20 September 2007

Lena Willemark
Älvdalens elektriska
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Älvdalens elektriska (and the ‘elektriska’ is in the music, not in any amplification – this recording is completely acoustic) is one of those rare releases that seems perfect in every way – from the songs and tunes selected, to the choice of accompanying musicians, the arrangements, the performances, the sound quality and even the packaging. Lena Willemark (born in 1960 in the village of Evertsberg) describes herself as ‘in love’ with the music and culture of her home region – she has been performing and recording all of her adult life, and her dedication, spirit and abilities shine in everything she does. With a string of notable recordings behind her – as a solo artist as well as a member of respected groups like Frifot, The Nordan Project, and Enteli – she has brought forth an album that from the very first sounds of the first track evokes a sense of place that is palpable and transporting…and that level of beauty, power and quality is maintained until the last note of the last song fades away. This is a ‘desert island disc’ if I’ve ever heard one.

The programme is subtly varied and intelligently balanced – there are four tracks that are completely instrumental and ten that feature Lena’s beautiful voice. With five wonderful musicians along for the ride, I’m guessing that Lena and the group together made the collective decisions on who would play on each track, the arrangements being determined by the needs of the music itself in finding its form. Two of the instrumental tracks (‘Mikkelkwenn’ and ‘Mjölnarpolskan’) are duets between Lena (on fiddle or alto fiddle) and Leo Svensson (on cello) – the two instruments blend together and complement each other wonderfully, weaving a tangible magic for the listener. On ‘Dikka / Dieg Anders’, Verf Lena Egardt adds a second fiddle; and with ‘Hemvändaren’ we’re treated to a solo fiddle tune by Lena.
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The first track (‘Åsenpsalm’) opens with the sound of waves lapping gently on a shore, followed by Lena voicing a bit of a herding song – the other players enter, and Lena switches to a more ‘standard’ form of vocal. It’s immediately apparent that the cello is a great choice for a ‘bottom’ instrument in this ensemble – but Svensson’s playing ventures far beyond any boundaires implied by that description. The same can be said for the presence of a couple of instruments – bandoneón and ney (played by Mikael Augustsson and Haci Ahmed Tekbilek, respectively) – that might seem a bit incongruous in a recording of Swedish music, but as the album progresses, it’s clear that they fit into the mood and mix perfectly.

The number of accompanists on the vocal tracks varies – there’s not a single selection where all six performers take part. Two of the most effective arrangements, to my ears, are ‘Ditt blå’ and ‘Hoppets dörr’ – Lena’s voice (with the addition of her alto fiddle on the latter) is teamed with the bandoneón of Mikael Augustsson and Leo Svensson’s cello. The spare beauty of these two tracks is incredible, and ‘Hoppets dörr’ especially has an extremely intimate feel to it – I felt as if Lena were singing this only for me (or, of course, to anyone else who happens to be fortunate enough to hear it). The stunning clarity of the recording is first-rate throughout the disc (a wonderful job by engineer Sigge Krantz), but on ‘Hoppets dörr’ the ‘breathing’ of the bandoneón (a unique characteristic of the instrument) makes it sound like a living being – an amazing track, I played this over and over the first time I heard the CD.
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Lena’s voice is a warm, expressive, beautifully controlled instrument – even without understanding more than a few words of Swedish, it’s easy for me to feel the emotion with which she delivers the songs she sings. ‘Ande’ is a real jewel – an a cappella performance by Lena – and on ‘Tommos Kerstins vallåt / Silder / Vallåtspolska’ she treats the listener to a medley of a couple of fiddle tunes framing a song.

The herding calls that Lena performs on some of the selections are thrilling to my ears – I was immediately reminded of the shepherd’s calls heard in the background during parts of Andrei Tarkovsky’s last film, 1986’s Offret (The sacrifice). From what I can understand of the credits (and they’re in extremely small type…!), it appears that they were recorded outdoors on location, then mixed in the studio, sometimes with other instruments, sometimes not. However it was accomplished, they bring multiple senses of the outdoors into the recording, and add immeasurably to its effectiveness, fitting perfectly into the thematic programme.

