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Music Review: Ketil Bjornstad and Svante Henryson – Night Song

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Night Song is a brilliantly appropriate title for the latest ECM outing from pianist Ketil Bjornstad and cellist Svante Henryson. The disc contains 16 duets between piano and cello, and was recorded in Oslo, Norway in 2009. Like so many releases from Manfred Eicher’s ECM label, the resulting music is not easily described. It is obvious that he as a producer gently pushes his artists towards their best work, it is also just as clear that the visions of the musicians are of paramount importance in the process.

The 16-song cycle Night Song is a pure example of this approach. According to Bjornstad in the liner notes: “It is always special for a musician when an ECM production evolves through a dialog with Manfred Eicher from the very beginning. It can perhaps be compared to what an actor feels when working with a film director. His own aesthetic sense and creative techniques can be so compelling that the actor, or musician, willingly defers to a conceptual universe that may have a wider scope than the ideas he or she may have been working on.”

While I have no way of knowing what (if anything) was altered from Bjornstad’s 12 compositions, or Henryson’s four – it seems that a way was found to blend them into individual pieces which nontheless tell a fascinating story. Again in the liner notes, Bjornstad reflects on what his ideas were at the time of composition. “I took my own ideas of Schubert as a point of departure…Night Song was conceived as a musical dialogue with Schubert and as a tribute to him.”

The disciplined chamber music Bjornstad and Henryson belie the wealth of emotion texture each track evokes. In fact, one of the more enjoyable elements of listening to this incredibly soothing piece of work is picking out the various “quotes” (mostly indirect) that the composers utilize in realizing their own sense of nighttime.

From the very beginning, Night Song is meant to evoke the hours between sunset and sunrise. This is set forth with track one, “Night Song (Evening Version).” The piano of Ketil suggests a slowly darkening horizon, while Svante’s cello traces the steps beside him – with both walking out of the light and into the dark together.

“Visitor (for Manfred Eicher)” seems to wish to acknowledge effect that the producer/label owner had upon these sessions – maybe to get it out of the way. It is a beautiful tune, but the true journey into night has not yet begun.

In fact, while there are a number of noticeable clock-ticks, and the sky gets progressively darker – we are still quite a ways away from the night-time magic hours. That is not to say that “Edge” is anything less than gorgeous, and very much an 8 or 9 pm reminder that it is probably time to go home.

“Melting Ice” and “Serene” put the listener into a nice place, but of course it does not last. The calm before the storm is next, and is titled (with the utmost sincerity I am sure), “Serene.” This may be the prettiest track on the CD, but there is a reason for it to show up in this location.

The late-night journey of Night Song has begun, and it is what makes the entire experience so memorable. There is no dramatic, jarring moment of awareness – just a few less than expected notes. If one is listening, “The Other” signifies what may rest around the corner.

While never quoting “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” directly, “Own” certainly pays homage to the piece inside. Enough to give goose-bumps and completely understand what the composer is trying to accomplish.

That strange moment of darkness gave Night Song its bit of “drama” and I think it was a great choice for the musicians and producers to attempt to tell story. Night Song does tell a fantastic story. It is the soundtrack to the tales we create as dreams.

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