Christian Wallumrod Ensemble
Recorded October 2006, Radio Studio DRS, Zurich
All Backward Henrys are based
on extracts from Henry Purcell's "Fatazias".
Psalm Kv?n was originally written for choir
and commissioned by Musikk i Finnmark.
Christian Wallumr?d Ensemble is supported by
the Arts Council Norway.
Norwegian pianist and composer Christian Wallumrod has been experimenting with various sonorities and musical colors since his first trio recording for ECM, No Birch in 1998. That group contained the roots of this one with trumpeter Arve Henricksen and percussionist/drummer Per Oddvar Johansen. Saxophonist Trygve Seim made the group a quartet for 2005's A Year from Easter. The pieces juxtaposed improvisation against tightly constructed themes and melodies, using the interval as the chief vehicle for moving, ever slowly, from one place to another. On The Zoo Is Far, Wallumrod has dropped the saxophone entirely, but created a sextet by adding three string players who include Giovanna Pessi on Baroque harp (an instrument that is constructed differently from the contemporary classical instrument and has a deeper lower register), violinist Gjermund Larsen, and cellist Tanja Orning. The music here is in some ways radically different. Most of these 24 pieces are short and draw from some Baroque sources, most keenly Henry Purcell's "Fantasias," the long psalmist tradition in Norwegian sacred music, and even Pakistani music. Where improvisation is present, it is within tightly scripted parameters. The reason is that Wallumrod is interested more in textures, shapes, and tonality. Oftentimes it is difficult for the listener to pick out individual instruments. The melodies come out of sonority, as well as the use of intervals to gradually shift through one theme into another apart from basic lyric structures.
Indeed, most of these pieces are even grouped in alternating patterns to give the work a patchwork quilt feel, though no one work jars uncomfortably against another. Whether it is in the series of "Fragments," "Psalms," or the "Backwards Henry" (Purcell, of course) works, the sense of space and silence is the same, blending the individual pieces rather than simply juxtaposing them. During The Zoo Is Far's 70-minute duration, there are tracks that do stand out, such as the elegiac "Music for One Cat," where the lower registers of the harp, piano, and cello are blended almost symbiotically with the bass drum. Dissonance has its place here, but it carries no edges, such as on "Fragment No. 6," where the restrained tensions (the piano is in pianissimo for much of it) and the violin rise up from that silence to strike back at something in that chord pattern. One of the more delightful selections here is "Archdance with Trumpet," in which Henricksen plays his instrument nearly like some kind of flute; its sound is full of air and darkness, as Wallumrod plays repetitive - nearly minimalist in structure - patterns of single and double notes that bleed into and through one another, creating four chords from the echo of three. The hint of a glockenspiel is heard near the top of the mix. But it, too, is mysterious and ethereal. In contrast, the sketchy "Fragment No. 1" is outside the middle registers and rises from lower to middle on harp, violin, and piano. Henricksen plays these notes as well, but they are not immediately distinguishable. The final cut, "Allemande Es," seeks to combine virtually everything here in a very slow-moving, nearly murky piece. The sense of Baroque pomp asserts itself in the backdrop and in processional form, where the sharply juxtaposed tonalities of the "Fragments" are used in the spaces. Still more, the sense of the sacred that comes from the "Psalms" permeate the work, offering an anchored place for the music to unfold from and move back toward.
The Zoo Is Far is far from being an academic recording, though the music is studied. To listen to The Zoo Is Far in the abstract is almost like hearing Stephane Mallarme's poetry; it contains those elements of lines that carry over, stopping just shy of collision with others, or of those disappearing into another so that the poem reads as a whole instead of as a series of lines - the musicality is in the language itself. It is nearly impossible to take in the entire recording at one sitting; it distracts you from whatever you are doing instead and draws you inside its sometimes eerie, sometimes utterly moving flow. Manfred Eicher's production, with its reliance on space, silence, and merely the hint of reverb, assures a snug and warm fit with the ECM aesthetic - but more than this, Wallumrod is composing from an entirely different place than most. His attention to sonority and quiet, and the disappearance of sounds (even as they form melodies and lyric shapes) is not that far removed from the preoccupation of the late Morton Feldman with the disintegration of form, though his approach to it is entirely different. Wallumrod isn't trying to do away with form, but is looking to break it down enough to create something else, something clearly not definable from its parts. The Zoo Is Far is a major step for Wallumrod compositionally, and a major boon to anyone willing to encounter it on its own entirely strange but immediately accessible terms.
