Scandinavia - Sounds from the Wilderness
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Landmannalaugar. The name, and its pronunciation, have remained in my memory since I was there 18 years ago. It had been a two-hour bus journey from the capital Reykjavik. My father was taking us – my brother and I – on the Laugavegurinn, a popular hiking trail of 55km which begins at Landmannalaugar and ends four days later at Þórsmörk. It is equally attractive to locals as it is to foreign travellers as it offers such a contrasting variety of landscapes. And because during the summer months the light never quite extinguishes, the evolving hues provide an otherworldly perspective to the already spectacular scenery.
Landmannalaugar, meaning the hot springs of the people, was our starting point. And we started by a relaxing bathe in a warm boggy brook. We chatted and laughed, knowing little of what lay ahead. The steam rose gently around us, the mountains close by sheltered us from the wind, the sky was blue with little cloud. In the distance, we could see Mount Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes.
The image of Iceland – a combination of the vastness and tranquillity of the landscape with the unpredictable drama of nature – has never left me.
Over the next four days, we experienced the Icelandic wilderness. We were transported both physically and psychologically to another world. We were elevated to another state of being. As the three of us walked, either side by side or in a line, we passed mountains tinted in almost every shade, steaming hillsides, spewing glaciers, roaring hot springs, great shimmering lakes, and endless miles of black volcanic dust plains. At times the landscape was lunar, cold and barren; at other times it was lush and magnificently colourful. We were carrying large rucksacks, which after a few hours into each day seemed heavier with each step. The food we ate had been chosen because of its lightweight qualities; my father had bought an inexhaustible supply of noodles and dried fish from London’s Chinatown. By the time these were prepared, neither was appetising; the noodles were boiled on the sulphur-rich water from the hot springs, and the fish, once swollen, was as tough as the sole of an old boot.
We did not see or feel the existence of other humans until two days into our journey. From a distance, we made out four figures. They had been walking ahead of us for a while when they stopped. We slowly approached. It was reassuring to feel the presence and energy of other people. My father started to talk to them and they told us they were also going to Þórsmörk. We decided to join forces. They were Icelanders, on a rehabilitation programme from either alcohol or drugs. They seemed dedicated and determined, and our rucksacks seemed lighter for it.
Our chance meeting was a saviour in many ways. Other than providing us with the warmth of human company, they helped us across wide and turbulent rivers, against the forces of a volcanic dust storm, and during heavy rainfall as we pitched our tents on the third night. My brother Kajetan was only 13 at the time, and I three years older, so my father was relieved with their help.
That evening we would be arriving at our destination, Þórsmörk. There we would find people, buildings, jeeps and coaches, showers, even a restaurant. A place which would awake us from the hypnotic step of our walk, from the kaleidoscopic myriad of landscapes, and the ever-changing meteorological conditions which confronted us. A place where the contrast between the “real” world and another world would become even more apparent. We had travelled a long distance to arrive here.
Scandinavia is a place where nature reigns supreme – forests, lakes, mountains, fjords, archipelagos, glaciers, waterfalls and the occasional geyser. Featuring known and lesser-known artists from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, the Beginner’s Guide to Scandinavia shows how the landscape is the inspiration behind the music’s spacious, organic, and sometimes dramatic qualities.
The compilation comprises three CDs exploring three perspectives – Pop & Contemporary, Folk & Roots and Jazz, Experimental & Atmospheres. It is the first time that these various genres of Scandinavian music have been combined on one album.
Leading names include e.s.t, or Esbjörn Svensson Trio, with a wonderful piece called “From Gagarin’s Point of View” (reminding me of Iceland’s lunar landscape); Benny Andersson of ABBA with the theme to the film Songs from the Second Floor, a melancholic and introspective melody on piano and clarinet; cult figure, singer and songwriter Cornelis Vreeswijk with a witty response to a controversial Swedish tax legislation; Koop duo’s catchy cabaret piece “Strange Love”; Faroese singer Eivør with her impressive versatility and splendid guttural sounds; Norway’s iconic Kari Bremnes with a lamenting song of how she hails a taxi after a night out and discovers the taxi driver is really a dancer who has lost his partner… One of my favourites on the compilation.
Then there is Ane Brun. I had heard of Brun through her collaboration with Koop, but I was in for a surprise when exploring her solo work. I have since become a devoted fan, convinced that she could be as universally popular and influential as Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris or Joan Baez, if she was given some media attention (which more than ever determines an artist’s success these days).
On the folk front, there is Sweden’s Hedningarna, Finland’s Värttinä and Norway’s Mari Boine; Finnish accordionists Markku Lepistö and Maria Kalaniemi; Norway’s rising star Sigrid Moldestad with a fascinating blues folk hybrid; Hardanger fiddler Annbjørg Lien on a passionate mission; and a most intriguing track from a band whom I discovered while searching through the Fonal Records catalogue, Kiila. The sound could be coming from Okinawa… or Tuva… but Finland? Another one of my favourites.
On the jazz side, there is Swedish bassist Lars Danielsson with Norwegians, pianist Bugge Wesseltoft and avant-garde trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer. There is Norwegian saxophonist and ram’s horn player, Karl Seglem, whose atonal meanderings are irresistibly alluring; and upcoming Icelandic pianist Agnar Már Magnússon whose style is reminiscent of Esbjörn Svensson, and even Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett.
Other names include Finland’s musical visionary Kimmo Pohjonen, the shamanic joik vocalist Wimme, Norway’s iceman musician Terje Isungset, Denmark’s wildly edgy Valravn whose singer, Anna Katrin Egilstrøð, is so reminiscent of Björk, and House of Trees, whom I consider to be Sweden’s best-kept secret.
Welcome to Scandinavia.
CD1. Pop & Contemporary
CD2. Folk & Roots
CD3. Jazz, Experimental & Atmospheres
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