If linguists can postulate the existence, sometime in the distant past, of an “ur-language,” a Mother Tongue from which all other languages have descended, can there not as well be an “ur-music” from which all of our modern music derives?
The reason I bring this up in regard to Steindór Andersen’s Rímur is simply that there are echoes here of many kinds of music from many places. Ríma itself is an ancient form, dating from well before the fourteenth century, when it began to supplant earlier forms of poetry in the Nordic world. Ríma is a form of narrative Icelandic epic song/poem that is chanted or intoned in a particular manner called “að kveða” and that relies heavily on complex metaphors and poetic synonyms that are direct descendants of the skaldic poetry of the Viking Age (similar to many of the devices used in early Irish and Welsh poetry and even those as far back as Homer). After being inveighed against by the pious in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in a vain attempt at eradicating it, ríma has enjoyed a revival in the twentieth century, beginning in the year 1903 when Jón Pálsson made the first sound recordings.
What is striking about ríma, and what really goes a way toward opening up your head (if, for example, you have studied works like Beowulf or the Eddas and tried to listen to them as you imagine they might have been) is the way it sounds: there are echoes of plainsong, early Protestant hymns, some of the older songs I heard in my childhood in the American South, and even flashes of themes and styles that echo music from the Middle East and the Balkans (which is particularly evident in “Haustið nálgast,” which includes a soft drone that could be a sustained organ note and in places sounds like it could have come from Istanbul rather than Reykjávik). They are not the strongly rhythmic, alliterative works we expect from old forms of the literature of Northern Europe – the rhythms, in fact, are very complex and follow the meters of the not sung/not spoken words: the three sections of Jón Sigurðsson’s “Atlarimur” are not so different from the prayers of a cantor in a Jewish Sabbath service.
Andersen is one of the foremost performers of rímur in contemporary Iceland, as well as being a noted teacher (he also works as a fisherman and owns his own boat, just to remind you of that earthy practicality that seems to be an integral part of the Icelandic national character). His voice displays a flexibility that, while understated, gradually becomes more than a little awe-inspiring as one comes to realize the absolute control necessary to pull these chants off. This is particularly evident in those few that actually have some sort of instrumental accompaniment, and are on the whole more “musical,” and which serve, among other things, to throw the unaccompanied chants into high relief as the demanding works that they are.
The chants themselves are problematic for a listener who is not a student of the form: they are chants, and unless one is well acquainted with the tradition, they start to sound very much alike. Regrettably, the texts are given only in Icelandic; translations might help to spark interest, or at least allow the listener to follow along more intelligently than is otherwise possible. The enclosed booklet, however, is extraordinarily informative, including a concise history of rímur, brief biographical notes on some of the authors/poets and other major figures in the revival of the form (which are quite entertaining in themselves), and the texts of the eighteen rímur included on the disc. Unless you are a practitioner of the old Icelandic tradition of the kvöldvaka, the “night vigil” (or, indeed, Icelandic yourself), this collection is not something I can recommend for your next party, but for students, scholars, and those fond of traditional musical forms from around the world, it is an intriguing experience.
(Naxos World, 2003)