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264: Folk’Avant, ‘9th of August’

Posted by jeff on Jun 9, 2017 in Nordic, Song Of the week

Folk’Avant – ‘9th of August’

Folk’Avant – ‘Gryningsland’

Folk’Avant – ‘Toivo’

One disc has monopolized my virtual turntable now for 12 days consecutively, non-stop. It has the sound palette of a magical kingdom hidden deep within an endless forest, replete with intrigues and yearnings and 21st century relationships.
It’s “Gryningsland”, the debut album by the Swedish-Finnish ‘folkmusik trio’ Folk’Avant.

Wait! Do not X me! Watch this! Trust me.

Is that not magic?

Folk’Avant – ‘9th of August’
FolkavantSilently, so that no one could hear us, we sneaked into a house where everyone else was asleep. Staying awake all night, until you finally packed your bag, closed the door, leaving a resting body behind.

I just keep playing the disc over and over and over, 12 days now. And I’m not getting tired of it. That sound. The girls (sorry, that’s a word I still use, with all the respect and affection in the world) tell me that that’s what the trio actually sounds like live.
That warm, resonant fiddle. It feels like the strings being played are still in my own gut.
Those magical bell-like tones. Fantasy and fancy, pristine and elegant, precise and timeless.
That Swedish contralto voice – strong, knowing, uninflected, unflinching.  Confident and independent. Unafraid of being vulnerable.

A gossamer walk through an endless, enchanted forest. 2017.

Know what it keeps reminding me of? ‘Guinevere‘ or ‘Legend of a Girl Child Linda‘, 50 years old—Scottish psychedelic folk. Donovan, from the very wonderful 1968 album “Sunshine Superman”. Separated by 50 years, 2000 miles, and millennia of disparate folk traditions. Welcome to the internet. Welcome to the human soul.

1-13-av-32I think I’ll call “Mellow Yellow” Cembalo Rock. I guess that makes “Gryningsland” cembalo rock without any rocks.

Although ‘Budapest’ sure has some rock sensibility deep inside, doesn’t it?
You say you’re a simple, roving person traveling with only your backpack and big words. Always on the run. You say I’m brave, beautiful, loving, independent, dangerous and strong. You say we only exist on this earth for a little while, yet nothing you said was true. But we will always have our Budapest.

1-12-av-32And as far as I remember, Vikings didn’t have the ‘Instagram’.
I sold myself cheap and paid a high price. But you don’t own me. You have to move, there is no room for my words. You’re last in line, we are no longer in use.

Folk’Avant’s music is all original, written by the three lovely young ladies themselves. Brave, beautiful, loving, independent, dangerous and strong.

Swedish Anna Rubinsztein still plays classical violin alongside her traditional fiddle.
Swedish Anna Wikenius comes from the worlds of contemporary a cappella and jazz.
Finnish Maija Kauhanen plays pop music when she’s not weaving enchanting tapestries on the concert kantele.
The what??

KanteleThe kantele is a Finnish folk instrument that starts with a 5-string zither-ish thingie and works its way up to a 38- (or 39- or 40-, depending on which version you believe) stringed instrument which is held on the lap and plucked with both hands, like a harp (its first cousin once removed), except when you use the left hand on the stops to dampen the tintinnabulation. Gosh, I love using that word.

The girls say there are classical influences in the seriousness with which they approach the material and the focus on structural details.
They say there’s a big difference in the the melody/beat connection in Finland as opposed to Sweden. “In Sweden we stretch the melody a lot, while in Finland you play quite straight on the beat. That’s been very interesting in Folk’Avant.” Full disclosure: that kind of talk really gives me a very certain kind of thrill.

09-06-2017 11-02-32For us non-Nords, the border between Sweden and Finland ain’t always clear. But for them: “Of course traditionally folk music has had a function. The music has been used in every aspect of life– weddings, parties, funerals, calling in the cows, lullabies and so on. In Sweden the tradition of dancing has lived on and there’s dancing at almost every folk music event. That’s not the case in Finland, where the dancing is usually only on stage on different special occasions!”

I’ve written in the past about Nordic roots music and about my ever-growing fascination with all things Scandinavian, especially Nordic Noir TV mini-series, the best stuff on camera in the world today. Best known are The Killing and The Bridge (the originals, not the US or European remakes). Typically, a damaged female detective and her male partner (who has lost his wife and is trying to raise a trouble-prone teenaged daughter while the bodies are dropping like prehistoric flies by the hand of a deranged perp).

