It starts with gently edgy a cappella vocal from the Finnish singer Sanna Kurki-Suonio accompanied by her daughter Erika Hammarberg, and the bass voice of Ian Blake. Then the zithers move in, with Andrew Cronshaw’s 74-string electrified instrument providing chiming backing and throbbing rhythmic effects, matched against the Finnish kantele played by Kurki-Suonio and Hammarberg. And then the plaintive, mournful sound of Tigran Aleksanyan’s duduk, an oboe-like instrument traditionally played by shepherds in Armenia. The melody is Scottish Gaelic, the lyrics are in Finnish and the result is a compelling, unexpected fusion of European and Middle Eastern styles.
All this has brought SANS cult success in Europe, where this album shot to the top of the world music charts upon its release last week. The musicians were originally brought together by Cronshaw seven years ago, to play on his album The Unbroken Surface of Snow, and went on to record a live set that demonstrated their quietly intense improvised playing. Kulku, the first SANS studio recording, displays a different approach, with vocals now dominant on often sad-edged songs that range from the brooding Tuuditelle Tuuli, where the duduk is matched against Blake’s reed work (he plays clarinet and saxophone) to the harmony vocals on the poignant Kazvatti, a lament for a bride unwillingly married to an alcoholic husband, which is backed by gently chiming zither. There are fewer instrumental pieces than expected, but the two that are included show the empathy between the musicians, and include the atmospheric The Edge of Autumn, in which a haunting duduk melody is matched against a wash of zithers. A subtle, exquisite set.
It’s hard to believe this is the first studio album from SANS. There was a live album in 2014, and before that all the musicians had appeared on leader Andrew Cronshaw’s The Unbroken Surface Of Snow. But the slightly expanded group, now a quintet, make music that seems as if they’ve simply dived deep into time. The mix of kanteles, zithers, voices, duduk, saxes and clarinets works with a natural, organic inevitability, and the music doesn’t so much unfold as curl off into a gorgeous distance. It has a wonderfully meditative quality, the voices of Sanna Kurki-Suonio and her daughter Erika Hammarberg shifting between harmonies that are ethereal and softly dissonant (as on Pursi – The Rowing Song), while Astele Oro carries echoes of Kurki-Suonio’s former band, Hedningarna.
Vocal or instrumental, it’s music that breathes, played without ego, finding whatever serves the song or the melody. Everything feels utterly natural, whether it’s just a few musicians on a track or the entire ensemble. But although it sometimes seems delicate, almost elusive, there’s a very studied foundation, built on years of playing together and pushing gently at the boundaries where cultures entwine. Some pieces, like Kazvatti, take on an almost liturgical quality in the singing, a sacred hush that’s only intensified by the gently ringing kantele between verses. Kulku is lullingly melodic and softly adventurous, one that peers into the shady corners and finds the beauty, drawing it out into the light. An absolute triumph.
Hear a track on this issue’s fRoots 70 compilation.
A subtle, at times gently unsettling album in which ancient laments from around the Baltic are fused with themes from England, Scotland and Armenia. Exquisite.
The Pocket Score Company
Sin and Salvation All Saints, Ainslie, ACT. Sunday, May 20, 2012
It’s hard to beat an afternoon with Palestrina, Monteverdi, Lassus and the like, especially when the music is performed by Canberra’s smallest and most technically polished male vocal ensemble, The Pocket Score Company. With each performance the blend of voices, with David Mackay conducting is developing into a confident sound which is at once resonant and clean. Palestrina’s Missa Aeterna Christi Munera formed the heart of the concert and with the opening Kyrie I was reminded of the description of Anne Boleyn walking up the aisle of Westminster abbey on a ‘cloth of heaven blue’ for her coronation. If you could replicate heaven blue silk in music, it would sound like The Pocket Score Company singing Palestrina.
With a blend of sacred and secular songs, the program offered a satisfying variety of material. Contrasting with the heavenly Palestrina, the more earthly offerings from Adrian Willaert: Un Giorno Mi Prego, Lassus: Baur, was tregst im Sacke?, and Jannequin’s Martin menoit son porceau were energetic evocations of the lusty life of the folk in the 15th and 16th centuries. Innuendo and vocal special effects succeeded in conveying the wicked sense of fun within the lyrics.
