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”

At the London Jazz Festival: Mehldau and Redman deliver a jazz masterclass, but the Garbarek quartet disappoints

At the London Jazz Festival: Mehldau and Redman deliver a jazz masterclass, but the Garbarek quartet disappoints

Once again, we made the journey down to the capital to sample three events during the opening weekend of the London Jazz Festival. The music began with what was, for me, a welcome second helping of Tord Gustavsen’s collaboration with the German-Afghan vocalist Simin Tander on songs from their ECM album, What Was Said. The weekend concluded with a strong set but not totally convincing set from the Jan Garbarek Quartet at the Royal Festival Hall. But the outstanding event was a masterclass of breathtaking jazz improvisation by pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman. That alone was worth the journey. Continue reading “At the London Jazz Festival: Mehldau and Redman deliver a jazz masterclass, but the Garbarek quartet disappoints”

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”

Tomas Tranströmer: It’s O.K. to listen to the grey voice

Tomas Tranströmer: It’s O.K. to listen to the grey voice

I first encountered Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry – or I should say, snippets of it – in 1994, via an album by Norwegian jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek. The album title, It’s OK to Listen to the Gray Voice, and all the tracks on the record were named after quotes from poems by Tomas Tranströmer.

The connection between the music and the titles seemed nebulous, but intriguing.  It would be years before I opened a collection of Tranströmer’s poetry and found some of the poems that had inspired Jan Garbarek.
Now Tranströmer has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature: the citation reads, ‘through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality’. Writing in The Guardian in 2006, Robin Robertson encapsulated his life:

Tranströmer is not only Scandinavia’s greatest living poet, but also widely regarded as one of our most important contemporary international writers. Born in April 1931, an only child, his parents divorced when he was three years old and he was brought up by his mother within the educated working class of Stockholm: a social democratic system infused with the traditional Lutheran ethics of moral compassion and generosity. After graduating he took up a career in psychology, working in a young offenders’ institute in Linköping. In 1965 he moved with his wife Monica and their daughters, Paula and Emma, to Västerås, a small town west of Stockholm, where he continued his work with juvenile delinquents, convicts, drug addicts and the physically handicapped. It was during this time that his poetry began to reach its full maturity and an international audience, being translated into more than 40 languages and bringing him a host of awards.

In 1990, however, his life was changed irrevocably by his stroke. While his disability did not end his writing career, it did impair his ability to communicate, and the Tranströmers now live in an apartment in the Södermalm district of Stockholm, near where Tomas lived as a young boy and overlooking the sea-lanes where his grandfather worked as a pilot, guiding the ships through the Stockholm archipelago.

Tomas Transtromer

Tranströmer started writing poetry while a student, and published his first collection, Seventeen Poems at the age of 23. A love for nature and music has infused his writing and his poems have, over the decades, became darker, filled with existential questions, death and disease.  The stroke in 1990 came a year after the publication of his tenth book of poems and deprived him of most of his speech and partly inhibited movement on his right-hand side. He plays the piano (which informs the imagery of some of his poems) and Swedish composers have since written left-hand piano pieces especially for him to play:

I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a simple warmth in my hands.

The keys are willing. Soft hammers strike.
The resonance green, lively and calm.

The music says freedom exists
and someone doesn’t pay the emperor tax.

I push down my hands in my Haydnpockets
and imitate a person looking on the world calmly.

I hoist the Haydnflag – it signifies:
“We don’t give in. But want peace.’

The music is a glass-house on the slope
where the stones fly, the stones roll.

And the stones roll right through
but each pane stays whole.
– ‘Allegro’

Conferring the Nobel on Tranströmer has provoked some criticism.  For example, this put-down by Will Skidelsky appeared on The Guardian’s Comment Is Free blog after the result was announced:

Although I am ashamed to admit to knowing almost nothing about Scandinavia’s leading poet, whose books are regular bestsellers in his homeland, this does seem to be something of a regular occurrence with the Nobel. The committee makes a habit of bestowing its laurels on respected, worthy, but often fairly obscure writers who, even after they are anointed, don’t exactly go on to become household names.

