Frode Haltli: AIR (ECM New Series 2496)

2496 X

AIR

Frode Haltli accordion
Trondheim Soloists
Arditti Quartet
Irvine Arditti 
violin
Ashot Sarkissjan violin
Ralf Ehlers viola
Lucas Fels violoncello
Recorded October and November 2014, Selbu Kirke, Norway
Engineer: Sean Lewis
Mastering: Manfred Eicher and Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 26, 2016

AIRmarks a classical return to ECM for Norwegian accordion player Frode Haltli, who now, as on his label debut, offers a program centered around the music of Danish composer Bent Sørensen. For that album’s title piece, Looking on Darkness, Haltli was required to rethink his approach to the instrument in search of softer dynamics and bent pitches, and deepens those quasi-linguistic impulses here.

Sørensen provides the album’s frame tale. It is Pain Flowing Down Slowly on a White Wall (2010), written for solo accordion and string orchestra, feels vulnerable to something beyond grasp of flesh and time. Despite a lack of footholds, if not also because of said lack, the accordion takes on a winged materiality, destined to never touch solid ground. The relationship between it and the strings demonstrates Haltli’s own views on chamber music, of which he writes: “It demands fellow musicians who really listen, and who can move flexibly and playfully between various levels in the music according to what the music is telling you—not musicians who constantly need to be in front.” Indeed, “soloist” becomes a reductive term in the present context, favoring instead a larger whole. Movements of great distance share breathing room with dreams of proximity in a constantly shifting topography, as if the very earth were struggling to hold its shape. And so, when the string players at last trade bows for melodicas, it comes across—ironically enough—as an act of solidarity. Like Sigrid’s Lullaby (2010), adapted for solo accordion from a nocturne, it dips a hand into the font of time and swirls until all colors blend into one.

Between those two poles stretch the telephone wires of another Dane I expect (and hope) to hear more of on ECM: Hans Abrahamsen. His Air (2006) for solo accordion (2006) not only yields the album’s title but more importantly its spirit. A haunting experience that’s difficult to imagine in anyone’s hands but Haltli’s, it narrates texture and space with autobiographical assurance. Its molecules move so slightly, so continuously, as to appear still. Air is also something of a palindrome, beginning and ending in a wash of chords, while in the middle revealing a dance that returns to dust as quickly as it is born from it. And while the instrumental forces of Three Little Nocturnes (2005) for string quartet and accordion feel much more distinct than on Sørensen’s sound-world, they are deeply harmonized in rhythm, each inhaling the other as deeply as it can before the final exhale.

Haltli’s assessment of Abrahamsen’s music, of which he observes, “Not one note is accidental,” applies to the album in its entirety. Not only because these pieces are capturable on paper, but also because they treat that paper as the skin of an individual life.

Trygve Seim and Frode Haltli: Yeraz (ECM 2044)

Yeraz

Yeraz

Trygve Seim soprano and tenor saxophones
Frode Haltli accordion
Recorded June 2007 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Saxophonist Trygve Seim and accordionist Frode Haltli, both children of the Norwegian jazz scene and frequent collaborators who have grown into some of that scene’s most genre-defying proponents, pair up for an intimate songbook of frequencies that wraps the duo’s minds around an erudite program of mostly Seim-composed pieces. Exceptions include the haunting and windswept Armenian traditional song, from which the album gets its name, and the seemingly bipartite “MmBall,” penned by Seim’s go-to drummer, Per Oddvar Johansen. Seim and Haltli further explore two melodies—“Bayaty” and “Duduki”—by spiritual guru G. I. Gurdjieff (1866-1949), who, since Keith Jarrett’s 1980 Sacred Hymns, has been a ghostly presence on a handful of ECM projects.

Seim Haltli
(Photo credit: Morten Krogvold)

Compared to past recordings, Haltli treads more carefully across the accordion’s polar ice caps, his touch as pliant as ever. With the slightest pitch bend or intervallic quaver, the accordion’s inner heart speaks with utmost profundity, especially in the lower range, which despite a seemingly tenuous hold on notes lays foundations of its own. Seim proves an ideal partner, not only sonically—both are reedmen of sorts—but also in musicality. Nowhere more so than in their interpretation of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” for which the instruments blend so well they sound like extensions of one another, regressions and evolutions linking toward plush, resolute skies. In the Gurdjieff pieces, too, the duo feels like a splitting of the same consciousness. Seim’s duduk-like sound reveals tonal mastery, painting a cathedral from the steeple down to Haltli’s throaty bedrock.

As for Seim’s pieces, each is possessed of its own physical property. From the slow-moving liquid of “Airamero” to the cinematic grain of the Tom Waits-inspired “Waits for Waltz,” his writing engenders a joyous but never boisterous sense of play and understated virtuosity. Other Seim notables: the less inhibited brushwork of “Fast Jazz” and the accordion solo “Bhavana,” for which Haltli’s transcendent highs evoke the Russian bayan or, perhaps, the Japanese shō.

Holding the disc together are the freely improvised “Praeludium” and “Postludium,” each a beginning and an end in and of itself, waiting to redraw the circle. Thankfully, the PLAY button allows us to do just that.

