Ketil Bjørnstad/David Darling: Epigraphs (ECM 1684)

Epigraphs

Epigraphs

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

Driven into the
terrain
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.

Ketil Bjørnstad & David Darling: The River (ECM 1593)

The River

Ketil Bjørnstad piano
David Darling cello
Recorded June 1996 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

If ever there was a seed beating like a shaded heart in The Sea, it was the twined musical filaments of Ketil Bjørnstad and David Darling. The Norwegian pianist and American cellist spoke on that session like siblings, at points giving us a foretaste of the droning flavors we encounter at the edge of The River. The size and scope of the water have changed in name only, for here is the former’s other half, spreading its finger paint across twelve parallel sections. If we note anything different this time around, it’s that the horizon feels so close that we could just close our eyes and reach out and there would be the sun.

Bjørnstad’s love of aquatic themes stretches an ideal surface tension across which Darling may unfurl his sails. The delicate ostinato of one becomes the leviathan drone of the other, drawing threads through opaque expanse (just as Swiss-born artist Mayo Bucher has placed a white edge through this and select other ECM cover paintings). As cello keens and trembles through a pianistic hall of mirrors, it ladles shadow from the wells of solitude in which we all take shape before birth and to which we also return, lowered in buckets of light. So is The River as much about earth as it is about water, impossible to separate from the glitter of mineral deposits that marks its flow. Darling may paint the air as a salmon through the current, but he is also keenly aware of the sediment kicked up by his journey, of the molecular oneness that binds. Lost to the gazes of two figures crouched at the banks, lowering offering memories to an open fan of moonlight, he swims on.

These are pieces of subtle virtuosity, timbre, and emotional integrity, utterly devoid of self-interest. Their flowering symmetry is a living palindrome of surrender that shuns the pleasures of its philosophies in favor of feeling for its own sake. Though overwhelming at times, there is never a possibility of drowning when water is your air. In this reverie there can be no reveries, for the world is already a dream.


Alternate cover

Bjørnstad/Darling/Rypdal/Christensen: The Sea (ECM 1545)

The Sea

Ketil Bjørnstad piano
David Darling cello
Terje Rypdal guitar
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded September 1994 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The twelve parts that comprise The Sea are of a proportion far beyond aquatic, for their magic lies in the hands and hearts of four musicians who came together for a session as ever-changing as its namesake. The number would seem to be significant: months in a year, hours in a day, each a cycle rendered timeless through a story that bleeds and weeps. David Darling’s trembling cello lets out the first cry, eddying with all the force of nature at the edge of a bow. Pianist Ketil Bjørnstad therefrom unfurls a theme for the ages, drifting as might a reader’s eyes pass over the words of a favorite letter. As the hearts of the session, his keys drip glitter and shadow in equal, sometimes comingling, measure. Drummer Jon Christensen knocks at a ghostly door suspended above the horizon, leaving guitarist Terje Rypdal to complete the picture, breaching vapor and phosphorous. Such is the first ray of light to spoke from this sonic hub, spinning to the pulse of Bjørnstad’s heart-tugging ostinatos in a pregnant and billowing unity. Somehow, the stars feel closer, each a solar flare arcing into rebirth. But the breath is always damp, the air even more so, while the language falters to hold its shape in the presence of something so free. Of note is Part VIII, a duet between Bjørnstad and Darling that presages The River and a beautiful lead-in to an enchanting closing of the triangle. The spectrum of Christensen’s palette grows richly and organically as threads wind together, each color a drop into the inky cascade of its rapture. Part XII closes the album with Bjørnstad at his solemn best, far from shore.

The power of this music is its ability to adapt to whatever mood you bring to it. The listener is its vessel. The Sea is also a remarkable feat of engineering, fully expressing ECM’s commitment not only to the evocation but also embodiment of concept. But though it might very well flourish in the flesh and machines that produced it, it ultimately flows from, and returns to, the currents of which it is composed.

