To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t expected to like the music of Kristian Blak. It does fall, to a large extent, under the rubric “new age,” although much more in the progressive jazz camp than my most favored artists from that area. Blak is obviously open to other influences, and is, by all reports, a major force in the Faroese music scene. In detail, this music is unclassifiable (not that I feel impelled to classify it; that is simply a means of giving you, Gentle Reader, some points of reference), although it is, in the final analysis, jazz-derived, which, given the origins of the whole new age movement (in music, at least) is no real surprise.
Blak is, indeed, associated with a variety of activities, and works not only with jazz groups, but classical, folk, and world music/new age groups as well. Blak is also at pains to point out the influence of nature on his music. Ravnating, for example, is built around the raven, a bird that carries a rich burden of folklore and myth, particularly in its native north. Ravnating was conceived as a multimedia work, Blak’s music juxtaposed to photographs by Philippe Carré, a selection of which is included in the CD insert booklet and which stand up to comparison with the masterful and adventurous studies of ravens by Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase, dating from about the same time.
The music itself is often more engaging than I have generally found jazz to be. Ólavur Øster’s guitar work on “Hugin” (after one of Odin’s ravens, “Thought”) is remarkably fluid and suitably pensive, while Ernst Djalsgard’s evocative flute in the opening of “Munin” (“Memory”) leads into a piece that in many places is strongly reminiscent of Tangerine Dream’s work from the 1980s (strangely enough, or perhaps not: this disc was recorded in 1982: perhaps we’re talking Zeitgeist here). On the whole, the album is appealing, with the exception of the last track, “Skýríkið“, which contains a long passage on saxophone (I think — the sound is so distorted that it’s really hard to tell) that demonstrates the worst characteristics of both jazz and avant-garde art music.
Concerto Grotto og Drangar presents two works by Blak, both composed specifically to be performed in seaside grottos. Both works were recorded live, Drangar at the Torshavn Jazz Festival, Concerto Grotto at Liðargjógv, the cave for which it was composed. Blak makes specific reference, in his comments about Concerto Grotto, to the effects of sunlight reflecting off the water onto the walls of the cave late in the afternoon, another indication of his conscious assimilation of non-musical imagery into his performances. “Álvastakkur,” the second track of Drangar, contains a vocal strongly reminiscent of Icelandic rímur around a low-key, almost meandering instrumental, which together build quite a fascinating piece of music. “Fulgar,” the third cut, opens with a starkly pictorial section that says point-blank, “rocky coast.” It’s rather absorbing piece, seeming to draw equally on Tangerine Dream — but this time more from the 1970s — and Edgar Var&3233;se before lapsing back into jazz. “Risin og Kellingin,” the penultimate section of Drangur, was a pleasant surprise, simply a rollicking tune that builds a nice momentum, without postures or artifice.
Concerto Grotto opens with almost a half-minute of silence before beginning with a flute solo that could have been written by Haydn. The gradually introduced support, however, brings a distinctly new age feel to the music. On the whole, there are no big surprises here, and nothing that really stands out.
Klæmint, another work inspired by a seaside grotto, was recorded at Klæmintsgjógv in 1988. I found it the most appealing of the three discs discussed, probably because it is the least classifiable. One is struck, listening to this one, by the sense that there is a place where new age, jazz, and classical and contemporary art music not only meet, but socialize. I heard threads of jazz, sometimes by way of rhythm and blues, the heavy electronics of rock, more echoes of Tangerine Dream (the 1970s again), even hints of whale song and things reminiscent of composers such as David Del Tredici, Toru Takemitsu, and others I can’t quite place. (Not that I ascribe any influences here. I think the key word is “synthesis.”)
Blak seems, after listening to these works spanning almost twenty years, to fit into a larger Scandinavian jazz tradition, along with musicians such as Christian Jormin and Anders Hagberg (who appears on both Drangar and Concerto Grotto). Nor can one ignore the obvious similarities with Tangerine Dream, a thread throughout these three recordings. As I noted at the beginning of these comments, I found the music more appealing than I had expected, and I do appreciate Blak’s willingness to experiment and push boundaries, although there were enough instances, particularly in the two albums from the 1980s, of the work falling back into lounge music that I can’t be unreservedly enthusiastic. The winner of my personal favorites poll is definitely Klaemint simply because it seems to be a more mature work in which the synthesis has started to make sense, without the fumblings of the earlier pieces, but I dare say there is room for other opinions.