16 October 2007

the still waters of time...
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Valentin Silvestrov :
Bagatellen und Serenaden

In his notes to the 2004 ECM release of Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov’s Requiem for Larissa (dedicated to his wife, Larissa Bondarenko, who died in 1996), music critic Paul Griffiths makes a statement that cuts to the heart of Silvestrov’s art : ‘Time in Valentin Silvestrov’s music is a black lake. The water barely moves, the past refuses to slide away, and the slow, irregular stirrings of an oar remain in place.’ This sense of ‘stopped time’ pervades many of the composer’s works – it seems to me a bit of an aural equivalent of what the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky did in his cinematic masterpieces. Tarkovsky called it ‘sculpting in time’. In Silvestrov’s music, time stands still to the point of disorientation – some of his larger, longer works give the impression of constantly ‘ending’, only to continue. He calls his music ‘post-symphonic’, and the titles of several of his works reflect this: ‘Postludium’ and ‘Postlude’ appear here and there. The listener is left with a sense of déjà vu – has this music been experienced before, perhaps in another lifetime? In one of his pieces from the mid-70s, ‘Kitsch music for piano’, there’s a movement entitled ‘A metaphor for Schubert and Chopin’, leaving the listener with the impression that this music must have been written by a composer centuries ago – exactly the effect for which Silvestrov was reaching. I think perhaps it’s not so much that Silvestrov is trying to ‘stop time’ – it’s more like he’s setting the listener afloat in that ‘lake’, where the present and the past touch and interact. Memory becomes as tangible as present existence – tenses merge and blur. Herbert Glossner, in the booklet accompanying the ECM release of Silvestrov’s Symphony no. 6, appropriately quotes Marcel Proust (from Remembrance of things past) : ‘And all at once the memory returned.’ Memory, in the music of Valentin Silvestrov, is as much a physical dimension as space.
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After the obvious starting point in the composer’s mind, Silvestrov’s compositions begin on the piano. Over the years, I have found the brief tastes of the composer himself at the keyboard that have been offered on three releases (‘Four songs after Osip Mandelstam’, for baritone and piano, recorded in 1986 and released by both Megadisc and ECM with Silent songs; ‘Unsnaya musika 1 & 2’, included with the song cycle Stufen, recorded in 1999 and released by Magadisc; and ‘Hymne 2001’, which appears on Leggiero, pesasnte, recorded in 2001 and released by ECM) to be some of the most moving music I’ve ever heard. Thus it was with great anticipation that I awaited the release of Bagatellen und Serenaden, ECM’s newest offering of his works. Over half of the album features the composer at the piano, alone, performing some of his most intimate, moving works, many of which he says have never been written down on paper. According to the notes, the composer often works on compositions in this manner, holding snippets of melody in his mind for long periods of time before putting it in writing – thus the pieces are allowed to find their own voice naturally, over time. The sense of physically plucking memories out of time is therefore strengthened by the very process through which the pieces come into being. His music has been described as ‘a dialogue with silence’ – each note, each phrase is given a life of its own and allowed to move and breathe naturally, without artifice. More than any composer I’ve ever heard, living or not, Silvestrov combines elements of the avant-garde (the school in which he matured) and the neo-romantic – he does it seamlessly and without pretension, holding the melody above all else, even in the most dense and dissonant passages of his larger works. His music has a living flow unlike that of any other composer.
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I’m by no means a classical music scholar – what I’m expressing here is intended to be more on an emotional response level than anything so exacting or analytical. Hearing these piano pieces directly from the hands of the composer is a very moving experience for me – it’s extremely personal and conversational, as if he’s speaking through the keyboard and my soul is responding.
As one might expect, the production on this release is superb – ECM has long been known for the highest level of audio quality. In the case of the solo piano pieces presented here, they’ve outdone themselves. Rather than ‘placing’ the listener in close proximity to the performer (some engineers seem to think the listener should practically be inside the piano), sound engineer Stephan Schellmann and producer Manfred Eicher have achieved a sonic miracle – when I listen to this recording, it’s as if I’m sitting about halfway back in the recording space. The element of memory and the feeling of experiencing this music over a ‘quiet distance’, seemingly intangible and untouchable qualities, are brilliantly conveyed by the recording.