David Darling: Dark Wood (ECM 1519)

David Darling
Dark Wood

David Darling cello
Recorded July 1993 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In the middle of the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood
For the straight way was lost.
–Dante Alighieri

Cellist David Darling continues where he left off on Cello, furthering the rings and grains of “Darkwood,” a multitracked suite drawn in otherwise acoustic measures, of which the latter four parts appear here. While such name might evoke visions of shadow and deepest night, each part starts its titled sections with anything but. Darkwood IV opens its eyes to the “Dawn” while V passes through “Light,” which marks the “Beginning” VI and illuminates downward to “The Picture” in Darkwood VII. The latter is one of the most heart-tugging pieces Darling has ever recorded, weaving tender threads of thought whose philosophies are drawn from the wayside where others have left their faith. Stained tones cradle us in cloud and wind, leveling stepwise motions into molasses tide, proceeding ever deeper into a monochromatic ceiling, at the center of which a light drives away the spirits of insects whose flights are captured “In Motion.” In the starlit expanse of these dreams, we step on floes of ice, each an eye closed by lids of water as it sinks.

Such are the stories, rising from within rather than falling from without. Plunged into the heavy pizzicato of “Earth,” Darling sparks kindling by torchlight, casting bones into a hearth of sky. In its smoke we find the fantasy of a folksong trembling in wake of sunset. Primal cry in slow motion, harmonic ostinato and trembling alto line—these connect one spirit to another and arch their heads, slingshots at the ready. Only instead of a sudden unleashing we get the meditative crawl of fadeout. “Searching” is the cello equivalent of Paul Giger’s “Birth Of The Bull,” which pries open its mortality to find that in death there is life, and in “Medieval Dance” we feel hands touching and releasing, bodies whirling in smoky midnight, following harvest and offering. This leaves only “Returning,” and the eclipse of “New Morning,” where hints of infinity plough and turn like the soil from which they were born, lustful for nothing but absence.

Ultimately, such (di)visions become as arbitrary as the names ascribed to them, etched as they are in perpetual cosmic change. They skip across the chasm of time, closing their parched lips around morsels of memory along the way. Darling bows his cello as if with a comet’s tail and leaves us similarly alone beneath a stretch of sky, harps at Poseidon’s call, hoping for that next chance encounter between perception and transience.

David Darling: Cello (ECM 1464)

David Darling
Cello

David Darling acoustic cello, 8-string electric cello
Recorded November 1991 and January 1992 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

David Darling’s Cello is one of the most stunning albums ever to be released on ECM in any genre. Its fluid paths feel like home. Darling plows the improvisatory depths of his soul, given free rein in the studio to paint the negative spaces in between those clouds on the album’s cover, ever deeper, ever truer to the core of something alive. Most journeys might take you across some distance to get you to where you’re going, yet few will actually unpack where you are standing with such complex, unabashed glory that one need not take a single step to travel to the end of the universe and back. Cello is one such journey.

The opening “Darkwood I” carries us into a state of bliss unlike any other, finding its interest in the empty spaces of time that define our action and thought alike. “No Place Nowhere” swells with the blessing of life, finding in every shift of light a new window through which Darling casts the details of his destiny through shadow. One finds here a long and winding road into horizon, forever receding, that is the vanishing point in sound, the blessing and the curse of beauty, the sweeping gesture of aesthetic pleasure rolled humbly into a never-ending circle. The bird calls of “Fables” dance in the sky like time-lapsed aurora borealis, twisting our sense of time to the tune of something divine. “Dark-wood II” is a wilting flower, a lakeside flower dropping spores. “Lament” lowers us in swaddling into the slow-motion cradle of the wind, the mountain veil as a crook in a mother’s arm, singing our souls softly to sleep. “Two Or Three Things” evokes Jean-Luc Godard with its softly flowing landscape of water and wind, grass and foam, where swim the vagaries of our modern life against the tide of regression that is our calling into death. This breathtaking journey guides us into a place that is so deeply inside us that we must disappear to find it. “Indiana Indian,” forever my favorite track on the album, begins in a harmonic swirl before loosing a pizzicato chain of finely honed memories. A jazzy half-note swing brings us into the enthralling drama of “Totem.” Here, an ocean of double stops, a tidal wave of lilting lines, leaving an imprint of “Psalm” in the sands. Its protracted antiphony sheds its clothing to reveal “Choral.” This Möbius drop into solitude, where harmony offers the illusory promise of companionship in a world without bodies, whispers at the interstices of our alienation. “The Bell” has the makings of an Arvo Pärt choral work with its microtonal harmonies and tintinnabulations. “In November” rounds a cinematic edge, rolling over into a low and calming thunder and ending with the yellowing strains of “Darkwood III.”

On paper, these might seem little more than chromatic exercises, but in the vastness of Darling’s playing, combined with Eicher’s attention to space, they achieve a meditative state in which the simplest musical utterances become the most profound. Eicher’s touch can be ever felt in the sound and in the melodic elements he has provided, showing us that he is not only a fine producer, but also has a supremely sensitive ear for melody and, above all, time. For this improvised session, Eicher told Darling to go as deep as he could go, thus expressing the spirit of the label at heart, not to mention the spirit of what a musician can achieve when open to infinity.

Terje Rypdal/David Darling: Eos (ECM 1263)

Terje Rypdal
David Darling
Eos

Terje Rypdal electronic guitar, casio mt-30
David Darling cello, electric cello
Recorded May 1983 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Once more the old mysterious glimmer steals
From thy pure brows, and from thy shoulders pure,
And bosom beating with a heart renewed.
–Alfred Lord Tennyson

Eos. Greek goddess of the dawn. Aurora to the Romans. She of the rosy fingers and golden arms. A welcome companion as we take in these private explorations from Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal and American cellist David Darling. Although further collaborations would reveal themselves on The Sea and Skywards, it was on Eos that they first tested the former’s mettle against the latter’s fluid tensions. The session begins where you might, depending on your temperament, least or most expect: in the solar eclipse of “Laser.” Rypdal sharpens his tools alone, raining sparks and molten glass. From this lit match burns a slow and epic fuse in the 14-and-a-half-minute title improvisation. Here the unlikely duo charts its deepest waters, covering our expectations in a muslin screen. Like a dream, it pulls at our feet with heartrending pathos, Rypdal bleeding coronas as he croaks into life. After this graft of spiritual skin, we continue our slumber in “Bedtime Story,” where an angelic drone cradles Darling’s plaintive acoustic and finds a willing partner in Rypdal’s amplified warble. Yet the skies begin to pale in “Light Years,” where the promise of interstellar travel becomes a fantasy for the lonely. As the stars wash into a white blanket around us, we see in the eyes of the cosmos a dire reflection. The world as we know it has vanished, and we are the only ones left with any concept of time. Our guide is the “Melody” that follows. Its wrists are frail, dusted like Saturn’s rings, and equally impossible to grasp. Still they lead, bringing to bear a false promise in “Mirage.” Rypdal’s snaking lines burrow into this pizzicato landscape without ever looking back, shaking off the residue of memory in favor of an enlightened solitude. This leaves us in the sweetness of “Adagietto,” where loving arms grow from dark matter like dandelions, blown into countless galaxies by the breath of Theia herself.

David Darling: Cycles (ECM 1219)

David Darling
Cycles

David Darling cello, 8-string electric cello
Collin Walcott sitar, tabla, percussion
Steve Kuhn piano
Jan Garbarek tenor and soprano saxophones
Arild Andersen bass
Oscar Castro-Neves guitar
Recorded November 1981, Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Cellist David Darling has had a long, if sporadic, association with ECM, quietly forging—either under the guise of solo artist or buried in an album’s roster—some of the label’s most lyrical atmospheres. With Cycles, however, Darling magnified his sound-world through the inimitable talents of Jan Garbarek and Collin Walcott in a space both selfless and uniquely his own. Add to that the astonishing pianism of Steve Kuhn and the depth of Arild Andersen on bass, and you get what is, to this listener at least, one of ECM’s finest celestial alignments.

While I am tempted to give my usual track-by-track impressions, here the album’s title clues us in on another way me might listen to it: that is, as an ever-roving caravan without need of maps or guides. As it stands, Cycles is a bubble of possibility that only expands with every listen. In its opening strains, we kneel atop a cliff of unraveling. Darling’s needlepoint brings light to fullest dark, breathing through Walcott’s tabla and Garbarek’s shawm-like expectorations. Those fluid horsehairs sing like portals, beginning and ending in the same draw. Harmonies linger as afterthoughts of infinite space. From nebulae to star and back to billowing gauze, the music flows into rivers of light—quiet, intense, forgiving. Grooves flicker into life, voices settle into afterlife. Cello and sitar sing into one another, while Kuhn’s wafting fragrances remind us of what it felt like to be on Earth.

