Ketil Bjørnstad: A passion for John Donne (ECM 2394)


Ketil Bjørnstad
A passion for John Donne

Håkon Kornstad tenor saxophone, flute, voice
Ketil Bjørnstad piano
Birger Mistereggen percussion
Oslo Chamber Choir
Håkon Daniel Nystedt
Recorded live March 2012, Sofienberg Kirke, Oslo
at the Oslo International Church Music Festival
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
An ECM Production
Release date: October 24, 2014

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for, you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to men;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

Pianist and composer Ketil Bjørnstad has sailed some of ECM’s purest waters. Yet while many of those journeys have been instrumental, he has with increasing frequency turned to the human voice as a candle from which to exude a melodic glow. True to metaphor, much of 2008’s The Light represented a major engagement with English poet John Donne (1572-1631), whose verses are the backbone of the present recording. Written for the Oslo International Church Festival and given its premiere in March of 2012 (the very performance heard here), Bjørnstad’s A passion for John Donne features Håkon Kornstad (tenor saxophone, flute, voice) in his ECM debut alongside percussionist Birger Mistereggen, the Oslo Chamber Choir under the direction of Håkon Daniel Nystedt, and the composer himself at the keyboard.

An Introitus gradates this hymnal piece into existence with a gong before piano and choir pull back the curtain of night to reveal a dawn-lit choral arrangement of “Thou hast made me.” As Kornstad’s tenor weaves through the undergrowth of these self-reflective intonations, unfolding one wordless implications after another, a silent heart of reverence is illuminated. Kornstad also sings, lending sanctity to “A fever” and “Farewell to love” as Bjørnstad shelters him like a church would a believer.

The writing for choir is sweeping yet intimate, most notably in “Death, be not proud” and “A nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day,” the latter an atmospherically rich tapestry of waning moons and withdrawn souls. “A valediction, forbidden mourning” is another memorable passage, its use of marimba laying a supple path for Kornstad’s reed and voice to wander.

Each poem enacts a laser-focused concentration of mortality, distilling years of life into single words and phrases. This scriptural quality lends itself well to the piece’s concept as a “passion,” which by virtue of its promises of everlasting life through the doorways of death and love gives rise to a grander meaning in the texts. Like the benediction for incorruptible blood with which it ends, its prayerful mold feels more ripe than ever to be filled with our submissive will.

Ketil Bjørnstad: A Suite Of Poems (ECM 2440)

2440 X

Ketil Bjørnstad
A Suite Of Poems

Anneli Drecker voice
Ketil Bjørnstad piano
Recorded June 2016 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Ketil Bjørnstad
Release date: May 18, 2018

Following his song cycles Vinding’s Music and Sunrise, pianist and composer Ketil Bjørnstad expands his ECM presence once again with new settings, this time of words by Norwegian-Danish author Lars Saabye Christensen. Christensen’s verses, written in different hotel rooms and sent to Bjørnstad from around the world, seem destined to take form as the humbly titled A Suite Of Poems presented here.

Bjørnstad’s characteristic feel for texture, mood, and atmosphere is in peak form. In contrast to, say, his duo albums with cellist David Darling, which despite their sparse instrumentation speak of vast landscapes, now the spaces offered to us are astonishingly intimate. Quintessentially so is program opener “Mayflower, New York,” which paints a city recently kissed by rain and the lone tourist moving his pen in its sprawl. Like “Kempinski, Berlin,” it’s filled with small moments, each more personal than the last, as our proverbial traveler balances depth and weightlessness through the music itself. A perennial theme of travel is, of course, explored throughout the album, but so is its inextricable relationship to temporality. In “Duxton, Melbourne,” a tender musing on life’s unstoppable progression, vocalist Anneli Drecker winds her voice around hesitations, missed opportunities, and empty calendars to insightful effect.

A Suite Photo
(From left to right: Lars Saabye Christensen, Ketil Bjørnstad, Anneli Drecker; photo credit: Maria Gossé)

The fatigue of travel is also likened to time passages, and nowhere so poignantly as in “Palazzo Londra, Venice.” Here the narrator looks at his own unrecognizable face in the mirror, unable to connect with the self as he used to. Similar anxieties, as fed through fantastical imagery, haunt “Vier Jahreszeiten, Hamburg.” Ultimately, however, the focus is on details: the lost umbrella of “Mayday Inn, Hong Kong,” the forgotten ashtrays of “Lutetia, Paris,” and the handkerchiefs of “Savoy, Lisbon.”

