Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Trio Mediaeval and Arve Henriksen at St George's, Bristol

The collaborative grouping of early music vocalists Trio Mediaeval and jazz/improvising trumpeter Arve Henriksen played the last date of their current tour in England, organised by SoundUK, in St George’s, Bristol last Thursday (24th May). It was a perfect setting for their very Scandinavian take on early music and ethereal vocal improvisation. The early 19th century church, built in a Greek revivalist style, faces down the steep slope of Park Street, and is propped up by impressively monumental Doric columns. Inside it has the feeling of a temple as much as a church, with balconies on three sides resting on columns and a large relief of what looks like the Ascension high on the front wall, with prominent Greek lettering above. The interior allowed for the recreation of the hallowed ‘ECM sound’, both in terms of acoustic clarity and hushed atmosphere. The coming together of artists from the classical and European jazz wings of the ECM roster immediately begs comparison with the astoundingly successful collaborations between Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble. Indeed, Trio Mediaeval came together and developed their distinctive vocal style during the Hilliards’ summer schools towards the end of the 90s. Henriksen and the Trio have pushed at the boundaries of the classical and jazz worlds on their own accounts, however, feeling perfectly at liberty to incorporate elements of improvisation, folk music or modern composition into their respective fields. Henriksen employs the latest electronics to alter the sound of his trumpet, developing a line which runs through Miles Davis’ relatively crude use of effects pedals in the early 70s and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s mixing of his son Markus’ trumpet with synthesisers on Sirius and Michael’s Reise (the latter released on ECM). He also provides sampled and looped backdrops against which to solo.

The previous occasion on which I encountered him, he was playing with Supersilent, a Nordic quartet whose performances are entirely improvised. This group features both keyboards and the electronica of Helge Sten, aka Deathprod, and veers between stately ambient dreaming and hectic prog thrash. They were very firmly in the latter mood when I saw them, producing a relentless, unholy racket with little shade or variance, perhaps in an effort to rouse the somnolent Exeter audience. In the context of his collaboration with the Trio, however, his electronics created subtle atmospheres suggestive of northern landscapes, full of swirling wind and creaking ice. His trumpet had a softened, electronically filtered tone which gave it a wooden flute-like quality. This fitted with the folkish cast of the music, overlaying the brassiness usually associated with the trumpet with a less sharply plosive breathiness. This trumpet-flute acted as an instrumental accompaniment to the voices, as opposed to the fifth voice which Jan Garbarek’s saxophone added to the quartet of the Hilliard Ensemble. The folk element was enhanced by the replacement of Torun Ostrem Ossum by the Norwegian folk singer Berit Opheim Versto for the duration of this tour. She joined the regular members of the Trio, Anna Maria Friman and Linn Andrea Fuglseth, and demonstrated her solo singing style with an unaccompanied traditional song at the start of the second half of the concert.

The evening started with a piece of mediaeval chant, Alma Redemptoris Mater, which soon extended into drawn out, Perotin-style syllables, imbuing the sacred words with a folkish, dancing lilt. This set the tone for the evening, which deliberately blurred the lines between sacred and secular, ancient and modern. Sometimes the Trio sang alone, splintering off into solo or duet components, and sometimes they were joined by Henriksen’s trumpet and electronics. The Trio retreated to their seats at the back of the stage to make way for a series of interludes in which Henriksen played alone, or with his phantom band, coaxed from his sampling and mixing board. Both kept to their discrete areas of the stage, their particular territories. It was as if lines had been drawn, ensuring that a certain distance was maintained and a degree of separation made clear, an element of difference emphasised. This worked to highlight the contrast in their sounds and approaches, with the surprising confluences and occasional creative disjunctures all a part of the unique nature of this collaboration. Henriksen at times both held and played his trumpet with one hand, the other twiddling the nobs and pressing the buttons of his magic electronic box. It was like a less showy and more compact evolution of the Rick Wakeman-style keyboard wizards of the early to mid-70s. The precendent of prog and jazz-rock, world fusions and classical ‘crossovers’ offer (in their worst manifestations) a warning of the dangers of excess and the shallow apprehension of unfamiliar styles; of forced musical marriages which reduce one or both partners from their original sublime, vital or intuitive state to one of pomposity, confusion and insipidity. There is also the potential for an over-reliance on the latest technologies, which can swiftly come to seem outmoded and rob the music of any timelessness. But Henriksen’s electronic manipulations were discrete and natural, and completely lacking in grandstanding showmanship. Instead of the ranks of synthesiser keyboards which would be played with ostentatious simultaneity by the classical keyboard wizard, there was just a small mixer and perhaps a few effects pedals; and Hendriksen eschewed the sequined cape in favour of a jacket of restrained elegance. He also sat throughout, reducing the scope for ecstatic poses marking the execution of a particularly florid run across the keys which a Wakeman, Emerson, or indeed a Jan Hammer might once have been tempted to strike. Henriksen did let loose a couple of vocal outbursts, however. They were pained howls and yelps which at times seemed to echo the cries of the Sami singer Mari Boine Persen (who has sung on a couple of Jan Garbarek records, Twelve Moons and Visible World), designed to echo out across the icy steppes, and also the impassioned vocals of singers from the countries around the Black and Caspian Seas. Their slightly melodramatic forthrightness struck a minor false note when contrasted with the quietly concentrated power of the rest of the evening, which managed to be emotionally affecting without recourse to histrionics. Henriksen also played a short, squat reed instrument which sounded like a cross between the plaintive Armenian duduk and the dry Egyptian ney flute. It brought out a Middle Eastern element to his playing as he wove arabesques of coiling Moorish modes. The chill sub-Arctic mood was suddenly dispelled by the hot currents of desert winds.

