The opening track of Sarah-Jane Summers' latest album, Echo Stane, is the atmospheric “Airtan” which sets the mood with what is for the most part an exploratory piece of improvisation, one which can too easily prompt the reviewer to reach for over-used adjectives like “dark and brooding.” But this melancholic undercurrent is almost intrinsic to the sound of the Hardanger fiddle, even in the animated dance music, with the melodic tension shifting between the higher and lower strings. Here the lower string holds a drone while an upper string seeks out a melodic line, disconcertingly sliding up and swooping down, the center of gravity shifting and the bowing producing a range of grainy tones from the strings.
There have been a number of releases recently from Hardanger fiddle-players exploring the potential of the instrument beyond the traditional playing of dance tunes. But this approach remains an aspect of that tradition, for there has long been a place for lyarslåttar or listening tunes, often including evocations of the natural world as well as a degree of improvisation, intended to be played while the dancers take a break.
Sarah-Jane Summers is not Norwegian but Scottish, though she lives in Oslo and has received many plaudits within and beyond the folk world for her Hardanger fiddle playing. In her compositions and improvisations, as well as in the titles she gives them, she illuminates the common ground between the two cultures and their music. The title of “Mirk Monanday” (Dark Monday) uses a Scottish word for darkness which sounds virtually the same as the Norwegian mørk. The music is purely linear in character with each section played on a single string. The darkness being alluded to may not be that of a depressed mental state but the northern winter which has its own beauty and perhaps also a sense of hope: the notes slide up as much as they slide down.
Sarah-Jane Summers clearly has a considerable technical command over her instrument but what really impresses is not her virtuosity, but her musical understanding. There is an evident connection with the folk music with which the Hardanger fiddle is associated, but she uses as a starting point the instrument itself and its unique qualities. Much Norwegian fiddle music is based on repeated motifs and Summers takes that idea and isolates it, highlighting the subtle changes of timbre she finds, which then become the focus. Within this sparsity she manages to create dramatic contrasts, a kind of expressive minimalism, and this is achieved through allowing periods of silence to contribute to the way the music communicates. This is particularly well represented in “Shadow Half” where each motif stays in the memory for a few short moments of inactivity, of silence, before being replaced by the next musical idea.
“Upsun” is all built around drones, but beginning with the same note being played on adjacent strings, one of which then shifts slightly to create discord. This process continues, the strings moving in and out of either unison or harmony, unsettling the equilibrium. Yet this is conveyed in the gentlest of ways, so that although we may find ourselves being led into uncertainty, we remain in safe hands.
There is a unity binding together the pieces on Echo Stane but each track brings a different perspective. Sometimes the attention is held by the range of sounds to be found in the playing of a single note, while elsewhere, as with “King's Weather,” we are taken on a more meandering, melodic journey. Altogether a fine album indeed.