The other half of this CD is comprised of works for chamber orchestra, two of which – ‘Der Bote' (1996) and ‘Zwei Dialog emit Nachwort’ (2001-02) feature the wonderful playing of Alexei Lubimov, long a fine, sensitive interpreter of Silvestrov’s keyboard compositions. The orchestra is the Münchener Kammerorchester, under the able direction of Christoph Poppen. These are pieces of aching beauty – but one shouldn’t take that to indicate that they are ‘fluff’ by any means. Silvestrov’s works are always of strong substance and intellectual depth – every note does its part to complete the effect of the whole, and nothing is left to chance or done without consideration.

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Another new release featuring Silvestrov’s piano works has been issued by Hänssler Classic, as a joint production with SWR – the performer in this case is Jenny Lin, and the album is entitled Nostalghia. Lin is an admired interpreter of the composer’s works (she has also studied with him) – the ‘Three postludes’ (2005) that appear here are dedicated to her by Silvestrov. Her touch and interpretation, like those of Lubimov, seem to be very much attuned to the composer’s intentions. The inherent intimacy and deep emotion of these pieces, the ‘beautiful quietude’ that they seem to invoke, find in her an able and willing translator. Lin’s recording brings together pieces composed from 1972 to 2005, and she handles all of them with the utmost respect, care and feeling.

Several of Silvestrov’s works for piano reference composers he admires through titles and / or dedications – ‘Two pieces’ (2003) has a movement entitled ‘Chopin moments’; ‘Three waltzes’ are titled ‘Schoenberg’, ‘Webern’ and ‘Berg’, respectively. ‘Two dialogues with an epilogue’ (2001-02), goes even further, quoting, tellingly, the ‘Kupelwieser waltz’ by Franz Schubert – a piece which, according to the notes, was only played by Schubert and never written down by the composer. Not until 1943 was the piece, which had been passed down from ‘ear to hand’ through the years, written down by descendants of Richard Strauss. Silvestrov believes very strongly in this sort of ‘oral tradition’ playing an important part in composed music – just as many of his own melodies and ideas are carried in his mind for years before being printed.

These two discs present some of the most important and moving work by a artist whom Arvo Pärt has called ‘one of the greatest composers of our time’ – no small bit of praise. I can heartily recommend any the ECM releases that showcase his work – and especially Bagatellen und Serenaden. As an introduction to an important composer, it’s a great place to start exploring.

15 October 2007

Sinikka Langeland
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I came late to the music of Sinikka Langeland, despite the fact that she’s been recording since 1994 (at least, that’s the earliest listing on the discography page of her website). The first time I saw her name was in a new release email from ECM Records, who have recently issued Starflowers. I recognized the names of a couple of artists from ECM’s formidable roster in the credits – the great Swedish bassist Anders Jormin (who, along with his stellar work in the jazz genre, has long been a champion of the musical traditions of Scandinavia) and Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim. The ensemble on this release is rounded out by Arve Henriksen (trumpet) and Markku Ounaskari (percussion) – but at the center of it all is the kantele (the Finnish table-harp) and voice of Sinikka. Her voice is an amazing instrument – she uses it with great taste and intelligence, as well as with an incredible range of emotion. She generally plays a concert-kantele, with over 30 strings (as opposed to the smaller models with 3 to 10 strings utilized by many solo singers), which affords not only a greater musical range but a increased ability for tonal variation. Her instrument has a lovely bell-like quality – and the talent and dedication with which she pursues her music enhance its qualities immensely.
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Whenever I see an artist who is known for traditional music release a recording involving participation by jazz players, it’s tempting to worry just a little that the tradition might be sacrificed to experimentation and envelope-expanding arrangements – while the latter is certainly present on Starflowers, experimentation is never allowed to run rough-shod over the heart and soul of these tunes. While this album is closer to a ‘jazz sound’ than anything else I’ve heard by her, the tunes remain traditional at their core, with the jazz-oriented instruments and settings of some of the pieces adding color and enhancing the atmosphere.

The ten texts (there are three instrumentals) are all from the writing of Norwegian poet Hans Børli (1918-1989). Sinikka’s 1995 recording Har du lyttet til elvene om natta? (Have you listened to the rivers in the night?) is also based on Børli’s work. In the notes to that earlier recording, Sinikka describes first being touched by his art:

I discovered Hans Børli’s poetry one December evening in 1978. The embers were warm in the black stove, and my music crept closer to his poems. My feeling of being near something great became even stronger when I sang their rune-songs in the certainty that something important was being handed down.