No doubt this attitude partly reflects my provincialism. It’s true that British literary culture is shockingly closed to writers from those parts of the world which don’t happen to speak the same language as we do. We translate far fewer titles than most other European countries, and publishers that specialise in literature in translation – fortunately there are some – struggle to get attention for their books.

But the Nobel committee, if you look at the winners since the prize began in 1901, has an atrocious record for recognising real greatness. It’s worth remembering that as prize decisions go, this one is pretty easy. You don’t have to spot a talented writer early on in his or her career or pick out a particular book. As long as you get ’em before they die, there really isn’t a time limit. And with these advantages, who have the committee overlooked down the years? The list is a roll-call of genius: Tolstoy, James, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Fitzgerald, Larkin, Salinger and Munro to name a few.

Well, I can see his arguments about eurocentrism and the missed greats (interestingly, though all Skidelsky’s examples are writers in the English language!).  But whether or not great writers have been missed, the issue would remain as to Tranströmer ‘s own stature as a poet.  That’s not for me to judge – my knowledge and understanding of poetry is pretty limited – however, after being led to them by titles on a jazz album, I have found much to savour and appreciate in his haunting poems.

Tranströmer has been called a ‘buzzard poet’ because his poems seem to observe the world from a great height, as if in a mystic or trancelike dimension, whilst also bringing precise details of the natural world into sharp focus:

2 a.m.: moonlight. The train has stopped
out in the middle of the plain. Far away, points of light in a town,
flickering coldly at the horizon.

As when someone has gone into a dream so deep
he’ll never remember having been there
when he comes back to to his room.

As when someone has gone into an illness so deep
everything his days were becomes a few flickering points, a swarm,
cold and tiny at the horizon

The train is standing quite still.
2 a.m.: bright moonlight, few stars.

– ‘Tracks’ (1958)

His poems often inhabit the border between sleep and waking, between conscious and unconscious states.  In a poem from his first collection published in 1954, ‘Prelude’, there is the striking image of  the waking person falling towards the earth, sinking towards a bright, sunlit world:

Waking up is a parachute jump from dreams.
Free of the suffocating turbulence the traveller
sinks toward the green zone of morning.
Things flare up. From the viewpoint of the quivering lark
he is aware of the huge root systems of the trees,
their swaying underground lamps. But above ground
there’s greenery — a tropical flood of it — with
lifted arms, listening
to the beat of an invisible pump. And he
sinks toward summer, is lowered
in it’s dazzling crater, down
through shafts of green damp ages
trembling under the sun’s turbine.  Then it’s checked,
this straight-down journey through the moment, and the wings spread
to the osprey’s repose above rushing waters.
The bronze-age trumpet’s
outlawed note
hovers above the bottomless depths.

In day’s first hours consciousness can grasp the world
as the hand grips a sun-warmed stone.
The traveller is standing under a tree.  After
the crash through death’s turbulence, shall
a great light unfold above his head?

In the poem, The Name (1970), a driver has pulled over to the side of the road to catch some sleep on a long journey.  He wakes in a panic, unable at first to recall his own identity.  Relief comes after an instant, ‘My name comes like an angel’:

I grow sleepy during the car journey and I drive in under the trees at
the side of the road. I curl up in the back seat and sleep. For how long?
Hours. Darkness had come on.

Suddenly I’m awake and don’t know where I am. Wide-awake, but it
doesn’t help. Where am I? WHO am I? I am something that wakens in
a back seat, twists about in panic like a cat in a sack. Who?

At last my life returns. My name comes like an angel. Outside the walls
a trumpet signal blows (as in the Leonora overture) and the rescuing
footsteps come smartly down the overlong stairway. It is I! It is I!
But impossible to forget the fifteen second struggle in the hell of oblivion,
a few metres from the main road, where the traffic glides past with its
lights on.

