Sinikka Langeland: Starflowers (ECM 1996)


Sinikka Langeland

Sinikka Langeland vocal, kantele
Arve Henriksen trumpet
Trygve Seim tenor and soprano saxophones
Anders Jormin double-bass
Markku Ounaskari percussion
Recorded May 2006 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It is one of those nights
when loneliness stands with its back turned to everything
and its face frozen fast in the western sky.

“Starflowers” is both an apt name for Sinikka Langeland’s ECM debut and for the cast assembled beneath its canopy. The Norwegian vocalist and kantele (Finnish table harp) player welcomes trumpeter Arve Henriksen, saxophonist Trygve Seim, bassist Anders Jormin, and percussionist Markku Ounaskari for her original settings of verses by lumberjack-poet Hans Børli (1918-1989). Although classically trained, Langeland has nurtured a longstanding interest in folk music. This disc takes that interest into crucible, concentrating it into a melodic cosmology all her own. That Jan Garbarek was an early influence should come as no surprise, for the same mystical undercurrents that inform his own music are undeniably present in hers (refer especially to Mari Boine’s appearances with the saxophonist’s eponymous Group).

(Photo by Dag Alveng)

That said, Langeland is possessed of a voice and touch like no other. The latter, as fed through her five-octave concert kantele (different from the one pictured above) is striking enough to preclude the need for voice. Like the Japanese shō or Constantinople lyra, it’s one of those instruments that seems handed down from on high, left to sing of a homeland to which it can never return. It spins an earthy web as well, shimmering with the pliancy of water but the strength of trees. So preaches the album’s first song, “Høstnatt på Fjellskogen” (Autumn Night in the Mountain Woods), in which Langeland paints entire scenes with a caress of the strings, warping their sound to suit a dreamlike cast. It’s as if the words pull at her, and we hear their pull in every pitch-bent note. The forest is palpable.

Although Børli may rightly be considered a naturalist poet, he was not entirely unaware of the workaday world:

The earth seems to climb and climb,
Lifting into the sky.
Then suddenly there’s calm.
As when the elevator halts
Somewhere on the higher floors and
you take instinctively a backward step
to keep your balance.

Such analogizing only serves his commitment to the outdoors, where his imagery finds common home. Whether chipped away in “Saltstein” (Rock Salt) or emerging from the brushed snare and ghostly bassing of “Sus i myrull” (Whispers in the Cotton Grass) in Meredith Monk-like song-speech, a feeling of rootedness reigns. And in “Langt innpå skoga” (Deep in the Woods), a scrim of frost clings to Langeland’s raw voice, reflecting jazzier denouements from Seim and Ounaskari that speak of urban climes far in the distance.

“Stjernestund” (A Moment of Stars) and “Treet som vekser opp-ned” (The Tree That Grows Upside Down) take on a decidedly mystical air. Cosmic percussion in the one gives life through primal contact, while the other indulges in the power of progression. Both grow in tangled vines, fanciful yet sure as sun and sky. The scintillating quality never weakens. Like the titular instrument of “Den lille fløyten” (The Little Flute), its potential waits for the right person to come along and share it. Even stronger album highlights include “Det er ei slik natt” (It Is One of Those Nights), which features Langeland’s lone voice against the aurora borealis of Jormin’s harmonics, and “Elghjertet” (The Moose Heart), which tells of the same thrown steaming into the snow after a hunt. The heart is covered before the cutting of the carcass is done, left forgotten, cooling to crimson ice.

The album’s three instrumentals are sacred in their own light. “Sølv” (Silver) and “Støv” (Dust) explore likeminded ostinatos, glistening and true. The jazzier “Vindtreet” finds Langeland contributing wordless vocals as the band ventures into its freest territories settling into the quiet sheen and shimmer of strings. All roads, then, lead to “Har du lyttet til elvene om natta?” (Have You Listened to the Rivers in the Night?), where Seim’s soprano and Jormin’s bass embrace a rift of kantele in the rock. The river between them is at once artery and vein. The music builds with urgency, but looses every fish caught back into current. In the wake of their sudden departure, a heat distortion breathes like a church organ fading into sleep.

If you listen long to the rivers in the night,
listen long,
it is at last as if your soul
is mysteriously remembering its future.

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