The Half-Finished Heaven is the fourth ECM album from Sinikka Langeland, the kantele player, singer and composer from Finnskogen, south-eastern Norway’s “Forest of the Finns”. The music she has written for the ensemble here touches on, as she says, her “whole scale of expression”. Sinnika’s highly original and self-contained oeuvre is informed, in changing degree, by folk traditions of Norway and Finland, as well as classical and contemporary music and improvisation from jazz and other sources. Each of her gifted bandmates brings his own range of colours to the music.
This time around the ratio of vocal to instrumental music has been adjusted: after Sinikka’s first ECM recording (Starflowers in 2006), producer Manfred Eicher proposed a solo kantele album, “with three songs and the remainder instrumental”. The idea had to settle for a while, but proportions have remained, even as Sinikka’s writing for the project has expanded to embrace viola and percussion - and saxophone on some pieces - as well as her own kanteles (table harps).
Much of Sinikka’s work addresses the natural world, and our place in it, and on The Half-Finished Heaven, she chose to develop music expressing “the mystery and joy of everyday encounters with animals in the forest”. For three pieces she sets texts of Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, which in their own way speak of the transformative power of nature. “Despondency breaks off its course. / Anguish breaks off its course. / The vulture breaks off its flight. /The eager light streams out. …” The sung poems, reflecting the changing seasons, suggest a frame in which the music can unfold, with its melodic and rhythmic suggestion of animal movements, from scurryings in the undergrowth to the slow arcing of wings in the sky. Amongst the compositions, Sinikka integrates a very early and previously unrecorded piece, “The White Burden”, which she wrote in 1978, newly arranged for viola and kantele. “Together with ‘Caw of the Crane’ it has some sacral feelings connected to loss and sorrow and contributes to the space in which the creatures are flying, singing and running.”
Sinikka, who has proselytized for the work of other writers who have spoken directly of the natural world (see for instance the fine poems of Hans Børli set to music on Starflowers), says that she came late to Tranströmer, reading his Den stora gåtan (The Great Enigma) in 2004 and the Collected Poems in 2005. As she prepared the music for The Half-Finished Heaven in 2011, the news of Tranströmer’s Nobel Prize win broke. “I was so happy for him but also a little worried that it would be difficult to make contact and get permissions for setting the poems. But his wife Monica called me and I got such a warm stream of positive answers and support from them, right in the middle of their most busy time.” In Tranströmer’s writing Langeland responds to “his painting of the big questions of humanity and nature with small brushes and his pointing to the life-spirit in everything, lifting up the mystery in normal things and everyday moments. His poems can be consoling, like religious parables…”
Each of the musicians here - Lars Anders Tomter, Markku Ounaskari and Trygve Seim - has previously played with Sinikka in variety of contexts. Bringing them together, “testing out new ways of music-making presented its own challenges.” Lars Anders Tomter, one of Norway’s most distinguished classical soloists (“the giant of the Nordic viola” according to The Strad), has played Bach and folk songs with Sinikka for years (see the Maria’s Song album), but was unused to some of the freer approaches taken. Conversely, percussionist Markku Ounaskari, a resourceful improviser, was challenged by the more ‘classically’-structured pieces. “It was a playful process, putting our hearts into new experiments.” And with saxophonist Trygve Seim added, “The small melodic-motivic improvisations between us flowered even more.”
Conventionally, classical, jazz and folk players have differing rhythmic sensibilities but Sinikka notes that the group has drawn closer through the recording and the concerts around it. “The folk polsdans pulse (as on “The Magical Bird” and “Hymn To The Fly”) is very close to my feeling of it. Markku also knows how to bring some great colours from the Finnish folk traditions, including the simplicity of the shamanistic low-pitched drumming that suits this music very well, both as drama and suggestion.” As for the kantele player herself: “I feel I’m also a happy instrumentalist now, not just waiting for the vocal to come around!”
Sinikka plays a variety of kanteles on “The Half-Finished Heaven”, her 39-string concert kantele, with its capacity for longer sustained notes, played almost like a classical harp, albeit on a table, as well as 10 and 15 string folk kanteles used primarily for improvising around tonal centres, “although I play quite freely on these, too.”