All Music Guide
"The Ensemble is this time expanded to a sextet, yet sounds like one organic corpus. Fiddle, harp, cello and trumpet melt together in beautiful melodies like 'Nash Lontano'. In 'Arch Dance' a serial horizontal gesture from piano and glockenspiel is deconstructed in descending glissandi by trumpet and cello... Fragments of Henry Purcell and variations on 'Psalm Kvaen' contribute to a structured total experience."
- Carl Petter Opsahl, Verdens Gang (Norwegian daily newspaper), March 6/2007
"The Zoo Is Far", the fourth ECM album by Norwegian pianist-composer Christian Wallumrod, presents a further refinement of a highly original group music influenced, in varying degree, by contemporary composition, baroque music, folk, Asian music and - at several removes now - jazz. The new sextet does not replace the quartet that made the exceptional "Sofienberg Variations" and "A Year from Easter", discs on which Wallumrod, Arve Henriksen and Per Oddvar Johansen were joined by innovative folk violinist Nils Okland. The quartet continues to perform, but the sextet has already acquired a personality and character of its own, reflected in Wallumrod's tightly written material for it, his combining of sounds and timbres as well as melodic material...
"I am trying to look for the various ensemble sound possibilities rather than having a 'soloist with accompaniment' situation. I found lots of new possibilities with this sextet, perhaps most of all in the lower register, as the baroque harp goes quite deep down, and so does the cello. And the piano goes even deeper; all these elements also offer the bass drum some new partners..."
The sextet's genesis was inspired by a chance meeting with Swiss harpist Giovanna Pessi in Zurich in 2003. The combining of harp and piano was an option Wallumrod had already begun to investigate in 2000 in exploratory concerts with Finland's Iro Haarla. The opportunity to take this further was welcomed. "The baroque harp has a different sound and differs from the modern harp in the way it is constructed, something that made it a bit easier for me to approach as well. As I was looking for extended possibilities of range and colours within the bowed instruments and already knew about cellist Tanja Orning's musical versatility, it felt quite natural to ask her to join in, too." The line-up of the new group was complete with the addition of violinist Gjermund Larsen.
Each of these three players brings a wealth of experience to the total group sound. Pessi's distinguished resume includes collaborations with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Jordi Savall, as well as several years of study with Rolf Lislevand. Tanja Orning, previously principal cellist in the Stavanger Symphony is a musician at ease across several genres, open to new music, experienced in rock and interdisciplinary music, she released the album "Cellotronics" (Albedo Records) in 2005, a collaboration with Christian Wallumrod. Gjermund Larsen is a young player from the Norwegian folk tradition. Born 1981, and the son of folk musician Geir Egil Larsen, Gjermund won the national solo fiddle competition at Landskappleiken in 2002, and is the youngest winner in the history of the event.
"Arve Henriksen, as well as Tanja Orning and Gjermund Larsen have this ability to blend perfectly into each other and into the whole ensemble..."
In the Radio Studio of DRS Zurich, with Manfred Eicher producing and classical tonmeister Markus Heiland - more normally associated with ECM New Series - as engineer, the Wallumrod Ensemble approached the recording of "The Zoo Is Far" as they do their entirely-acoustic concert performances, working also with the natural sound of the room as one of the components of the music.
"I've long wanted to record the music in a way that puts the acoustic sound - the instruments, the room and the whole situation that influences the way we listen and play - into focus. This means that we can interact in the same way as in the concert situation. While this approach might be the most natural thing for classical musicians, it is a crucial step in my musical development. Today I am thinking about the ensemble and its performance as something that might belong to the world of chamber music."
Specific musical influences on the pieces on "The Zoo Is Far" derive from Wallumrod's intense listening to the Fantazias for strings by Henry Purcell (1659-95). Extracts of Purcell's music are transformed in the three "Backwards Henry" pieces here. "Music for One Cat" is inspired by the Pakistani ghazal singer Mehdi Hassan. The "Psalm Kvaen" pieces were originally written in response to a choral commission. "I think it was natural for me to try to keep within a sort of Norwegian psalm tradition, which is characterized by its idiomatic blend of originally Lutheran chorals and folk songs."
Yet however many references may be pinpointed the overriding impression the album leaves is one of striking originality and musical independence. As the Norwegian daily paper Verdens Gaang remarks of "The Zoo Is Far": "Jazz, baroque, minimalism, contemporary music are words that only begin to convey a small spectrum of Wallumrod's musical universe. He has an authentic sense of sound and structure, and again we are spellbound by the unique syntheses and the balanced contrasts."