Thursday, January 25, 2007

CD Review: Grovt och grant/Rough and Shiny by Alicia Björnsdotter Abrams and Emma Reid

I’ve only once been fortunate enough to hear these two young women perform, and, ever since, I’ve been keen to get a recording of them. I must say, it’s been worth the wait. I listened to it, candles burning, while I did all my Christmas baking, and I am still enjoying it in January.

This recording is a joy and a treasure. Most of these tunes are from masters of the Swedish fiddle, tradition-bearers who lived late and long enough to be recorded or even to participate in the folk revival of the 1970s. As in other such cases, it is remarkable good fortune to have these gems performed with such love and respect by younger players.

It is also a pleasure to hear these musicians build on the tradition in their own compositions (such as Alicia’s lovely Gröttschottis, track 7) and in their interplay with other traditions (Road to Poynton/Paul and Jenny’s Wedding, track 13 and Vals/Ville de Quebec, track 5.

Most of this recording, though, is devoted to the peculiarly Swedish polska. The polska is a dance said to have developed from Polish influences that arrived in Sweden around the end of the sixteenth century when the two countries were briefly united under one king. As it has evolved over the centuries, the polska is a dance in triple meter, although, unlike the waltz, its three beats are asymmetric—they are not organized around a stressed first beat and may even be of different lengths. Melodically, these tunes have been described as employing “blue notes,” but perhaps what we hear is better understood as either unusual (to our ears) modes or melodies that developed independently of the tempered scale. Be that as it may, it is well worth opening your ears, because this music really swings!

According to the brief liner notes, grovt och grant (rough and shiny) refers to the technique of playing in octaves, one fiddle above the other, in order to incorporate both the high, “shiny” voice of the fiddle and the lower, “rough/coarse” foot-stomping voice. (These are dance tunes, after all.) You can hear a lot of this octave-doubling work in Gumas Polska (track 4). But the reality is that these two fiddles saunter, swing, turn, and glide past each other not only at the octave, but at many different intervals, now closer, now farther apart, now intersecting in a passing unison. This Swedish art of stämma—creating a second part that shadows and engages the first—is richly realized here. A beautiful example of this is Trollpolskan (track 6), which the album notes describe as småpratande (small-talking or chatting). The countermelody work here is truly thrilling; it speaks its own mind quite independently, yet somehow manages to achieve unison with the melody as each phrase tapers to a close. I can see the chatting ladies, sitting forward in their chairs, coffee cups clinking, but this intricacy also brings to mind the ever-twining wood carvings at Urnes or the pattern on a tablet-woven ribbon—the ones that grace the hem or cuff of a Scandinavian folk costume.

This music is extremely evocative of landscape and of the feelings of being immersed in nature. But there is also the presence of human beings. There is Auld Swaara (track 14), a lament from the Shetlands, in a darker, more mournful version than I’ve previously heard. The Skänklåt (track 11) and Gamla Rådasin (track 3), are both weighty and declarative; the latter is paired with a lively polska that has more than a hint of the baroque in its countermelody. And are those cow horns I hear in Hedningspolska (track 6) and the Anders Södersten polska (track 4)?

I wish I knew more about Uppland fiddler Viksta Lasse (1897-1983)--I adore these versions of his tunes: the utterly gorgeous, twirling, breathing, thinking-out-loud Polska til Wik (track 9) and likewise Vendelspolskan (track 10), which recalls the strathspey with its sharp, rhythmic push-and-pull, although the melody is so Swedish!

Grovt och grant begins and ends with journeys. For me, the Himmelfärd (heaven-journey, track 1) is over the hard, glinting sea, the fiddle bow mimicking the rocking of the wave-tossed boat. Längs gamla stigar och färdevägar (track 17) takes us along winding roads through sunny pastures, cool woods, and marshy bogs, all punctuated with boulders left by glaciers--or trolls, take your pick! But however you see it, both journeys will take you, unequivocally, to Sweden.

The Swedish homeland, like the grovt och grant title, may be a place of contrast--the cold, dark winter followed by the bright flowering of summer--but this record reconciles the two, bringing to mind the shifting contrasts of shade and sunlight through fluttering birch leaves. The rough and shiny are always there, as are, always, the dark and the light, but the whole is as graceful and lively as dancers as they step, bob, and twirl around each other, balancing on an unbreaking line between two extremes.

Alicia Björnsdotter and Emma Reid will appear in an interview on WFMU Transpacific Sound Paradise. It will air (via the internet) Saturday January 27, 2007, starting around 7pm EST, and I am told it will be archived for later listening.

Grovt och grant/Rough and Shiny is available from CD Baby.

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