The poems speak from a soul that is closely tied to the wonder of the natural world, and well-aware of the importance of human stewardship in keeping our living planet healthy and vital in order to continue our existence on it. They address the inner human condition as well – dreams, hopes, fears, and joy. In ‘Sus i myrull (Whispers in the cotton grass)’, Børli contrasts the natural ease of Nature with the hurried, choked lives of people bound up in knots of numbing everyday activities:

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…

Many of Børli’s verses employ outdoor settings, such as in ‘Stjernestund (A moment of stars)’:

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…

The crystalline beauty of Sinikka’s kantele and her rich, expressive voice create the perfect vehicle for his words.

The credit that gave me the most cause for concern when I first picked up Starflowers was the presence of the trumpet. I was worried that the nature of the instrument might cause it to overwhelm and dominate the arrangements, which is, thankfully, not the case at all. Arve Henriksen plays his instrument with a delicacy that is extremely rare – in fact, the first time I listened to the CD, I thought I was hearing a flute or some other woodwind. I had to double-check the credits to make sure of what I was experiencing. Trygve Seim’s work on saxophone is equally restrained and tasteful here – he and Henriksen are masters at finding and executing wonderful melody lines that fit perfectly into the atmosphere of the recording. The one track that is most like a jazz work-out is the 6-minute instrumental ‘Vindtreet’ – it gives the musicians a chance to stretch out a bit, and it doesn’t disrupt the mood a bit.
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I have three other CDs by Sinikka: the aforementioned Har du lyttet til elvene om natta? (1995); Strengen var af røde guld (1997), a collection of 23 a cappella medieval ballads from Norway; and Lille Rosa (2000), medieval ballads and love songs from Norway, featuring Sinikka as a solo artist on kantele and singing – they’re all excellent, and each one showcases a different facet of the jewel that is her music. Har du lyttet…? is somewhat similar in mood to Starflowers, but closer to a ‘traditional’ feel than the ECM recording. Anders Jormin is again a welcome presence – the rest of the ensemble is Morten Halle (saxophones and flutes), Anders Engen (drums, percussion, vocals) and Peter Finger (guitar on three of the sixteen tracks). As with Starflowers, the arrangements are tastefully tailored to frame the poems and melodies.

There are some other releases by Sinikka that I’d love to eventually acquire – two albums of traditional Norwegian hymns coupled with Bach chorales, performed by Sinikka accompanied by Kåle Nordstoga (organ); Langt innpå skoga, her 1994 recording of more traditional ballads; and especially Runoja, a 2002 release featuring the trumpet of Arve Henriksen in a smaller group context than Starflowers. All in time…
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Starflowers should be readily available – ECM releases are distributed well, even in the US. If you can’t find it locally, try Amazon (link below, where you can also listen to samples from the album). The earlier albums are mostly available through cdRoots (link below).

links :

Sinikka Langeland official website
(mostly in Norwegian, but with good discography information as well as photos)

Starflowers at Amazon.com

Sinikka Langeland recordings at cdRoots

14 October 2007

canción que toca el suelo... y el alma :
Silvia Iriondo
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Tierra que anda (2002)

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Ojos negros (2005)

One of the latest discoveries I have made that has touched my musical soul at its deepest level is the work of Argentine singer Silvia Iriondo. I first came across her name on the ECM Records website – one of her albums, Tierra que anda, was released in Europe through that company on Egberto Gismonti’s Carmo label, which is devoted to artists he admires. I’ve enjoyed Egberto’s work for over 30 years – so the association got my attention. Her recordings are not easily found in the US – Amazon has the two latest ones, but the earlier releases are, apparently, considerably rarer. A couple of weeks ago, I took the plunge and ordered both Tierra que anda (2002) and Ojos negros (2005) – I couldn’t be happier with the purchase, and I couldn’t recommend an artist more highly. Her work is another tangible example of the power of music to shatter the so-called language barrier that keeps cultures apart – the emotion carried by her voice, along with the shimmering arrangements on both of these albums, is conveyed on a level that touches the soul directly.

Silvia was educated as a social worker, and she obviously cares very deeply for humanity – the connections between this commitment and her work to preserve and honor the traditional music of her homeland, Argentina, are alive in her work, permeating her art with a life-force and dedication that are palpable. The title Tierra que anda (roughly, ‘earth that walks’) invokes, for me, the too-rarely-honored attribute of our planet as a living thing, with which we interact in everything we do. It affords us nourishment, and is an infinitely complex organism that we literally touch with every step.