Were I to single out one track, however, from this multivalent exhalation, it would have to be “Fly,” a brooding intertwining of cello and saxophone that is a Mt. Everest in the ECM landscape. Garbarek emits some of his most satoric playing here, floating ever skyward. He is a lantern hung in the clouds, a riddle whose denouement only reveals further mystery.

The stellar playing throughout is only enhanced by the sound. The engineering on Cycles is pristine beyond measure and raised the bar of the label’s usual auditory standards. To prattle on any more would ruin the effect. Suffice it to say: don’t miss this one.

Gallery: s/t (ECM 1206)

 

Gallery

David Samuels vibraharp, percussion
Michael DiPasqua drums, percussion
Paul McCandless soprano saxophone, oboe, english horn
David Darling cello
Ratzo Harris bass
Recorded May 1981 at Sound Ideas Studio, New York
Engineer: David Baker
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Another enigmatic outlier in the land of the as-yet-to-be-reissued, Gallery follows in the tender footsteps of First Avenue. Its talents are immediately sent skyward in “Soaring,” where the sprightly vibes of Dave Samuels find complement in bassist Ratzo Harris and cellist David Darling, both of whom roll off Michael DiPasqua’s delicate snare and cymbals like words from a poet’s tongue. Darling takes some of the album’s most gorgeous improvisatory turns here. His fluid lines continue in “Prelude,” a duet with Samuels that shares the same breath with “A Lost Game.” The latter is transitory, not unlike the album as a whole, playing out especially in the rhythmic crosspollination between vibes and drums, slung ever so delicately by the bass’s curves. Paul McCandless lays the gold foil of his own beauties with a soprano sax solo that takes this configuration to greater heights, surpassed only by the reflective cello that follows. “Painting” sounds like a Gavin Bryars ensemble piece, unfolding into the remnants of a Morton Feldman dream before awakening in the harmonic contract of a “Pale Sun.” On then does the “Egret” drop us in limpid vibrations, where only a hushed “Night Rain” shows us the final trail.

As the album’s title indicates, this music offers a row of artful images. Yet rather than guide us through a linear passage of creative relics, it brings that passage to us, so that we need only observe…and listen.

John Clark: Faces (ECM 1176)

John Clark
Faces

John Clark french horn
David Friedman vibraharp, marimba
David Darling cello
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded April 1980 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Faces documents the only appearance of versatile French hornist John Clark on ECM proper (he does, however, appear on a trio of WATT releases) and is one from a modest overall output as leader. Having performed with musicians as diverse as Paul Winter, LL Cool J, and Gil Evans, his tender considerations fit snugly with the Eicherian touch in this out-of-print session. Joined by David Friedman’s mallets, the particularly welcome presence of David Darling’s electric cello, and Jon Christensen on drums, Clark paints for us a rain-slicked character study of a life lived in slow motion.

Side A charts the album’s deepest waters in “The Abhà Kingdom.” Its understated flow of vibes, overdubbed horns, and cello courses in and out of sonar range, diving ever deeper with every muted clench, so that even Christensen’s accentuations seem to move at the speed of honey behind Friedman’s subdued yet strangely exuberant cartwheels. The afterimages of “Lament” would make the perfect backdrop for a Terje Rypdal excursion. Instead of that grinding song, we get the rounded icicles of Darling’s bow and the sustained arpeggio from vibes that leaves us hanging before dropping us onto Side B. Our guide on this descent is “Silver Rain.” The marimba vamp evokes an African thumb piano and affectionately embraces Clark’s processed horn. Friedman also shares a notable dialogue with Christensen here. Darling’s fluid threads are the binding force of “Faces In The Fire.” A comforting feeling of perpetuity abounds in that cello’s voice and brings out otherwise inaudible whispers. “Faces In The Sky” would feel right at home as the soundtrack for a road picture. Christensen beguiles with his delicacy, in which he cradles a delicate implication that never breaks, even under Darling’s far-reaching pizzicato. After all of this soul-searching, the carnivalesque “You Did It, You Did It!” ends the album in resolute jubilance.

Faces has a semi-porous quality and shimmers like the surface of an out-of-focus pool. It sits comfortably just below the rim of our consciousness, like a half-dream that one holds dear in the face of inevitable wakefulness.


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