Recorded May 2006, Rainbow Studio, Oslo
"Starflowers" is the striking ECM debut of folk singer and kantele player Sinikka Langeland from Finnskogen, Norway's 'Finnish forest'. It features her settings of the poems of Hans Borli (1918-89) and is performed with an outstanding ensemble that opens up the songs to improvisation. In its inspired intertwining of folksong, literature, and Nordic 'jazz' it may be considered a characteristic ECM production, but it is also a logical extension of the work Sinikka has been developing over the last two decades.
Born in 1961 to a Norwegian father and a Finnish mother from Karelia, Langeland was given a Finnish name - Sinikka - and felt the pull of two nationalities and cultures from the outset.
After an early education in classical music she began to look at contemporary folk music and the singer/songwriter genre, but this was soon supplanted by an interest in older forms, intensifying as her research continued and underlined by a wish to "create an original music rooted in my own area, taking account of local possibilities and looking back into history to find out more." She emphasizes that her particular musical journey has "always been about searching. I love folksong but I'm not exclusively a traditional folk singer. There were always influences coming from other places, too." These included the local jazz club where, around 1980, she heard singer Radka Toneff, saxophonist Jan Garbarek and many other home grown improvisers. Although not yet putting definitions on her own music she identified with the "sense of space and nature and timelessness" reverberating in Garbarek's sound in particular.
At 20 she switched from guitar to kantele, the Finnish table harp. She plays the 39-string concert kantele, with its five-octave range. "At first it was just an experiment - I thought it would be fun to have a Finnish instrument for one or two songs. But I became completely fascinated by it." Meanwhile she was expanding her repertoire to include rune songs, incantations, old melodies from Finland and Karelia, as well as little known medieval ballads and religious folk songs.
Her work has flowed in several streams concurrently. She gives, for instance, solo performances with voice and kantele, and she gives duo concerts in churches, together with organist Kare Nordstoga, in which old folk songs and Easter hymns are juxtaposed with J.S. Bach's transformations of the same sources. And, since the early 1990s, she has been working - and recording - with jazz musicians as part of her ensembles.
Swedish bassist Anders Jormin has been a regular associate for more than a dozen years, joining her for the first time on the recording "Har du lyttet til elvene om natta?" (Grappa, 1995). And recently Sinikka has been playing regularly with drummer Markku Ounaskari, a mainstay of the Finnish jazz scene, who also makes his ECM debut here.
"One of the central issues of working with jazz musicians as opposed to traditional folk musicians is the different feeling for time. The pulsations of the old folk music, the organic, breathing, asymmetric rhythms that we have in the polskas are quite different from modern popular music which is nearly all in 2 or 4. So a lot of adjustment is necessary. Anders Jormin is very aware of this, and Markku Ounaskari is coming closer and closer to the true pulsations of the polskas, remarkably close for a jazz player. But at the same time I want to allow myself to be influenced by his way of hearing and feeling the music."
On her last Norwegian-released album "Runoja (Heilo Records) Langeland was joined by trumpeter Arve Henriksen. His services are retained, at Manfred Eicher's urging, on "Starflowers", the producer also bringing saxophonist Trygve Seim into the picture. Henriksen and Seim play together magnificently - as they have done on recordings including Seim's "Different Rivers", "The Source and Other Cikadas" and "Sangam" and the whole recording opens out to embrace much 'jazz' interaction inside the context of the songs. Trygve's interest in the microtones of Arab music (Seim has been commuting between Oslo and Cairo lately) overlaps intriguingly with the use of microtones of the old Scandinavian music and makes us feel, once again, the interconnectedness of music from different places.
Of the album as a whole, Sinikka says, "I had a very clear plan of the structure I wanted and (producer) Manfred Eicher could go in and...refurnish it. Some of the pieces on the disc I have been playing for a long time and I was very happy to have Manfred help me see and hear them in a new way."
All lyrics on the album are from the poetry of Hans Borli, a fascinating figure who came to the wider attention of the Norwegian public late in life. He lived as a woodcutter, writing his poetry by night, and his verse is alive with his experiences of the Norwegian forests. In a series of books, beginning in 1945, he wrote more than 1,100 poems. ("Starflowers" is also the title of a Borli poem.)
Sinikka Langeland championed Borli's work for many years and it was in part due to her singing of his texts that the poet's work was finally published in English. (In the introduction to the book "We Own The Forests", published by Norvik Press, Norwich, in 2005, translator Louis Muinzer credits Sinikka's influence). Borli, sometimes compared to Whitman and Thoreau, was a more authentic man-of-the-woods than either of those writers, while his symbols and images reach back to the roots of myth:
The dream is a tree
that grows upside down:
Its roots fastened in the sky,
delicate root-hairs suck
from the mouldy darkness between the stars,
while its crown spreads out its branches as
a resting place for the birds
in the boundless spaces of the human heart
Sinikka Langeland's moving performance conveys the sense of wonder that's alive in Borli's verse...