Many of  Tranströmer’s poems seem to be concerned with powerful elements in our lives that seem indefinable or beyond conscious control.  In  ‘Alone’ (1966), his reflections are triggered by the memory of a near-death experience:


One evening in February I came near to dying here.
The car skidded sideways on the ice, out
on the wrong side of the road. The approaching cars –
their lights – closed in.

My name, my girls, my job
broke free and were left silently behind
further and further away. I was anonymous
like a boy in a playground surrounded by enemies.

The approaching traffic had huge lights.
They shone on me while I pulled at the wheel
in a transparent terror that floated like egg white.
The seconds grew – there was space in them –
they grew as big as hospital buildings.

You could almost pause
and breathe out for a while
before being crushed.

Then something caught: a helping grain of sand
or a wonderful gust of wind. The car broke free
and scuttled smartly right over the road.
A post shot up and cracked – a sharp clang – it
flew away in the darkness.

Then – stillness. I sat back in my seat-belt
and saw someone coming through the whirling snow
to see what had become of me.


I have been walking for a long time
on the frozen Östergötland fields.
I have not seen a single person.

In other parts of the world
there are people who are born, live and die
in a perpetual crowd.

To be always visible – to live
in a swarm of eyes –
a special expression must develop.
Face coated with clay.

The murmuring rises and falls
while they divide up among themselves
the sky, the shadows, the sand grains.

I must be alone
ten minutes in the morning
and ten minutes in the evening.
– Without a programme.

Everyone is queuing at everyone’s door.

‘Further In’, from Tranströmer’s 1973 collection Paths, is one of several poems that contrast city and forest:

On the main road into the city
when the sun is low.
The traffic thickens, crawls.
It is a sluggish dragon glittering.
I am one of the dragon’s scales.
Suddenly the red sun is
right in the middle of the windscreen
streaming in.
I am transparent
and writing becomes visible
inside me
words in invisible ink
which appear
when the paper is held to the fire!
I know I must get far away
straight through the city and then
further until it is time to go out
and walk far in the forest.
Walk in the footprints of the badger.
It gets dark, difficult to see.
In there on the moss lie stones.
One of the stones is precious.
It can change everything
it can make the darkness shine.
It is a switch for the whole country.
Everything depends on it.
Look at it, touch it…

Similarly, ‘On the Outskirts of Work’ (1966) explores the borderline between ‘the planet Work’ and ‘the moon of leisure’, the veneer of civilisation and the ‘underground’ of nature:

In the middle of work
we start longing fiercely for wild greenery,
for the Wilderness itself, penetrated only
by the thin civilisation of the telephone wires.

The moon of leisure circles the planet Work
with its mass and weight. – That’s how they want it.
When we are on the way home the ground pricks up its ears.
The underground listens to us via the grass-blades.

Even in this working day there is a private calm.
As in a smoky inland area where a canal flows:
THE BOAT appears unexpectedly in the traffic
or glides out behind the factory, a white vagabond.

One Sunday I walk past an unpainted new building
standing before a grey wet surface.
It is half finished. The wood has the same light colour
as the skin on someone bathing.

Outside the lamps the September night is totally dark.
When the eyes adjust, there is faint light
over the ground where large snails glide out
and the mushrooms are as numerous as the stars.

Robin Robertson has translated Tranströmer’s poetry into English, and on Saturday he wrote in The Guardian:

The landscape of Tranströmer’s poetry – the jagged coastland of his native Sweden, with its dark spruce and pine forests, sudden light and sudden storm, restless seas and endless winters – is mirrored by his direct, plain-speaking style and arresting, unforgettable images. The master-poet of anxiety, of stress, he explores the vulnerability of the human in the face of the irrational – intrigued by polarities and how we respond to finding ourselves amid epiphanies, at pivotal points, at the fulcrum of a moment:

The sun is scorching. The plane comes in low,
throwing a shadow in the shape of a giant cross, rushing over the ground.
A man crouches over something in the field.
The shadow reaches him.
For a split-second he is in the middle of the cross.

