One of the things I most like about the ECM record label is the diversity of their roster. Initially starting life as a jazz label, it now includes the full spectrum of genres from classical through to rock and electronica. Today’s post is about a musician who has recorded for the label using a traditional instrument but has taken it in many different direction.
Nils Ølkund is a hardingfele player. A couple of things to clear up before we get going:
- I’m going to call Mr Økland, Nils. Not because he’s a mate of mine (I’ve never met the bloke) or because that’s how he’s known in musical circles (like Iggy, Beyonce or Prince). It is because primarily typing an Ø on the WordPress site is a bit of a faff. Just so you know and you don’t want to embarrass yourself when you rush into your local record store to buy his albums, it is a Scandinavian vowel pronounced in a similar way to a French “eu” (think “bleu). If we are saying it out loud it is “eu-kland”. If we are writing it down, god damn it, it is Nils.
- The hardingfele is an eight or nine string Norwegian fiddle. Four are played by contact with the bow and the rest resonate due to their proximity.
- Nils doesn’t just play “finger in the ear” folk music (although there is a smudge of that)
- Nils appears to have listened to the Velvet Underground (there – that kept you going didn’t it?)
The first of Nils’s LPs that I bought was “Hommage à Ole Bull”. I’m not sure even why I picked it up other than it was on ECM and I liked the sleeve. That’s a dangerous criteria as it pretty much covers everything in their catalogue and therefore truly endangers your bank account.
Ole Bull was a 19th century Norwegian composer who contributed hugely to their folk music repertoire. He was a contemporary and friend of Schuhmann and Liszt and inspiration to Greig. A fan of the hardingfele, he drew on local folk songs from an early age. He was thought of as a successor to Paganini and a respected improviser, which makes him a perfect match for ECM. This was a rare skill in classical music and Bull was capable of melding Cuban street music or Italian opera into his work. He was a bit of a showman too, playing his fiddle atop the pyramids at Giza (suck that up, Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead). Ibsen was said to have based the character Peer Gynt on Bull.
In 1872, Bull bought the island of Lysoen complete with its own villa, a kind of Norwegian equivalent of Brighton Pavilion, combining Swiss chalets and Moorish architecture (as one so often does). The villa was bequeathed to the Norwegian state and now hosts both concerts and recording sessions.
Bull was expecting to settle down on the island in his retirement from touring. In 1880, he was in the USA and knew he was dying. He said to his wife, Sara, that he would be okay if he got back to his villa. Unfortunately within a few weeks of returning he died whilst his wife played Mozart on the harmonium. Grieg played a tribute to Bull on the same instrument at the funeral and it remained unplayed until 1980.
The ECM album features only two musicians – Nils and Sigbjorn Apeland on the harmonium and piano. The tunes are short, spare and minimal but often beautiful. It used Bull’s own instruments recorded in his own house which must have been incredibly moving for the musicians. This emotion is captured in the music as is Bull’s love of improvisation. It also looked mighty chilly judging by the photos in the sleeve notes.
The duo wrote as follows:
We don’t claim to improvise as Bull did, but we use many of the same themes that he used, and – as with him – our improvisations are often based upon Norwegian folk music. We also want to perform his melodies in our own way (…) Like Bull, we are influenced by our contemporary music. We also consider ourselves as parts of a long chain of composers and performers who have integrated elements of folk music in their improvisation and compositions, from Edvard Grieg via Eivind Groven, Bjarne Herrefoss, Jørgen Tjønnstaul, Geirr Tveitt, Jan Johansson, Don Cherry, Jan Garbarek, Arild Andersen, Frode Haltli and Karl Seglem.
It may be a slightly difficult jumping in point but hey, I went for it. It is beautiful sparse music that creates the clear Scandinavian beauty. Here’s Blond Bla which doesn’t appear the LP but gives an indication of what to expect.
The next album I bought was “Lumen Drones”, by the band of the same name.
This is where things go a little off beam for ECM. The band (as photographed in the image at the top of this blog post) consists of Okland with two members of the Norwegian post-rock band, The Low Frequency In Stereo – Per Steiner Lee (guitars on the right) and Orjan Haaland (drums on the left). They describe themselves as a “psychedelic drone band” but I feel that they are doing themselves a disservice. They bring to my mind the anti-psych Velvet Underground with John Cale’s viola on such tracks as “Venus In Furs” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” a clear reference point. Their sound is sparse and slow (almost on a par with Codeine who I blogged about here). The drums run from gentle brushwork to pounding tom-toms. The guitar interchanges the melody with Okland’s fiddle work. There is a sense of rising drama. Sonic Youth are also acknowledged influences with the rawness of sound that New York’s finest brought to their work. It has the dynamics of the British scene that spawned Loop, Spaceman 3 and Spiritualised.
It still has the Norwegian folk sensibility running through it too. This is music with a strong connection to nature (as has much of Okland’s work and also illustrated by the album sleeves).
When considered with the rest of his work, it puts Okland near Nick Cave’s pal Warren Ellis as a contemporary.
A brief anecdote about Warren:
A few years ago we were walking around London Zoo’s aquarium with our daughter. We turned a corner and there stood Warren with his children, explaining about piranhas or some such thing. It was a hot summer’s afternoon and fair play to Ellis. He was still in full Bad Seed stage garb – shirt open to his naval, sharp suited and booted and with sunglasses hanging way down. In fact, the photo taken above could have well been taken on the way out of the aquarium.
Here’s the opening track of the Lumen Drones LP, “Dark Sea”. It is typical of the elemental menace and beauty of the record and if you like, then you’ll like Lumen Drones. It does tie in with Bull’s heritage as a classical artist who was happy to improvise and Okland is clearly keen to keep that tradition alive, be it in a folk, jazz or rock environment.
The final album by Nils that I picked up was “Kjolvatn”.
The tracks here are a wonderful midpoint between the “Lumen Drones” and Ole Bull albums. They are more ensemble pieces than either with an extended range of instruments including alto and very very baritone saxophone from Rolf-Erik Nystrum plus a harmonium (played by Apeland again) and percussion. The second track “Undergrunn” (“Underground” I presume) features some beautiful bass work by Mats Eilertsen. The opening track “Mali” is great too, a meeting place between Scandinavian jazz and Toureg desert blues. The album was recorded at Ostre Toten church and plays a part in the music, the same way as other buildings do in the world of music. A theme through all of these albums is that they were recorded in special places, not soulless recording studios.
This really is music to soundtrack BBC4 Saturday night dramas. I’ve been trying to find video clips online but unfortunately nothing is available.
As I said in my earlier post, ECM don’t do streaming. So if you are going to try, you need to buy first. I would personally recommend starting with “Kjolvatn” which sits equidistant between the jazz, folk and rock themes. Then if you enjoy this album, go “Lumen Drones” if you are of a rock inclination and the Ole Bull album if folk is your preference.
Either way, won’t be disappointed. Best of luck………
There are some clips though by way of the ECM website: