J anus, the latest album from Norwegian Hardanger fiddle-player Annbjørg Lien, sets
off in fine style with a rousing original tune called "Amazon." It's written
in the gangar dance tune tradition of Setesdal, not where Lien is from but
whose music she has long turned to for inspiration. It starts with just fiddle
and what sounds like a bass drum keeping the pulse, rather than the customary
stamped foot. Second time through the tune she is joined by a few of of the
collection of eight musicians backing her on the album, who together help to
propel the piece's great rhythmic drive.
So it comes as quite a surprise, as early as the second track, to find
ourselves in a quite different sound world. "The Clock Is Ticking" is another
original, this time a song delivered by Lien in English. It has a gentle bluesy
gospel feel with harmonica and slide guitar predominating instrumentally, both
provided by Knut Reiersrud. The Hardanger fiddle isn't heard until it takes the
instrumental break, but it then suffers from being rather crowded out by the
other things going on, an ominous indicator of what is to come.
Having recorded her first album for Heilo in 1988 while still a teenager and
making a number of TV appearances, Annbjørg Lien became a household name in
Norway and went on to receive international recognition, performing at the
closing ceremony of the Lillehammer Winter Olympics in 1994 with the trio
Bukkene Bruse. From early in her career, Lien has been something of a maverick
on the Norwegian folk scene, emerging at a time when it was still relatively
uncommon for a woman to make her name playing the Hardanger fiddle. She
challenged a number of assumptions she found herself up against and went on to
collaborate with musicians from different fields, resisting the idea that
traditional music should remain frozen in the past, and this remains her
comes out of a period of study leading to Lien's doctorate and in the sleeve
notes she states that the album "captures the act of simultaneously looking
backward and forward, evoking doorways which can symbolise endings and new
beginnings in a musical exploration." The album does indeed open a number of
different musical doors and despite being on the short side at a mere 37
minutes there's a range of good material here, but unfortunately this
nevertheless turns out to be a rather unsatisfying, unresolved work. While
suggesting various possibilities of a way forward there is no feeling of a
clear direction and while
boasts fine supporting players with good pedigree in Norwegian music much of
the time it feels unclear why they all need to be there. The Hardanger fiddle
was traditionally played as a solo instrument and for a good reason, many of
the subtleties of its rich sound being lost when mixed with other instruments.
The instrument can certainly work in an ensemble setting, but here Lien's
playing often feels constrained by what else is going on, not given the chance
to really flourish.
A wish to explore the possibilities of the Hardanger fiddle is at the heart of
this project and this is indicated in the sleeve notes with Lien including
details of the particular fiddle tuning chosen for each piece, giving a
different character to the music in each case. This might seem rather esoteric
to the average listener but the point is pretty much lost anyway when there is
so much else going on. "Strangled Stranger" is dedicated to the Setesdal
fiddler Andres Rysstad and begins with a short snippet from an old recording of
him speaking. The fiddle states the tune, then one by one everybody joins in.
Too often, here and elsewhere, the arrangements have the effect of diluting the
powerful edginess at the heart of the Setedal fiddle music tradition until it
all begins to sound rather anodyne.
Next time it would be good to hear Annbjørg Lien come up with an album which
focuses more on the fiddle, really showing how these new ideas have been
distilled into her playing style.
feels like work in progress and a lot needs filtering out so that less can
actually come to mean more.
Visit the artist online.
Photo: Stian Herdal