Peter Puma Hedlund, Another Way (rpm Music, 2003)
Peter Puma Hedlund, Vgen (rpm Music, 2003)

With the resurgent interest in Swedish music over the last couple of years, it's not surprising that artists in this tradition are branching out, exploring the boundaries of the music they create. Peter Puma Hedlund plays the nyckelharpa, a fascinating instrument of medieval origins. The instrument has several strings, some activated by tabbed keys (much like an autoharp), while some are simply drones. The player bows the strings with one hand and activates the stops with the other. The resulting sound is like a cross between a fiddle and a hurdy gurdy. Hedlund presents this instrument in two very interesting contexts, showing the versatility of its sound.

Vgen ("The Road/The Way") presents the nyckelharpa in a solo form, unadorned by other instruments or voices. Although this is an extremely uncommon setting, this disc proves the amazing beauty of the sound of this instrument. "Flckpolska," which in the hands of a fiddler would be an interesting little dance number, takes on a formal, almost sinister air with the nyckelharpa; it gives the tune an almost ancient sound. Indeed, on tracks such as "Bebs vals," Hedlund evokes the Middle Ages in the ghostly sound of the nyckelharpa, playing the sparse melody, with its odd twists and turns, in somewhat free time.

This disc is beautiful, filled with haunting songs, but I found it a little dull. After a while, the songs get repetitious, each polka sounding like the last, whether it be traditional or one Hedlund has composed himself. The recording isn't all it could be either: I found I had to crank the volume to get the maximum effect of the playing, since the sonorousness of the instrument doesn't come through at lower volumes. Vgen is an interesting experiment, but perhaps not the gripping disc it could have been.

Another Way, on the other hand, presents Hedlund playing with a select group of musicians in an ensemble format. To my ears, this disc works better on many levels. First of all, the nyckelharpa actually stands out more in these tracks than in the unaccompanied work on Vgen; it both meshes with the other instruments and adds definition to the mix.

Indeed, on the medley "Linus p linjen/Sista polskan," the backing musicians' subtle accompaniment embellishes Hedlund's playing, and allows the chordal aspects to shine. The music has many different moods here, as well. Some of the tracks, such as the waltz "Byss-Calles-A-mollvals," have an almost klezmer air to them. Snatches of Russian folk and American bluegrass also rear their heads, the latter in no small part due to dobroist Frankie Lane's appearances. Again, however, I wasn't particularly gripped by the performances. The music Hedlund produces is beautiful, but a tad academic for my taste; there's no real fire in any of these performances. A bit more gusto would have made this disc much more compelling.

If your bag is traditional Swedish folk music, then Peter Puma Hedlund is a good artist to check out. He creates wonderful music, and is an interesting composer, one who will help keep his tradition alive for another couple of generations. But overall, I was underwhelmed by his vision; nothing really grabbed me about either of these discs, pleasant as they are.

[Big Earl Sellar]

You can learn more about these and related discs at Peter Hedlund's Web site and rpm music's Web site.