On the somber end of the spectrum are “L’Hotel, Paris” and “Palace, Copenhagen.” The latter tells of Christensen’s (?) first time stepping into a hotel—on June 23, 1963, to be precise—and finds the boy scared and uncertain of the future. The piano writing is especially passionate, drifting from minor to major as Drecker sings of “the Danish sun behind us whipping up the rain from the cobblestones.” This contrastive dynamic is repeated in “The Grand, Krakow,” the suite’s most hopeful yet shaded turn. Other selections reveal a playful side to Christensen’s wordcraft, and Bjørnstad’s evocation of it. “Astor Crowne, New Orleans” is one whimsical example, in which Drecker navigates a bluesy drinking song.

The suite ends with “Schloss Elmau,” a piano solo that acts as both vessel of remembrance and farewell, a bidirectional portal that inhales the past and exhales the future, all the while praying for respite beyond the reach of any clock.

Ketil Bjørnstad: Sunrise (ECM 2336)


Ketil Bjørnstad

Kari Bremnes vocal
Aage Kvalbein cello
Matias Bjørnstad alto saxophone
Bjørn Kjellemyr double bass
Hans-Kristian Kjos Sørensen percussion
Ketil Bjørnstad piano
Oslo Chamber Choir
Egil Fossum conductor
Recorded April 2012 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
An ECM Production

A bird of prey is trapped
deep inside me. Its talons
have ripped into my
heart, its beak has
driven itself into my chest,
and the beating of its wings
has darkened my sanity.

Norwegian pianist-composer Ketil Bjørnstad seems to be in one of the most creative phases of his career. Increasingly, he has turned to the human voice as an expressive outlet for his ever-songlike writing, and it was only a matter of time that those forces should reach the level of a choir, a medium for which he was asked to write music in commemoration of the Nordstrand Musikkselskap Choir’s 70th anniversary in 2011. Having already engaged with the life of Edvard Munch in his 1993 literary biography Historien om Edvard Munch and set the painter’s neglected words to music on the album Løsrivelse, he naturally returned to those same texts for Sunrise. Yet Bjørnstad’s self-styled cantata is more than the portrait of an artist. It is an affirmation of light.

Munch wrote flashes of prose in preparation for many of his paintings. Bjørnstad characterizes the texts chosen for this monumental work as dealing unanimously with existentialist dilemmas. In addition to Munch’s paratextual writings, Bjørnstad was intimately acquainted with his 1909 mural The Sun, under which the young pianist saw many greats play at Oslo’s University auditorium, the Aula, where it hung. In that painting, notes the composer, “one can clearly discern the degree to which Munch struggled with and against the forces of life, and how deeply and endlessly he yearned for enlightenment and reconciliation.” The same holds true for the music he has written into its aura.

The Sun

Most attractive about Sunrise is its breadth of idiomatic conviction, which is most vividly clarified in the four songs written for singer Kari Bremnes, with whom Bjørnstad worked on the aforementioned Munch cycle. She is joined by Bjørnstad at the keyboard, alto saxophonist Matias Bjørnstad (no relation, it seems), and bassist Bjørn Kjellemyr on “Moren” (The Mother), which depicts the haunting scene of a young boy who holds his mother’s hand in anticipation of going outside but is blinded by the light of spring once they open the door. Bremnes’s oaken alto lends heart to every word it envelops. In the montuno-flavored “Stupet” (The Cliff), for instance, she evokes a jagged cliff and the dangerous ocean churning below like a death wish. The naturalness of her shading lends intuitive dimensionality to the near-pop groove of “De fineste nerver er rammet” (The Most Delicate Nerves are Affected) and a lover’s wicked thoughts in “Åpent vindu” (Open Window), for which cellist Aage Kvalbein provides the lamplight and Bjørnstad a certain temptation beneath the floorboards.

