Terje Rypdal: Melodic Warrior (ECM 2006)

2006 X

Terje Rypdal
Melodic Warrior

Terje Rypdal guitar
The Hilliard Ensemble
Bruckner Orchester Linz
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra
Sebastian Perloswski conductor
Melodic Warrior recorded December 2003 at Brucknerhaus, Linz (ORF)
Recording engineer: Alice Ertlbauer-Camerer
Engineer: Alois Hummer
And The Sky Was Coloured… recorded November 2009 at Jazztopad Festival, Wrocław
Recording engineer: Maurycy Kin
Mixed at Rainbow Studio, Oslo by Jan Erik Kongshaug, Manfred Eicher and Terje Rypdal
Album produced by Manfred Eicher

…from the house made of mirage…
…the rainbow rose up with me…
…the rainbow returned with me…
…to the entrance of my house…
…from the house made of mirage…
–excerpted from a Navajo Night Chant

How does one review an album for which one has also written liner notes? This is the challenge I set before myself in the instance of Terje Rypdal’s astonishing Melodic Warrior. Pairing the gargantuan title piece with a younger sibling, it reveals yet another facet of the Norwegian guitarist’s compositional profile, one that has given us such wondrous reflective surfaces as Undisonus and his Lux Aeterna. Where those two works examined sonic temperatures across relatively expansive climates, here the lens cracks in an implosion of voices.

Of those voices we get four prominent stewards in the Hilliard Ensemble, who also commissioned Melodic Warrior from the very ether. Their singing burgeons in a selection of Native American poetry chosen by Rypdal, along with a sprinkle of original words. To the touch-and-go listener it may seem an outlying choice for the Hilliards, unless of course one considers their likeminded reworking of Quechua and Passamaquoddy sources with saxophonist Jan Garbarek on, respectively, Mnemosyne and Officium Novum—in which case the fit could hardly be more intuitive. These are poetries rooted in that which roots us, pouring mercury into the primacy of oral over written expression: the lived knowledge that eternal regeneration is impossible without the fleeting rain.

The instrumental makeup alone chains this magnum opus to an immovable classical altar, surrounding the Hilliards with a full orchestra under the ever-erudite guidance of Dennis Russell Davies. It further bears the scars of Rypdal’s many-hued pools of influence, for his electric guitar bleeds through its movements like fire through lit steel wool, cupping a prog-rock relic or two in its satchel. In light of this, Melodic Warrior would seem to bring together many of his earlier threads into unified fruition—from his supergroup The Dream and on through the defining ECM years (Odyssey, Chasers, and especially Skywards) to the large-scale compositions mentioned above. The end effect is a snake coiled and poised to strike. Yet rather than deploy its secrets as weaponry (the melodic warrior sustains injury in place of others), it holds venom in mind and makes it palatable to the tongue and to the ear. Rypdal’s baying leads are unmistakable in this regard, stringing us as they do along a necklace of vocal cells, each writ large within the itinerant body. That we can at last experience the journey of that body on disc (prior to release, it had been maturing in ECM’s vaults for nearly a decade) is a gift for the soul.

Rypdal’s Opus 79 finds company in his Opus 97, And The Sky Was Coloured With Waterfalls And Angels. Whether coincidental or not, the numerical reversal suggests a kinship. And indeed, despite its wordless topography, the second piece would seem to drink from the same ocean, albeit on a different coast. Fronting now another orchestra and without the company of (human) voices, Rypdal paints bruises of a different kind: these the bursting flowers of a fireworks display. Although not overtly programmatic, those eruptions do materialize in periodic squints, carrying us out on a breath of awe.

It was an honor and a dream come true to contribute liner notes to this release. In solidarity with listeners (and because digital downloads deprive us of the pleasure of holding a booklet), I offer said notes in full below, with ECM’s kind permission.

… . …

Contrapunctus naturalis: Rypdal’s Warriors and Angels

The Chippewa tell a form of picture-story in which silence takes the form of two lines, close but never touching. As the asymptote of all existence, they do more than represent. They enshrine. Surrounding them is a need for self-questioning, for acknowledging the power of the beating drum.

River, nature, vision: these are the tools of the warrior whose flesh stands firm against the tide. Like the stag hanging from a tree—last touched by chipped stone and hunter’s eye, now drained by gravity and sun’s transit—it has an illusory stillness. Somewhere, in another time, the warrior’s legs still run. Terje Rypdal’s warrior is consequently melodic. Protagonist of his magnum opus, he activates a landscape by contact of lyric and pen. Its composer is a river; the voices of the Hilliard Ensemble its fauna; the writhing Bruckner Orchestra Linz, under the baton of Dennis Russell Davies, its flora. Davies adds depth through an abiding passion for living works. He gives voice to the margins, here doubly so, guiding Rypdal’s assembly through a 45-minute epic drawn from Chippewa, Navajo, Pima, and Papago sources. The words came to Rypdal by way of stage director and musician Carl Jørgen Kiønig, who lent him a book of Native American poetry. “Its closeness to nature mirrored my own,” he says, and thus the seeds were planted. Since its 2003 Austrian premiere, this Hilliard commission has taken on a soul that consolidates Rypdal’s many paths.

