Living in this always-on, 24/7/365 world, it’s hard to avoid times where one feels overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the white noise of the hustle and bustle of life in the twenty-first century. At those moments of existential panic, it’s understandable that we might seek sanctuary in something – a book, a film, a record – which eases that sense of being adrift on an endless ocean, swamped by waves of static and wondering how to stop the world so we can get off.
For me, that breathing space, that small moment of calm, is usually found in music, often a well-loved song that reminds me of better days, which has formed part of the soundtrack to my life for many years and, in its way, has become *my* traditional music. In this highly individualised context, the phrase “traditional music” expands to encompass not only (for example) a nineteenth century sea shanty, or a lovelorn ballad whose origins are lost to history but is as likely to include more recent, even contemporary, words and music.
Just as the old maxim tells us that “history is what’s happening now”, the traditions of our tomorrows are being forged today – and nowhere is that more visible than in the field of music. Furthermore (and I realise that this will sound like heresy to those diehards who still haven’t forgiven Bob Dylan for going electric) you don’t have to be a virtuoso on a mandolin or a fiddle or a hurdy-gurdy to create new traditional music, as self-contradictory as that term may sound.
This was brought home to me quite by chance one bright autumnal day in 2010 when I came across a street musician who was busking in one of the quieter parts of London’s South Bank on a relatively new musical instrument called a hang. The hang was originally developed in the year 2000 in Switzerland, since then it has inspired the creation of a group of similar instruments which are often (but not always) colloquially referred to as handpans, as well as a small (but increasing) group of players across the world. Yes, you could say it looks like a small UFO and yes, it uses some of the same basic physical principles as a Trinidadian steelpan – but its sound? Oh my, its sound… Some of the regular contributors at the handpan.org forum refer to it as “singing steel” and while that’s a useful shorthand for a musical instrument that sounds quite unlike anything else I’ve ever heard, to be honest, words don’t really do it justice.
I was captivated by it the moment I heard it and since then I have read much about the hang and the handpan and sought out the music of many fine players. YouTube videos by the likes of Daniel Waples, Davide Swarup [https://www.youtube.com/user/davideswarup], Manu Delago and Hang Massive have had many thousands of views and consequently have done a huge amount to raise awareness of handpan music, but there are others also worth hearing: the sadly-missed Dante Bucci is a particular favourite of mine, as are in2nation (aka Michael Colley), Heavenly3lues (aka Jeremy Arndt) in the US, as well as the UK’s own Samantha Archer. Elsewhere Storia (aka Victoria Grebezs) (the hang player I heard on the South Bank) is rumoured to be making a follow-up to her 2012 debut Dreamlike on a Fading Road, while Finland’s Lauri Wuolio (under the name Kumea Sound) is about to release his second album, Real Music for Unreal Times.
Lauri released Kumea Sound’s eponymous debut album in 2013, blending electronics with his distinctive style to create a seamless soundscape of delicate textures and otherworldly sounds. I’ve played it endlessly and it’s become a firm favourite, a constant in my playlists for those times when the world is too much with me, so when Lauri launched a fundraiser for Real Music for Unreal Times, I was intrigued to find out how he’d follow what I still consider to be one of the genre’s classics.
One of the big challenges facing any musician working with this new instrument is finding ways to record it which adequately capture its ambience. Handpans (or cupolas, as Lauri prefers to call them) generate so many subtle harmonic over- and undertones when played that simply plugging a cheap microphone into your laptop and hoping for the best doesn’t really seem to be the answer. It may well produce passable results for basic home demo recordings but, bluntly, the handpan demands a far more sophisticated approach. To this end, Lauri worked extensively with Martin Kantola of Nordic Audio Labs and, using a combination of hand-built microphones and virtual acoustics, was able to recreate the sonic space of the sixteenth century Russian monastery of Solovetsky.