Frode Haltli: Passing Images (ECM 1913)

Passing Images

Frode Haltli
Passing Images

Frode Haltli accordion
Arve Henriksen trumpet
Garth Knox viola
Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje voice
Recorded December 2004 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Accordionist Frode Haltli mesmerized with his first contemporary program, Looking on Darkness, for ECM. Now, he furthers the journey with a chamber album of folk music from his native Norway. Although classically trained, Haltli has subsisted on roots since his formative years at the bellows, and over time has breathed new life into every tune.Accordingly, if not accordionly, the album’s centerpiece is a waltz from his home village of Våler i Solør in southeastern Norway. Here it takes three forms. The first two—“Per” and “Lyrisk vals” (Lyrical Waltz)—are games of tag between Haltli and violist Garth Knox, each a shade of the same ghost. Singer-composer Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje, whose Gagaku Variations formed the most memorable portion of Looking on Darkness, joins the duo for the final incarnation: the title piece. If the music until his point has been drawn in charcoal, here the medium is pen and ink. Its starker lines profess Haltli’s understanding of breath—not simply because his instrument is itself an artificial lung, but because it shares the body of its performer, expanding beyond human ken into warbling bird soul.

Dovetailing these musicians is trumpeter Arve Henriksen, whose poetry whispers gold into the alchemy of “Psalm.” The album’s gateway plants a dream within a dream, and from it a fragrance of hope wafts to the four corners of the compass. Both this track and “Vandring” make tasteful use of the accordion’s pitch-bending capabilities, thereby undercutting sharpened highs with lilting accents and intimations of children’s games.

Remarkable about Passing Images is the vastness evoked by its modest congregation. From histrionic wanderings (“Inter,” “Lude”) to less hallucinatory swaths of stagecraft (“The Letter,” “Vals”), the musicians travel between inner and outer worlds with ease, melting gestures down drains of progression. As of the folk song “Jag haver ingen kärare,” every melody is first unspooled and second re-spun, by which time the light has only moments to learn its dance before shining into your ear.

Frode Haltli: Looking on Darkness (ECM New Series 1794)

Frode Haltli
Looking on Darkness

Frode Haltli accordion
Vertavo String Quartet
Øyvor Volle violin
Berit Cardas violin
Henninge Landaas viola
Bjøg Værnes cello
Recorded August 2001 at Sofienberg Kirke, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Much like its bellowed cousins, the accordion’s mystique lies in its duality. With one hand the chords are laid, with the other a melody is wrought. Yet just as easily those roles may switch, intermingling in a constant process of renegotiation. Although they share the same breath, pushed and pulled through the same lungs, there is always a separation between the two, so that when they are brought together in a program like this, they seem to unfold, one division after another, into a greater unity. This refraction of audible intent renders any introspection attempted by the musician a moot endeavor, seeking instead a window of opportunity in which to curl one’s fingers about the contours of an unspoken promise. In this way the accordion becomes a psychological instrument, providing more insight into its handler than psychoanalysis ever could. Through this window we can see that Frode Haltli’s is a mind of depth, conviction, in service to the music he plays. For his first solo album, the young Norwegian puts his bellows to four solo compositions and one for chamber ensemble.

First, the solos.

Bent Sørensen’s title study in decay is the perfect place to open our ears. It eases us into an uneasy sound-world, where light is darkness and the vocal becomes instrumental. The result sits somewhere between a declamatory statement and an uncertain question. From this we are awakened to different shades of vulnerability. Haltli shows no fear in exposing these snatches of tenderness, proving just how delicate a line he walks.

PerMagnus Lindborg’s abiding interest in all things electronic shines through in his Bombastic Sonosofisms. The sound is more pointillist here, and seems to peer into even darker recesses of the psyche. While it does require some astounding virtuosity, a shimmering, cosmic veneer obscures any possible wow factor that might get in the way of the listening. Where Sørensen drew in arcs, Lindborg favors the erratic, nesting us in a field of right angles.

Take away the “Per” and you are left with Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg and his Jeux d’anches. This piece thrives on identity crises and rhythmic leaps, gathering into its purview a life unfulfilled yet resigned. It is a puzzle unfolding piece by piece, only each is of uniform shape and size. In such great numbers, however, one is baffled to put them together. Haltli accomplishes the daunting task of forming a cogent picture out of them all.

Asbjørn Schaathun’s Lament explores the accordion more than any of its companions. From growling low notes to piercing highs, it surrounds a turgid middle ground. It is a church organ being born, coming into self-awareness as the music marks its slow passage through muddy terrain. Notes coincide, double, and fragment, seemingly unable to strike out on their own and achieve true independence. In the end, they are bound by air.

Then there is the program’s centerpiece, the gagaku variations of Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje, which pairs the accordion’s fullness with another: the string quartet. In this configuration, violins melt into Haltli’s richer sound like ghosts hidden in between its folds. The contrast between brief pizzicato passages and the more sinuous notes of the accordion cut through the very tensions they define. Some probing questions from the high strings bring our focus away from the sky and back to the soil, and in the end paint us with their own language. If this were a play, we would be the ones on stage, and the performers would be watching, waiting for us to speak.

The accordion is not an instrument one is used to hearing in a classical setting, and yet here it blossoms without generic borders. In Haltli’s hands, it attains a level of depth rarely heard. His performances are bold and detailed, as if he were holding a magnifying glass to a newspaper photograph in an attempt to show us the dots and blank spaces it is made of. The album’s title tells us all: rather than looking into darkness, we are looking on it, for the naked eye will never uncover the core of that which is infinite.