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”
The Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen is renowned for the hypnotically hushed tones of the half-dozen albums he has recorded for ECM during the last 15 years. So we were not entirely surprised on Saturday evening, in the stripped-back surroundings of the CBSO Centre in Birmingham, to experience jazz at its quietest and most minimal. Continue reading “Hymns and visions: the quiet fire of Tord Gustavsen and Simin Tander”
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”
The Tord Gustavsen Quartet l to r: Jarle Vespestad, Tore Brunborg, Tord Gustavsen, Mats Eilertsen
I like a bit of melancholia in my music, and you couldn’t get more melancholy than the second album by the Tord Gustavsen Trio, The Ground – described in the Guardian when it was released in 2005 as wallowing ‘in those feelings of faint melancholy you get when gazing out of the window on a wet Sunday afternoon’. The spare, slow moving but hauntingly beautiful melody of ‘Tears Transforming’, the opening track of that album, was my introduction to the Norwegian pianist’s trio which, ‘if there was an award for the quietest band in the world’ – to quote the Guardian again – ‘would win it hands down’.
On Sunday evening we went to the Barbican’s new Milton Court venue, exquisitely furnished in what could possibly be Norwegian wood, to hear Tord Gustavsen’s Quartet play a considerably more dynamic show. The music here – as on Extended Circle, the new album by the Quartet – sounded more muscular, more purposeful, than on the trio of restrained Trio albums (Changing Places, The Ground and Being There) that we have grown to love in our house. I don’t know to what extent the addition of saxophonist Tore Brunborg was responsible – he was certainly not alone in launching off from the passages of meditative stillness into less fragile, more gloves-off improvisations.
They began quietly enough, as Gustavsen explored the keys of the piano almost inaudibly, the hush broken only by the whispering of brushed cymbal from Jarle Vespestad. But Gustavsen was soon on his feet, Keith Jarrett-style, black-suited and hunched over the keyboards like some Nosferatu figure, writhing and twisting as the sinuous melodies spooled out. Jarle Vespestad is, apparently, renowned for his aggressive drumming; as if recognising his own predilections, but affecting some restraint, at times he applied a towel to his drum kit, in order to muffle the sound.
The programme consisted of tunes from the new Quartet album, Extended Circle, along with older trio pieces – all of them re-worked in fine improvisations that revealed an ensemble in perfect tune with each other. In interviews about the new album Gustavsen has agreed that the quartet cuts loose more than on the trio albums:
But to me, it is the same basic approach. We’ve always had a combination of restraint and passion, but that can work out in different ways. On this album we’ve found ways to include a bit more dynamic and more…you could even say extroverted playing, within our framework of a contemplative, stripped-down approach.
Gustavsen introduced several of the numbers in a hoarse whisper. One, he said, was in a major key – ‘something rather difficult for us as Norwegian musicians; we are more at home in the minor, the melancholy’. But there’s something else: he has described some of his songs as ‘wordless hymns’:
I grew up singing hymns. Whenever I can stretch out for new land musically on the basis of a fundamental hymnal structure, then the music becomes liberated. Anyone can play weird stuff, it’s finding a way that feels rooted yet free, and for me, that freedom is connected with spirituals and lullabies.
This religious influence has often been acknowledged by Gustavsen, who played in church while growing up, and it was apparent at times in this performance. Introducing ‘Eg Veit I Himmerick Ei Borg’ (‘A Castle in Heaven’) from the new album, Gustavsen explained that it is based on a Norwegian folk song, often sung at funerals, which nevertheless has at its heart a message of hope:
I know of a heavenly stronghold
shining as bright as the sun;
there are neither sin nor sorrow
and never a tear is shed.
I am a weary traveller;
may my path lead me
from here to the land of my father;
God, protect me on my way.
Gustavsen says has known this tune since childhood:
It carries an intense duality of sorrow and hope, both in its music and in its lyrics. And those lyrics are at the back of my head. Hymns and spirituals are a fundamental part of my core and it’s a blessing to find new and mature ways of relating to those roots.
It’s on this beautiful number especially that Tore Brunborg’s sax soars to the most passionate solo of the night – one very much in the style of Jan Garbarek. It’s a spine-tingling moment in a a brilliant concert.
