On Kristian Blak and Faroe Islands music


Barb Truex penned this lovely commentary for us.

A few months ago I had my first exposure to music from the Faroe Islands, a small group of Nordic islands that lie between Iceland and the Scottish Shetland Islands. I reviewed three recordings from the group Spælimenninir. Getting to know artists better over time as more material comes my way is both rewarding and sometimes embarrassing. The rewarding part is that of understanding the breadth of an artist, group and/or label. The embarrassing part is seeing the mistakes in old reviews as I become more knowledgeable!! I suppose Kristian Blak got a good chuckle out of me calling him a her. I think I initially read it as “Kristin” and never caught my error. Ah, the danger of being in the public eye. I’ll get that corrected!

Now that I’ve done a little more research, I can tell you that Kristian Blak is an important figure in the history of the Tutl label, which is a company owned collectively by a number of composers and musicians. As a member of Spælimenninir, Blak was instrumental in the formation of Tutl in 1977. Since then the label has released over 200 recordings that range from singer/songwriters to contemporary classical to avant garde jazz, and few other nooks and crannies in between. The six recordings listed above is a small, but seemingly representative, selection of some recent releases. My CD player has been happily spinning through these fabulous discs.

Yggdrasil, named after the World Tree in Norse mythology, is a fascinating group of six: Eivør Pálsdóttir (vocal), Anders Hagberg (flute, soprano sax), Heðin Ziska Davidsen (guitar), Kristian Blak (piano), Mikael Blak (bass), and Brandur Jacobsen (drums). Live in Rudolstadt is a record of an amazing performance at the 2003 Rudolstadt Tanz und Folk Festival in Germany. I was taken aback the first time I heard the applause because of the performance and the recording quality. The easy category would be jazz, but their music isn’t that easily pigeon-holed. From the first few seconds of listening I felt extremely at home with this music. It moves through beauty, noise, invigorating rhythm and all manner of things. There is space and density, jazz, rock & roll, folk, even a little Shakespeare. I couldn’t even begin to make a list of all the great moments on this CD, but one of my favorite cuts is “Umiaq” (track 6) with the stunning work of Eivør Pálsdóttir and Anders Hagberg. The voice and soprano sax soar together over the rhythm section with harmony and dissonance like two birds flying in and out of sync. Another favorite moment in a completely opposite direction is the all-out madness meltdown featuring guitarist Davidsen on “Ravenating” (track 9). Kristian Blak, as leader and primary composer of the group, gives all the players ample space to stretch out and be featured but they never lose their soul as a group.

It’s very easy to get tired of singer/songwriters in the western world these days because there are just so many of them. On the other hand, it’s very nice when someone in this style doesn’t bore me. Kristleif Zachariasen and his CD Litleysir blettir falls into the latter category. Is it because he’s in this group of Faroese musicians that causes me to listen differently? I suppose I can’t answer that question with a purely objective opinion, but I do know that I really like this album. The sound of the band is solid with good arrangements that don’t stagnate in one direction. The electric guitar is distinctive throughout - it’s no surprise that the guitarist is Heðin Ziska Davidsen, also of Yggdrasil. There is a nice blend of accordion, hand drums, acoustic guitar and other acoustic instruments along with the basic rock band rhythm section that gives many of the songs an old world/modern world sound. Likewise the melodies move back and forth between a more contemporary guy-with-guitar approach and older, more model lines. It’s a laid back recording, perhaps reflecting a slower life style than we try to maintain here in the states (if indeed that assumption is true). All of the copy on the CD is in Faroese so I can’t tell you anything about the lyric content, but it doesn’t infringe on the enjoyment of the music. Nice, really nice.

Spor Í Sjónum and Spor I Vandet by Annika Hoydal are two CD’s of the same music, one sung in Faroese, the second sung in Danish - an intriguing concept. The language is the only difference between the two recordings, even the vocal phrasing is the same on both versions. Of course, the similarity of the two languages helps a lot. I don’t imagine it would be as easy to employ this strategy between, say, English and Russian. All of the lyrics of these songs were written by Faroese poet Rói Patursson. Hoydal, though born in the Faroes, has lived in several other places over her lifetime including South America, Spain, Scotland, and is currently residing in Copenhagen. She is a seasoned actress as well as a singer with several solo and group albums under her belt. Her influences from other cultures are clearly present in her music. Some are distinctly Spanish, others have an English/French Medieval feel, of course there is the Scandinavian element, and there is some good solid rocking out reminiscent of the English folk/rock group Steeleye Span. Her voice has wonderfully rich timbre to it. I always appreciate a soprano-range voice that is really strong and deep in color. The other musicians and instruments include: Eva Legene (recorder), Aage Tanggaard (drums), Lars Trier (guitar), Mads Vinding (bass), Jan Sum Vohrde (flute, saxophone), Peter Gunner (electric guitar on tracks #2 and #7). Trier’s splendid classical guitar playing is the glue throughout most of the tracks and aptly brings out the Spanish and Old World European sounds of many of the songs. I like the different directions this singer takes - the recording doesn’t get stuck in a rut with everything sounding alike. I imagine it is reflective of her world travels and appreciation of other cultures.