I mentioned the packaging – and while I don’t want to place undue emphasis on it, I have to say that the photography (for which I can find no credit) is stunning, whether it’s the expected pics of Lena or of various images of the Swedish countryside.
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Lena has worked and recorded in many settings. With multi-instrumentalist Ale Möller and fiddler / bagpiper Per Gudmundson, she performs in the trio Frifot. She and Ale also have recordings to their credit as The Nordan Project, and she was also a member of a more experimental Swedish ensemble, Enteli, that drew on traditional sources, jazz and improvised music. Some of these recordings are on the prestigious ECM label out of Germany – and these are the ones most readily available in the US. I can heartily recommend recordings by either Frifot or The Nordan Project, or any of Lena’s solo work – as for Enteli, I haven’t heard enough of their work to form an opinion just yet.
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This is an incredible recording – I think I’ve gotten that opinion across by this point – it lives and breathes, and delivers an amazing range of emotions. There is no doubt when listening to this album that this is Swedish music – but at the same time, it’s universal, issuing from the souls of the performers to that of the listener. No ‘language barrier’ is high enough to prevent it from touching anyone with an ear for beautiful, organic, honest music – it’s the sort of thing that can break down walls, and give us hope.
links :
cdRoots (a great source for music from all over the world...wide selection, fair prices, good service)

18 September 2007

Touching the untouchables :
the films of Lodge Kerrigan

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I think I can state with certainty that no viewer will come away from any of Lodge Kerrigan’s three (so far) feature films unchanged. Focusing on protagonists that most of us would undoubtedly cross the street to avoid, he aims his camera at schizophrenics, street dwellers, prostitutes and bottom feeders – and even if we manage to remain unsympathetic to their plights, I think it would be highly unlikely that we don’t gain at least some awareness of their life experience, of their pain, and of the lack of choices they’re offered with which to chart out the paths they walk. Through his camera techniques, the framing of the stories he tells, and every filmic element down to the sound design, Kerrigan rubs the viewer’s face into his films – with relentlessness, but also with elegance and grace. If you choose to pass these by because you’re worried about being made to feel uncomfortable, you’re cheating yourself out of experiencing the work of one of the most talented, innovative directors working today.
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Clean, shaven (1994)
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The first of Kerrigan’s features, Clean, shaven was shot over a two-year period on a $60,000 budget (...and no, I didn't leave out any zeroes). It stars Peter Greene (who later appeared in Pulp fiction as the repugnant hillbilly sodomite Zed) in an incredible performance as schizophrenic Peter Winter, just released from a mental hospital and searching desperately for his daughter, who was put up for adoption when he was institutionalized. He returns to his home town to try to locate her, staying briefly with his cold, distant (and, pretty obviously, also disturbed) mother. Winter is being followed by a detective (Robert Albert), who is convinced that he is responsible for the brutal death of a child (and whose motives and methods may or may not be completely as they seem – no one in this film, as in ‘real life’, is completely ‘good’ or ‘bad’). This seemingly simple story line is fleshed out beyond its boundaries by the relentlessness with which the director places the viewer inside Peter’s head.

One major tool in accomplishing this is the sound design. Psychologists and patients who suffer from schizophrenia describe the aural experience as one of the most harrowing aspects of the disorder – they are simply unable to differentiate between the various levels of sound that reach their ears. Conversations in which they’re involved vie for focus with the background noises most of us are able to filter out by choice – consciously or subconsciously. The end effect has been likened by several reviewers I’ve read to turning the tuning dial on a radio, always managing to wind up ‘between stations’. As a result, it’s almost impossible for schizophrenics to concentrate on a conversation or a particular task for any length of time – there are simply too many sensory distractions pulling at them. This aspect of the disorder is misunderstood by many – and I’m not claiming to be knowledgeable about it, or an expert in any sense of the word – and has no doubt led to the popular misconception that they’re constantly ‘hearing voices’ in their head. While this might be true in some cases, there’s much more to their disorder than that.

Beyond the sound design, the camera places the viewer right in the middle of Peter’s experience as well – many of the shots are done in such close proximity to the actor that there is literally no escaping his confusion and pain. Before I saw the film, I had read about a couple of particularly gruesome scenes (I won’t go into them in detail here, just be aware that they’re in there) – but to my mind, one of the hardest scenes to watch, and one of the most effective from a cinematic aspect, was when Peter was sitting at the kitchen table with his mother, attempting to make a sandwich. The ‘simple’ act of slicing a tomato becomes completely visceral and verges on being panic-inducing. Peter’s hallucinations and delusions – his fear of being watched is so great that he can’t bear to see his own reflection, and he covers the windows of his car with sheets of newspaper. At one point, he sees another man, who appears to be a homeless person, ranting and raving and kicking at a fence, talking to no one in particular – it’s clear that he sees himself in this other unfortunate soul, and his fear of descending further into unreality is unmistakably written on his face.