With regard to the title of the new album, Gustavsen has described the Quartet as:
A creative circle or community – pulsating through communal experience, but also through whatever the individual musicians do outside this circle and bring back to the collective. The modernistic notion of linear progress is dead… we want to move in creative circles or spirals, coming back to musical and spiritual issues from ever-new angles, developing the musical approach or ideology with – hopefully – a deeper insight, a deeper set of experiences and skills.
This passion for uniting raw emotion with elegance and an almost meditational type of playing will never be finished. It’s probably my life’s mission to keep exploring the different dilemmas and challenges and potentials of that, because it’s connected to a very fundamental life purpose of mine – musically and spiritually – to unite intense presence with calmness.
– Tord Gustavsen
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
Fittingly, on the day that we woke to the first frost of the season, we went to Manchester to see the Norwegian percussionist Terje Isungset perform his Ice Music at the Royal Northern College of Music. I wrote last year, on the occasion of his performances at Somerset House in London, how much I wanted to experience one of these events: now at last I had the chance.
Although he has become more widely known in recent years as a result of his ice music performances, Terje Isungset is an outstanding percussionist who has played in folk, jazz and avant-garde contexts, appearing on innumerable recordings as well as composing and writing for the ballet and theatre.
In his solo work he displays something which many Norwegian musicians share – a deeply-felt passion for nature. He has recorded music played on found materials from nature, and the first half of last night’s Manchester concert exemplified this: solo pieces played on wood, stones and granite, including drum sticks and brushes shaped from roughly prepared branches and twigs.
In fact, the first half of Isungset’s performance at the RNCM consisted of his Tribute to Nature which utilized birch and granite percussion, a ram’s horn, bells, voice, an extended solo on a tiny mouth harp, and moments when he was scraping and prodding the drumkit with hand-held objects as well as his feet. Chris Jones, reviewing one of his albums for the BBC, had this to say:
Terje Isungset, like many of his Nordic compatriots, straddles the divide between jazz, avant garde and even folk. A lot of this has to do with the inherent Scandinavian respect for nature and its power on the imagination. Isungset, a percussionist who has worked with just about every major name in Norwegian jazz, is a man who uses nature’s materials to make his music. Anyone who has seen him perform knows that he can express himself more fully with a ram’s horn, a bunch of twigs or a couple of pebbles, better than most musicians could with a whole fjord full of modern gadgetry.
After the interval Isungset was joined on stage by singer Lena Nymark to perform Ice Music, performed against the evocative backdrop of The Idea Of North, a film created by Phil Slocombe. Now Isungset switched from rock, stone and wood to play a variety of ice instruments that he carves himself from the ice of Norway’s mountains and 600 year-old frozen water from the glacier Jostedalbreen (see YouTube video below). These included an ice marimba (top), and an ice horn (below). As Terje said, they are ‘the only instruments you can drink after you’ve finished playing’. All of them are eventually recycled, returned to ther place of origin.
The back-projected film, The Idea of North is a collaboration between Terje Isungset and Phil Slocombe of the Leeds based arts organisation Lumen. Using rare archive film and footage its intricately patterned, often mysterious imagery complemented the intensely physical soundscape created by Lena Nymark’s vocals and Terje’s haunting ice sounds.
Every ten minutes or so an assistant would remove an instrument before it came too close to altering its state to liquid, and delicately replace it with another (above). The timbres of the ice instruments are dependent on the temperature of the ice as it freezes and the different quality of the ice in different areas. Isungset has said of his ice music recordings, ‘All the sounds you hear are pure. They are recordings of frozen water – no computers, no manipulation, just ice – in sculpted, crumbled and sliced form’.
It was unbelievably atmospheric music that conjured into being the sounds of the natural world, perfectly complemented by Lena Nymark’s haunting vocals. Some of the sounds seemed to have been frozen in time, only now being set free from deep within earth and ice. When Isungset raised the ice horn to his lips and blew a deep, resonating note, the sense of something primeval was intense.
After 45 minutes, Terje brought matters to a close saying, ‘Well, if we stay too long… you know what happens!’
A clip of a concert in 2010 by Terje Isungset, with Lena Nymark (vocals) and Sidsel Walstad on an ice harp held during the Ice Music Festival held in a cave carved out from the Val Senales glacier in Italy’s south Tyrol. The ice horn is made out of the ice of the glacier where the concert took place.
