Sinikka Langeland: The Magical Forest (ECM 2448)

the-magical-forest

Sinikka Langeland
The Magical Forest

Sinikka Langeland kantele, vocals
Arve Henriksen trumpet
Trygve Seim
 soprano and tenor saxophones
Anders Jormin double bass
Markku Ounaskari percussion
Trio Mediæval
Anna Maria Friman vocals
Berit Opheim
vocals
Linn Andrea Fuglseth
 vocals
Recorded February 2015 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: August 5, 2016

On The Magical Forest, Norwegian kantele virtuoso Sinikka Langeland reconvenes her “Starflowers” quintet (with saxophonist Trygve Seim, trumpeter Arve Henriksen, bassist Anders Jormin, and drummer-percussionist Markku Ounaskari), adding to that quilt the patchwork of voices known as Trio Mediæval. Any of these names will be familiar across the spectrum of ECM followers, but their shared love for Scandinavian folk music has never been so clear as in this latest project.

In contrast to previous albums, the kantele is a largely supportive presence, almost airy in its backgrounded-ness. This gives Langeland’s unaffected singing—and, more importantly, the imagery laced into it—room to roam. Of central significance in that regard is the sacredness of space. Not only in the immaterial sense, but also in the physical landscapes of nature at large and their shaping of reality as we’ve come to understand it over millennia of spiritual seeking.

The album’s opening trifecta sets its thematic charge as the rising sun ignites the day into breaking. “Puun Loitsu” (Prayer to the Tree Goddess) is based on a rune song text from the Finnskogen, or Forest Finns, whose migratory settlements in Norway and Sweden have become reliquaries for creation myths and other origin stories, glistening anew in the varnish of Langeland’s diction. The wiry strains of the kantele offer hints of song, which emerges first in monotone before being taken up in Trio Mediæval’s chanting response. “Sammas” crystallizes the running theme in its evocation of the “world pillar” (axis mundi), a column of infinite energy binding Heaven to Earth and circling around the North Star. The lyrics, with their Trinitarian framing, demonstrate one way in which Christian elements have found their way over the centuries into these mystical traditions. The light-bearing qualities of Henriksen’s trumpeting deepen these underlying messages, which “Jacob’s Dream” makes even more apparent. This retelling of the biblical Patriarch’s vision emphasizes the permanence of verticality over the fleetingness of horizontality. The “ladder,” then, is not climbable by the body but constitutes the body itself: a DNA helix spun from godly breath. Once the words are sung, the instrumentalists brilliantly unravel an improvisational second half. Seim’s tenor and Henriksen’s trumpet move in tandem, drawing rungs between them as they travel.

Trees continue to dominate the landscape in “Køyri” and “Karsikko.” The latter, which names a memorial trunk on which the names of the dead are carved, is based on a variant of the hymn “I Know of a Sleep in Jesus’s Name,” and Langeland’s communications with Henriksen make for some picturesque unfolding in both songs. “Pillar to Heaven” likewise strengthens an interconnectedness of things.

As so often happens on a Langeland album, animals figure heavily into the symbolism of The Magical Forest. “The Wolfman” recounts a man named Johan who, according to legend, lived as a wolf yet died as a man. The inseparability of soil and sky resurfaces, as Ounaskari’s cymbals seem to scale the clouds. “Kamui” takes a relatively documentarian turn in its depiction of Hokkaido, Japan’s indigenous Ainu, whose annual ritual killing of a bear cub is described in empathetic detail, while Trio Mediæval intones the titular “Kamui,” an Ainu word meaning “God” and referring to both the sacrifice and the deity honored by it. This leaves only the title track, an instrumental foregrounding the bird-like calls of Seim (now on soprano saxophone) and Henriksen while Jormin’s arco bassing slithers in the underbrush.

All of which makes me think that the album’s title is somewhat misleading. For indeed, what the listener encounters here is not a forest that is magical but a magic that is forested.

(See this article as it originally appeared in RootsWorld online magazine here.)