MG_3754That’s the convention, the default premise. But you also get glorious landscapes, the best cinematography and set design and production values in the world, searing human interactions, and a real insight into the most highly evolved sense of womanhood and ecological responsibility in the world. The style has spread around the world: Iceland (Trapped) Belfast (The Fall), rural New Zealand (Top of the Lake), Dorset (Broadchurch), even the Louisiana Bayou (True Detective).

Some of the best of the breed – especially the second Swedish Wallander and my personal quirky favorite Annika Bengtzon – I’ve watched 3 or 4 times over the last couple of years. If you’re satisfied with House of Cards and Walking Dead, I wish you well. My wife, who is not an effete snob like her husband, recently said, “Jeff, you’ve spoiled me. I just can’t watch American TV anymore. It just can’t hold a candle to that dark Scandinavian stuff.” Nicest thing she’s said to me in many a decade.

FE1jpgI’ve read 6 of the series of 10 Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I’m in the middle of “The Long Ships”, a 1944 picaresque Viking novel by a Swedish professor of old literary forms, a adventure story the likes of which I haven’t read since I was 15.

I’ve organized myself a whole playlist of the new old Nordic music, with the kanteles and the accordions and the hurdy gurdies and the beautiful blonde singers. It’s going to keep me cool all summer. Check this. Or this. Or this.

What’s the connection between Folk’Avant and all these serial murder TV series and novels? Well, it’s got all that modern Scandinavian sense of style and panache and sophistication, and roots as deep as an eternal, enchanted forest. I don’t pretend to understand it. Hell, I don’t even have the letters on my keyboard. But I’m perfectly contented to settle for being enthralled.

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063: Pust, ‘En Reell Halling’

Posted by jeff on Apr 3, 2016 in A Cappella, Nordic, Song Of the week

I like to think I’m neither completely stupid nor wholly detached from reality. So if our Song of The Week is by a Norwegian a cappella sextet that prides itself on a synthesis of folk, jazz and ethnic music, I do understand that we’re not pushing mainstream fare here. Or that if the song itself is billed as ‘a melodic battle’ between Irish and Norwegian folkdance music styles, even I get that this isn’t the most commercially appealing middle-of-the-road music you may encounter this week.

But it is among the finest and most exciting music I’ve heard in a long time.

Just so you realize I’m not alone in enthusing over this music, let me quote some other critics: “Something that has never been heard before.” “Musicality is superb, blend amazing.” “Everything an a cappella fan could want: beauty, emotion, and wonderfully sung music. Even to the English listener, it is a treat. Now if only the a cappella scene would gain as much traction in the US as it has in Northern Europe.” “Spellbinding. Groups wishing to push the boundaries of a modern cappella would do well to listen.” “Their creative folk music is sure to drop more jaws than just mine.” “Be prepared for a very unique experience. Kudos to Pust for boldy pushing the envelope for a cappella music.”

Read more…

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209: The Real Group: ‘Monica Vals’ (‘Waltz for Debby’)

Posted by jeff on Dec 12, 2014 in A Cappella, Jazz, Nordic, Song Of the week, Vocalists

The Real Group, ‘Monica Vals’

Margareta Bengtson

Margareta Bengtson

I was hanging with some musical friends this week, watching an old video of theirs, relaxed and routine, when – boom! – four minutes in heaven.

The Real Group. Margareta Bengtson. Monica Zetterlund. Bill Evans. Let me explain. But I’ll probably get all historical and detailed way beyond what any normal person would care about. So unless you have the patience of a stone, feel free to listen, watch, and be transported. The Real Group, ‘Monica Vals’.

In 1953, Bill Evans (1929-80) was released from the army. He’d finished a degree in classical piano at Southeastern Louisiana College and was trying to decide which direction to pursue, classical or jazz. So he took a year off, living in his parents’ home and practicing. He would visit his brother Harry (who eventually became a music professor and a suicide; here’s an mind-opening interview by Harry of Bill from 1964, very much worth studying) and his three-year old niece Debby.

Bill Evans & Monica Zetterlund

Bill Evans & Monica Zetterlund

‘Waltz for Debby’ has become a jazz classic, written mostly in ¾, not a common jazz signature. It’s charming, disarming, lovely and tender. It’s the genius that is Bill Evans at his best.