I have seen the cross that hangs from cool church arches.
Sometimes it seems like a snapshot
of frenzy.

– ‘Out in the Open’

Some have suggested that Tranströmer  poses fewer problems for the translator, since he writes in a pure Swedish without frills or elaborate cultural references that outsiders would struggle to comprehend.  However, in The New Yorker, Robin Robertson disputed this:

Tomas Tranströmer is a complex poet to translate. His exquisite compression and vividly cinematic imagery are instantly attractive, but the elemental sparseness of his language can often be rendered as colourless and bland. The supple rhythms of the original poems are hard to replicate and, equally, the plosive musicality of Swedish words like “domkyrkoklocklang” lose all their aural resonance when they become a “peal of cathedral bells.” His empty, numinous landscape is comfortably familiar to Northern poets, but his metaphysical parsing of that landscape into minimal Swedish can often prove too challenging.

I found this interesting, given my first encounter with Tranströmer on the sleeve of that Garbarek album.  There, one of the tracks was entitled ‘It’s OK to Listen to the Gray Voice’.  This turns out to be a line from the poem, ‘After a Long Drought’.  But in the translation by Robin Fulton for the Bloodaxe edition, New Collected Poems, this comes out as:

The summer evening is grey.
The rain steals down from the sky
and lands quietly as if
it had to overpower someone sleeping.

The water-rings jostle on the bay’s surface
and that is the only surface there is –
the other is height and depth
soar and sink.

Two pine-stems
shoot up and end in long hollow signal-drums.
Gone are the cities and the sun.
The thunder’s in the tall grass.
It’s possible to ring up the mirage island.
It’s possible to hear the grey voice.
Iron-ore is honey for the thunder.
It’s possible to live with one’s code.

It seems to me that there’s a world of difference between ‘It’s O.K.’ and ‘It’s possible’.

Another track on the Jan Garbarek album was ‘Mission: To Be Where I Am’; this is a line from ‘The Outpost’ which reads in part:

Mission: to be where I am.
Even in that ridiculous, deadly serious
role – I am the place
where creation is working itself out.

See also

Officium Novum in St David’s cathedral

Bank holiday Monday evening in St David’s: the evening sun glows on the grey-flecked, honey-coloured stone of the cathedral as a tightly-knit bunch of scousers join the throngs making their way inside for a performance of Officium Novum by the Hilliard Ensemble with saxophonist Jan Garbarek.

On our first morning here I was accosted by a man who asked me, ‘where’s the cathedral?’  Many visitors must ask the same question because, unlike towns like Canterbury or Gloucester where you can see the cathedral towers from miles away, St David’s cathedral is different.  It crouches in a hollow, sheltered from the westerly storms coming in from the sea about a mile away.  Peter Sager writes eloquently about how the medieval pilgrim would have experienced the approach to the cathedral:

How must pilgrims have felt in those days, as they approached Dewisland on horseback, coming nearer and nearer to St David’s on the westernmost edge of Wales?  Before them, an almost treeless, wid-swept plateau.  Scarcely a hedge, but only earthworks and stone walls through which the wind was howling.  Fields full of stones, some piled into pyramids, ‘as if the solid rock foundation of the earth had thrown up these spears to transfix and hold the scanty earth of the fields upon it’ (Graham Sutherland).  ‘Angelus remotissimus; terra saxosa, sterilis et infecunda’, wrote Giraldus Cambrensis of Dewisland, St David’s Peninsula, and that is how it is even today: remote, far from the nearest railway station, wild and desolate, a Welsh Land’s End.  Where the rock terraces plunge down into the sea, that is St David’s head.  ‘Octipitarum Promontorium’, the foothills of the eight perils, was what Ptolemy called this cape, whose rocks were to prove fatal to many a Roman ship. …. Dewisland: from this bare, isolated corner of the country came the patron saint of Wales, Dewi Sant.