One of the highlights was the opening song in the second half of the concert, Hec Dies, by an anonymous composer and performed by David Yardley (countertenor) and Ian Blake (bass), singing across the audience. The early music stereophonic effect was deliciously trippy. Monteverdi’s Chi’o ami la mia vita was less tidy than the other numbers, but a compensating treat was David Yardley’s setting of the carol, Wilkin’s Return. The lyrics urge Christ to ‘save merry England and speed it well’, but with such edgy urgency it was easy to imagine a barracks full of (musical) testosterone fuelled soldiers ready to smite off a few heads for the glory of God and country. Juan del Encina’s lovely Romerico came as balm after the robust carol and Palestrina’s Agnus Dei à4 and à5, separated by a beautifully spacious plainchant version, ended the concert peacefully. There was a lovely moment when baritone Daniel Sanderson and tenor Paul Eldon’s voices blended in the five part version perfectly to illustrate exactly why there had to be another voice in the arrangement. But best of all, David Mackay’s very young daughter provided a well timed, perfectly pitched musical comment in between the last two items, proving that the younger generation finds as much joy in early music as the older patrons.
Jennifer Gall - The Canberra Times
(May 23, 2012)
St. Pauls Manuka ACT, June 5 2011
The elements conspired to augment Sunday's concert with golden dusk shining through the windows as The Pocket Score Company presented songs about love, death and ecstasy. This all-male vocal ensemble is consolidating a sound that is distinctively warm and witty. Its audience has built impressively since the group began singing together five years ago. A bold willingness to explore challenging repertoire from the French, German, Spanish and Italian traditions as well as more accessible English material ensures that the ear is continually delighted and refreshed.
In celebration of the 400th anniversary of Tomas Luis de Victoria's death this year, the opening song was a robust version of Taedet Animam Meam followed by madrigals by Marenzio and Morley, all eclipsed by the performance of the powerful setting of Bruce Dawe's poem Homecoming by Philip Griffin. Griffin's score magnifies the sharp edge to Dawe's words while maintaining the poignancy of these young, modern soldiers brought home, 'too late, too early' in winged hearses, the howling jet engines representing contemporary keening. Paul Eldon's fluid tenor voice worked well here and David Mackay's voice delivered the last line gracefully and hauntingly. Three short madrigals on the subject of weeping and the cure for this condition in the form of May merriment were crowned by David Yardley's cleverly animated setting of the medieval carol Wep no more for me swet hart. Yardley took the lead and it was good to hear him singing confidently without any hint of the occasional tendency to strain heard earlier. His skill in weaving the parts in his composition built the suspense till the final enigmatic lines of the incomplete text. Le Chant des Oyseaulx by Clement Janequin was a joyful cacophony of bird calls and hugely entertaining vocal virtuosity.
After interval, the audience was herded back to their seats by bass Ian Blake entering while singing of the delights of Paris: On Parole - A Paris - Frese nouvele. I liked the movement as each singer entered with their part, bringing the church to life by turning the space into a meeting place. Opening with an engaging bass solo from Blake above the vocal accompaniment, Der May mit lieber zal by Oswald von Wolkenstein and Jehan Vaillant once again provided ample opportunity for the singers to display their vocal dexterity in portraying a whole array of birdsong.
Three short, sweet madrigals set the stage for one of the highlights, Tom Lehrer's Poisoning Pigeons. I couldn't help thinking of my mandarin's buds eaten by Canberra's furry maurauders and wishing that there was an added line about poisoning possums. Pilkington's Rest Sweet Nymphs calmed things beautifully, melting into the wonderful Ce Moys de May. The exquisite finale was Tota Pulchra Es. Not another note was needed to complete the afternoon.
Jennifer Gall - The Canberra Times (Jun 6, 2011)
Nachtmusik: A Concert of German Music from the 13th to the 18th centuries.
All Saints, Ainslie ACT, Sunday July 5th, 2009.
It was a great pleasure to attend a concert in which so much thought had been given to every detail of the performance. All Saints was the perfect venue for the all-male Pocket Score Company in terms of the intimate size of the Church and also because of the beauty of the interior. The way in which afternoon light through the stained glass windows continually shifted and illuminated the space complemented the delivery of the music. Each member of the ensemble spoke at different points to describe the next bracket of songs with knowledgeable comments and amusing asides, introducing the audience to the composers and the singers themselves as fellow human beings rather than talented aliens. The programme sheets were elegant and simply laid out with translations for each item. My one regret was that this interesting and carefully constructed programme had just a single performance. A season of several nights would allow audiences a second listening and help the ensemble develop further the rapport between each other, with the music and with the audience to reach a new level of excellence. These songs are rarely, if ever, performed in Australia and patrons would welcome the chance to hear them again.
