Sinikka Langeland is a musician and singer whose work is rooted in Norwegian and Finnish folk and church music, but also embraces new influences. Langeland’s primary instrument is a 39-string kantele, a Finnish type of zither or table-harp, which produces bell tones that complement the lucency of her voice beautifully.
But where Langeland’s singing features prominently on most of her recordings, The Half-finished Heaven is primarily instrumental.
Of the other musicians here, saxophonist Trygve Seim and percussionist Markku Ounaskari both featured in Langeland’s quintet on her 2006 ECM debut, Starflowers, and on 2011’s The Land That Is Not. Both are also members of the trio Kuára. Langeland’s quartet on this date is completed by violist Lars Anders Tomter, who played alongside organist Kåre Nordstoga on an interim release, Maria’s Song, on which music by Johann Sebastian Bach is interpolated with religious folk song.
A small group, then, bringing classical, folk and jazz influences to bear on a suite of music composed by Langeland, inspired by “the mystery and joy of everyday encounters with animals in the forest”.
And as with all of her music, at least for ECM (she’s been recording since 1994, when her solo debut, Langt innpå skoga, initiated a ten-year association with the Grappa Musikkforlag label), the sound of The Half-finished Heaven is as precise as it is luminous. Reviewing a performance by Kuára at London Jazz Festival 2012, I thought Seim’s sound enigmatic and folk-spiritual, which is perfectly apposite, but he also brings a welcome earthiness to bear, making the performances into which his sax permeates warmer and more pliable.
As on both Starflowers and The Land That Is Not, for which Langeland sourced lyrics from poetry, the three songs on The Half-finished Heaven take lyrics from verse by Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer.
All three vocal pieces come in the album’s first half, but the lead track, “Hare Rune” is instrumental, a light ceremonial, Ounaskari marking time with bass drum booms that lift Seim’s exhalations, while Langeland, playing a lighter, 15-string kantele, shimmers around Tomter’s pizzicato.
The first lyric, on “The Light Streams In”, is commonplace elemental visionary, but the violist sounds truly mournful. His mood is picked up Seim on “The White Burden”, though he sings through it, and is initially reflected in the music and poetry of the title track: “Despondency breaks off its course. / Anguish breaks off its course. / The vulture breaks off its flight. / The eager light streams out. / …”
Thankfully, the prevailing mood of doleful poignancy lifts as the album progresses, and “The Half-finished Heaven” itself unfurls with languorous grace: “Everything begins to look around. / we walk in the sun in hundreds.”
The four instrumentalists are pinpoint-precise in the soundfield, so any emotion seems amplified. The early courtly reserve of “The Woodcock’s Flight” yields to an almost giddy sense of expansion, as Ounaskari’s deft cymbal strikes and Langeland’s kantele describe constellations for the viola to explore.
“Caw Of The Crane” is a watershed, after which the music loosens up. Introduced by small percussive abstractions, it has a subcutaneous pulse, passed from percussion to strings, which is embellished by rapturous viola soloing that threads throughout, and subtly wayward soundings off. It’s a beautiful, mysterious piece, which draws the listener further into the forest of Langeland’s imagination. Another small joy, “Hymn To The Fly” is brightly playful, a rhythmic miniature of delicately embellished melodicism.
Two of the remaining pieces are also more rhythmic. “The Magical Bird” develops from an intro with a subtle Malian lilt into a lightly thrumming groove based on a traditional piece. Seim plays here, sounding not unlike Jan Garbarek at times, only airy and ruffled in comparison to Garbarek’s steely tonal gloss. He’s also heard on “The Blue Tit’s Spring Song”, on which Langeland plucks out luminous sound-motes as Tomter strums, and Ounaskari maintains a subtle but vibrant tabla pulse.
The sequencing of The Half-finished Heaven is key to its success. Just as its self-consciously numinous aesthetic begins to cloy, the group changes focus, opens up, and finds smaller, more invigorating pleasures in more open and earthy interplay.
Sinikka Langeland kantele, vocals; Lars Anders Tomter viola; Trygve Seim tenor saxophone; Markku Ounaskari percussion.
Buy The Half Finished Heaven direct from ECM.