When it comes to music, some things grab you straight from the off, asserting their particular effect immediately. Others take time and familiarity before you even recognise what it is you are listening to, never mind learn to appreciate it. So it was with me and Christian Wallumrød.
A first experience eight or so years ago was not a good one: the Sunday newspaper I wrote for suddenly found space for a second live review on the music pages and at the eleventh hour my editor phoned to ask what I could offer. Freelancers learn not to turn down work and as I didn’t fancy schlepping up to Ronnie Scott’s at such short notice, a quick look-see at the options closer to home revealed that the ECM Records artist Christian Wallumrød and his ensemble were due to appear in Cardiff that very night, as part of a national tour. Liking ECM Records but knowing very little of Wallumrød other than the fact that the editor in question was a semi-fan who had reviewed his last album, I duly offered the gig and got the commission.
The venue was the Norwegian church in Cardiff Bay, which I drove to on my own. A genuine seaman’s church and mission (there are others in Liverpool and Rotherhithe) built in 1868 when the Norwegian merchant fleet was the third largest in the world, it continued as a place of worship (Roald Dahl was baptised there) until the Cardiff coal trade declined after the war. Finally closed and deconsecrated in 1974, the church was then re-erected on an adjacent site (the new Millennium Centre was built on the original) and reopened in 1992 as an arts centre and tourist attraction.
Maybe it was the overwhelming emotional power of this historic setting (at least for the Norwegian musicians), or the tinder-dry acoustic of the pitch-pine clad room. Maybe it was that there was no stage and the musicians played from the floor to a very small and random-seeing audience sitting drinking tea or coffee from rattling cups and saucers; or maybe just that I was alone. But when the music began – quietly, with not much happening – I didn’t get it at all. And so it went, for the hour or so of the one longish set. Even the presence of relative stars whose work I knew – Arve Henriksen on trumpet and Nils Okland on Hardanger fiddle – couldn’t enforce my attention or response.
Despite this inauspicious beginning, no doubt more my fault than theirs, I booked the band for St George’s on their next tour, figuring that if their music was going to work anywhere, it would work here. It was the same line-up, more or less, but something about the airy, reverberant acoustic, the vital presence of an interval between the two 45-minute sets, and a new familiarity with Wallumrød’s methods (extreme quiet, no amplification, lots of space), made everything gel (clip).
So then, a few years later, I booked them again, on a subsequent tour with a new band (without Henriksen and Okland) of younger musicians, some of whom will appear in the coming concert. And this time, it wasn’t just good: it was awesome. The customary quietude, used at least partly to enforce careful listening, gradually opened up until, on the closing number of the first half, Wallumrød set up a dancing Indian rhythm with his squeezebox-harmonium and the members of the band added to the slowly-building pulse until it seemed that the whole of St George’s was floating on the sound. After the essential interval, a cue for intense audience conversations, they started again. This time, we were all tuned in to the governing vibe and the music just flew by, becoming no less mysterious and magical, or any less quiet, but – carefully, incrementally, step by step – filling up the silence until what we were hearing came close to the poet Rilke’s idea of music as “audible landscape” or “air’s other side” (clip). And not many musics do that. Maybe it just takes time.
Phil Johnson, Senior Programme Producer
BOOK NOW: Christian Wallumrød Ensemble, Sunday 23 February, 7.30pm.
At 6.15pm there’s a pre-concert talk with Christian in conversation with Late Junction’s Fiona Talkington, presented as part of our new Scene Norway Plus series.