From his early ECM leader dates onward, including the self-titled 1971 debut and 1974’s Whenever I Seem To Be Far Away, Rypdal has had a hand in multiple idioms. He grew up in a classical home (his father was also a composer) and trained formatively in that sphere before taking to the guitar in his teens. If we can paint anything with these biographical colors, it is not the portrait of a fusion artist, but rather one who walks along dissolving borders. Whether in the chamber music aesthetics of Q.E.D. or the wayfaring 5th Symphony, in the droning lyricism of Undisonus or the flowing textures of Lux Aeterna, through it all persists a consistency of vision.

And what of Melodic Warrior? “The title came to me almost as a vision,” Rypdal recalls. “It felt as if I had planned something like this all my life.” Given the strength of this conviction, one might expect a ruder “Awakening” than what transpires in the eponymous prologue. The first of nine movements, it opens its eyes in high-pitched stasis, an abyss where the fray of human awareness hums above the earth’s surface. The ensuing plunge is cinematic to the core, traveling from cosmos to land, from breath to heart. In it we find the glitter of coastal waters, a veritable Bering land bridge rooted in sea floor and spreading its fingers toward wounded sky. To tread here is to embrace daylight, to feast on it, as the crow takes to carrion.

Storm, leaf, soil: the constellations Rypdal’s electric guitar lives by, echoes from a mythic past, garments donned by our four unmistakable voices when twilight falls around them. Their welcome blessing reveals an organic body, splitting and fusing like water’s flow. As one, they fly. In isolation, they soar. During solos their spirits thread disparate needles, sometimes flirting with call and response, but always with unity in sight. A storm is nothing without its droplets.

Rypdal remains the omniscient lurker, resurfacing across the suspenseful pages of “The Secret File” with script aflame. He envisions this dramatic intermezzo—having used it before in a hard-rock context—as a nod to Western film soundtracks, thereby bearing relevance on the contradictions of the Native American theme. Not until “Song Of Thunder” does he ride lightning into the roiling ash. He weaves stealthily, finding in the curve of a whale’s back, in the sweep of a honeybee’s pollen comb, the natural counterpoint that haunts his oeuvre at large.

The strings of Linz mark the face of this music with laugh lines. Profound shifts in light reveal rivulets and isles of possibility. In “Magician Song” countertenor David James evokes a leaf on that water, the tremble of the branch before its descent, the seed from which that tree burgeoned. Ancestors become stories, backgrounds become foregrounds, as they would in dreams, and close the circle by way of opening another in the light of a morning star.

The flair of Melodic Warrior brings to mind another ECM-represented composer, Erkki-Sven Tüür, whose background in progressive rock buoys a mind meld of fortitude and color. And if we can draw further lines of contact to the work of such 20th-century stalwarts as Górecki, Ligeti, Penderecki, and even a hint of Glass, it is only because Rypdal has mixed and baked his clay from the mineral-rich soil of deep listening.

All of this comprises a challenge to purveyors of modern music who rest on atmospheric crutches in lieu of compelling linear themes. Rypdal points to early conversations in this regard with label mate Ketil Bjørnstad: “We used to talk about how melody in contemporary music was looked down upon. I knew right from the start of my composing that I had to bring back melody…and beauty in general.” His forte embodies the uphill battle of this realization, beholds the world as new parents behold themselves, at once without and within. The polarity makes sense, for what is the guitar if not a bringer of visceral melody? It is a fortuitous compositional tool in the hands of one who wields it properly.

Sky, journey, reflection: the shaman’s initiations. As technician of the sacred, the shaman dismantles mortal designs. He abstains from taste of dust for that of haze. He casts bones through skin, passes mind through matter, and returns with timely prophecy. He visualizes decay, the withering of boundaries. He casts one eye down and the other up. Thus undone, the earth overflows.

And The Sky Was Coloured With Waterfalls And Angels is the receptacle of that excess. More than a landscape, it is another link in the chain of being. The live recording presented here opens a curtain on Wrocław, Poland, where the 2009 Jazztopad Festival (artistic director: Piotr Turkiewicz) is about to set forth on this purely instrumental journey. It is under these auspices that, with Sebastian Perłowski leading the Wrocław Philharmonic and Rypdal poised before six foreshortening strings, the music bubbles with the freshness of its premiere.

The piece was inspired by the 2008 International Fireworks Festival in Cannes and assumes a denser structure than its sibling. It brings to evidence the din of human commerce, technology, and construction, even as it links those rosettes high beyond mundane concern. The violin scratches an itch it cannot quell, unfurls banners of melancholia between explosions. Even a surge of harp brings little hope or heavenliness. It is caked with time, unshaken. Somehow all of this finds peace, such that the sky becomes the cell of another body, and that body the cell of another.

Mirror, vessel, silence: the totems of a composer seeking nectar. Once found, it drips from waterskin, emphasizes imperfections. This music holds a mirror to land, turning every arch into a ring. The counterpoint is more than natural. It is the all-encompassing sight of things created and destroyed. Every instrument sheds a skin.

The horns in particular take on a quasi-Wagnerian role throughout the program, signaling themes and atmospheres as they become intertwined with locations and avatars. At one moment the song of bestial life, swaying the next in bowed waters, they cast crimson lines of intention into a darkening sea. This is the trick of Rypdal’s notecraft: he digs into continental influences with an archaeologist’s eye, persevering where many have quit until that single common vessel is revealed, petrified yet singing.

Tyran Grillo

Silence

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