Claudio Puntin clarinet, bass clarinet
Gerður Gunnarsdóttir violin, vocal
Recorded 1997-99 at Radio Bremen, Sensesaal
Engineers: Dietram Köster and Christine Potschkat
Recording producer: Peter Schulze
Co-production ECM Records/Radio Bremen
Claudio Puntin and Gerður Gunnarsdóttir make their ECM debut with Ýlir, a musical portrait of Iceland utilizing a mixture of techniques, realities, and understandings of that fabled volcanic jewel. Gunnarsdóttir, a violinist and vocalist of eclectic professional associations, calls Iceland home, while clarinetist Puntin hails from Switzerland. The latter also possesses a wide-ranging talent across idioms, and has continued his association with ECM as a regular member of the Wolfert Brederode Quartet. As a duo, these partners operate under the moniker Essence of North, folding seamless improvisations into a batter of original and traditional material, but always with an ancestral taste on the tongue. The culmination of all this is a unique chamber recital of magical dimensions.
Puntin and Gunnarsdóttir seem most in their element when there are stories to be told. In particular, “Huldufólk”—literally “hidden people” but translated more colloquially as “fairies”—speaks to a world within a world, a world from which the duo draws its breath and feeds an interpretive grace back into the hollows. The piece takes shape in three divided parts. “Draumur” (Temptation) and “Tæling” (Seduction) each open a blank diary and inscribe it with mythological phonemes, a siren’s song in points and lines. Here, as elsewhere throughout, the clarinet embodies an unsuspecting Alice. The violin, meanwhile, slithers Cheshire-like across an outstretched branch, leaving a trail of streaking teeth and fur. “Hringekja” (Whirligig) finishes with a dance on a miniature scale, leaping up fungus steps and swinging from dripping leaves.
Evocative highlights include “Hvert örstutt spor” (Each Little Step), for which Gunnarsdóttir sings words by Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness, winner of the 1955 Nobel Prize for literature, as adapted by Darmstadt disciple Jón Nordal. This forlorn song for voice and bass clarinet closes our eyes in anticipation of “Sofðu unga ástin min” (Lullaby For An Abandoned Baby), a thrumming folk tune. “Kvæðið um fuglana” (Fantasy About Birds) is another visceral episode. This piece by Atli Heimir Sveinsson, a composer whose interest in folk music bears ripe fruit, positively glows in Puntin’s arrangement.
Whether the ebony drones of “Einbúinn” (The Ermite) and “Enginn láì öðrum frekt” (Contemplation), the Lena Willemark-esque excitations of “Peysireið” (Gallop), or the blend of near and far that is “L’ultimo abbraccio” (Last Embrace), there is much to explore in these vignettes. In the title track a pliant violin draws footpaths in snow (“Ýlir” means “winter”), joined by a clarinet that sings with memories of autumn. Like a bird caught in a blizzard, it ululates in the throes of indecision, thus giving melodious name to isolation. The yang to this yin comes with “Leysing” (Melting, Thaw), which sounds as if someone had placed a microphone inside a spring landscape and recorded its renewal. Through scrapings and lilting phrases, the musicians find a treasure trove of messages lurking below, just waiting to see the sky above and reach for it while they still can. In “Vorþankar” (Reflections On Spring), too, the harshness of winter is softened, glistening off icicles as if they were instruments, each a note with its own song to sing. Resonant and glassine, they waver at the edge of waking, like the lonesome goodnight of the “Epilogue,” a kiss forever locked on the lips of the moon.
All in all, this storybook journey peeks through the trees even as it uproots them, one microscopic tendril at a time, and with them strings a loom of thick emotions. Worth seeking out, if it hasn’t already sought you.