The greatest tension in the film comes during the scenes after Peter locates his daughter, depicting his interaction with her. Despite having been practically living in his head during the film up to this point, it’s still uncertain as to how he will behave with her. There’s little doubt that the love and loss he feels are as real as such emotions can be – but the unpredictability of our protagonist leaves many possibilities open. Even after the ‘ending’, nothing is cut and dried.

Claire Dolan (1998)
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From schizophrenia, Kerrigan moved on with his second film to prostitution – but, as in Clean, shaven, it’s not a ‘simple’ story…and again, there are no ‘black and white’ aspects to the issue. Grey areas abound.

The title character – portrayed stunningly and effectively by Katrin Cartlidge (who also did a fine job as the sister-in-law in Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the waves) – is an Irish immigrant to New York. She made the journey on a loan from Roland, an old ‘family friend’ (a slick but thuggish ‘businessman’, played perfectly by Colm Meaney), who, once she found herself in America, pressured her into working as a call girl in order to pay off her debt to him. She yearns for a normal life – but she knows no other way to free herself from her financial obligation, and finds out just how coldly brutal Roland can be. She gives herself to her ‘clients’ with a detachment that is palpable and chilling – when asked ‘What do you want to do…?’ in a hotel room, she replies evenly, ‘I’ll do whatever you like.’ The viewer can see her ‘go away’ simply by looking into her eyes – she does what she feels she has to do, mechanically, focusing on the day when she can pay Roland off and try to realize her dream of being a mother.

Craving some affection and contact that doesn’t involve the exchange of money, she picks up a man in a bar – Elton, who turns out to be a cab driver in nearby Newark (played sweetly and believably by Vincent D’Onofrio). Their relationship starts out by being completely sexual, but they come to care for each other – which has different effects for each of them. Elton wants desperately to help Claire get away from Roland’s clutches – he even goes so far as to confront him in a bar in New York, and gets beaten for his efforts. Claire is obviously touched by Elton’s love for her – but at the same time, she views it rather coldly, unsure if a relationship with anyone will really help her achieve her goals.

While the camera work in Clare Dolan takes the viewer in close during many scenes, the director draws back a bit in order to give the audience more of a feel of the detachment and isolation of the main character. During the several sex scenes, the blankness of her face and eyes is given most of the shot, but even during the wider views, I found myself being drawn more to her face than the sexual activity itself (and of course, being a film about a prostitute, there’s plenty of that). The theme of separation and division is instilled from the opening title sequence – a series of images of modern buildings, shot at unnatural angles, featuring cross-hatch patterns that give the impression of cells and cubicles, rows and rows of anonymous opaque windows, behind which anything could be happening. After the credits, we see Claire in a phone booth – her conversation seems like a normal one with a lover (“I want to see you – I can be at your hotel in 10 minutes…’), until it moves on to more graphic talk, and then she places a second call, to a different man, that goes almost exactly like the first. She lies, telling him ‘I’m at home’, and sets up a rendezvous with him also. All of this is done in a chilly, mechanical manner – the conversations with her clients (‘I don’t know how to say this – you’re not like other men…’) are just what they want to hear, but they’re completely meaningless, the verbal equivalent of repetitive assembly line actions.

Despite centering on a character who normally elicits little empathy from an audience, Katrin Cartlidge’s performance here is one that invites identification and understanding. As she deals with the death of her mother (who has been in a New York nursing home), and as her dreams for herself are revealed, the emotion she keeps at arm’s length during her work is made more apparent – and it draws us more closely to her. It’s a good lesson in compassion – and in how strong a force sheer determination can be in one’s life.

Keane (2004)
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In the newest (at this writing) of his features, Kerrigan returns to the subject of schizophrenia…but no one should think for a second that he’s merely re-making Clean, shaven. There are other similarities, but there is more than enough individuality at work here to make this its own film entirely. The in-your-face camera work returns in Keane, and with a vengeance – one reviewer described it as ‘stalker-cam’, and it follows the protagonist so closely that the viewer has no chance to escape becoming involved with him. As in his first film, the story itself is deceptively simple – and, as Village Voice film critic Michael Atkinson noted, ‘…Keane seems to have simply occurred of its own accord, like a gutter sapling or a piece of street drama you happened to walk by’, rather than coming to life off a storyboard. The feeling of reality in this film is that strong.