Heinrich Isaac’s beloved Innsbruck, Ich Muss Dich Lassen opened the concert and the ensemble gave an original, unsentimental version, conveying the contemplative mood of the piece with refreshing spaciousness conveyed through their phrasing. Each vocal part moved in a seamless conversational exchange.
Adam Gumpelzhaimer wrote songs that were as challenging to sing as his name is to pronounce. So Fahr Ich Hin Zu Jesu Christ and Mit Fried Und Freud Fahr Ich Dahin were two tantalizingly short pieces from this neglected composer. The following bracket of songs by Senfl and von Wolkenstein were cleverly grouped around the mysterious Der Mai by Neidhart von Reuenthal, featuring Ian Blake’s agile bass. Some lovely moments followed in Entlaubet Ist Der Walde in the interweaving parts between tenors David Mackay and George Brenan and counter-tenor David Yardley. A conflation of three versions of In Dulci Jubilo concluded the first half of the concert; the first by Praetorius – clean and joyous, the second by Buxtehude – florid and outrageous and finally Bach – robust and majestic.
In the second half I enjoyed the low tenor entry and the smooth exchange between the voices in Der Winter Kalt by Eccard. The most fun was certainly had by audience and singers in Es Gieng Guot Tröscher Über Land, a song in which a maid and a thresher “indulge in a bout of mutual metaphorical activity” and Orlande de Lassus’ wild ditty about a partying farmer. However, the outstanding performance of the afternoon was Tota Pulchra Es, by Heinrich Isaac, a hypnotic, darkly sonorous, densely arranged piece where the four male voices blended perfectly as the one instrument. David Yardley’s counter tenor was at its best here, touching the grave harmonies with brightness and accentuating the power of the silences. This setting of selections from The Song of Solomon was absolutely unforgettable.
Jennifer Gall - The Canberra Times
Spirit of Place
Following our policy of bringing you interesting, diverse and unusual music from around the world and in many musical spheres, this album fits neatly into our "no convenient genre or category" pigeon-hole. For it's a highly eclectic melange of various styles, from the solo whistle tune that opens, through drifting soundscapes and samples, passing jazz moods, a little bit of funk even, a touch of the mediaeval about it, a touch of the symphonic (in feel at least, there is no orchestra.) That said, Blake plays so many instruments himself, it could as well be a small orchestra. Clarinet, saxes, whistles, melodica, fujara, flute, tenor guitar, dulcimer, lyre and keyboards, bass and percussion are all used by Ian on the album. As Nick Beale said in a 1996 review of this album in fRoots this is 'multi-faceted and highly inventive music...' . It's hard to pin down with labels, but the consistent threads that run through it are the variety of musical ideas on offer, and the creativity with which those are manipulated. It's also a tribute to this CD that it's not really like anyone else that I can think of musically. The moment you think "ah that's a bit like Terry Riley ...." it's off into new territory again. The title is descriptive of the inspiration behind the tracks, each being given their musical identity by Ian's interpretation of the genius loci. The places visited are many and different, and their musics follow suit. If your tastes run to musical journeys through a variety of different spaces, (mostly of the melodic and instrumental type, in moderately laid back mood), I recommend you try this CD: I doubt if you'll be disappointed.
Malcolm Fielding - indie-cds.com
'Helen Rivero is a singer and composer born in Sydney, Australia, to Spanish immigrants who has focused her work on jazz, cabaret and folk songs from around the world. Ian Blake is a British transplant multi-instrumentalist who has worked with English country dance group Pyewackett, Eric Bogle, and British world music chameleon Andrew Cronshaw. For this stunningly recorded collection, these two artists bring all those influences and styles to a mix of lullabies from around the world, including pieces in Zulu, Yiddish, French, Russian, Creole, Italian, Micmac and many more (17 pieces in all). Rivero is a singer who is nothing if not unique. She uses her voice as a supple musical instrument, effortlessly darting from the lyric to vocalese and sound effects, painting a striking, often haunting, series of minipaintings from each of the cultures represented here. Blake is an instrumental master, providing a broad range of sensitively played arrangements for these pieces with an arsenal of woodwinds, keyboards and strings. Peter Kennard (percussion) and Julian Thompson (cello) fill out the ensemble. The excellent production is pure and clean, very reminiscent of Blake's production work on Andrew Cronshaw's award winning release Ochre from last year. It is a joy just to listen to the sound of this recording, with each vocal and instrument cleanly presented with a "whole" sound ... open and clear. The material seems to be a mixture of traditional and composed music from, literally, all over the world. It's both a tribute to the artistry of the duo that the material works together and that each piece stands up independently of the whole. I wish there was more background about the material provided. In the end, though, this is music that stands on its own. I don't want to mistakenly make it seem like this is any kind of folkloric work, but if you're open to a cool, jazzy take on tradition from true musical masters, this is a beautiful recording well worth the effort to find.'