Sinikka Langeland: The half-finished heaven (ECM 2377)

2377 X

Sinikka Langeland
The half-finished heaven

Sinikka Langeland kantele, vocals
Lars Anders Tomter viola
Trygve Seim tenor saxophone
Markku Ounaskari percussion
Recorded January 2013 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Sinikka Langeland is that rare artist whose albums feel as if they’ve always been with us, only it takes the divine intervention of recording them to make them perceivable in this dimension. As a virtuoso of the kantele, a Finnish table harp of the psaltery family, she is unparalleled. As a singer and composer, likewise. Yet beyond her physiological understanding of the relationship between text and arrangement, beyond her sonic woodblock printing of an ancient yet personal mythology, it is her willingness to grow into new territory with every project that makes her visions feel so ingrained. And in that respect she continues her rainbow chase toward the achievement of a settled style, freshening the colors of that spectrum by virtue of her very own.

SL

Langeland owes her evolution in part to the respect of collaborating musicians, whom over the years have grown and changed as the seasons. Out of previous ECM sessions she retains, from Maria’s Song (one of her most unexpected and shatteringly magnetic creations), violist Lars Anders Tomter and, from The Land That Is Not, saxophonist Trygve Seim and percussionist Markku Ounaskari. The idea for this album had been brewing since her debut with the label, after which producer Manfred Eicher suggested a solo kantele outing with minimal singing. The half-finished heaven is the compromise: a program of mostly instrumentals from which three songs rise like spruce trees against a listening sky.

The words come from Nobel Prize-winner Tomas Tranströmer, whose naturalist poetry also gives the album its name. The instrumental set-up of the title song feels like sitting down for a meal with someone you can only hope to see again. The sting of finality in the air is as strong as the drink at your lips as you try to focus on the good memories, which come marching through to the beat of Ounaskari’s snare. There is an intensely cinematic quality to the scene before Langeland silences the cameras with her vocal truth. “Each man is a half-open door,” she sings, “leading to a room for everyone,” and with that single statement the world awakens to the possibility of enjoying the God-given light in peace with others.

In captivation of rising arpeggios from the kantele, “The light streams in” unfolds far less checkered table cloths of expectation:

Outside the window, the long beast of spring
the transparent dragon of sunlight
rushes past like an endless
suburban train—we never got a glimpse of its head.

Langeland’s music is inherently attuned to just this sort of spatial and temporal mixture. Every touch of her instrument thus produces an observational moment, bending notes like branches aching with fruit. Ensnared as they are by sunlight so intense that it “makes the statues blink,” Tomter’s grave double stops drag arms along a wasted earth once filled with beautiful mourning yet which is now only mournfully beautiful. And just over the album’s central cusp is “The tree and the sky,” which at surface level links its titular metaphor to us and nature, while at the biological level erasing any distinction between the two. The viola moves like that tree, an Ent-like presence living out of time but in deep connection to all things material. Langeland’s (bene)diction here is a fairytale come to life for those who will believe it.

In the absences of words, we gain knowledge of absences. Throughout the opening “Hare rune,” for instance, we may notice that Ounaskari’s forested drum speaks as much to the effect of branches as to the sky feathered between them. Even the kantele—in this case, a 15-string version—twirls its ribbons of mercury to draw attention to the resulting chain of circles. Seim’s breathy tenor, meanwhile, sounds like an animal horn blown from a great distance, so that by the time it reaches us it is barely clinging to its note. “The blue tit’s spring song” is another 15-stringed tune, one that features goblet drum for a distinctly brighter sound.

With the additional exception of “Hymn to the fly,” a miniature played on 10 strings, the rest of the album features the 39-string concert kantele, which like a piano is equipped with a sustain pedal that allows for longer decay. Such capabilities of resonance enhance “The white burden,” an old piece from 1978 now making its first appearance on record, but more so the album’s faunal illustrations. Whether trailing feathers in “The woodcock’s flight” and “Caw of the crane” or reveling with “The magical bird” (modeled after a traditional polsdans from Finnskogen), each plucked string is hollow-boned and attuned to any change in wind direction. As in the delightful “Animal miniatures,” we may feel the way of every flit and burrowing.

To hear Langeland, be it through strings or song, is to be healed and know the way of holistic music. Like the ancient materia medica, her runic ways turn plants into cures and animals into protections. She is by no exaggeration a living treasure, and this may just be her most invaluable relic yet.

(To hear samples of The half-finished heaven, click here.)

Sinikka Langeland: Starflowers (ECM 1996)

Starflowers

Sinikka Langeland
Starflowers

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).

Sinikka
(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.