The Rheingans Sisters – Bright Field
Rootbeat Records – 23 March 2018
The Rheingans Sisters are unquestionably the real deal. A resident of Toulouse, Anna is an expert in the traditional music of her adopted homeland; a fact backed up by the first class diploma she recently acquired from the Conservatoire Occitan. Rowan, who has previously collaborated with Nancy Kerr, Gwyneth Glyn and was part of the Songs of Separation project, is a long-time member of firm FRUK favourites Lady Maisery, whose 2016 album Cycle was one of the highlights of that year. Bright Field is their third album as a duo, after Glad Gold Hearts (2013) and Already Home (2015), which led to them winning ‘Best Original Track’ (for Mackerel) at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. It is also their first collection of newly composed music and expands on their impressive blueprint.
The sisters hail from rural Derbyshire, where they were steeped in folk music, not least by that of their mother, herself a talented musician. They learned to play the violin on instruments handmade by their luthier father (Helmut Rheingans, who still provides their violins and banjos to this day), and this has led to a closeness of the relationship between instrument and player that lends Bright Field an extra layer of personal history and familiarity. This is immediately evident on Anna’s instrumental Glattugla, which opens the album. Its stop-start melody, at once frolicsome and ever so slightly eerie, careworn and curious, is a perfect reflection of the icy, treacherous but no doubt beautiful streets of Trondheim which were the inspiration for the piece. Both sisters have studied Scandinavian fiddle music, and this openness to the various musical cultures of Europe permeates every note of Glattugla, and indeed much of the album.
Rowan’s song This Forest is an altogether different proposition: a large-scale narrative of personal awakening set against political and ecological upheaval. It is very much a twenty-first-century protest song, and a song for future generations, an attempt to recalibrate the short, cyclical rhythms of human life to better reflect the longer rhythms of the natural world. A big idea carried off with aplomb; it’s a measure of how far Rowan Rheingans’ songwriting has come in a comparatively short time.
If Rowan’s skill as a writer has reached new heights, then the same can be said for Anna’s compositions. On Xavier’s/The Honeybee, she marries a tune by former teacher Xavier Vidal to one of her own to beautiful effect. The playing from both sisters is deliciously quick-fingered, and their innate understanding of each other’s musical characters allows for some impressive tradeoffs, as the tune veers intoxicatingly between the minimal and the intricate. This is music with a thrilling and timeless quality.
Anna’s French-language song, Appel, is simpler, earthier, but no less beautiful. It is a song of longing, the plucked strings providing a rustic anchor in the present, even as the words soar with the hope of flying south. ‘Je suis la girouette,’ Anna sings. I follow the weathervane. And in that simple statement, there is all the passionate intensity of the wish for change, and also perhaps the recognition of being bound forever to one place. Staying within the borders of France, Lo Segoner is a traditional French branle. The word ‘branle’ comes from the French verb ‘branler’, meaning to wobble or wave, and there is something swaying and woozy about this interpretation, a loose, tipsy energy that frequently threatens to spill over the sides but is always kept in check by the Rheingans’ sense of melody and rhythm. The whole thing has the scent of red wine, conviviality, the feel of the last dance at a rural wedding.
On Green Unstopping Rowan’s banjo comes to the fore, and the sisters harmonise wonderfully on a lyrically enigmatic song that combines hope for the future with dismay at present-day human disasters. Halfway through the song, Anna’s violin takes flight in a moment of transcendence. A similarly sublime effect is achieved on the title track: a violin tune that shimmers and shines like the sky in a Turner painting provides the backdrop for a recitation (by Dafydd Davies-Hughes) of ‘The Bright Field’ by Welsh landscape poet R.S. Thomas. The poem turns on the lines ‘Life is not hurrying/on to a receding future, nor hankering after/an imagined past,’ and this sentiment, this invocation to live completely in the moment, this realisation that eternity resides in only in a brilliant instant, that underpins the whole admirable philosophy of the album. Watch their new video for the song below, filmed by Sam Wisternoff (Ill Spectre Productions).
Across Bright Field, there are examples of periods of darkness being deposed by flashes of light, and nowhere is this made more obvious than on Dark Nights/Swinghorn. The first half of the tune conjures up a dramatic, uncanny nightscape, the violin wailing in the dark, on the edge of discord. At its mid-point, the tune breaks into a bright harmony. It seems at the same stroke to reflect the circadian rhythms of the human body and the longer, older rhythm of the seasons. And these rhythms – human, animal, celestial – are further explored in Edge Of The Field. This is a haunting, sad song, written by Rowan, which appears to be about the end of a long life well lived, and it contains some of her best writing. Lines like ‘My legs are tired of lying down’ show a unique and memorable turn of phrase, and the ambiguity of the song’s meaning – who is the narrator? To whom is the song addressed? – suggests not just an excellent songwriter but someone with a fine grasp of the delicate balance of joy and pain that makes us human.
Bright Field closes with Three Springs, a pretty instrumental composed by Rowan for banjo which picks out a winding, scenic melodic path. It is not your average banjo tune – there is more warmth, intimacy and wildness here than many artists could even dream of – but then Bright Field is not your average album. The Rheingans Sisters’ musicianship has always had a special, almost alchemical force to it. Now their powers of songwriting and arranging have reached a new peak; they have become one of the most formidably talented duos around. In Bright Field, they have created an album bursting with worldly joys and shot through with intimate sorrow and wisdom.
The Rheingans Sisters Tour Dates
Friday, April 6 – Linköping Folkmusik Festival, Norrköping, SE
Monday, April 9 – Kitchen Garden Cafe, Birmingham, UK
Tuesday, April 10 – The Greystones, Sheffield, UK
Friday, April 13 – The Hot House, Morecambe, UK
Saturday, April 14 – Gwaenysgor Village Hall, North Wales, UK
Sunday, April 15 – Otley Courthouse, Otley, UK
Monday, April 16 – Ashby Parva Village Hall, Leicestershire, UK
Wednesday, April 18 – West End Centre, Aldershot, UK
Thursday, April 19 – Chapel Arts Centre, Bath, UK
Friday, April 20 – Downend Folk Club, Bristol, UK
Sunday, April 22 – The Square and Compass, Dorset, UK
Monday, April 23 – Exeter Phoenix, Exeter, UK
Tuesday, April 24 – Mrs Yarrington’s Music Club, Sussex, UK
Wednesday, April 25 – The Art Shop & Chapel, Abergavenny, UK
Monday, May 7 – Victoria Hall, Settle, UK
Wednesday, May 9 – The Old Church, London N16
Thursday, May 10 – The Bowerhouse, Maidstone, Kent
Friday, June 15 – Square Chapel, Halifax, UK
Sunday, June 17 – Hermon Chapel Arts Centre, Oswestry, UK
Monday, June 18 – Floodgate Ale House, Stafford, UK
Sunday, July 8 @ 7:00 PM, Cleckheaton Folk Festival, Cleckheaton, UK
Wednesday 11 – Sunday 15 July – North Atlantic Fiddle Convention, Aberdeen, UK
Saturday August 4 – Comboros Festival, Saint-Gervais d’Auvergne, FR
Saturday, August 8 – Sidmouth Folk Week, Sidmouth, UK
Sunday, August 26 – Towersey Festival, Thame, Oxfordshire UK
Saturday, September 8 – Bromyard Folk Festival, UK
Sunday, September 9 – Swanage Folk Festival, UK
Photo Credit: James Fagan