This might seem a lot of trouble to go to but as soon as you hit ‘play’, you understand why. Even through tiny laptop speakers the sound is breathtaking; play the album through some decent headphones or hi-fi speakers and, as Lauri says, “If I closed my eyes, I could almost smell the old stone walls of the monastery”. This attention to detail, combined with the freedom of expression afforded by this most sensuous of instruments and Lauri’s own creativity and dexterity makes Real Music for Unreal Times one of the most radically different yet accessible albums I’ve heard in a long time. The opening Ruins evokes mental images of snowflakes falling on the ancient stones of long-deserted buildings. It’s followed by Everything is an Exception, a gently percussive flurry of arpeggiated rhythms echoing through time and space while A Bell for the Broken chimes like distant church bells on a misty morning.
Two tracks share the title Ilon Säie (a phrase with roots in Finnish mythology which translates approximately as “ray of joy” or “thread/string of joy”) and while they share a melody, their performance and arrangements are very different. The first variation, track four on the CD, carries a Latin subtitle borrowed from John Donne’s Meditation XVII and is full of billowing clouds of harmonic overtones through which the melody shines like a twilight sunset. The second variation, track nine on the CD (or track three on the second side of the vinyl release), is subtitled Shine While You Live – a line from the ancient Greek Seikilos epitaph, of which, more later – and the melody is much more focused; its sense of quiet optimism moving it ever forwards.
One of the album’s highlights, Stranded Variation, patters like summer raindrops against the window, its spacious warmth spinning whispered tales of imaginary landscapes out on the peripheries of imagination. It’s followed by Stringer Bell (which may or may not be a reference to the character played by Idris Elba in the crime drama television series The Wire) is a multi-faceted piece; sounding clean and simple on first hearing, it reveals new and grittier depths on successive listenings.
Kutoja revisits a piece from the first Kumea Sound album and picks up on one of the underlying concepts of that album: the weaving together of melody and rhythm to create fabrics of sound – a theme which recurs on Real Music for Unreal Times in the idea of the “thread/string of joy” in the Ilon Säie pieces. Stripping the original of its complex arrangement of organ, sitar, wordless vocals and electronic effects, this new recording has a ghostly serenity which unfolds gradually, growing into a restless fugue through which its ribbons of sound ultimately coalesce into a glowing unity. By contrast, Sola has a hypnotic intensity that is almost trancelike; it ebbs and flows between percussive and melodic sounds, finally slowing to its gentle yet emphatic end.
The sequencing of Song of Seikilos after the second version of Ilon Säie highlights the commonality of mediaeval music and the newer handpan, where bass drones and musical modes (scales) are as fundamental to the construction of the instruments as they are to many ancient forms of music. The original Seikilos epitaph, found on a first century Greek tombstone, is the oldest known complete musical composition in existence and provided Lauri with both the melodic inspiration and the title for this piece. Song of Seikilos is the shortest track on the album yet, perhaps because of its history, it’s one of the most evocative. Lauri’s work with Nordic Audio Labs really comes into its own on this piece, the lush room acoustics and the minimalistic performance combining in a beautiful cameo which puts the ancient melody into a breathtakingly clear, state of the art setting which even the original composer would surely find as mesmerising as any modern-day listener.
The penultimate piece, Aeolian Sunrise, takes its title from the Aeolian mode, the natural minor tuning used by the builders of the cupola Lauri plays on this track, although given the track’s dreamy, sunny feel, one could be forgiven for thinking that it painted a sound picture of an early morning on the Mediterranean Aeolian Islands. As the piece recedes peacefully into an enveloping warmth, the closing A Stone gently shakes itself into existence with a rattle of hand percussion and the bright, ringing sound of the cupola makes good use of the acoustic space, filling it with a sense of calm before depositing the listener gently back into the clamour of modern life.
In his notes on his Indiegogo site, Lauri said that he wanted to record an album that captured the soul and essence of his acoustic live performances and I believe that with Real Music for Unreal Times he’s been more than successful in achieving that aim. This is a beautifully played and recorded album, a positive and meditative exploration of the potential of mixing ancient and modern ideas and sounds, simplicity and complexity, to create a tranquil and immersive listening experience which transcends boundaries. I’ll let Lauri have the last words: “I have seen homeless punk rockers, club scene hipsters, tantric yoga practitioners and corporate bankers listening to and being inspired by my music. That makes me feel that maybe we are not that different from each other. Maybe humankind has some hope left after all…”
Review by: Helen Gregory