Ketil Bjørnstad/David Darling: Epigraphs (ECM 1684)



Ketil Bjørnstad piano
David Darling cello
Recorded September 1998
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Driven into the
with the unmistakable track:
grass, written asunder.
–Paul Celan, “The Straitening”

Until Epigraphs, the output from Norwegian pianist Ketil Bjørnstad and American cellist David Darling had been explicitly aquatic, as on The River the duo furthered ideas and atmospheres explored on the quartet project The Sea. Here there is a more grounded sense of architecture. And while some of it remains activated by water, for the most part it observes as it feels: on high ground. It is not a boat but an observatory, which allows the eyes to look freely into the heavens where feet and oars may not progress.

The resonance of the recording takes lantern shape. The “Epigraph” theme is its flame. As such, it flickers without ever losing hold of wick, a moment of dance lost as quickly as it fades. Much of this light comes through in song titles alone. There is enough dawn in “Wakening,” for one, to deny the imminence of dusk, so that the draw of “Silent Dream” moves with almost painful self-awareness. “The Lake” looks back through overtly drenched eyes toward a moving rite of passage. “Gothic,” too, sounds like a seed for The Sea that never sprouted, content in being self-contained. One can almost hear those distant cries, swooning electric between the clouds. In the spirit of balance, Darling digs low in “Upland,” reassuring us that Earth is not forgotten. He slips into the topography of Bjørnstad’s playing like a shoe to a foot, which follows wherever the wind may lead. Only at the end does he leap skyward through the narrow eye of a shooting star.

A smattering of Renaissance material by William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Guillaume Dufay, and Gregor Aichinger rounds out the disc and reveals itself as the core of everything that Bjørnstad and Darling have molded together. Byrd’s “Pavane” is replete with such gentility in the artists’ touch that one can almost taste the mythological impulses that nourish them. Aichinger’s “Factus Est Repente” ends with stark hymnal energy. Like the fountain pen that flows as long as there is ink, it fades only when the blood has left its poetry.

Epigraphs further yields two important tracks for both musicians and label. First is “After Celan,” which combines the shape of words and the shape of music. Second is “Song for TKJD,” a profound dip into Darling’s whirlpool of multi-tracked pathos. Here the landscape stretches, pixilates into a mosaic of monochrome. Like a lost traveler from his Cello, it comes to us fully bearded with the eternal youth of its message. It is a wavering tapestry in which Bjørnstad somehow finds purchase in the bones, a ladder of pages in absence of binding.

The quiet power of this music is its emphasis of reality over thought. It rounds the edges of our quotidian activities with intermittent variations, leitmotifs, and signposts. Bjørnstad and Darling share an ability to take something melancholy, even morose, and flood it with light to expose a spectrum in darkest hours. From the past to the present and back again, their path ties a loophole in space and cinches it until the moon closes her monocle.

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