I posed a question to my Portland, Maine, radio audience (I have a weekly show on WMPG) a few years ago concerning the relationship of music and climate. I asked listeners if they thought the sound of any indigenous music was related to the climate it comes from. In one sense, it might be a stupid question because most of us realize that musical ideas are certainly influenced by the environment and materials at hand. But I was leading them to the second question: If I play music from the Arctic circle during a long August heat wave, will it cool you off? And will African drumming or steel drums warm you up on a cold January day?
The answer was a resounding yes. Most of the recordings that come out of Scandinavia, Iceland, Siberia, and so on around the arctic circle, all have an air of coolness to them (I’m referring to temperature, not personality), but Andrew Cronshaw’s On the Shoulders of the Great Bear is particularly successful in conjuring up images of the northern landscape, its temperature and light. Certainly my image of those places has been fueled by pictures, descriptions, and especially by music rather than actual personal experience, but I have always lived in the Northeastern United States so winter and short summers are not unfamiliar realities. With confidence I can say that this CD does not allow me to imagine myself in a tropical rain forest.
Andrew Cronshaw is an accomplished artist in all aspects of the music world from composing and arranging to concerts that embrace theatrical presentations to managing other bands. He has also written extensively for many publications about music. His history and photos from the tour of On the Shoulders of the Great Bear are available on his Web site.
The visual impact matches the music perfectly. On the Shoulders of the Great Bear is a beautiful journey through a selection of Finno-Ugrian tunes and it covers a wide emotional spectrum: at times deeply sad, at times contemplative, joyous, angry and always mystical. It’s an audio exploration of ancient tunes and mythology that indeed feels like a direct connection to cosmic Nordic energies. Although Cronshaw is a native of England, he has been absorbed so completely by Nordic sensibilities that I was surprised to discover his origins.
Zithers (kantele, concert zither, marovantele), wind instruments (soprano sax, whistle, bass clarinet), double bass and voices are the primary textures, punctuated periodically by jews harp, shawm, concertina, and other colorful sounds. The arrangements evoke the vastness and mystery of the northern climes from Scotland to Siberia and bring to the forefront a connection with the natural world that is lacking in so many of our modern societies.
The Finnish kantele and some of its zither cousins provide an underlying sound throughout the CD. A member of the zither family (zither = strings stretched over a box), the kantele has a sparkle to its timbre that brings snow to mind. The sound is akin to the sight of sunlight reflecting off of fresh fallen snow or ice on tree branches, flashing tiny prisms. Minna Raskinen (tracks 5, 11), and Hannu Saha (tracks 3, 6, 7, 9, 13) play the kanteles. Cronshaw contributes to the strings with the marovantele (track 1), zither (tracks 2, 9, 11), and marovany (track 3).
The sweet, light sound of the zithers is balanced by Ian Blake’s reed and horn playing and Bernard O’Neill’s double bass. The sparseness of the arrangements and the wide timbre variations between the zithers, reeds, and bass give the music a 3D effect and a feel of great spaciousness. On “Hullu Sakari” in particular (track 2), I imagine the musicians set up in a triangle with at least 20 feet between them and the listener planted in the center (I’ll volunteer!).
Some wonderful voice work is also represented. On “Ema Haual/Hällilaul” (track 1) Ian Blake responds to his soprano sax track with incredibly long tones and a beautiful tremolo effect. Jenny Whilhelms (of Gjallarhorn fame) sings on “Halullinen Sielu/Käin Minä Kaunista” (track 3) but the vocal part is so tightly woven into the fabric of the sax and the shawm that you will be hard pressed to isolate it. She also has a solo piece, “Many are the Cries and Shrieks of Woe” (track 8). It is her interpretation of a Scottish Gaelic lament that Cronshaw hummed to her. She provides three vocal parts. Exquisite. Kimmo Sarja lends some vocal work on “Song of Beavers” (track 14) but it is, like Wilhelms’ voice on Track 3, so embedded with the wind instruments I’m not sure I really heard it.
“From the Shoulder of the Great Bear” (track 6) features a wild vocal by Heikiki Laitinen. As Cronshaw states in the notes, it was “delivered in a remarkable first take”. I have no arguments with that statement whatsoever. His vocal style is reminiscent of Tuvan throat singing, though it doesn’t stay firmly planted in that technique. It does, however, program beautifully in a radio set with Ondar and Tom Waits! Not only is Laitinen’s vocal fabulous, but so is Cronshaw’s jews harp playing. He keeps an incessant twanging pattern going throughout keeping the tension level high under Laitinen’s story. This is the most theatrical selection on the recording even before viewing some of the photos on the web site.
One of the saddest tunes I’ve ever heard appears with two slightly different arrangements (tracks 5 and 11). “Itku Polska” (version 1, track 5), is a solo on the concert kantele by Minna Raskinen. This “Weeping Polska” depicts a girl leaving her parents’ house for the last time before being married, truly an event with conflicting emotions. The kantele certainly does weep. For the second version, (track 11), Raskinen is joined by Cronshaw on zither and Blake on hot fountain pen (I think it’s the wind-sounding instrument). If you thought you were weeping during the first version, just wait. Cronshaw comments, “Sometimes it’s the only tune I want to play.” Time for some tissues. Oh my, this is a sad tune.
I’m greatly looking forward to hearing more of Cronshaw’s recordings, old and new. In the meantime, this recording has found a permanent home on the “couldn’t live without it” shelf. His Web site mentions that there are future plans for more performances of the Bearproduction. Go see it if it comes to a town near you, and at the very least pick up the CD.
(Cloud Valley Music, 2000)