Turning to the sections for choir gets us into some potentially divisive territory. Bjørnstad is clearly not a choral writer, as attested by the fact that the vocal arrangements were done by Egil Fossum, who also conducts the present recording. Certain sections are more memorable than others, such as “En rovfugl har satt seg fast i mitt indre” (A Bird of Prey is Clinging to My Inner Being), which opens the entire cantata with the unlikely ante of a steel drum, courtesy of percussionist Hans-Kristian Kjos Sørensen. Like a warped church carillon as heard through the screen of memory, it breeds a prayerful cello to greet the dawn. The choir opens its lips to greet the titular bird, which traps itself in the chest but which by the grace of song is placated by God’s azure stare. Subsequent moods and images range from the apocalyptic [“Alfa og Omega” (Alpha and Omega)] to the frivolous [“Livets dans” (The Dance of Life)]. Other elements feel more derivative, such as the hints of Samuel Barber’s famous Adagio in “Adskillelsen” (The Separation).

More interesting to consider are Munch’s sentiments, revealing as they do a conflicted mind desirous of peace, splashing color across the human psyche as if it were the truest canvas. In “Intet er lite” (Nothing is Small) is nestled his meta-statement: Nothing is small, nothing is large. / We carry worlds inside us. Words to live by for both the painter and his thoughtful composer. Wordless singing beneath the cello’s commentary accentuates an underlying yearning. Even the jazzier inflections of “Joden elskede luften” (The Earth Loved the Air) enhance the starkness of Munch’s inner world, a place where trees uproot themselves and turn into human beings: Everything is alive and in motion. / Even at the center of the Earth / there are sparks of life. This leaves us to bask in the promised “Soloppgang” (Sunrise), which unites musicians and singers in an optimistic flourish that is hard to come by in Bjørnstad’s work.

Overall, there is a rustic, hymnal quality to the choruses, which suits the material well enough. More exciting, however, are the three “Recitatives” and “Intermezzos” signposting the program. The former elicit some of Bjørnstad’s most unchained playing on record in bursts of cathartic free improvisation, while the latter weave the piano into melodic shadows of cello or saxophone, each a thread gathered from an open wound and spun into new flesh. Like the protagonists of “Som i en kirke” (As if They Were in a Church), they reveal a gravid awareness of mortality, seeing creation as a church unto itself, and nature as God’s tabernacle.

(To hear samples of Sunrise, click here.)

Ketil Bjørnstad: La notte (ECM 2300)

La notte

Ketil Bjørnstad
La notte

Ketil Bjørnstad piano
Andy Sheppard tenor and soprano saxophones
Eivind Aarset guitars, electronics
Anja Lechner violoncello
Arild Andersen double bass
Marilyn Mazur percussion
Recorded live July 21, 2010 at Molde International Jazz Festival
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Mixed March 2012 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo by Jan Erik Kongshaug, Ketil Bjørnstad, and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Ketil Bjørnstad has been a formative presence on a wide variety of ECM releases. Since 1993’s Water Stories, his recognizable pianism and compositional voice have left indelible marks on the label’s catalogue. Age has fortified the intimacy of his melodic formations, whether in his darkly alluring collaborations with cellist David Darling or in projects with singers. La notte, however, represents a return to form, while also taking his craft in unexpected new directions. The result of a Molde International Jazz Festival commission and recorded live in 2010, Bjørnstad’s eight-part suite is a self-styled “soundtrack to an inner film.” It’s also his most sublime creation to date.


Bjørnstad has always been literary in his music, just as he has always been musical in his literature, but cinema has also been an integral influence. Here he pays natural homage to Michelangelo Antonioni, citing the Italian director’s “slow, rhythmic authority” as an early source of musical inspiration. To bring that moving vision to life, he has assembled a powerhouse band of saxophonist Andy Sheppard, guitarist Eivind Aarset, cellist Anja Lechner, bassist Arild Andersen, and percussionist Marilyn Mazur. Together, they create a musique verité of raw forces.

Harnessing such forces requires no small amount of finesse and patience, as demonstrated in the slow progression from Parts I to II. Between the low, arco bass and electronic hum, there is little to grab hold of in the beginning. Even as Lechner’s cello and Bjørnstad’s piano engage in proper dance, Mazur’s tracery is still far away. Only when Sheppard lights up the sky with his tenor does the band’s full gravity take effect. Into that shift from liquid to solid, we might read the robustness of Antonioni’s characters and the fleetingness of their environments, if not the other way around.