The first chord out of Havsglod, Knút Háberg Eysturstein’s album, is an unexpected surprise - a sweet introduction on the pedal steel by Jákup Zachariassen leading into English lyrics in “Fireworks”. It sends the listener straight to Nashville, Tennessee (USA), rather than the Faroe Islands. The second impression as the chorus hits is how easy it is to sing with these songs. I have to sing along when this record plays, especially on the choruses. Most of the songs have long, slow melodies, and tones that are drawn out and resonant with wonderful harmonies. And if the harmonies aren’t there, they are easy to add when you sing along - good singing practice in the car. Eysturstein’s lyrics are simple and sparse. He doesn’t feel the need to jam in as many words as possible and he doesn’t want to sing at break-neck speed. I like this once in a while, and if I may make this comment: especially from a man. My impression of a Nashville sound doesn’t really last past the first song. Eysturstein has his own sound that works off a soft rock base. The instrument line up is standard: guitars (electric and acoustic), bass, drums, synthesizer, with a few extras like the pedal steel, organ, flute, piano in various spots. He even sings through a vocoder on “Blikalogn”. I haven’t heard that effect in a long time. It is very tastefully used and doesn’t sound dated or campy. The whole CD is a pleasure to get wrapped up in. I like the warm harmonies and rich band sound but it also has some edgier, electric moments that add variety. If all the mediocre, boring soft rock pop music that clogs the commercial air waves was replaced by songwriters like Knút Háberg Eysturstein, Kristleif Zachariasen, and Annika Hoydal, we would be so much better off.

For listeners that lean toward jazzier sounds, the group Enekk could be your cup of tea. Meðan vit nærkast jørðini is not “traditional jazz.” It is much more about poetry and intriguing compositions, songs and arrangements with lots of different colors of sound: sparse, dense, harmonic, and dissonant. The members of Enekk incorporate many different elements of jazz, rock, folk, and classical music. As musicians of the world have become so much more aware of other cultures, the layers of influences indeed get very complex. It makes the music very exciting but sometimes very difficult to describe. Kári Sverrisson’s vocal lines are often sung in unison with the piano or other instruments. It’s a style choice that shows up frequently and serves as a bit of an anchor through the recording. The musicianship of the bass player (Mikael Blak, also of Yggdrasil) and drummer (Rógvi á Rógvu) are to be particularly noted. They are extremely lyrical. Blak’s playing is akin to English bassist Danny Thompson, and Rógvu’s drumming is in the league of Jack DeJohnette. Rógvu is a master at leaving space, his cymbal work is superb, and he is very aware of the melodic capabilities of the trap set. Together they are a dynamic rhythm section leading and pushing the ensemble through the compositions with ease and deep emotion. Heðin Ziska Davidsen shows up with his distinctive electric guitar again (Yggdrasil, Kristleif Zachariasen). At this point I think I have to call him the Bill Frisell of the Faroe Islands. His guitar work is just simply fabulous. All of the other musicians on this project are of equal quality and together they present an exhilarating ensemble.

I’ll end this omnibus review with another project by Kristian Blak. Úr Hólminum‘s focus is contemporary classical. Blak’s musical history is wide and deep including folk (Spælimenninir), jazz (Yggdrasil) and many, many more things. He has conducted concerts in caves and as I mentioned above was the driving force behind getting the Tutl label off the ground.

The performances on this album are by two ensembles: Caput (Iceland) and Det Jyske Ensemble (Denmark). Caput is the larger of the two; I would categorize it as a theater orchestra, Blak lists it as a “sinfonietta”. There are thirteen musicians on “Úr Hólminum” and fifteen on “Shaman” in various combinations of brass, woodwinds, strings, piano, percussion and vocals. Det Jyske Ensemble is a chamber ensemble and appears here performing “Hogboy” and “Vienne La Nuit”. All selections are written by Kristian Blak, but he does not perform on any track.

The title composition, “Úr Hólminum“, seems to channel American composer and Charles Ives. In the beginning, a joyous cacophony rumbles through the speakers, each instrument seemingly on its own path, with brief pauses of unison and/or long tones as breathing spaces. Blak’s inspiration comes from the landscape of the Faroe Islands. The composition conveys the drama and beauty of this place (granted, I’ve only seen pictures), from the extreme cliffs to the lush summer green to the constant beating of the ocean against the shoreline. His music paints the landscape in sound and Caput impeccably plays it under the able conducting of Guðmundur Óli Gunnarsson. Caput also plays tracks 4 through 8, making up three movements. As the liner notes state: “The composition was inspired by a variety of shaman journeys from different cultures, including: Aboriginal Australian, Siberian, Inuit, and Korean.” To bring this to fruition, indigenous instruments are added like Jew’s harp, didgeridoo, grass straw, percussion, along with a musical saw, vocalization and few other colors that truly take the listener on a journey around the planet through the shamans’ eyes.

The two tracks performed by Det Jyske Ensemble are inspired by poetry. “Hogboy,” by Faroese poet William Heinesen, is the story of a ghost that lives in a Stone Age tomb in the Orkney Islands of Scotland. The ghost Hogboy, also the title of the track 2 composition, seems to attract young girls at night to dance around and ask him about his songs. Blak’s musical interpretation of the poem and story casts the double bass, played by Robert Sonne, as Hogboy. With low, ominous tones, the bass begins, and with added dissonance and colors the rest of the ensemble sets the mood for a tomb in the moonlight with ethereal beings. Soon enough the girls arrive all sparkling and full of questions.

“Vienne La Nuit” (track 3) comes from a line in the poem “Le pont Mirabeau” by French poet Guillaume Appollinaire. The English translation of the line is “Let night come sound the hour, the days flow away I stay.” In many cases, I find a lot of contemporary classical music stuffy and sometimes a bit snooty, but Blak has a talent for avoiding that. His sense of balance, dynamic range, color, and texture is fabulous and the musicians he has chosen to perform these compositions would rival any good ensemble in the Western world. Perhaps it’s because he acts on inspirations from his life rather than an academic approach to writing. Whatever it is, it has provided much listening pleasure.

After spending many hours with these six recordings, Tutl has found a solid place in my collection. It seems one could find almost any kind of music from the label. I invite you to take a chance and pick one.

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