And as Mark Moss has pointed out in this review, the background information on the CD is a bit sparse, so here are some track-by-track details:
Helen and Ian are joined on this recording by percussionist Peter Kennard, cellist Julian Thompson, yayla tanbur player Paul Koerbin and members of the Canberran wildlife community. We should also point out that this release marks Helen's recording debut as a pixiphonist.
1. O Tula (Zulu)
‘your mother is in the hills, on the zigzag trail…she will bring you a treat.’
Peter plays shakers and metal percussion, Ian plays cittern and guitar.
2. Nani Nani (Sephardic)
The chld's mother sings: 'sleep, my soul, my life’, while the father says: 'I come home very tired from ploughing the fields.'
Helen's voice merges at the end with a swarm of bees and some drones from a passing double bass ...
Improvisation with Peter Kennard on percussion and Julian Thompson on cello, Helen's voice and Ian's soprano sax.
4. Rozinkes mit Mandlen (Yiddish)
A widow sings a song of prophecy ‘…it will be your calling – trading in raisins and almonds…some day you will wander the world, you will grow rich, someday…’
Ian plays keyboards, and duets on bass clarinet with Helen. Peter plays junk percussion.
5. Le Chat à Jeanette/ Cola (French)
'when he wants to make himself beautiful, he washes his nose with saliva...'
Helen duets with Tiger, a small kitten with a mighty purr.
Ian plays melodica, soprano sax and cittern - from Canberran maker Gillian Alcock.
Peter plays frame drum.
6. Pium Paum (Finnish)
‘innocently…cradle swinging…enjoy your life…some day bells will clang…your soul will roam on’
The piece begins with a peal of saucepans from Peter. Ian plays guitar, Helen plays pixiphone.
7. Akh ty nochenka (Russian)
‘dark little night…with whom shall I pass the time? We do not live peacefully as one…’
Ian plays four bass clarinets.
Improvisation with bass clarinet, joined by voice, percussion, gu-cheng (a Chinese zither) and cello.
9. Ela hypne (Greek)
'...grow big as a mountain, straight and tall as a cypress tree.'
The crickets of Canberra set the scene: Ian plays thumb piano and brass-strung harp [by the Rigby brothers of Victoria: James and Andy]. The harp also appears at the end, wind-driven by a backyard breeze. Paul Koerbin makes a cameo appearance on yayla tanbur, which resembles a bowed bass banjo.
10. La rivyer Tanier (Creole)
Concerning African slaves who had to find extra food to survive. '...walking by the river Tanier, I meet an old grandma and an old grandpa fishing. They say: 'one must work to eat…’
Ian plays harp, bass, melodica, reed organ. Peter gives the junk percussion another workout.
11. Sofðu unga ástin mín (Icelandic)
‘...the rain is crying... black sand, glaciers, bones ...' A dialogue for voice and guitar based on an Icelandic lullaby. Ian plays guitar and sax, which introduces fragments of the 17th century English dance tune 'Lull me beyond thee'.
12. Naa ska'en liten (Norwegian)
‘now the little one shall have sleep so sweet…so warm and so soft…’
Voice and piano improvise freely around this Norwegian lullaby.
13. Ba ba (Micmac)
Two harps here, both from the Rigbys, one nylon and one brass strung.
Seedpod shakers and a big goatskin tambourine.
Ian: soprano sax. Julian: cello. Helen: voice. Peter: percussion, gu-cheng.
15. Fi la nanae mi bel fiol (Italian)
Ian plays tenor recorder and bass harmonica. Helen duets with herself as mother and crone...