Mazur and Sheppard are, in fact, the stars of this performance, although, duly invigorated as they are by Bjørnstad’s finely grained writing and flexible architecture. The saxophonist opts for soprano in Parts III, V, and VII, taking off with un-caged melodies. Having learned from Icarus’s example, his wings are impervious to the sun, which he proves to be a reflection anyway when he leaps into the sky as if it were an upside down pond, sending ripples toward every horizon. Mazur, for her part, accentuates the jazzier shades of this spectrum, acting as a buffer zone for Andersen’s bold cartography. With Bjørnstad, the latter two become a most formidable trio, the central nervous system to Aarset’s coronal guitar and Sheppard’s ecstatic flailing.

Mazur and Sheppard are, in fact, the stars of this performance, although, duly invigorated as they are by Bjørnstad’s finely grained writing and flexible architecture. The saxophonist opts for soprano in Parts III, V, and VII, taking off with un-caged melodies. Having learned from Icarus’s example, his wings are impervious to the sun, which he proves to be a reflection anyway when he leaps into the sky as if it were an upside down pond, sending ripples toward every horizon. Mazur, for her part, accentuates the jazzier shades of this spectrum, acting as a buffer zone for Andersen’s bold cartography. With Bjørnstad, the latter two become a most formidable trio, the central nervous system to Aarset’s coronal guitar and Sheppard’s ecstatic flailing. The presence of these bandmates rubs off on Bjørnstad, whose solo in Part IV magnifies the suite’s red thread with a fullness of expression such as he has rarely elicited before. When Lechner joins him, it feels more than logical. Their relationship is this music’s very foundation, prefiguring Parts VI and VIII as well and making broken images whole again by the glue of remembrance.

This is a must-have for fans of any of anyone involved, but especially of Bjørnstad, who on this stage reaches new heights, and depths, spreading his energies across the toast of inspiration into a brighter tomorrow.

(To hear samples of La notte, click here.)

Ketil Bjørnstad: Vinding’s Music – Songs From The Alder Thicket (ECM 2170/71)

Vinding's Music

Ketil Bjørnstad
Vinding’s Music – Songs From The Alder Thicket

Ketil Bjørnstad piano
Gunilla Süssman piano
Jie Zhang piano
Norwegian Radio Orchestra
Christian Eggen conductor, piano
CD 1
Recorded December 2009, Pettersens Kolonial Lydstudio, Hønefoss, Norway
Engineer: Espen Amundsen
CD 2
Recorded March 2009, Store Studio, NRK, Oslo, Norway
Engineers: Morten Hermansen and Jan-Erik Tørmoen
Recording producer: Geoff Miles
An ECM production, in collaboration with Aschehoug and Suhrkamp

While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.
2 Corinthians 4:18

Pianist and composer Ketil Bjørnstad will be familiar to ECM listeners for his contributions to the label in many contexts, though perhaps most notably in his “Sea” duology (ECMs 1545 and 1633) with cellist David Darling, guitarist Terje Rypdal, and drummer Jon Christensen. With Vinding’s Music, he moves to the realm of the trilogy—specifically, his three-volume collection of novels that begins with To Music, continues with The River, and concludes with The Lady In The Valley. Despite being highly praised as an author in his native Norway, as of this review only To Music has been translated into English. Nevertheless, there has always been something of the written word in his craft, each phrase sculpted like a polished sentence in search of something otherwise inexpressible. The dimmer corners of the human psyche seem always to have been a primary interest of Bjørnstad, who mines his fictional genealogy for this double album of associations and impressions.

Bjørnstad’s trilogy follows the life of a young piano student, Aksel Vinding, whose experiences mirror Bjørnstad’s own as a budding musician and composer in the Oslo of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Vinding suffers the premature death of his mother, whose absence haunts him as he faces corruptions of the living, all while trying to enhance his musicianship with nourishing growth. To achieve this, he climbs through his mounting grief and regret, marking the way with music that is important to him. In March of 2009, Bjørnstad assembled those same pieces into a concert, thereby yielding this album’s second disc.

Although it is music we have heard before, it is duly inflected by the knowledge of Bjørnstad’s concept. As Christian Eggen conducts the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and plays the Adagio from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 to start, we might very well imagine Vinding himself feeding his shadow into the composer’s scintillating machine in the hopes that something between the two might result from the friction. The piano, then, ceases to be a solo instrument, for it exists only by the grace of others, known and unknown.

Gunilla Süssmann takes on the guise of Bjørnstad’s thinly veiled protagonist in an account of Debussy’s Clair de lune that is anything but. It is, rather, naked with lucidity. Süssmann also offers her take on the Adagio from Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and the final movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30. The former’s oceanic patterning is clearer than ever, while the latter’s epic tumult lends voice to Vinding’s own. Jie Zhang offers her renditions of Chopin’s waltzing, glorious Ballade No. 1 in g minor, 23 and the Adagio from Ravel’s Piano Concerto, which drips from her fingertips with melancholy. Fadeout comes with the prayerful solitude of Barber’s Adagio for strings.

With the aftereffects of the Oslo performance still in his mind, Bjørnstad was invited in December of that same year to try out a new recording studio and its Bechstein grand piano, where and on which he worked through latent expressions of suffering. Hence the first disc, which documents Bjørnstad’s wintry improvisations. Not only is it refreshing to hear Bjørnstad at last on his own after so many years of collaboration on ECM; it is also proof positive of the novels’ thematic connection between suffering and art. In the spontaneous gesture he captures feelings of his characters, to be sure, but more importantly of himself. This is a diary, the travelogue of a soul.

Titles are at once retrospective and inherent. Each references a line, image, or idea from the trilogy and inspires pieces as long as nearly 11 minutes (“So Far, So Hidden”) and as short as three (“Evening Voices”). There is a yearning quality to their arc, which follows Bjørnstad’s dear protagonist toward creative refuge. At the beginning of the program, grief is still a bad dream, lit beyond recognition like constellations by sunrise. As the progression becomes clearer, we find that Vinding’s memory is a storehouse of remorse and missed opportunities. He broods over major harmonies, which sound like minor blips of land on an otherwise level waterline. Conversations from the past return in that half-dream state in which the dead may live again, speaking as they once did. But these are ephemeral comforts. Indeed, the more dance-like the motif (“Promise” is one example), the more withdrawn Vinding becomes. For the most part, melodies steep themselves in those forever-unknowns of which no grieving soul can be dispossessed, leaving only the churning ocean of “Remembrance” to show for their having ever existed.

Elsewhere, as in “Outside Skoog,” Bjørnstad’s fingers move as if they were legs toward some silent rapture, whereby the body grows weaker with every step, in proportion to the heart’s resolve. Revolving arpeggios in the left hand leave the right to unhinge every window in a childhood home and let the air of adulthood flow through the empty rooms. “The Stones, The River” is likely to sound the most familiar to Bjørnstad admirers for the regularity of its breath (the recording is clear enough to capture him respiring through the keys) and its stark, hymnal quality. If optimism is anywhere, it is in the final “New Morning,” which despite its moving on touches lips to scars and inhales their moral lessons. Like stepping onto freshly harvested land, it must acknowledge the decay that feeds new growth.

This is music that sings because it must.

Ketil Bjørnstad/Svante Henryson: Night Song (ECM 2108)

Night Song

Night Song

Ketil Bjørnstad piano
Svante Henryson violoncello
Recorded January 2009 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Pianist, composer, and author Ketil Bjørnstad has been long obsessed with Schubert, going so far as to sneak into his school gymnasium as a teenager to play him. “Schubert’s almost naïve openness, his existential sense of wonder and his emotional passion make him at the same time both concrete and mythical,” says Bjørnstad in his liner text. Hence Night Song, which pays tribute to, and engages in dialogue with, the Austrian great. For this project he is joined by Svante Henryson, a multi-instrumentalist and musical chameleon who plays cello alongside Bjørnstad. And by “alongside” I mean exactly that, for the two musicians recorded, at producer Manfred Eicher’s request, as closely as possible, so as to avoid the divisive tendencies of headphones and glass partitions. Bjørnstad: “It is always special for a musician when an ECM production evolves through a dialogue with Manfred Eicher from the very beginning. It can perhaps be compared to what an actor feels, when working with a film director.”