William Keane (Damian Lewis) is looking for his daughter, who was abducted while on an outing with him (he’s divorced) at New York’s Grand Central Station. His sole purpose in life seems to be to find her – he repeatedly visits the scene of the abduction, assailing passers-by as well as Port Authority employees with enquiries about her, showing them her picture. He is again and again reduced to tears, and it’s easy to see from his actions that, like Peter Winter in Clean, shaven, he suffers from schizophrenia – his mind is constantly addled, but he has flashes of clarity during which he can appear completely normal, allowing him to function enough to go on with his search. From time to time, he is driven by his pain, desperation and confusion to seek solace in alcohol, drugs and casual pick-up sexual encounters (the one we see occurs in the bathroom at a nightclub).

At the low-rent residence hotel where he lives on his government disability checks, Keane meets a woman with a young daughter – through a series of reciprocal favors, he becomes close to them, and develops a more caring relationship than he perhaps anticipated, feeling himself drawn to the young girl, who is about the same age as his missing daughter. As he spends more time with her, the tension inexorably builds – like Peter Winter in Kerrigan’s first film, Keane is simply too unpredictable for the viewer to remain completely comfortable.
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The story unfolds as much through Keane’s eyes as is possible without actually looking out from his head – everything the audience learns about his life, his loss, and his pain, is told from his perspective, through relating it to others with whom he comes into contact. The edginess comes into play more and more as the viewer begins to realize that ‘our narrator’ may or may not be trustworthy – the story we’re given may be true, false, or made up of both facts and the imaginings of a schizophrenic mind. By about two-thirds of the way through the film, I was beginning to wonder if Keane’s daughter had ever existed – and while that’s never actually addressed or answered, it adds an additional aspect to the experience of the film. In the end, it matters less whether the events occurred as Keane relates them (directly or indirectly) than the presentation of an opportunity for the viewer to experience the life of yet another ‘untouchable’.

All three of these films are currently available on DVD (click on the titles for availability info) :

Clean, shaven comes from Criterion, and is given their usual stellar presentation – audio commentary with Kerrigan and Steven Soderbergh, a video essay by Michael Atkinson, a written essay by Dennis Lim, and the amazing soundtrack (by composer Hahn Rowe) and selections from the final audio mix, available as downloadable mp3 files.

Claire Dolan is released through New Yorker Video – the package includes an audio introduction to the film, and features in print versions both an interview with actress Katrin Cartlidge and an essay by Michael Atkinson.

Keane is available from Magnolia Entertainment – this release features an alternative cut of the entire film by Steven Soderbergh.

12 September 2007

Sámi wisdom, energy and beauty

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Mari Boine
Idjagieđas (In the hand of the night)

Ever since discovering her music back in 1989, with the US release of Gula gula on Peter Gabriel’s labor-of-love label, Real World Records, I’ve awaited each new release from Sámi singer/songwriter Mari Boine with great anticipation. In almost 20 years of listening to her work, I’ve been delighted and fascinated with her art – and my reaction to her latest release, Idjagieđas (In the hand of the night) is no different. While she has been critically acclaimed all over the world, including the US, her albums don’t always see a release in this country – and this is the case with Idjagieđas – it came out in Europe in 2006, and is still available only as an import on these shores. This makes it harder to find and a bit more expensive – but I don’t regret a penny I spent on this CD. It’s one of my favorite acquisitions so far this year, and in my opinion one of her best efforts.
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The Sámi people have lived traditionally across what we know as Scandinavia – parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. They are usually referred to as ‘Laplanders’ – a term they resent, which has over the years acquired several undeserved negative connotations. In recognition of their culture and heritage, Norway, Sweden and Finland have taken steps to ensure that that the Sámi have a voice in government. (For a more comprehensive article on Sámi culture, including forwarding links, see below.)

