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Saturday, April 02, 2005
Kristian Blak, Úr Hólminum, Hogboy, Vienne la nuit, Shaman

Ever heard of the Faroe Islands? Neither had I, but judging from Kristian Blak’s music it must be an entrancing place. Blak, a transplant to the islands (which are located in the North Atlantic and home to 45,000 inhabitants), infuses his works with place on multiple levels. On one extreme lie works like his “Concerto Grotto,” written to be performed in a particular cave. The works on Úr Hólminum occupy the other end of the spectrum, but are nonetheless thoroughly evocative.

The CD opens with the title piece, written for sinfonietta. The piece is, according to the liner notes, “derived from the contours of landscapes.” Fortunately, Blak derives inspiration from nature in a way that largely avoids the pastoral sound composers so often favor. Blak makes this abundantly clear with a noisy, scattered opening. From here, the texture pauses, ebbs, and flows, but refuses to relent until the low strings enter with a calm melody. Other instruments experiment with this new feel until a new timbre, which sounds like tapping on the wood of the piano, emerges. The tapping is joined by other ostinati on one pitch, reinterpreting the restfulness of the preceding melodic section. Development over these ostinati and similar repeated figures continues until the entire orchestra coalesces to drive the work home in unison. Blak’s departure from the standard method of presenting landscapes sonically, coupled with some inventive writing, keeps “Úr Hólminum” fresh.

Blak mines similar symphonic territory in the next two pieces on the CD, though in concerto form. The first, “Hogboy,” is for double bass and chamber ensemble. Blak relates the Scottish legend of Hogboy, a ghost who longs to interact with the girls who come to hear him sing. Blak effectively uses the registral difference between the bass and the rest of the ensemble to convey the physical separation between the ghost and the girls. “Hogboy” is also remarkable for some slightly jazzy counterpoint that displays some of Blak’s musical roots. The second concerto, “Vienne La Nuit,” replaces the double bass with the horn and is based on an Appollinaire poem. Both works use their solo instruments similarly. The bass and horn flow in and out of the ensemble, deriving their prominence more from their independence than from the dominance of their material or solo sections. Though both works are good listens, they don’t quite capture the energy of “Úr Hólminum.”

“Shaman,” which closes the CD, is the most ambitious work included. The music here invokes place in a different sense by purporting to describe the journeys of shaman across different cultures. To invoke these journeys individually, Blak uses a diverse assortment of instrumentation (shakuhaci, didgeridoo, bark horn, musical saw) in addition to the standard western complement, and draws musical inspiration from the relevant cultures as well. The amalgam works surprisingly well. Non-standard instruments rarely sound out of place (though one might wish that they were occasionally featured more prominently), and the music reflects the subject matter well as the movements shift from meditative to intense.

If you’re not averse to programmatic music, Úr Hólminum certainly deserves a listen. Blak’s writes evocative, well-crafted music that’s neatly tied together by his subject matter.


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