Ketil Svante

The nature of this piano-cello pairing is, however, rather distinct from Bjørnstad’s acclaimed collaborations with cellist David Darling, despite the identical instrumentation. Like Darling, Henryson is a gentle-minded musician, one who whispers more than he sings in the title track, which bookends the album with an “Evening Version” and “Morning Version.” There is, however, in his own music (Henryson pens four of the album’s 16 tracks), an altogether idiosyncratic grace. His arpeggios are of the same planar existence as our own, whereas Darling’s seem to float up from the very earth. Songs (for that is indeed what they are) like “Fall” and “Tar” inhale light and exhale pure, cinematic description—which is to say, by means of a music as visible as it is audible. Henryson’s pizzicati in “Reticence” and “Melting Ice” add further layers of breath, activated by a brooding play of shadows.

Due to the Schubert connection (crystallized in the thinner air of “Schubert Said”), one might think that Night Song would sound more romantic, but like much of Bjørnstad’s chamber music it emotes from a heart seemingly teleported from the late Renaissance. The transitions marked out by tracks like “Visitor” and “Share” from inward prayer to full-throated incantation tickle the senses. To better manifest these transitions, Bjørnstad substantially expands his coverage of the keyboard (note the low range of “Edge” and, by contrast, the glittering rays of “Sheen”). Wherever he may be on the spectrum, he always performs with forgiveness. Henryson, too, unravels coils of life force in the hopeful “Serene” and, in the album’s most songlike turn, “Chain.” His precision in the latter is astonishing for its balance of trepidation and peace.

Bjørnstad’s music begs image, movement, and reconsideration of time. In this sense, Night Song may just be his most intimate recording yet, a gem of expression clawed in silver and carefully polished until it is worthy of being slipped on the finger of a hidden muse.

(To hear samples of Night Song, click here.)

Ketil Bjørnstad/Terje Rypdal: Life in Leipzig (ECM 2052)

Life in Leipzig

Life in Leipzig

Ketil Bjørnstad piano
Terje Rypdal guitar
Recorded live by MDR, October 14, 2005 during the Leipziger Jazztage
Engineer: Matthias Sachers
Produced by Christian Cerny

Pianist Ketil Bjørnstad and guitarist Terje Rypdal present a parallel universe to the former’s duo recordings with cellist David Darling. Despite having performed with Rypdal more than any other musician, Bjørnstad makes here his album debut with Rypdal as a duo. Recorded live at Leipzig’s Opera House in 2005, this document finds both musicians unmasked and in prime lyric form. They are also more focused and impactful in their playing, needing only to listen to each other and to the muses guiding them to sing.

With a Bösendorfer piano at his fingertips, Bjørnstad elicits a heavier sound not heard on previous projects. “The Sea V” thus begins the set in rather dark territory for Bjørnstad, whose lyricism tends to skim the waterline. Only now it scours the ocean floor, a ghost from some ancient wreckage clawing silt and coral into musical rebirth. The pianism gradually turns into sparkle, while Rypdal’s fire remains untainted by the waves—if anything, enlivened by them. Thus the album offers its first of a handful of reprises from The Sea, including also Nos. II and IX. Both overflow with aching nostalgia, the mode of speech between the duo so heartwarming that you’d swear you’ve heard it before, even if for the first time. The latter tune treats us to some rare strumming from Rypdal for a webbed, Bill Frisell-like effect.

Other tracks link back to further group collaborations. From Bjørnstad’s Water Stories we get the utterly fragile “Flotation And Surroundings,” for which Rypdal’s subdued, mid-heavy whispers bob like petals on water, while Bjørnstad dips into some crisp, jazzy playing that takes a page out of Keith Jarrett’s vast book. This in turn elicits from Rypdal a crispness of his own as he carves out a fiercely melodic solo. “By The Fjord” comes by way of The Light. Originally written for voice, it gains even truer vocal quality by virtue of Rypdal’s introspection. His is a physiological bed made up in sheets of gold.

The guitarist’s own Skywards gets props with “The Pleasure Is Mine, I’m Sure.” There or here, it is a luscious and soaring thing, equal parts muscle and fragrant breeze. Two references to If Mountains Could Sing also put Rypdal in the spotlight. The overlapping guitars of “Le Manfred / Foran Peisen” whip up a fiery solo replete with grungy delays. This is a profound moment in the program, and a bursting foray into Rypdal’s cosmology. Fan favorite “The Return Of Per Ulv” closes out the concert in a spirited version. This has a different quality with only a piano to back it. One can almost see it relegated to the corner of a nondescript tavern, even as it blasts its message across tundra and sand. Rypdal’s soloing takes this one to new heights…and depths.