Mari’s last recording, Gávcci jahkejudgu (Eight seasons), came out in the US via the Northside label in Minneapolis in 2003 – for my tastes, it ventured a little too far into electronics / sampling, but it was still a very satisfying recording. With Idjagieđas, the arrangements and writing have edged back away from the techno-tendencies into the style I’ve always considered to be her strongpoint – ethnically-based tunes built around acoustic instruments with the tasteful addition of electric instruments (for instance, some wonderful electric guitar from another old favorite of mine from Norway, the incredible Terje Rypdal), all in perfect support of Mari’s writing and singing. There are some electronic keyboards and sampling present throughout the album – but rather than dominating the arrangements, as they did more often on her last release, they’re mixed more in proportion to the rest of the band. As a result, the sound feels more natural and less forced.
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Mari’s voice is a one-of-a-kind instrument – her expressiveness and control are the marks of an artist who is aware of her natural gift and wields it with a great deal of respect and humility. She can coo softly, as in a lullaby or a whisper in the ear of a lover – she can also raise her voice to the sky with the pounding of a shaman drum, calling down eagles and raising the hair on the back of the listener’s neck – she can integrate yoiking (or joiking, alternatively), traditional Sámi improvised singing, into her music with naturalism and ease. She travels these extremes – and all points in between – as the material requires, never exploiting her instrument simply for effect without meaning. Even though almost all of her songs are delivered in her native tongue, there’s never any doubt as to the emotion carried by the words...

…and her lyrics speak of many things. Sámi culture dominates, of course – ancient folktales, tribal wisdom, love and reverence for the environment, spiritual beliefs, healing ceremonies and more are all addressed within her music. She finds many parallels between Sámi concerns and things which should concern all of humanity – the importance of strength and resilience in women, for example, as well as the virtues we should cultivate and honor, not simply in order to enrich our lives, but to attempt to keep the human race from disappearing from the earth.

Her lyrics are peppered with bits of wisdom that are both ancient and relevant – in ‘Suoivva (The shadow)’, she sings, ‘The dress of the envious never gets longer – the plate of the envious never fills up. Should’a beens, should’a dones, carrying guilt…always bound to do favours…’ In ‘Gos bat munni čiŋat leat? (Where did all our colours go)’, she alludes to the weight of needless guilt and pointless, unproductive hindsight again: ‘Our festive garments – where on earth did all of our colours go? … You knew I stood there right by the edge of the cliff. You saw I’d been to the shadowlands – my face was sinking to the deep, all saturated, about to drown in guilt. Breathe me back to life…’ While it’s important to know the past, and to learn from it, it’s more important to live in the present and look to the future.

Other songs address the importance of friendship, of receiving and giving love and support to the others in our lives at every opportunity. From ‘Mu ustit eŋgeliid sogalaš (My friend of angel tribe)’: ‘My friend in league with angels dances so easily between people, holding my hand and warming me…’ In ‘Davvi bávttiin (On the fells of the north)’, she sings more directly of elements of Sámi culture and beliefs: ‘The longhaired shaman daughter herds her white and spotted reindeer on the fells of the north as in an old picture – the shaman daughter trance sleeps…she yoiks…she washes herself with the rushing water…with the echoes of the cliffs she yoiks, rinses her intuition in the cascade.’ Another song, ‘Big medicine (Fápmodálkkas)’ (sung in English), laments the loss of ancient methods of healing, questioning the wisdom of adopting modern ideas to the complete exclusion of traditional ones, suggesting that the most effective ‘medicine’ – that which will heal us in more ways than just the physical – is to be found within ourselves.
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Mari has always given a grateful nod of acknowledgment to the musicians who accompany her – the core players on each of her recordings are the regular members of her touring band. This solidifies the feeling of unity in her music – when the performers are familiar with each other, as well as with the artist they support, the arrangements flow more naturally and organically, coming together into a whole that is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. To the expected instruments such as guitar, bouzouki, fiddle, bass, keyboards, and percussion are added components one might not necessarily associate with any type of Nordic music, such as marimba, berimbau, gimbre, darbouka, kora, mbira and more – and all are included in the mix in just the right amount, in such a way that nothing sounds out of place.

This recording is stunning – the sound quality is absolutely crystalline, allowing the music to be experienced in all of its beauty and strength. There is delicacy here…there are strong rhythms and memorable melodies…and at the center of it all is the incredible voice of Mari Boine, singing the heart and soul of her people and herself, in a language that goes straight to the heart and soul of the listener. If you’ve never heard her, you’re missing out on something extraordinary.

A final note: her official website is still under construction as I write this – but she has a page on MySpace (link below), where you can hear song samples as well as read biographical and other information about her. There’s also a really well-done video there called ‘Eagle talk’ that I recommend watching – I’m not sure who produced it, but it integrates several images and spiritual beliefs from Native American culture, echoes of which I’ve long heard in the ‘heartbeat’ of Sámi music.
(note: Radiant warmth is a compilation, and a good introduction to her work)