Attending a concert by Raoul Bjorkenheim can I think be compared to watching a lightening storm. It's a rare occurrence - at least in Nordic climes, offers constant surprise though requiring concerted focus of all the senses. Bjorkenheim is now based in is childhood home New York, so appearances in Finland, his mother's homeland and Bjorkenheim's base for most of the 80s and 90s, are normally limited to summer projects and festivals here. The sudden appearance of the advertisement in last Friday's newspaper for the weekend performance, a mini festival organised by TUM Records host of his 2003 CD with Austro-Hungarian percussionist Lucas Ligeti, came like a bolt from above.
The venue was the centre of Helsinki's ethnic and world music performance, Savoy Theatre, just a hop and a skip off summer's main strolling avenue Esplanaadi. The scene in late February couldn't have been more stark - minus 11 degrees and a razor sharp wind from the north. Indeed it was the final day of the traditional one week "ski-holiday" in Helsinki. Inside were gathered nearly 300 supporters of the Finnish modern and free jazz scenes, many from out of town including TUMfest's earlier base in Tampere. On stage over two days were many of the greatest contemporary Finnish free-jazz musicians, from veteran Juhani Aaltonen to Verneri Pohjola of Ilmaliekki. Kicking off was the hottest duo to play this venue maybe this century.
Ligeti and Bjorkenheim recorded their disc Shadowglow
in Orange Studios in New York in June 2003, two years after Bjorkenhheim's relocation there. Their association was initiated through the offices of Henry Kaiser, both musicians sharing remarkably compatible "omnivorous interests in all things musical and otherwise"(LL). These include the full spectrum of contemporary music, from Chadbourne to Stockhausen, as well as mutual commitments to composition for all varieties of musical format (See AAJ 2001 interview
for an introduction to Bjorkenheim's compositional activities). On disc the influences particularly of African as well as Indonesian polyrythms as well as delicate tonal textures of both instruments are to the fore. On stage the sounds were more assertive, and the influence of their two years' association and a recent tour in the US were obvious. Maybe the duo format dooms its members to intense focus on the other, but it also offers them the space and obligation of unhindered individual expression. This opportunity they fully exploit on stage.
Their selection for the 40 minute opening slot of the show included many pieces from the album, such as the haunting Shed and Torn, where both performers apply bows to their various kits, Ghostedwall with the full panoply of Bjorkenheims electronic and physical guitar effects (scratching, tickling and thumping all included), Cogwheels of Speed and the final elegant finger-picked Fountain Jewel. The most memorable piece of the evening for me was the opening Mbira, an intimation of a free groove as played on an African thumb piano, not included on the disc. As the guitarist admitted the intention was to open the evening by "unleashing all the devils". For him these include traditional wah-wah, octave-shifting and distortion, as well as well-regulated feedback and volume. For Ligeti it's a full kit with additional percussive paraphernalia (apparently from saucepan lids to cowbells to Japanese tam-tams) added on top of the toms as well as played independently. Both musicians move fluidly around their own palettes, at times complementing, at times challenging, and often operating at a level of interaction verging on the embarrassingly intimate. Watching they perform in public is surely a type of musical voyeurism, both titillating and teasing, but in fact best enjoyed within one's own cranium- with eyes closed, attention focused, and imagination unleashed.
Visit Raoul Bjorkenheim on the web.