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Dis by Jan Garbarek, ECM album cover, photograph by Lucio Fontana

The calendar is full but the future is blank.

The wires hum the folk-tune of some forgotten land.

Snow-fall on the lead-still sea. Shadows

scrabble on the pier

(Black Postcards by Tomas Tranströmer, version by Robin Robertson in The Deleted World)

Last week’s London Jazz Festival featuring many Nordic musicians set me thinking again about national identity, but this time wondering if a combination of nations can have a discernible identity. Nordic (a broader term than Scandinavian which strictly refers just to Sweden, Norway and Denmark, Nordic includes Finland and Iceland and their dependencies) has lately been applied to areas of culture such as crime novels (and their associated TV series, notably Wallander and The Killing), as well as jazz. It has become a useful catchphrase (and of course marketing tool) signifying angst, gloom, icy landscapes, long dark winters, introspection etc. Inevitably becoming cliched such generalisations usually start with some elements of truth. Nordic can be seen as a climatological counterpoint to ‘Mediterranean’, which might signify instead lively, gregarious, extrovert and sun and beaches; the North/South divide writ large, the Classical world versus the Pagan, with the south in the past being favoured in cultural terms.

What has changed? I always loved the Moomins from an early age, and made my first trip to a Nordic country (Finland) in 1989, followed by several more in the early 1990s. I first noticed an increased appreciation of the North with the popularity of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow published in English in 1996. This trickle has now become a deluge with regular newspaper articles on Nordic Cool (Sara Lund’s jumpers etc), Nordic Noir etc and noting originally the particularly British nature of the obsession.

No wonder Jan Garbarek, the Norwegian jazz musician, appearing at the London Jazz Festival again this year, has for a while now denied any notion of his saxophone playing defining Nordic music. In a 2007 interview with the jazz journalist Mike Butler he said “I got kind of tired of endless saxophone solos with three billion notes in them, all copies of Coltrane or of Parker, or whoever, so I felt the need to get back to the origin, more or less, or my own origin. I looked inside myself to see what would come out and there were not many notes in there.” Also “I never said anything about the Nordic thing because in my opinion there is no such thing. …It’s all down to individuals not to regions.” However this is a resistance to being pigeonholed as well as a reflection of his transnational bands and musical interests I think, rather than a denial of his influences. He has also talked of “the forest we have within us, wherever we go”. A Contemporary Music Network tour of Britain in 1987 by Nordic musicians including Garbarek was called Nordic Myths and the Barbican had a Nordic festival with a series of events called Tender is the North in 1992. I think this was when I first saw Garbarek.

Michael Tucker in his wonderful book Jan Garbarek: Deep Song traces the history of the idea of the nature (literally and metaphorically) of Nordic music. From a 1910 description by the Swedish composer and conductor Wilhelm Stennhammer to the composer Carl Nielsen of “Nordic chastity and formal simplicity” to the Danish composer Per Norgard writing to Sibelius in the 1950s saying that through the music of Sibelius he had come to feel a “mystical connection with existence at the same time as I recognised my nature as something indefinably northern”, to what Keith Knox, the English producer and writer called in a memorial to Swedish saxophonist Lars Gullin in 1977 “this melancholy of endlessness” to Tucker’s own description of Garbarek as having “produced a body of work which speaks of nothing so much as the melodies and the moods, the sounds and the soulfulness – the spirituality- of the North” there is a common thread. As Manfred Eicher, the inspiration and producer of ECM records has said of the North “There’s a different energy, a purity and intensity that is evident there”. His feeling for this has influenced his crusade for an ECM aesthetic.

The conceptual or abstract nature of music means listeners can or even have to bring  their own images, imaginings, preconceptions and predispositions to the music and their interpretation of it, although it will have a mood and atmosphere of its own. Of course we may be guided by what the composer or musician says, by associations – titles of tracks, sleeve notes (if any!) or images on album covers. Landscapes are a vital part of the ECM record featuring in various degrees of abstraction on covers (to which a book has been devoted and which has inspired a flourishing Flickr group). The titles on the 1976 album Dis shown above, the one vinyl copy I have of a Jan Garbarek album, are Vandrere (Wanderers), Krusning (Water Ripples), Videnne (Mountain Plateaux), Skygger (Shadows), Yr (drizzle), and Dis (Haze or Mist), so for those who know my interests it is easy to see how this appeals to me. It also features a wind harp on several tracks, an early example of creating soundscapes in jazz.

Folk music is another strand suggested as important to the Nordic sound as well as the world of myth. From Grieg and Sibelius onwards, to a band whose name I cannot remember that I saw some years ago in London playing wonderful, wild percussion involving myriad forms of reindeer bones, the rhythms, instruments, melodies and subject matter of folk, myth and legend have been incorporated by Nordic musicians.  Garbarek has spoken of folk elements, found in for example old cattle calls, as “something direct, very ‘loud’ in a way, but with a floating far-off feeling as well as the sense of closeness”. It also allows him to incorporate the music of other cultures, Eastern and Middle Eastern, as well as East European (his father was Polish).

To quote theorist Christian Norberg-Schulz the Nordic world is “a romantic world, in the sense that it brings man (sic) back to a distant ‘past’ which is experienced emotionally rather than understood as allegory of history”. This takes us into the pagan world of cosmic religion, the magic of the runes and the shamanic heart of life, with life as a journey through time and space.