An appropriate place, then, to hear the Officium Novum, performed by the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek as part of the 2011 St David’s International Music Festival. Although the title of the repertoire refers back to the Catholic service or liturgy of the hours, the music – sung in various languages – carries no overtly religious message and can be appreciated for its beauty by those of any faith or of no faith.

It’s nearly two decades since Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble released the first of the three albums that now make up the Officium project.  The hallmark of the project has been to present music from different traditions without amplification in naturally reverberant spaces (usually cathedrals and churches).  The three albums albums were recorded at the St Gerold monastery in Austria, chosen for its acoustics. The resounding natural reverberation it adds to the music gives it greater depth and majesty than would be expected from four voices and a saxophone. The same goes when Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble perform live: they generally play in venues with a similar ambience, such as St Paul’s Cathedral or King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.  We saw them last year in Gloucester cathedral.

Garbarek started alone. Gradually, we became aware of voices in distant corners of the cathedral, a disembodied drone that slowly became more focused as the members of the Hilliard – David James (countertenor), Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor), Steven Harrald (tenor), Gordon Jones (baritone) – converged at the front of the nave.  This was ‘Ov Zarmanali’, one of  four pieces by the Armenian composer Komitas (1869-1935).  The four voices of the Hilliards weave a spare backdrops to the keening, bluesy phrases of Garbarek’s soprano sax. These musicians have developed the reciprocity of a modern jazz group, but this is not jazz: rather, Garbarek’s solos inhabit and explore the austere structures of the compositions, as if his saxophone was another human voice.

Tenor Rogers Covey-Crump says: ‘Jan responds very strongly to the buildings we play in. One thing he loves about this project is that he gets to play in places he never otherwise sees, such as big churches and cathedrals’.  Gordon Jones adds, ‘In a big resonant acoustic, he can create a harmony by playing a really loud bass note and then adding an arpeggio above it, so you have this harmony hanging in the air’.  Garbarek himself states, ‘It’s very important that the sound has a certain amount of space and reverberation. The music often uses modal forms, which gives a lot of freedom for improvisation. Some of it’s religious music and some isn’t, but I think it’s important that all music should be spiritual in some way’.

A central focus of Officium Novum is music from Armenia, pieces which draw upon both medieval sacred music and the bardic tradition of the Caucasus. The Hilliards have studied these pieces in the course of visits to Armenia, and the modes of the music encourage some of Garbarek’s most impassioned playing. Alongside the Armenian pieces in the Officium Novum repertoire are Arvo Pärt’s ‘Most Holy Mother of God’ sung a cappella, a 12th-century tune by Pérontin, a Byzantine chant, and two pieces by Jan Garbarek, including a new version of ‘We are the Stars’, his adaptation of a Native American poem of the Pasamaquoddy people which first appeared on the Rites album:

For we are the stars. For we sing.
For we sing with our light.
For we are birds made of fire.
For we spread our wings over the sky.
Our light is a voice.
We cut a road for the soul
for its journey through death.
For we face the hills with disdain.
This is the song of the stars.

As the concert progressed, it was as if the cathedral itself became another instrument under the musicians’ control. The closing moments, as they left the chapel ringing with sound, were mesmerising.

In this YouTube clip, BBC Radio 3’s Fiona Talkington talks with Jan Garbarek, Manfred Eicher and the Hilliard Ensemble’s David James, Rogers-Covey Crump and Gordon Jones, and explains the context and background of the Officium Novum project with excerpts from the album:

This clip, from a performance in Hamburg in September 2010, provides a glimpse of the magical opening of a performance of Officium Novum:

The album (though not this performance) ends with a reading of Giorgos Seferis’s poem ‘A Little Farther’ by German actor Bruno Ganz:

A little farther
and we shall see the almond trees in blossom
the marble gleaming in the sun
the sea breaking into waves.

a little farther,
let us rise a little higher.