The opening track from Terje Isungset’s most recent CD Winter Songs (2010) features Terje Isungset (icepercussion, icehorn, iceofon), Lena Nymark (voice), Sidsel Walstad (iceharp), Nils Økland (ice Hardanger fiddle), Espen Jørgensen (ice guitar), withChrista and Gerhald Schønfelder (glass harmonica). In the FinanciaI Times, David Honigmann wrote of this album:
The Norwegian percussionist Terje Isungset has an almost-shamanic power to conjure music out of unmusical objects, scraping stones or knocking wood. Now his medium is ice, and all the mysteriously beautiful instrumental sounds here are made with frozen water – including ice fiddle, ice guitar and ice Hardanger fiddle. Lena Nymark’s vocals are like clouds of breath on a frosty morning.
Terje Isungset’s Ice Music recorded in November 2008 at St Pancras Room, Kings Place, London:
Terje Isungset making ice instruments, Winter 2011:
If I had been in London this weekend I would have gone to Somerset House to hear Terje Isungset play his ice music. Over the past decade, Isungset has produced a series of entrancing albums on which he plays instruments he has made out of ice: drums, marimbas, chimes and other percussion instruments, all carved the purest of materials – frozen water from an ancient lake.
Terje Isungset is a renowned Norwegian percussionist whho began making ice music in 2000 when the commission of the winter games in Lillehammer asked him to compose and play in a frozen waterfall. He accepted the challenge and using only the things the river gave him – stones, ice, water and wood – he produced the first of his minimalist ice compositions. In 2001 the first of six ice music albums was released. Each of them have a different character – the most recent, Hibernation, incorporated lullabies from the Sami people of northern Norway sung by Sami Joik-singer Sara Marielle Gaupand, who joined him for the concerts in London this weekend.
Isungset is playing a series of nine concerts in a temporary geodesic dome beside Somerset House. It’s cold, but nowhere near as cold as Geilo in Norway, where Isungset has established the world’s first ice music festival.
The Guardian has this review of his performance at Somerset House:
Visual spectacle aside, Isungset makes fascinating music – it’s not the sound art or ambient abstraction you might expect. Pure-toned singer Lena Nymark adds wordless vocals: folky, pentatonic motifs on New Day and a longer, more chromatic line that reverberates across Isungset’s four-note ice marimba riffs on Mellom Fjell, a tone poem about the awe felt surrounded by high mountains and deep water.
On the closing Global Ice, a Nobel prize ceremony commission, Isungset picks up the wonderfully odd-looking ice trumpet, and produces a roar that soars across looped and pre-recorded ice percussion – an abrasive, primeval sound that’s far from ice-clear, but magnificent in its madness.
One of his best ice albums is the live Ice Concerts (2008). Chris Jones, reviewing it for the BBC, had this to say:
Terje Isungset, like many of his Nordic compatriots, straddles the divide between jazz, avant garde and even folk. A lot of this has to do with the inherent Scandinavian respect for nature and its power on the imagination. Isungset, a percussionist who has worked with just about every major name in Norwegian jazz, is a man who uses nature’s materials to make his music. Anyone who has seen him perform knows that he can express himself more fully with a ram’s horn, a bunch of twigs or a couple of pebbles, better than most musicians could with a whole fjord full of modern gadgetry. Ice Concerts, culled from his tour of Arctic spots in 2006, sees him extend the pallette of sounds that he first explored on his album Iceman Is. And yes, it’s all made with nothing more sophisticated than frozen water and the human voice.
If there’s any singular description of Seim’s music, it’s that of peace and harmony.
– John Kelman, All About Jazz
I’ve been listening to the beautiful new album from Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim, Purcor: Songs for Saxophone and Piano, comprising a series of duets with pianist Andreas Utnem. Purcor was recorded in an Oslo church, emphasising the deeply spiritual feel of the music of very plain, Satie-like original pieces, traditional folk tunes and hymn-like improvisations. The album reminds me of another wonderful piano-saxophone collaboration: that of Joanna MacGregor and Andy Sheppard on Deep River.
Trygve Seim (that’s pronounced Treeg-vah say-muh – those 5 consonants in succession can flummox an English larynx) has slowly crept into my awareness in the last few years. Born in the 1970s, Seim had an older brother who played in punk bands and his early musical tastes, apart from punk, included Bob Marley (there’s a unique version of ‘Redemption Song’, performed with accordionist Frode Haltli on their 2008 album Yeraz).