For we are the stars. For we sing.

For we sing with our light.

For we are birds made of fire.

For we spread our wings over the sky.

From a Passamaquoddy poem, from the Jan Garbarek Rites album notes.

Jan Garbarek Group, Royal Festival Hall, London Jazz Festival, Nov 2012, photograph by Diana Hale

The Jan Garbarek Group concert at the Royal Festival Hall on the 13th November was a characteristically unbroken, unspoken, polished, carefully choreographed set, here of a couple of hours, featuring the current line up of Rainer Brüninghaus on piano and keyboard, Yuri Daniel on bass guitar and Trilok Gurtu on percussion and drums. A reverential and rapt full auditorium had high expectations. From In Praise of Dreams to tracks from Visible Worlds and I took Up the Runes, the pace and tone varied from plangent to lilting to fast and syncopated, with soprano sax to start with, at times echoing tabla, followed by tenor, snatches of familiar tunes coming and going. Some almost classical piano solos followed a long guitar solo but for me even with the heightened sound system throughout the drum kit was too loud and heavy all through. It worked best for me when no more than 3 out of 4 participants were playing – less was more I think. Tabla and percussion became more dominant than drum luckily, but eventually taking over completely with an extended solo also featuring voice, birdsong sounds, cymbal in a bucket of water etc. The penultimate back and forth sequence with Jan on flute and Trilok vocalising even had us clapping along, fairly unheard of in a Garbarek concert! No solo from Garbarek himself. I actually enjoyed the last piece and the encore most of all, when the band seemed to come together more and we had a more flowing performance.

I have to admit to having been spoiled by seeing Garbarek play, unamplified as far as I remember, in 1995 in a tiny medieval church somewhere in the countryside near Stavanger in Norway. Nothing can repeat the magic of that occasion.

Finnish Jazz at London Jazz Festival (with the odd Norwegian!)

Verneri Pohjola Quartet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, November 2012, photograph by Diana Hale

A showcase for the recently set up Music in Finland new Finnish music and information and export agency promoting Finnish music in the UK, began with the Verneri Pohjola Quartet.

A set including a Björk tune and other pieces from the album Ancient History with piano and Verneri Pohjola on trumpet certainly captured a Nordic spirit, some icy, some wild Sun Ra touches. However the haunting Tom Waits encore held me spellbound, minimal but powerfully emotional.

Oddarrang, South Bank Centre, November 2012, photograph by Diana Hale

Oddarrang were also in the minimal mode with doom laden, spacey wordless ‘prayers’, and have been compared to Sigur Rós, reflecting another currently popular strand of Nordic music.

Black Motor, Barbican Centre, November 2012, photograph by Diana Hale

Black Motor, who sound in name like a heavy metal band but who are in fact an improvising trio, had a wild man of the forest saxophonist, Sami Sippola, and a drummer who also played a flute deep enough to tone with the tenor sax on one piece. From Song of the Green Maidens to a Song of India they were expanding beyond the North. A powerful yet lyrical sound with Finnish folk elements.

Rakka, Barbican Centre, November 2012, photograph by Diana Hale

Rakka, an improvising quintet, including the bassist from Black Motor, are also influenced by Finnish folk music but combined it with more Middle Eastern dance band rhythms for a toe tapping set. One piece was called Riding a Bicycle to Tunisia. I was reminded in places of Georgie Fame style blues by the organist.

Kuára, Barbican Centre, November 2012, photograph by Diana Hale

However the highlight of this afternoon session for me was Kuára, a trio playing music from the ECM album of the same name but with the unanticipated difference of the Norwegian Trygve Seim (someone I already admired) on saxophone instead of the trumpeter on the recording. This was open empty music creating soundscapes/landscapes . There was something about the keening tone of the saxophone that evoked wild nature, while gentle lyrical passages were sometimes almost not there, just a breath. Shamanic percussion and occasional beating on piano strings echoed folk rhythms.

The excellent, wide ranging review by Tyran Grillo (author of the ECM review blog Between Sound and Space) on Rootsworld.com of the album Kuára: Psalms and Folksongs, details the origins of the music in Finno-Ugric folksongs counterpointed with Russian Orthodox psalms and locates it partly in Karelia. Karelia has been divided politically between Finland and Russia over the centuries but has a distinctive identity and a common pagan heritage with other Finno-Ugric peoples such as Udmurtian and Vepsian, as well as elements of Hungarian peoples. I am particularly interested in this as it came into the thesis I wrote at Chelsea College of Art on national identity in art and design in Finland and Hungary. However this is becoming an excursion into the whole origins of the Northern European peoples, something which has always fascinated me, and does relate to my Nordic theme, but perhaps I had better return to the London Jazz Festival!

Juhani Aaltonen Quartet, Barbican Centre, November 2012, photograph by Diana Hale

The final event in the Sound of Finland programme was a week later and featured the Juhani Aaltonen Quartet. Flute (again) and sax, with drums, double bass and piano, the latter played by Iro Haarla, this was a showcase for unemphatic, relaxed yet captivating music, mainly gentle and reflective, flowing in and out, incantatory and as my partner enthusiastically described it full of acceptance and resignation as well as sorrow, anguish and ultimately hope. A revelation.