Garbarek and the Hilliard in Gloucester Cathedral

Tonight we saw Norwegian jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek with the Hilliard Ensemble in Gloucester Cathedral: an inspiring concert featuring a selection of material from the Garbarek/Hilliard Ensemble recordings Officium (1994) and Mnemosyne (1999), plus material their forthcoming ECM release. In the resonant acoustic of the 900-year old cathedral, the mix of  the medieval purity of the Hilliard voices with Garbarek’s soaring saxophone was awe-inspiring.

We had visited the cathedral in the late afternoon, and found the stage being set for the evening’s concert. Four music stands for the Hilliards and a seat for Garbarek.

We had time to explore this magnificent building, which originated in 678 with the foundation of an abbey. The cathedral itself was built as the abbey church, starting in 1072, and consists of a Norman core, with additions in every style of Gothic architecture.

The highlight of the building must be the beautiful and serene monastery cloisters, the earliest surviving example of English fan vaulting, a decorative style unique to England.  The cloisters were designed and built between 1351 and 1377.

As we made our way into the cathedral for the concert, the Cotswold stone glowed golden in the early evening sunshine.

Four voices and a saxophone, completely unamplified. Haunting, ethereal and utterly spellbinding. At the start of the concert, the musicians entered from various points around the cathedral, making their way to the small platform at the centre of the nave, singing and playing as the walked.

Later in the concert, there was another promenade piece, with the musicians exploiting the cathedral acoustics and layout, utilising the nave, both aisles and the screened off quire. There had been a request for no applause during the performance, and this created an almost seamless single piece and an atmosphere that was both peaceful and uplifting.

‘A lot of my work involves performers from different cultures, and I consider this collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble comes from a different culture, if not geographically, then certainly in the sense of time. In our best moments I think that we managed to give something new, something unheard of before. Something came into existence that was not there before.’
– Jan Garbarek, programme notes

When The Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek gathered at the monastery of St Gerold in the Austrian mountains they could not have known where that time-defying experiment, inspired by the Officium Defunctorum of Morales would  lead, and did  not suspect that it would strike such a resonant chord with the public at large. And although the project had seemed, at least on  paper, predestined to outrage the proprieties of two sets of purists – the custodians of early
music ‘authenticity’ and defenders of the jazz tradition – the recording was almost unanimously hailed  by the press as an artistic triumph. ‘Sobering and soaring’, the Intemational Herald Tribune called it.

‘At its most magical,’ said the New York Observer, Garbarek’s soprano insinuates itself almost imperceptibly into the top line of countertenor David James, collapsing all barriers between “jazz” and “classical”, the sacred and the profane, antiquity and  now.’

The Guardian: ‘Garbarek’s purity of intonation, and the sensitivity with which he spikes it with atonality have rarely been better captured on disc and, far from being a deliberate exercise in musical exotica, this often sounds like the setting that was just waiting to find  him.’

There was, and remains, something very right about this combination, the depth and clarity of medieval polyphony in particular providing a context that rules out a mannered response from the freely-moving ‘fifth voice’ that is Garbarek’s saxophone. The Norwegian player’s improvising with the Hilliard singers is amongst his most essential and concentrated work: every tone is made to count. Over the last ten years, Garbarek and The Hilliard Ensemble have given hundreds of concerts together in the concert halls and, especially, churches of the world, and the music has changed with the repertoire. Many new pieces have been added, most recently influences from Eastern Europe, and the freedoms that Garbarek habitually takes with the music have emboldened the Hilliard singers also to take more chances, both in selection of material and its treatment.

The Hilliard Ensemble are: David James counter-tenor, Rogers Covey-Crump tenor, Steven Harrold tenor, and Gordon Jones baritone.

(from the programme notes)

We left, satisfied and inspired, as the  late evening sun illuminated the cathedral tower.

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”