Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Dreamers' Circus

This album thoroughly and tastefully explores a relationship between Scandinavian folk traditions/instrumentation and classical music/orchestration, in a fearless but sensitive way to both.
-starting in the nature of Vivaldi, "Snabbsen"'s brilliant eccentricity moves into more complex turf reminiscent of late Romantic era composition, hopping back and forth between symphonic & folk contexts, as if to show the comparability
-traces of a simultaneously warm & somber contrapuntal nature comparable to Bach ("When Harlequin Sleeps")
-orchestral arrangements in the nature of that which is made for modern film ("Night Spectacular")
-a piano interlude in "Julpolskan," as if a snippet of a lost prelude by Ravel, that makes for a wonderful daydreamy transition
-"Fuglsang Jig," which has a killer intro by Ale on the mandola, and wherein they demonstrate how much polyrhythmic fun one can have with a jig, and still keep it jig-like

The scope of the album and confluence of ideas is quite remarkable. The utilization of a brass section ("A Little Symphony") is all too rare in Scandi folk albums, despite having a musical tradition that supports wind instrumentation and horns (thinking primarily of acceptable instrumentation for riksspelman -- näverlur, kohorn, etc.). That's not to say that they left out the folk element at all. Aside from a jig, there is also an excellent solo piece by Ale Carr exemplary of a more modern twist on the Scandinavian folk tradition's instrumentation: picked nylon string guitar ("Quantum Fantasy"), and it is teeming with the nature inherent in Scandinavian players: interesting rhythm syncopations, lyrical story-telling melodies, and cleverly-placed mordents.

But perhaps one of the most touching and impressive tunes is "Nikolajs Første Styk'". What starts as a rather simple Danish march-like tune at a walking pace (called a sønderhoning) with mandola, fiddle, and accordion is then, in graduated steps, enveloped & transformed into shades of deeper emotion by a shifting and thickening quintet arrangement behind it. In turn, the trio also thicken up their playing. I must admit that, at first, I'd thought they were being backed by a whole orchestra -- which was incorrect, but indicates the effort and level of organization put into their work. The amount of sensitivity with which Nikolaj Busk plays the accordion was where I first found a respect for the instrument, and his piano and accordion work on this album is no less wonderful: he brings an incredible level of attention & control to every note.

Another commendable aspect of the album's design was their introductions to the songs -- thinking primarily of Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen's intro in "When Harlequin Sleeps," and the beautiful call-and-response-natured intro between Rishab Prasanna on bansuri and Ale Carr on mandola in the tune "Julpolskan." In fact, the last three tracks, "Julpolskan," "Dreamers' Beginning," and "Circus Continuum," are 20 minutes of seamless awesominimity -- which is not a real word, but still transmits the idea. The cap on that 20 minutes of awesominimity is a brief, calming bass & piano outro reminiscent of the beautiful simplicity of Jan Johansson's "Jazz på Svenska." I'm sure they did that intentionally, to cool down the listener's nervous system, so that their head doesn't explode (from 20 minutes of constant awesominimity).

"Who is this album for?" That's a really good question. Classical instrumentalists, folk & classical enthusiasts, and music students? Certainly, but both the amount of refinement and the album's breadth, to me, exceeds that which some of my favorite American or World folk artists are doing or have done. As I've understood it, the Scandi tradition is often one of friendships between musicians -- with each friendship yielding a slightly different feeling on a tune. Duos of clever fiddlers or nyckelharpa players make their own harmonies & arrangements of traditional tunes (some of which may date back a couple hundred years): Bjorn Ståbi & Ole Hjorth, Per Gudmundson & Ola Bäckström, etc. In more recent years, the essence of a trio (e.g. Frifot, Väsen, Groupa, etc.) with non-fiddle instrumentation has been popularized, and groups such as these have demonstrated that three wise musicians, in a tradition of harmonic emphasis, is about all you need to have a tapestry of sound, ideas, and texture as full as that of an orchestra. Perhaps it is something about the nature of Scandinavian folk music's strong fiddle and folk harmony tradition that gives it a congruency to orchestral work or larger arrangements, making for a more satisfying confluence of instrumentation than, say, Shankar's concerto for sitar and orchestra. With this album as a proving ground, it is evident that these three are fit to musically go anywhere, bringing their brilliance with them.

Beyond that, by and large the album is one of those gems that satisfies a multitude of emotions, from all directions, and makes me thankful to be alive in this generation of players.