But at the age of 14 Seim heard Jan Garbarek’s Eventyr, and, in Seim’s words:
That kind of made my decision to play saxophone. It was just a coincidence really, that my step-father played me Eventyr; we were on a trip in the mountains when I first heard it. It was not so much an intellectual thing; the melodies on the album just touched my heart directly. Anyway, my father had a saxophone that he wasn’t using, so he said I could have it and that was the beginning.
Seim went on to study at Trondheim Music Conservatory, before forming the Trondheim Kunst Orchestra, which included trumpeter Arve Henriksen. At the same time, with Henriksen, he was involved in a collaborative quartet called The Source which led to the 2002 ECM album The Source and Different Cikadas. The group was an odd combination of two drummers, two bassists, tuba, saxophone, clarinet, trumpet and guitar.
In 2004 ECM released Seim’s second album on the label as leader: Sangam. ‘Destined to be one of ECM’s classics’, John Fordham predicted in the Guardian. ‘ At times Trygve Seim sounds like no sax player you’ve ever heard – more like wind in the trees, or wooden flutes… ‘. In Sanskrit the title means ‘the meeting point of three rivers’ and this perhaps reflects the three primary voices on Sangam —Seim, trumpeter Arve Henriksen, and clarinetist Havard Lund. It was this album that provoked John Kelman, in his review for All About Jazz to comment that, ‘if there’s any singular description of Seim’s music, it’s that of peace and harmony’. The centrepiece of the recording is the four part suite, ‘Himmelrand i Tidevand’ (‘The Edge of the Sky and Tides’) which adds two trombones and a string ensemble to the mix. To me this sounds like an indefatigable northern brass band on a journey, pausing every now and then to take stock of the landscape and the state of the world, sometimes in a mood of melancholy, at other times filled with joy.
An even more unusual combination followed on the 2008 album Yeraz. With Trygve Seim was accordionist Frode Haltli; they had been collaborating for some time, and the accordianist had appeared on Sangam. Seim composed most of the material – with the exception of two pieces by G.I. Gurdjieff, and that Bob Marley tune. The album opened and closed with two free improvisations, ‘Praeludum’ and ‘Postludum’, reminiscent of Jan Garbarek’s classic Dis. All About Jazz concluded: ‘The disc has an overriding arc, gradually moving from brooding introspection to quietly joyous optimism’.
In 2007, Seim contributed to Starflowers, the extraordinarily beautiful and haunting album by the Norwegian/Finnish singer Sinikka Langeland. All the lyrics sung by Sinikka Langeland on the album were by the Norwegian poet Hans Børli,who lived as a woodcutter, writing poetry alive with his experiences of the Norwegian forests.
And so to Purcor, on which Trygve Seim is paired with pianist Andreas Utnem. Although this is the first time the two musicians have recorded together, their partnership extends back to the 1990s when Utnem, working with Norway’s Church City Mission foundation, invited Seim to perform with him at several church services. ‘Andreas’s background is quite different from my own’, Seim has said, ‘but there is something about his composing that brings out a ‘focusing’ quality in my playing. Over time we’ve arrived at a special simplicity and clarity in the music which pleases me very much’.
The album may be loosely inspired by elements from the Catholic mass, with songs like Seim’s ‘Responsorium’, Utnem’s ‘Credo’, and the sprightly ‘Gloria, Improvisation’. Elsewhere, they explore several folk tunes including the Norwegian song ‘Solrenning’ on which Utnem plays the harmonium. There is a reworking of Seim’s breathlike ‘Bhavana’, first heard on his 2001 ECM debut Different Rivers. The album opens with the melodic and catchy ‘Kyrie’, with Seim’s breathy and keening gospel-like saxophone blends beautifully with Utnem’s jaunty piano.
This album may be the best of a superb crop of ECM albums in 2010. Is there any other jazz record label that can guarantee such quality and inventiveness, year after year? The best of 2010, for me, have been: Anat Fort (And If), Charles Lloyd (Mirror), Ketil Bjornstad (Remembrance), Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble (Officium Novum), Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden (Jasmine), Food (Quiet Inlet), Stephan Micus (Bold As Light) and Manu Katché (Third Round).