Henriksen was good, but the evening was really defined, for me, by the singing of the Trio. The weaving counterpoint, harmonies and general vocal interplay were exquisite, with occasional passages which were genuinely sublime, leaving me quite blissfully transported on this balmy, dreamy evening. They performed a number of traditional Scandinavian songs – three from Sweden and several more from their native Norway (they hail from Oslo). Some of the Norwegian songs were sung in a style known by a number of onomatopoeic names: tulling, sulling or tralling. It’s a kind of folk scatting which involves stringing together nonsense syllables invented for their sound and rhythmic quality, and is directly related to the Scottish or Irish ‘mouth music’ style, often sung to get into the rhythm of repetitive work (as with Hebridean spinners, for example). It was utterly bewitching, building up a gentle swing which proved powerfully hypnotic. For the traditional Nordic song Till, Till Tove, the members of the Trio dispersed to the far corners of the church, one to the back, one stationing herself to the side, under the galleries, and one moving to the opposite side of the stage, beyond their territorial boundaries. This sounded out the acoustical space of the church, and also gave an impression of distance, which was entirely apt for this song. It was an example of the singing style known as lokk or laling, a utilitarian music of incidental beauty designed to travel across long, mountainous distances and call in the cattle. The high, keening sound was electrifying, the voices seeming to meet and coalesce somewhere above our heads. The effect was furthered by the use of the side blown, split-toned flute familiar in the music of the far North, and played here by one of the Trio. Meteorological atmospherics were provided by Henriksen, whose ambient electronic backing suggested the creaking and groaning of glaciers or the slow shifting of masses of hard-packed snow. One of the Trio also played a drone fiddle accompaniment (on a hardanger fiddle, perhaps) to one of the early mediaeval pieces, which brought to mind Stevie Wishart’s early music group Sinfonye. There are certain similarities in the way that both groups bring a modern sensibility to the early music repertoire, along with an ability to improvise and an awareness of traditions beyond the standard classical canon. The Trio also used ‘chiming sticks’, lengths of hollow, squared metal with round rubber ‘clappers’ at the end of loosely attached rods. These struck the metal when the sticks were thrust ceremonially forward, producing a softly resonant chime which seemed to blossom from nowhere, with no initial attack. They were useful for finding the pitch, but sounded beautiful in themselves, and added a ritualistic air to the songs about to be sung, an annunciation bell. The concert was programmed so that there were only a few pauses for the disruptive intrusion of applause. But when they finished and took a bow in a hand-held line (the two separate worlds coming together in the end) the applause was effusive and unrestrained, the whoops and yells indicating that this was an audience which extended well beyond the aficionados of classical music. They came back on for an encore, and sang what sounded like one of the mystical hymns written by Hildegard of Bingen in the twelfth century, Henriksen softly blowing the melody on his downturned trumpet. It was gorgeous, a blessing to send us out into the warm night, where a hazy sickle moon hung in the clear night above the curve of the adjacent park. A wonderful concert in which the artists created a sense of suspended time, transporting us to a magical space apart from the readily apprehensible world for an hour or two.

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