Sinikka Langeland – Wolf Rune
(ECM 3542600. Album Review by Alison Bentley)
Once upon a time the jaw of a giant pike was made into a kantele – a kind of magical Finnish harp. So goes the story from the Finnish national epic poem the Kalevala. Singer/kantele-player Sinikka Langeland is steeped in these traditions through her mother, originally from Karelia. Langeland’s music blends folk, jazz and improvised music. She has been recording for ECM since 2007 but Wolf Rune is her first solo album.
When I Was the Forest is at the album’s centre: Langeland comes from Finnskogen in Norway, the Forest of the Finns where Finnish culture was brought by 17th Century migrants. Forests and their inhabitants recur through her albums. She sings in Norwegian, adapting a Medieval mystic’s writings to a strong melody: “When I was the stream, /when I was the forest…no-one ever asked me/did I have a purpose.”
On this and a number of tracks, she plays the 39-string concert kantele, with its extraordinary 5 1/2-octave range. From the ethereal e-bow on the bass strings, to rhythmic strumming and quavery instrumental sections, it has a luxuriant sound.
In contrast, two short evocative instrumental pieces Kantele Prayer I & II are on 5-string kantele, with a dry sound, like a Japanese koto. “It’s a challenge to figure out how much music you can create with a few strings,” Says Langeland. She plays a 15-string kantele on the quiet Moose Rune, and I See Your Light. She uses a bow in the first, and it’s like hearing through a mist of overtones. The second is hauntingly minor, occasionally dipping into bass strings. Two other instrumental tunes on the concert kantele are traditional. In Polsdance from Finnskogen, Langeland bends the notes bluesily and leans into the rhythm like a fiddle-player. The Girl In The Headlands is played with a lilting guitar-like quality, with skipping notes and legato slurs.
The songs engage with the natural world. Row My Ocean sets a contemporary poem by Jon Fosse. Langeland has been influenced by kveder, an old Norwegian folk song style, as well as jazz singers like Sidsel Endresen and Radka Toneff. She’s talked about how Miles Davis’ microtonal style has influenced her singing too. Sometimes the voice is strong and impassioned, and sometimes intimate. It’s full of artistry and completely without artifice. Winter Rune has elements of free improv, with eerie bow creaks and Reichian patterns. She improvises euphorically over waves of shimmery strings.
Don’t Come To Me With The Entire Truth, a poem by Olav H Hauge, evokes a passing memory of Joni Mitchell and her dulcimer. The notes bend into each other with jazz-inflected chords. “Don’t bring the ocean if I feel thirsty.”
Langeland has translated Finnish rune songs into Norwegian, and they often evoke animals. Her own lyric The Eye Of The Blue Whale works together beautifully with the 39 strings to conjure the image of a spouting whale. Wolf Rune is based on an 1808 rune song, an angry protest at society’s attempts, past and present, to tame nature’s wildness embodied in the wolf. At first intoned over droned strings, the tune has a fierce energy. The bass lines have a rock intensity as the kantele moves in call and response with the vocals.
It’s a very beautiful, original, thought-provoking album, played and sung by a highly accomplished musician who’s absolutely herself.