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.
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.
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…
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).
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