Evans included it on his first album, “New Jazz Conceptions” (1956), a solo performance. Perhaps his finest treatments of it were on his masterpiece recording “Live at the Village Vanguard” (1961), with Paul Motion on drums and the immortal (but fated to die 10 days later) Scott LaFaro on bass. Here’s Take One and Take Two. Here’s a posting dedicated to that session, one of the most sublime pieces of music I’ve encountered.

The Real Group then

The Real Group then

Evans played ‘Waltz for Debby’ throughout his career, right up to the end – here it is from 1980 (with Joe LaBarbera on drums and Marc Johnson on bass), exactly one month before his tragic but inevitable death. Well, aren’t all tragic deaths inevitable? The song is usually performed gently (1956, 1961). Here in 1980, on the edge of the abyss, he invests in it a frightening passion that I discussed at length in a blog post about another signature song of his, ‘Nardis’.

In 1963, Evans asked his friend Gene Lees to write lyrics for the song. Some people think they’re precious and wonderful, some think they’re painfully kitsch and demean a perfectly restrained song. Me? I’m so caught up in the music I don’t even hear them.

The Real Group now

The Real Group now

I’ve found no evidence of why Evans asked for lyrics. The first version I can find a recording is a respectable treatment by Dutch singer named Rita Reyes, recorded for Dutch TV in 1964. In contrast, Johnny Hartman croons it to death in the same year (the follow-up album to his legendary collaboration John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the divine Sarah Vaughn’s version from 1966. Also unfortunately, it’s easy to find the 1975 Tony Bennet/Bill Evans duet collaboration. As my friend ML put it so well: “Tony Bennet doesn’t sing on that album, he shouts.”

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Bill Evans & Monica Zetterlund

In the summer of 1964, Evans made his first trip to Europe, with his second trio – Chuck Israels on bass, Larry Bunker on drums. In Sweden he met a young singer named Monica Zetterlund (1937-2005), who had made a recording of ‘Waltz for Debby’ with lyrics by Beppe Wolgers, ‘Monica Vals’. They cut a wonderful album together, a paragon of passionate restraint (Evans) meeting icy perfection (Zetterlund). Here’s the recording, and here’s a TV video of that visit. While we’re here, here’s a beautiful ‘Some Other Time’ video from the same program. And here they are doing a beautiful, relaxed rehearsal of ‘Monica Vals’ two years later, with Eddie Gomez on bass and a Swedish drummer.

In 1984, five Swedish friends were at studying together at the Royal Academy of Music. They felt that other friends played all the instruments and styles better than they did, so they decided to try something different – singing jazz classics a cappella. Thus was born the genre I love so well, ‘modern a cappella’. They began by listening to classic jazz such as Count Basie/Quincy Jones and replicating it vocally, each voice singing a different instrument/part, resulting in a pure, breathtaking polyphony.  A couple of their earliest efforts were arrangements by Peder Karlsson of early Evans’ tunes: ‘Very Early’ and ‘Monica Vals’. Here’s an extensive interview I had with Peder describing the riveting metamorphosis of the group.

Margareta Bengston

Margareta Bengston

And finally – our Song of The Week, our Performance of The Week, our four minutes of heaven of the week: The Real Group performing ‘Monica Vals’, live in Stockholm, 2005. The soloist is the original soprano, Margareta Bengtson, who left the group in 2006.

Scott LaFaro’s bass part written by Peder for Anders Jalkéus; the intricate, marvelous tapestry of Katarina Henryson, Anders Edenroth and Peder – this is as good as it gets. And Margareta’s solo is a simply a wonder of the world. Such precision, such love, such delicate charisma.

Here’s their reunion performance of ‘Monica Vals’ from The Real Group Festival in Stockholm, 2012, which I was blessed to be present at. If you hear someone in the audience crying from utter bliss, that just might be me.

Monica Zetterlund

Monica Zetterlund

I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know all the members of The Real Group to varying degrees. Some are warm acquaintances, some dear friends. It’s a unique experience for me to know people to whom I both feel close personally and also admire so profoundly as artists.

Hey, Margareta, how are you? When I heard and saw you singing ‘Monica Vals’ this week, in my mind I gave a slight bow and kissed your hand. I don’t know how else to thank you for touching my ears and my mind and my heart so wondrously.

