difficulties.

Tord Gustavsen Trio: Tears Transforming

Tord Gustavsen Trio: Still There (live, 2007)

Sinikka Langeland: Starflowers

Sinikka Langeland: Starflowers

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.

Sinikka Langeland

Sinikka Langeland

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.

Hans Borli

English translations of the tracks on Starflowers:

Autumn Night in the Mountain Woods  ( Hostnatt pa Fjeliskogen)

A dark humming of
subsiding wind
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
without hand-luggage?
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
strange nourishment
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
and death.

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:
“Don’t fear
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
about death.
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.

Gentle snowflakes
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,
listen long,
it is at last as if your soul
is mysteriously remembering its future.