“The Zoo Is Far”, the fourth ECM album by Norwegian pianist-composer Christian Wallumrød, presents a further refinement of a highly original group music influenced, in varying degree, by contemporary composition, baroque music, folk, Asian music and - at several removes now - jazz. The new sextet does not replace the quartet that made the exceptional “Sofienberg Variations” and “A Year from Easter”, discs on which Wallumrød, Arve Henriksen and Per Oddvar Johansen were joined by innovative folk violinist Nils Økland. The quartet continues to perform, but the sextet has already acquired a personality and character of its own, reflected in Wallumrød’s tightly written material for it, his combining of sounds and timbres as well as melodic material...
“I am trying to look for the various ensemble sound possibilities rather than having a ‘soloist with accompaniment’ situation. I found lots of new possibilities with this sextet, perhaps most of all in the lower register, as the baroque harp goes quite deep down, and so does the cello. And the piano goes even deeper; all these elements also offer the bass drum some new partners...”
The sextet’s genesis was inspired by a chance meeting with Swiss harpist Giovanna Pessi in Zürich in 2003. The combining of harp and piano was an option Wallumrød had already begun to investigate in 2000 in exploratory concerts with Finland’s Iro Haarla. The opportunity to take this further was welcomed. “The baroque harp has a different sound and differs from the modern harp in the way it is constructed, something that made it a bit easier for me to approach as well. As I was looking for extended possibilities of range and colours within the bowed instruments and already knew about cellist Tanja Orning’s musical versatility, it felt quite natural to ask her to join in, too.” The line-up of the new group was complete with the addition of violinist Gjermund Larsen.
Each of these three players brings a wealth of experience to the total group sound. Pessi’s distinguished resumé includes collaborations with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Jordi Savall, as well as several years of study with Rolf Lislevand. Tanja Orning, previously principal cellist in the Stavanger Symphony is a musician at ease across several genres, open to new music, experienced in rock and interdisciplinary music, she released the album “Cellotronics” (Albedo Records) in 2005, a collaboration with Christian Wallumrød. Gjermund Larsen is a young player from the Norwegian folk tradition. Born 1981, and the son of folk musician Geir Egil Larsen, Gjermund won the national solo fiddle competition at Landskappleiken in 2002, and is the youngest winner in the history of the event.
“Arve Henriksen, as well as Tanja Orning and Gjermund Larsen have this ability to blend perfectly into each other and into the whole ensemble...”
In the Radio Studio of DRS Zürich, with Manfred Eicher producing and classical tonmeister Markus Heiland – more normally associated with ECM New Series – as engineer, the Wallumrød Ensemble approached the recording of “The Zoo Is Far” as they do their entirely-acoustic concert performances, working also with the natural sound of the room as one of the components of the music.
“I’ve long wanted to record the music in a way that puts the acoustic sound – the instruments, the room and the whole situation that influences the way we listen and play – into focus. This means that we can interact in the same way as in the concert situation. While this approach might be the most natural thing for classical musicians, it is a crucial step in my musical development. Today I am thinking about the ensemble and its performance as something that might belong to the world of chamber music.“
Specific musical influences on the pieces on “The Zoo Is Far” derive from Wallumrød’s intense listening to the Fantazias for strings by Henry Purcell (1659-95). Extracts of Purcell’s music are transformed in the three “Backwards Henry” pieces here. “Music for One Cat” is inspired by the Pakistani ghazal singer Mehdi Hassan. The “Psalm Kvæn” pieces were originally written in response to a choral commission. “I think it was natural for me to try to keep within a sort of Norwegian psalm tradition, which is characterized by its idiomatic blend of originally Lutheran chorals and folk songs.”
Yet however many references may be pinpointed the overriding impression the album leaves is one of striking originality and musical independence. As the Norwegian daily paper Verdens Gaang remarks of “The Zoo Is Far”: “Jazz, baroque, minimalism, contemporary music are words that only begin to convey a small spectrum of Wallumrød’s musical universe. He has an authentic sense of sound and structure, and again we are spellbound by the unique syntheses and the balanced contrasts.”
Christian Wallumrød, born 1971, grew up in Kongsberg, Norway. His earliest musical experiences included accompanying choirs in the local church. Jazz influences came almost entirely from ECM discs: “The whole ECM field of European and American jazz was a point of departure for my improvising.” He studied at the Trondheim Conservatory where he came into contact with Trygve Seim, Arve Henriksen, Per Oddvar Johansen and others.
Working across ‘jazz’ in many contexts he began to re-evaluate his approach to soloing after hearing the 1960s recordings of Paul Bley. His first ECM recording came in 1996 with “No Birch” a trio recording which also introduced the highly distinctive trumpet sound of Arve Henriksen. By this point the influence of contemporary composers, especially György Kurtág and Bent Sørensen, was also being felt in his writing.
Other ECM recordings soon followed, including a guest role with Trygve Seim and The Source in 2000 (“The Source and Different Cikadas”). With the encouragement of Manfred Eicher he assembled a new group with Henriksen, Per Oddvar Johansen and folk fiddler Nils Økland which recorded “Sofienberg Variations” (2001) and “A Year From Easter” (2004).
S. Thielmann in stereoplay 7 / 07: "Spannend, wie subtil
Wallumrod mit neuem Ensemble 24 Miniaturen im Spannungs-
feld von aktuellen Jazz und Kammermusik inszeniert. Klänge
von hypnotischer Kraft und, bei aller Reduktion, opulenter
Fülle. Ein Sternbild von galaktischer Schönheit - warm,