Three standalones round out the set. “Easy Now,” excerpted from Rypdal’s Melodic Warrior, receives an astonishing treatment. Rypdal navigates its chordal landscape with his eyes closed and his pick telepathically attuned to every change in wind. And a fragment of Edvard Grieg’s “Notturno,” a short piano solo with slightest shadows, shifts into a short piece by Bjørnstad entitled “Alai’s Room,” another solo so pretty that might have upset the balance had it been any longer. It offers just enough reprieve.

Even at its most sensitive, the duo maintains an epic quality to its playing. About as good as it gets from either man, and a sheer joy to have them—and no one else—together at last.

Ketil Bjørnstad: The Light (ECM 2056)

The Light

The Light

Randi Stene mezzo-sopran
Lars Anders Tomter viola
Ketil Bjørnstad piano
Recorded February/March 2007 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Mixed by Jan Erik Kongshaug, Ketil Bjørnstad, and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“Longing itself is a pledge that what we long for exists.”
–Karen Blixen

Ketil Bjørnstad has left a nuanced yet indelible trail through ECM’s forest, leading to the beacon that is The Light. The more he creates, the less ornamental his music becomes, so that here we have distilled melodies and grander human themes that can breathe. Subtitled “Songs Of Love And Fear,” this album is essentially his second for the label as nominal leader, following 1993’s Water Stories. And while many subsequent collaborations, including his classic sessions among the “Sea” quartet (with David Darling, Terje Rypdal, and Jon Christensen), have rendered water his theme par excellence, now he treads the currents of an equally fundamental force of life.

As any Bjørnstad listener knows, the Norwegian pianist and composer has always had a flair for clear and evocative melodies, and fans will surely find their expectations well met in this album’s two song cycles. The strength of this record, then, lies in its personnel. Bringing new depth to the Bjørnstad aesthetic are singer Randi Stene’s and violinst Lars Anders Tomter, the second of whom adds a dash of reality to the dreamlike qualities of the piano-voice telos. Indeed, these songs would seem to reference the great lieder of European art music in spirit, albeit by means of a more translucent architecture.

Bjørnstad’s Fire Nordiske Sanger (Four Nordic Songs) represent three decades of writing, performing, and refinement. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the Norwegian word for “four” should mimic the English “fire,” for that is indeed the type of inner glow brought to every verse. The personal feel of “Grensen” (The Border) sets the tone. Written for his wife’s 50th birthday in 2006, it is the most recent of the four songs and reads like a love letter. “Sommernatt Ved Fjorden” (By The Fjord), on the other hand, was written in 1978 and has since become, much to the composer’s surprise, a favorite on the Norwegian pop charts. Imagistic contrasts also abound, as between the rustically inflected “Natten” (The Night), in which the viola takes on a narrative role, and the cinematic “Sommersang” (Summer Song), which follows the emotions of its protagonist—the song was, in fact, written for Stene—with the precision of a tracking shot.

The album’s remainder and title piece sets eleven poems by John Donne (1572-1631). While the vagueness of Donne’s poetry has always been key to its appeal, here it is leveled by the music’s even keel, balancing absence with substance and stillness with life.

In songs like “A Valediction: Of Weeping,” “The Dream,” and “The Prohibition,” the words teeter between surrender and command, while in “Air And Angels,” “Love’s Alchemy,” and “Break Of Day,” love assaults the eyes like two transparencies of the same image bumped slightly askew. Nevertheless, the connective spirit of Bjørnstad and Tomter holds on to a vision of unity in the shadow of Stene’s voice, especially in their instrumental interlude, “Lamentoso.”

Moments of unity abound elsewhere. “The Flea” is both one of Donne’s most intriguing poems and receives here an equally vivid melodic treatment. “A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being The Shortest Day” is a morsel of comparable skill, weighted by the pall of a long winter, that finds its renunciations answered in “The Sun Rising,” in which rooted pianism evokes the grip of Donne’s passions. Finally, “A Hymn To God The Father” points to the poet’s devout core, where faith in heavenly blessing wraps his fears of death until they dissolve. This is where the album’s light truly shines through, exploring through prayer a love secluded from a world that would pick it clean if given the chance.

Ketil Bjørnstad/David Darling: Epigraphs (ECM 1684)



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

Driven into the
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.