The cover of the first studio recording by SANS features the close-up of
an eye. * Within that image, the eye reflects the sitting
photographer, Andrew Cronshaw, in what is a landscape curved by the
protective cornea of the eye. This provocative portrait raises some
interesting philosophical questions: about how we look, and are
looked back upon; about the familiar, rendered strange; about the
communion between living things. As I will detail below, SANS's
offers a sonic space for such existential concerns.
the band. SANS is an impeccable combination of musicians and
influences, formed in the wake of Andrew Cronshaw's 2011 album
The Unbroken Surface of Snow.
For that outing, Cronshaw, long known as a
multi-instrumentalist and master of the electric zither, was
joined by reed player Ian Blake, Armenian duduk maestro Tigran
Aleksanyan, and the superb Finnish singer Sanna Kurki-Suonio
(listeners may recognize her from her solo albums and with Hedningarna). The chemistry evident on The Unbroken Surface of Snow
coalesced into the group SANS, and their SANS Live album in 2014 captured the evolving nature of their on-stage musical
Convening in a Suffolk barn to record a new album during the winter of 2017-18,
Kurki-Suonio's daughter Erika Hammarberg joined the band.
Scottish musician Jim Sutherland served as producer. Vocally, the
band has expanded not only due to the women, but Blake also sings as
well. (Listen to the opening "Pursi (The Rowing Song),"
where the female voices are undergirded by the male bass.) The Kulku
repertoire is sung mostly in Finnish, except for the song "Kazvatti
(Four Sorrows)," which is in a dialect related to Karelian.
The stringed instruments flicker and play on Kulku,
suffusing the album with a deep, magical quality. Both Kurki-Suonio
and Hammarberg play the 10-string kantele, and Cronshaw uses a
74-string zither and his 44-string marovantele. The marovantele
is Cronshaw's own electrified invention, inspired by the
Madagascan double-sided zither. Aleksanyan contributes the
distinctive sound of the duduk, while Blake contributes many other
reed instruments. His bass clarinet work is particularly
striking across the album.
SANS achieve a rare thing: a fusion of musical cultures that makes you believe you are hearing one thing when in fact you are hearing something different and new. Perhaps it is the Finnish vocals that beguile one
into assuming that one is listening to traditional Finnish tunes:
sometimes, but not always. Again, "Pursi (The Rowing Song)"
starts off a cappella, but then moves to plucked strings and a subtle, stamped beat that
sways like a Scottish waulking song. The melody, in fact, is based
on a traditional Gaelic song ("Hó a, hù a,
nighean dubh"), and arranged by the band.
"Tuuditelle Tuuli (Cradle, O Wind)" showcases Kurki-Suonio's voice,
the bass clarinet providing a deep bottom while Aleksanyan's
duduk sweeps through the song. The spare treatment of the tune works
well, building to a keening in Kurki-Suonio's vocals that then
subsides: the entire track built through the architecture of air and
"Rauta (Iron)" provides the opportunity to
hear the Kurki-Suonio and Hammarberg caress and draw out the world
"Rauta," while strings glisten in accompaniment. Here,
again, are traditional Finnish lyrics, this time married to a Spanish
dulzaina tune. The lyrics are full of alliteration (Iron,
poor iron/You were not so mighty/When you were taken from the
moss/Taken from the moss), and menace (…From
that iron became graceless/Wanting to bite its smith/And eat even the
innocent/Eat the innocent).
The song "Kulkija (The Walking Song)" neatly marries
Finnish lyrics that describe, in updated fashion, walking cold
American roads and comparing them to Finland (The
land of America, it's a wide land/and maiden-Finland is rather
skinny…). The song has a marching beat, the women singing
together, the band punctuating the verses in pulses, with the duduk
improvising around the melody.
"Astele Oro (Step Careful, Stallion)" is a traditional Finnish song, a
magical marriage tune which moves from the arriving bridegroom party
from Germany, to the slow steps of the bridegroom's stallion,
to the bridegroom entering the cottage – although by the time
of crossing the threshold, it is difficult to differentiate between
the bridegroom and the stallion. "Kazvatti (Four Sorrows)"
is sung in a Karelian dialect, and the song is arranged by the band
so that the supporting voices remind one of Eastern European choral
work. "Kazvatti" acts as a rejoinder to "Kulkija,"
with a young woman's regret at having moved away from home, and
where the sorrows in question are tied to the new, adopted family.
"The Edge of Autumn/Hayreniki Karot" (excerpt)
"The Edge of Autumn/Hayreniki Karot" and "The Recollection Of
That Day: O Chiadain An Lò/Lusabatz Ararati Vra" are
gorgeous instrumentals between the songs. Cronshaw's zither
virtually stops time – the notes suffuse, hang in the air,
answered by the mellow duduk to create a meditative ambience. "Kaik
Miä Ilot Unohin (I Forgot All Joy, Stopped Singing The Songs)"
ends the album in similar fashion, the sound slowly rippling out,
Aleksanyan passing the torch to Blake's soprano sax, before
Kurki-Suonio enters with the closing lament.
SANS's Kulku emerges as a strong communal statement. What you hear is music of such startling originality that the whole functions to create a timeless world of unlocatable beauty. Grounded in and
forged from streams of different lands, Kulku
offers a warm homecoming to those daring to navigate the
interconnectedness of cultures. - Lee Blackstone