When they say ‘The voice is the only instrument made by God’, this is what they’re referring to. I just can’t imagine anything more perfect.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Aarhus Vocal Festival, 2013
173: The Real Group, ‘Nature Boy’
The New A Cappella
059: The Real Group, ‘Joy Spring’
124: Bill Evans, ‘Nardis’
096: Bill Evans (solo), ‘Easy To Love’
060: The Bill Evans Trio, ‘Gloria’s Step’ from “Live at The Village Vanguard”

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189: Choir of Young Believers, ‘Hollow Talk’ (Nordic Noir TV)

Posted by jeff on Feb 21, 2014 in A Cappella, Nordic, Song Of the week

Choir of Young Believers – Hollow Talk

Everything Scandinavian is better than anything non-Scandinavian.

132_6039

Line Groth coaching in Israel.

Okay, maybe there’s a drop of hyperbole there, but I’m infatuated. I have been for a number of years now, starting with my involvement in Modern A Cappella, whose epicenter is in Den Norr/Nord. (Even the fine Australian quartet call themselves The Idea of North.)

The situation was profoundly exacerbated last week with the visit of the wonderful Line Groth Riis from Aarhus, Denmark, to workshop with the a cappella community here in Israel, especially with Vocalocity, the biggest little group in the land. Line told me there were 17 hours of sunlight in Denmark in January. There was an average high of 20°C in Tel Aviv during her visit. So how is it that we all felt that it was she who was bringing the sunlight here?

This irrational, exaggerated infatuation (aren’t those defining traits of infatuation?) began with The Real Group, spread through Rajaton and Vocal Line and a myriad of other a cappella groups; traveled through Nordic roots music; and recently taken me on out to some cutting edge pop that has me mystified and baffled and intrigued and enthralled.

Faroese-singer-Eivor-Pals-001

Eivør

Eivør is as far out musically as she is geographically. She hails from the Faroe Islands, a village named Gota actually. She’s a bona fide star in Iceland and Denmark, and is traveling the world as Marilyn Monroe in an avant-garde opera. The core of her original music is haunting, mystical, wind-swept barren Atlantic island folk/roots. She’s also beautiful, charming, and spiritual. I met her a year ago in Denmark, and felt like I was talking to a persona who’d just stepped out of a myth, or a fairy tale. Give a listen. I promise to write more about her sometime soon.

images

Sigur Rós

Moving from a country of 50,000 to one of 320,000, we all thought Bjork was as bizarre as Iceland could get. Well, we were wrong. For a year now I’ve been under the spell of Sigur Rós, a “post-rock” group led by Jónsi Birgisson. (That’s a new sub-genre of often instrumental music using guitars, drums and unusual instruments in non-rock timbres and textures. Huh?) Their music is haunting, ephemeral, hazy. My favorite of their dozen CDs is “()” I thought I was the only person east of the Faroe Islands to have heard of these guys. But it turns out their spellbinding sound pallet has been drafted for projects as disparate as BBC’s natural history series “Planet Earth” and their ads for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, as well as in the films “Vanilla Sky” and even “We Bought a Zoo”! What is this world coming to?

Choir of Young Believers

Choir of Young Believers

And now I’ve been listening to Jannis Noya Makrigiannis’ band Choir of Young Believers, who are legitimate stars in a real country (Denmark – I’ve been there, I can testify). Especially their song ‘Hollow Talk‘ (which just happens to be the theme song of the Danish/Swedish TV  series “Bron/Broen/The Bridge”). Let me tell you what I hear in these artists. I fully realize that I’m talking through my hat (that’s the euphemized version of the expression) about the Scandinavians. All the artists I’ve encountered from there are intelligent, refined, sophisticated, and as a group most certainly don’t need me to tell them what they’re doing. But I’m enthralled, and I want to share that, even if I don’t know what I’m talking about. What can I say in my defense? I call ‘em like I see ‘em.

Faroe Islands

Faroe Islands

I hear the geography in their music. I hear barren islands in Eivør’s music, steaming hot springs in a frigid expanse in Sigur Rós’ music, expanses of cold Atlantic shores in Choir of Young Believers. In young American and British Indie bands, even the best of them, the context I hear is a recording studio. There’s no continuum with the world outside. Here, in these Nordic sounds, I’m hearing the wind-chill factor, ice and shivering and darkness.

Borgen

Borgen

At a music festival in Sweden I once asked someone why everyone was wearing black and grey. She scoffed and said that “That’s nonsense”. I said, “Look around. There are 600 people here. They’re all wearing black and grey.” She looked around. “You’re right,” she admitted. “I had no idea.”

Could it have something to do with national wealth, abnormal security, sunlight deprivation and the evolution of social mores akin to growing a third eye, a sort of ET of the north? A whole new species of modern society growing right before our eyes in the dark crannies of the fjords eerily illuminated by Aurora Borealis?

Bron/Broen/The Bridge

Bron/Broen/The Bridge

There’s a genre of crime fiction called Nordic Noir, characterized by a harsh, unadorned style with a dark, morally complex mood. Authors include Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø, and Henning Mankell (the Kurt Wallander detective series). The first I tried and didn’t get caught by, the latter is waiting on my shelf. But in the meantime, I have been pursuing my concomitant obsession, Nordic Noir mini-series.

The template is an emotionally scarred Danish/Swedish female homicide detective chasing a psychopathic serial killer, one story over a season of eight 90-minute episodes. Most of the shows I describe here deviate from that format in one way or more, but they all draw from the same somber, murky, sharply observed world. The worst of them is better than anything else around. At their weakest they’re implausible. At their best, they’re dramatically precise, visually stunning, emotionally wrenching, and so scary it hurts. On occasion they transcend scary into seriously spooky.

The Fall

The Fall

A friend of mine whose taste I admire says he won’t watch any television in which all of the characters are beautiful. These Nords are humanly complex, blemishes and foibles and all, uniformly vulnerable and riveting. Alphabetically:

  • Borgen (Denmark, remade in US)
    A back-bench MK becomes PM by fluke. We watch her in the office and at home, trying to learn and cope. Many of the secondary characters are flat. Not the greatest drama, but a tasteful look at an intriguing world.
  • Bron/Broen (Sweden/Denmark, The Bridge, remade in US)
    Everyone’s favorite, including mine. Two very fine main characters – Saga (Danish, Asperger’s) and Martin (Swedish, human) – meet over a body composed of two half corpses placed on the very borderline of the bridge connecting Copenhagen and Malmö. A modern allegory: a virile heroine, a feminine hero. Rounded characters, rich circumstances, finely crafted. An utter delight for after the kids have gone to sleep.
  • Those Who Kill

    Those Who Kill

    The Eagle (Ørnen) (Sweden)
    Just getting started on this one. Stay tuned.

  • The Fall (N. Ireland)
    Best of Breed. Gillian Anderson as the cop who is almost as sick as the villain, who makes Norman Bates look like a choir boy. Reminiscent of Helen Mirren’s “Prime Suspect”, it goes way beyond scary, beyond spooky, into morally upsetting. Hitchock territory.
  • The Killing (Sweden, remade in US)
    This was the first one I encountered, unfortunately in the US version. Single mother, obsessive, neglecting her son and herself to pursue The Case. Suffers from an overly contrived plot, makes excessive demands on suspension of disbelief.
  • Top of the Lake

    Top of the Lake

    The Kingdom  (Sweden)
    Created by Lars von Trier (“Breaking the Waves”, “Dogville”), it’s the story of a sick hospital. The building isn’t haunted, it’s diseased. Little suspense, lots of malaise.

  • Sebastian Bergman (Sweden)
    A 50-year old police consultant, damaged and scarred in every way imaginable. You don’t watch him, you accompany him, through his pain and confusion and struggles. Unfortunately, only two episodes.
  • Those Who Kill  (Denmark, remade in US)
    She’s too beautiful, her partner is misconceived and miscast. It’s not fingernail-biting – you may chew off the fingers themselves. Not for the weak of heart.
  • Wallender

    Wallander

    Top of the Lake (N. Zealand)
    Made by Jane Campion, reminiscent of her “The Piano”. Unfortunately starring Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men”, “West Wing”). But the visuals of the scenery, the villain, and the commune of wacko women misfits let by guru Holly Hunter make it all worthwhile.

  • Wallander (Sweden, remade by BBC with Kenneth Branagh)
    A 50 year old everyman detective in backwater Ystad, more whodunit than most.  His daughter joins the small detective squad. She’s the scarred one here.

These series (serieses, as I like to call them) are the reason I haven’t been getting anything else done for the past half year. I’ve checked out the US versions of “The Killing” and “The Bridge”. Do yourself a favor, go for the originals – the gloomy, dark, angst-ridden, terrifying, human world of Nordic Noir.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Jeff’s posts on The Real Group

Jeff’s posts on A Cappella

Jeff’s posts on Nordic Music

 

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