Griselda Sanderson, the UK-based nyckelharpa (a Swedish, bowed and keyed fiddle with sympathetic strings) and fiddle player, has released her new album, Radial, the follow-up to her first nyckelharpa album, 2008’s Harpaphonics. As she explains in the record’s sleeve notes, Radial is a reference to the ancient Viking travel route which linked the Baltic countries, Scotland, Ireland and North Africa. Consequently, it took in “a kaleidoscopic pattern of musical cultures” and the fourteen instrumentals (several of which are derived from traditional compositions) on the album reflect on that diversity, with the nyckelharpa as the unifying sound tying it all together.
Opening track ‘Carnera, The Biggest Horse’ – one of the album’s highlights – successfully displays this ambitious fusion. Over an interlocking rhythm played by Griselda (percussion), Louis Bingham (acoustic guitar) and Simo Lagnawi (guembri, or sintir – a three-stringed bass lute) this tribute, which takes its name from a giant Clydesdale dray horse, is perfectly described by Griselda in the sleeve notes as “a galloping, Gnawa-scented tune” and makes the ideal start to the album.
Drawing its inspiration from Mah Jong, the 19th century Chinese multiplayer tile game which is still played today, ‘East Wind, Fishing’ is a thoughtful and delicate composition with Griselda’s nyckelharpa soaring effortlessly over the intricate, multitracked playing of Louis Bingham (bouzouki, tenor guitar and EBow).
The tempo picks up a little for the third track, ‘Sling!’, which is the first traditional Swedish tune. Featuring the duo of Griselda (nyckelharpa) and Louis (guitar), it’s a courtly partner dance which the sleeve notes say is “derived from the playing of Per Munkberg, Barseback, Skåne & Polska from Blekinge”. It’s followed by ‘Crazywell Pool’, written by Louis and featuring the same duo lineup as before; the sleeve notes describe it as “a sonic description of the scenic Dartmoor landscape”. From its quiet introduction, evocative of the morning mist over the moors, it gradually gathers pace and intensity by way of some closeknit unison riffing and is an excellent showcase of both Louis’s skills as a guitarist and Griselda’s mastery of the nyckelharpa.
‘The Emigrant’s Tune’ is Griselda’s reworking of a traditional song recorded at the home of the fiddler Laggar Anders for his 1974 album, Authentic Swedish Fiddle Music from Boda Village. Despite being an accomplished fiddle player in her own right, Griselda’s recording doesn’t actually feature the fiddle; instead she’s recorded a multitracked solo piece in which she plays nyckelharpa, piano and percussion. The result is a measured, spacious piece which conveys the mix of emotions one must surely experience when leaving their native country with the intent of settling elsewhere.
Although both ‘The Elver’s Set’ and ‘Ellika’s’ have widely divergent origins – ‘The Elver’s Set’ is a traditional Irish tune, while ‘Ellika’s’ is a Swedish polska from Blekinge – both arrangements are linked by featuring the same guest musicans: Luke Jones on 12-string guitar and Ben Duckworth on hang. Having been a fan of the sound of the hang (and its distant relative the handpan) for several years, I was intrigued to hear how it would sit with the nyckelharpa. I was happy to find that the combination works very well indeed, particularly alongside Luke’s 12-string guitar in the interlude section of ‘The Elver’s Set’ before its segue into ‘Ellika’s’. I know I’m biased in favour of hanghang, but nevertheless this linked pair of tunes is, for me, the highlight and centrepiece of the record.
With an arrangement which stays close to its roots in traditional Irish music, ‘Crystal Serpent’ finds Griselda doing a fine job of accentuating the nyckelharpa’s fiddle-like characteristics without veering into pastiche while James Dumbelton provides an appropriately sympathetic multitracked backing of acoustic guitar and bodhrán.
Laggar Anders’ 1974 album Authentic Swedish Fiddle Music from Boda Village once again provides Griselda with the inspiration for her reworking of the traditional ‘Journey to the Mill’. As with ‘The Emigrant’s Tune’ before, it’s a multitracked solo piece but this time, in addition to the nyckelharpa and percussion parts, Griselda adds fiddle and viola instead of the piano. Making use of a complex time signature, the result is pleasingly sparse while still managing to evoke music from both the Baltic countries and North Africa: quite an achievement by anybody’s standards!
Guitarist Louis Bingham is featured on both the traditional Swedish ‘Macklin’s Waltz’ (also known as ‘Vals From Orsa’) and Griselda’s own composition ‘The Hedgehog’ and the duo do seem to be very much on the same musical wavelength. ‘Macklin’s Waltz’ is a very pretty piece, light on its feet despite its intricate arrangement, while ‘The Hedgehog’ emerges snuffling from the dusk in an impressive sound picture which reflects the shyness and impressive resilience of every child’s favourite tiny, spiny mammal.
‘Old Man Laugren’, derived from the traditional ‘Gubben Laugrens Polska’, is taken at a comparatively slow pace by James Dumbelton on guitar over which Griselda adds some breathtakingly fast nyckelharpa melodies. While the title ‘Toby’s Musette’ may be a fairly esoteric play on words (a musette being either a small bag used to pass meals to cyclists during a bicycle race or a musical instrument in either the bagpipe or woodwind families), the song is a wild and whirling piece of hot club jazz reminiscent of Django Reinhardt (who was, lest we forget, of Manouche Romani descent). Griselda’s multitracked nyckelharpa and fiddle burn brightly but it’s Louis Bingham’s guitar playing that really set this track alight. The album closes with ‘The Clattering Polska’ (derived from the traditional ‘Skrammelpolska’) is a multitracked solo piece which more than lives up to its name, with Griselda’s nyckelharpa and fiddle chasing each other, nose to tail, in a virtuoso performance which seamlessly merges technique and passion.
Radial is a fascinating showcase for Griselda Sanderson’s nyckelharpa playing and it also reminds the listener that traditional forms of music can easily find their place in the 21st century without needing to be diluted to almost homeopathic levels to accommodate modern tastes; it’s the ideal pick-me-up for jaded musical palettes and well worth seeking out.
Review by: Helen Gregory