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The outer and inner cover photos accompanying Tierra que anda show Silvia’s hands, outstretched (alternately from her view, then from ours), cradling clumps of soil, offering them for examination and wonder at what it can hold for us. Her songs are drawn from her travels throughout Argentina, from her contacts with people who have received them, passed down as the treasure they truly are, from their forebears. The musical settings she has chosen might not be traditional in the strictest sense of the word, but she uses them lovingly, caressing the songs with deepest respect and offering them to her listeners as jewels – or, perhaps more fittingly, as seeds to be cared for, capable of nurturing the spirit in the same way the seeds of plants offer nourishment and sustenance for us all. For if we lose sight of that which connects us to our past, and to the earth itself, how are we to survive?

Tierra que anda starts off with the sounds of birdsong, followed by a beautifully played guitar leading into a lovely, traditional huayno, ‘Alas de plata’ (‘Wings of silver’) – the final verse is sung in one of the many indigenous tongues spoken in South America. The interplay between the guitar and Silvia’s voice is breathtakingly beautiful. As the album progresses, the arrangements vary to accentuate the inherent life of the songs – some are spare, some are more complex, alternately delicate, joyful, sad, or playful – but none are overdone or forced. The feeling I get from listening to these discs is one of naturalness, which pervades even the most altered (from a traditional aspect) arrangements – nothing is staid or overly ‘artful’, although this is without question art of the highest order. The cast on this album is limited to the singer plus five talented musicians: Quique Sinesi (assorted acoustic guitars), Mono Hurtado (double-bass), Patricio Villarejo (cello), Mario Gusso (percussion), and Lilián Saba (piano). Three additional guests are credited: Mario Silva (percussion, birdsong), Mariana Grisiglione (vocals), and Juan Quintero (guitar and voices). All of the instruments are used sparingly, so that none of them really dominate – at the center of all is Silvia’s wonderful voice, and at the heart of the singer is the song.

Many of the traditional song-forms of Argentina and South America are represented here (and on Ojos negros) – huaynos, cuecas, zambas, gatos, resfalosas, bailecitos, tonados, and more. Silvia and her players handle each with honor and care, delivering the tunes to the listener as one would display their life’s treasures to a houseguest. There is intimacy here – and trust. The album ends with ‘La Nostalgiosa’ – an achingly beautiful arrangement featuring Silvia singing accompanied only by the piano and a bit of percussion (which could actually be the pianist’s foot on the pedal), with the sound of passing traffic in the background. Describing it in this way might make it sound incongruous – but hearing it makes complete sense, an audio juxtaposition of the natural world (the human voice carrying the song, the emotion, the meaning behind the words) with the unnatural world (mechanical creations of humankind that can help us or destroy us, depending on how we choose to utilize them).
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Ojos negros, recorded three years after Tierra que anda, finds Silvia working along similar lines – but not standing still musically by any means. Marcos Cabezaz plays marimba and vibes, which enhance the color of the arrangements wonderfully – and Sebastián Macchi replaces Lilián Saba on piano (who appears as a guest on one track). Horacio Hurtado (double-bass) and Mario Gusso (percussion) return from the earlier recording. Also appearing as a guest is Quique Sinesi, guitarist from the Tierra que anda band. There are additionally violins and violas used tastefully here and there, along with the wonderful addition on ‘Serenata del 900’ of a pair of mbiras – this last instrument a vivid but gentle reminder of the ties between African and South American music. As with the previous album, there is never a feeling of musical ‘heaviness’ in any of the songs. The arrangements might be slightly more ‘jazzy’ in places (as in ‘La guampada’), but only in the lightest sense – the traditional heart of each song can be felt and heard beating strongly, nurtured by the very process of the singer gifting it to the listener.

I once used the term ‘lapidary’ in describing the art of Italian reedman Gianluigi Trovesi. It applies equally well, I believe, to Silvia’s music – the care with which she has conceived and executed these arrangements is on a level with that of a jeweler seeking and creating the perfect setting for an already beautiful stone…and sometimes, it’s enough just to hold it in your hand or in your heart, unadorned and natural. Silvia’s musical ability, her creativity and her love and respect for the traditional culture of her homeland, additionally colored by her education, life experience and social concerns, are laid out in these recordings like gems – or an even more precious entity, the earth itself – to hold in your hands. It’s something we can receive with respect and wonder – we can hold it in our hearts and pass it along at the same time.
Like life itself.
link :

