The Nordan Quartet
The Buttonwood Tree, Middletown, CT
April 2, 1997
It was just another night at Middletown, Connecticuts tiny (in size only) music venue The Buttonwood Tree. Four of Swedens most important musicians assemble; Lena Willemark, with the voice of deep forest growls and high mountain howls; Ale Möller, the bouzouki man of Malmö, proving equal mastery on birch bark horns, wooden flutes, mandola, harp and hammer dulcimer; Mats Edén, one of Swedens great fiddlers (no mean feat in a nation full of them); and Tina Johansson, the percussionist who brings the beat of the world into her uniquely Scandinavian milieu of crossed dance rhythms.
What this group, dubbed The Nordan Quartet for this five-stop U.S. tour, produced in two hours of acoustic music was indescribable. Without the benefit of a large PA system, deep reverb, careful studio effects and manipulations (key to the ethereal sound of their ECM CDs), these four artists created a new world for the small audience in this intimate space, filling the room to near bursting at times with dark medieval ballads and bright dance tunes from the Swedish folk tradition.
The first set opened with a duet for wooden flute and voice, slowly building small percussion (Johanssons clay pot was a perfect bass element), Edéns drone fiddle and Möllers rhythmic strings (he had switched to mandola from the flute, as he and Johansson often would, moving from one instrument to another many times in a song throughout the night). By the end of the first song, they had moved from a lonesome voice on a hillside to a roaring narrative of complex sounds and rhythms, yelping in delight at each new discovery.
The night carried forth from this auspicious beginning. Möllers mandola created the cadence of rolling rivers, footsteps and horses, providing a propulsion for the songs he and Willemark had collected for their series of medieval music, Nordan, and the current release, Agram (both ECM). Willemark moved from sweet whisper to visceral scream, punctuating the mood with viola and violin. Edén was a rock, improvising melody lines, then pulling the band back to the tune. Johanssons animated percussion was the dance element, as she drifted between instruments (not an easy task in the tight space provided by TBTs stage), ringing bells, thundering on drums, speaking in tongues through her birimbau in a graceful choreography.
The most impressive part of all this was the intensity of the performers. As they play these songs, the music is highly improvisational, and each of the four seemed as one with the others as they picked pieces of rhythm and melody, twisted and turned them, expanding them in ways that clearly surprised the musicians themselves on a number of occasions. Here were Edén and Möller facing off on mandola and fiddle, staring each other down, speaking to one another through their strings. There was Willemark, stretching a vocal line to near the breaking point, waiting for Johansson to find just the right end to a line before trailing off. The years these musicians have spent together in a multitude of settings in a number of groups and projects pays off in their uncanny ability to read the others in the band as if they were tied together.
In the two hours that followed, the audience had met the archetypal bear, spoken ancient riddles, fought epic battles and visited far flung places through the imagination and skill of these four musicians. With humor, wisdom and a love of music that defies classification, The Nordan Quartet brought folk music to life as few artists can, making the old music new and the new music memorable.
The sound sample in this review is a traditional tune for harmoinica, fiddles and percussion, performed live in concert at The Buttonwood Tree. Performance used by permission of the band, song is public domain.