The exploration of arctic landscapes has always fascinated mankind, and both paintings and literature testify to man's longings for the icy unknown. However, few musicians have tried to translate the adventures of the arctic explorers into sound.
Danish saxophonist Benjamin Koppel's ambitious The Adventure of a Polar Expedition sets out to right that wrong. Divided into four suites that each portrays a polar explorer and his journey, suite one, "Time and Ice Suite," sets the general mood for the album with an homage to the life and work of Knud Rasmussen. The opening "Nothing but Ice" is a superb sound painting, conjuring the endless landscapes of white snow, capturing a double feeling of sadness and fascinatio,n where pianist Jon Balke's sensitive piano playing falls like ice crystals from a cave while the breezy saxophones of Koppel and Hans Ulrik curl around each other in an intimate dance.
The second suite, "The Balloon Launch," sees the group moving into more abstract territory to give a portrait of Salomon August Andree's daring attempt to reach the North Pole in a balloon. The sad outcome of the expeditionall three members died of cold and hunger after the balloon had crashedis reflected in the music that is both melancholic and yet filled with melodic light. Often Koppel and Ulrik are found in an existential dialogue, while Balke plucks the strings of his piano, adding shades of dark chords while drummer Alex Riel's barely audible percussion testifies to the slowly dying beats of the human hearts.
The concluding suites "The Magnificent Journeys of Nansen and Amundsen" and "Friendship Suite (The Disappearance of Mylius-Erichsen and Jørgen Brønland)" both give prime examples of the group's ability to translate emotions and stories into music. Especially a song like "Quietness before Departure" is beautiful, starting out with bassist Palle Danielsson's tone poem, before Balke enter with a chronometric lied over which the saxophonists sing ethereally.
The Adventures of a Polar Expedition comes as package experience that includes a website with background information, music and a slide show. The album itself is beautifully packaged with a thick booklet that includes fascinating photos from the polar journeys. However, while it is certainly interesting to delve into the whole story of the project, the music in itself carries the load. It is a timeless expression of human longing and curiosity, carried out by four master musicians who together have created a unique work of Nordic art.
Track Listing: Nothing but Ice (The adventurous but somewhat sad monotony of unchanging landscapes); Time Piece; The Great Sled Journey (The life and deeds of Knud Rasmussen); The Balloon Launch; Floundering on the Pack Ice; Struggling Homewards, in Good Spirits; Kvitøya, the final destination; Hallucinating Optimism, yet realizing the end; Quitness before Departure; The Legend of Fram; Destination Home; Farewell My Heart, My House; Friendship; The Great Open.
Personnel: Hans Ulrik: soprano and baritone saxophones; Benjamin Koppel: soprano and baritone saxophones; Jon Balke: piano; Palle Danielsson: bass; Alex Riel: drums.