Silvia Iriondo official website (in Spanish and English)

musique très fluide et énergique
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I stumbled across Aral 2-3 weeks ago in a local record store – it was one of those instances where the cover caught my eye first, followed by a perusal of the credits and notes on the rear cover. Intrigued, I took it to the counter for a listen – I was hooked from the first notes of the first track, ‘Symétrie’, and since I've acquired the CD, I find that I rarely play it less than all the way through. The music is incredibly compelling, nimble and energetic – I can hear a strong Celtic undercurrent in much of it…but then the Celts migrated through Europe before arriving at what many people consider to be their cultural stronghold in the British Isles, leaving myriad traces and echoes in their wake – anyone who has delved beyond the higher-profile Irish and Scottish acts on the surface of the ocean that is Celtic music has discovered wonderful performers from Brittany, Galicia, Asturia, Cantabria, Euskadi, and other regions. Ténarèze hail from the Auvergne region of France, located at the heart of the country, and they have at the center of their sound a strong, vibrant musical heart that beats with the intensity of life itself.
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Drawing upon the traditional music of Auvergne as a point of genesis, the band honors that heritage while simultaneously reaching out to embrace other sounds and styles. The expected regional instruments, such as the vielle à roue (hurdy-gurdy – in the case of Ténarèze, an electro-acoustic version of the instrument), alboka (a wind instrument usually associated with music from the Basque region of Spain and France), bagpipes, guitars and a wide range of percussives, are here – and the band expands their sonic territory to include other wind instruments (clarinet, bass clarinet) as well as an array of what they term ‘invented instruments’ (including percussive devices that utilize water, wind instruments in strange shapes that appear to be constructed from PVC pipe, and ‘preparations’ applied to other instruments, such as the guitar). The credit for these last items might raise some taditionalist eyebrows initially, inciting some potential listeners to worry that the group is abandoning the historic territory of their music – but once the music begins, it’s crystal clear that everything these folks do is in the best interest of their art. Their musical arsenal is used with grace and style – and it all adds up to an incredibly rich aural experience.
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I’m not sure how long Ténarèze has been in existence – Aral is new for 2007, and I’ve found references to a 1999 release entitled Ausèths as well – I can’t imagine that these guys were inactive for the eight years in between the two recordings. There are five members (pictured top to bottom on this page) – Marc Anthony (electro-acoustic hurdy-gurdy); Alain Cadeillan (vocals, alboka, bagpipes, invented instruments); Olivier Hestin (percussion – and trust me here…a single-word credit doesn’t do him justice…!); Laurent Rousseau (guitars, prepared instruments, sound objects); and Bernard Subert (clarinet, bass clarinet, bagpipes, water drums) – and with their multi-instrumental capabilities, combined with sheer talent and dedication, they achieve an incredible sound. Some of the pieces on the CD are arranged as suites, and they move through the various elements of these and back again to opening themes with an amazing fluidity…which is doubly appropriate in the case of Aral, since the theme of the album is water in all of its forms and attributes. Inspiration for the various compositions is drawn from regional rivers, far-flung seas and bays, and the life-giving and life-sustaining qualities of the medium itself. The album title refers to the Aral Sea, lying between Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan in Central Asia. The sea has been shrinking since the 1960s due to diversion of its two main feeder rivers, and is also plagued with a tragically high amount of pollution – by 2003, it was roughly half the size it had been just 50 years before. The picture on the CD cover shows the rusted-out remains of a trawler lying on what used to be the seabed.
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The vocal selections on this album are sung in the Occitan language (French translations and short English summations are included in the booklet), traditionally spoken in Auvergne and adjoining areas – I’m not a linguist by any means, but I can sense ties to the Breton tongue, as well as to some dialects I’ve come across from the Iberian peninsula. As with any honest, well-played (and sung) form of music from anywhere in the world, the feeling and emotion carried by the words shatters any language barriers that might try to stand in their way.
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Instrumentally as well as vocally, the music on Aral moves through different moods and levels of intensity – there is energy and power here, but there is also delicacy and reflection. I’ve included a link to the band’s page on MySpace below – there are song samples there that will give you a far better idea of the quality of this music than my poor words can manage. There are also more photos there, which will give you a good look at some of their instruments (both traditional and invented).
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I can’t wait to get a copy of Ausèths – and anything else these folks might have available. If you’re not lucky enough to have a reliable local source for international releases such as this, check out cdRoots (link below) – Cliff, the fellow who runs it does a great job stocking an incredible variety of music, and he has always given me good service, fair prices and a quick delivery.
Lastly, I just discovered a short from-the-audience video of the band live at a festival in 2005. It's not a complete tune, but it'll give some idea of the energy they can generate...