16. Suo gân (Welsh)
‘nothing is able to disturb your composure…smiling gently…do not fear, only a leaf beats on the door…a little wave makes a lapping noise on the seashore…’
Voice and piano.
17. Om Tare (Tibetan mantra, melody by Helen)
Just voice ...
Tara is a female Buddha loved in Tibet: she is a symbol of compassionate action.
Mark D Moss - SingOut!
“A selection of lullabies and night music from around the world could be a big yawn, but this selection is packed with interesting arrangements, junkyard percussion and found sounds, all linked by Rivero's expressive vocals and Blake's multi-instrumental ability. If anything, it's almost too eclectic in one dose, but it is equally fascinating and charming.”
“They've treated the material in a way that is totally refreshing. The music is confident, engaging and has a wonderful element of surprise. It's a fine new CD from these two talented musicians.”
— Paul Petran - ABC Radio National's Music Deli
“The centrepiece of this album is Helen Rivero's voice. Her vocal control is amazing and, coupled with a rich tone and strong interpretative power, it makes Luminous compelling listening. Ian Blake complements her voice with an instrumental soundscape filled with equally complex textures and delicate solos. Like most original work, Luminous is a challenge to describe but very easy to listen to. The CD is a collection of 17 lullabies from around the world, and Rivero and Blake have done extensive research with songs sung in Zulu, Italian, Welsh, Yiddish, Greek and Icelandic to name a few. But this description only tells half the story. Each lullaby is given a quirky, original arrangement using word play, vocal acrobatics, woodwinds, percussion, keyboard and strings to create songs that sometimes shimmer as in dreams or quiver on the threshold of excitement. Much of Luminous is exceptionally enjoyable and the duo must be great to see live in concert. This is music with a triple purpose. First, it's a celebration of this Australian duo's musical friendship. Second, it draws the listener to the wealth of music from around the world. Finally, it forces you to look outside your preconceived notions of music genres - not a bad thing for musicians and listeners alike. Luminous allows us considerable breathing space to dream for a bright and peaceful future.”
— Jaslyn Hall - limelight
Jenny Gall, in collaboration with musician and sound artist Ian Blake, has here produced a recording of Australian women's folk music that is much more than a fine and inspiring aesthetic experience. This CD of nine songs and two instrumental tracks is also intellectually and artistically challenging, surprising, and at times slightly unsettling. It is strongly unified by its consistent reference to the essential paradox and ambiguity of life. That this is an essence which is at once contemporary and also generations deep, is convincingly expressed by Jenny's seamless juxtaposition of modern piano-based composition (Blue Fox; Gwen Harwood Impromptus) with traditional pieces like A Bhanarach Donn a Cruidh and As Sylvie Was Walking. Right throughout this beautifully crafted album, the ancient is integrated with the modern, the innovated with the long-inherited, the organic with the synthetic. While Jenny employs symbolic ballad poetry as her main communicative vehicle, ingenious musical support is provided by settings that tightly combine elements as starkly traditional as the unaccompanied voice, with those as experimental as random digital sound generation. Typical of this treatment is her performance of the 'magical' ballad, Green Bushes, where the obscurity of a mythological narrative of death and regeneration is emphasised by the radical ambiguity of Jenny's interpretation of the song's rhythm and tonality. Worlds of meaning – both personal and universal - are further implied by sound effects woven through what is a typically non-standard musical arrangement. The choice of material here reflects also the paradox of a European-Australian identity. Classic lyrics of the bush such as The Reedy Lagoon and The Stockman's Last Bed – both performed in ways which give them new life and meaning – alternate with ballads like The Female Rambling Sailor and The Bonny Bunch of Roses that exhibit far more explicitly their Anglo-Celtic provenance. That all these songs were learned by Jenny from field recordings of Australian women singers, and the fact that all are performed in a similarly contemporary and convention-defying manner, suggest that the tale of the stock-camp or river bend must be taken together with the portrayal of the elemental forces of love, loss, and ambition, as contributing equally to the expression of a fundamental Australian feminineness. The sounds you will hear on this recording are clear, fresh, colourful, and thought-provoking. Sung voices of varying timbres are interwoven with the thick complexity of pianos, the simple plucked poignancy of the harp, the brash throatiness of trumpet and trombone, and the smooth richness of clarinet, viola and string bass. Other sounds – no less pleasing - are far harder to classify, having their origin in the infinitely surprising realm of electronic creation.
Barry McDonald - Trad&Now