Stille Natt: A Norwegian Christmas in Sound

December 22, 2009


I WANT TO BE RELIGIOUS. I’d even settle for spiritual. I want to be part of a community of believers, whose faith strengthens my own, whose culture is my culture, whose definitive security in their beliefs will leave no doubt in my own.

Alas, my lonely feet are embedded in the ground, my logical brain abused by the physics of the stars. Damn you, Sartre, damn you to hell (if I thought that existed, of course).

The closest I’ve come to a religious experience is through music, and during this time of year it’s all about songs from a county whose name is synonymous with the mysteries of life during winter: Norway.

Since my first trip to Norway in 2004, I’ve been collecting music from the country, whose percentage of sonic output seems to be disproportionately high considering only four million people live there. While Norse mythology and Sami shamanism informed early Norway, in the past 1,000 years the primary religion has been Protestant Christianity, with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Norway fielding the largest congregation.

The finest Norwegian recording label for spiritual sounds is Kirkelig Kulturverksted, which started in 1974 and whose stated goal is as follows:

“[T]he idea was to break down the walls between the secular, contemporary culture and the church. The idea has been to show that the latter probably is the most important foundation of most of the art in the Western world. Through the years breaking down walls has become an extended issue for KKV. Whether it has been between conservative and liberal groups in Norway, between different musical styles under various hemispheres of the planet, or between different religions and political systems, KKV has always loved the idea of provoking the consciousness of rules and stiff thoughts about genres, religious systems and dogmas.”

While Kirkelig Kulturverksted‘s catalog is deep, it’s only recently been easily accessible to American ears because of the Internet and MP3 downloads. In addition to a large complement of titles on the Norwegian sites gubemusic.com musikkonline.no (aka musicfromnorway.com), KKV titles have been appearing more frequently in familiar online stores such as itunes.com, emusic.com and amazon.com. (I much prefer Amazon, which doesn’t infest the MP3s with DRM, like iTunes, or make you subscribe, like eMusic.)

So, even if you’re a Buddhist, a pagan, a Muslim, an atheist or a Christian — and as long as you love beautiful, deep, ambient, resonant music — you’ll find something in the selections below that will move your soul. Or if you’re like me, you’ll become instilled with the hope that one day you’ll discover one.

(In fact, you might even love KKV’s music so much that you’ll get a tattoo of the label’s logo on your arm like Snuten, above, an American friend of our mutual Norwegian pal, Anita.)

Glade jul to you all.



ARVE MOEN BERGSET
Arvesølv
» His high pre-pubescent voice was so pure and delicate that he became a 14-year-old sensation in Norway when “Arvesølv” came out in 1986. (It’s also the first KKV record that Anita introduced to Snuten, who not only got the tat, she later dressed up as ol’ Arve for Halloween. True story.) Singing a capella Nordic folk tunes and religious songs, Bergset helped revive interest in traditional Norwegian music, sending the average person on a quest to reconnect with his or her spiritual and cultural roots. He also inspired one gentleman to proclaim, “It will be a national tragedy if that boy is not castrated!” Thankfully, Bergset’s “boys” remained intact, and though his voice did change, you can still hear its clarion beauty on 1996′s “Religiøse Folketoner” (on Grappa).



OSLO DOMKOR
Det Kimer Nu Til Julefest
SKRUK
Smykker Fra Bedehuset
Stille Natt
Stjernen Ledet Vise Menn
DET NORSKE JENTEKOR
Julens Hjerte
» Choirs are loved in Norway. In remote regions, people can gather for harmonious togetherness in places of worship; in bigger cities, singers congregate for everything from religious ceremonies and government events to the endless string of festivals that pop up throughout Norway during the warmer months. All these recordings feature choirs, but all are distinct. The Oslo Domkor (the choir of Oslo’s main cathedral) is the most traditional, and its enveloping music will conjure images of dusky medieval European churches, those hulking devotions to God that are filled with mysterious power (in part, because of the frequently amazing acoustics). Det Norske Jentekor (Norwegian Girls’ Choir) is also traditional, but it’s lighter fare, bringing out the twinkly side of spiritual music rather than the somber meditative brand of Oslo Domkor. But those interested in hearing how ancient and modern musical ideas can be blended into an eternal whole, Skruk‘s adventurous ways are artfully melodious and reaching.



SONDRE BRATLAND
Rosa Frå Bethlehem
Mysteriet
Draumkvedet
» This hugely popular singer with the eerily beautiful voice is equally at home crooning religious music or Norwegian folk, but all three of these albums are the former — though “Draumkvedet” straddles the line between church songs and medieval balladry. “Draumkvedet” means “The Dream Ballad,” and the fable is known to everyone in Norway: Olav Åsteson falls asleep on Christmas Eve and dozes through all 12 days of Christmas. When he wakes, he goes to church, sits in the doorway and tells everybody of his dream. Bratland‘s interpretation of the frequently recorded song cycle is stunning, with ambient nature sounds filtering into the pristine mix that defines KKV productions. Meanwhile, “Rosa Frå Bethlehem” is about the birth of Christ and “Mysteriet” is about the mystery of resurrection.



AAGE KVALBEIN AND IVER KLEIVE
Julemeditasjoner
» Made to be played during Advent and Christmas, this CD is steeped in the meditative side of Christian celebration, reflecting the low-key, far-northern tradition of staying indoors during the holidays for feasting, warm gatherings of friends and deep meditation during the long winter nights. Kvalbein (cello) and Kleive (piano) make church-inspired art music that conjures the image of sipping an akvavit/aquavit/akevitt in front of a gently crackling fire as the luminous fjords loom outside the window as a reminder of nature’s awesome beauty.



SOLVEIG SLETTAHJELL & TORD GUSTAVSEN
Natt I Betlehem
» One of the country’s most original jazz singers teamed with one of its loveliest pianists for a collection of holiday songs, including the ubiquitous “Stille Natt” (“Silent Night”). In fact, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with the number of albums presented in this posting, start by buying all the Norwegian versions of “Silent Night” you can find. It’s a perfect Christmas tune in English, but in Norwegian it takes on added beauty, depth and mystery for reasons I can’t explain. Wait, did I just have a leap of faith?



MATHIAS EICK, PASHA HANJANI & ERTAN TEKIN
Tre Vise Menn
ECM recording artist and Jaga Jazzist trumpeter Eick teams with Turkish ney player Hanjani and Iranian duduk instrumentalist Tekin to tell the tale of the “three wise men” from the East via popular Christmas melodies, including “Mitt hjerte alltid vanker” (“My Heart Is Always With Jesus”), “En rose er utsprungen” (“A Spotless Rose Is Growing”) and “A Betlehem, Du Vesle By” (“O Little Town of Betlehem”). Arranged by Eick and beautifully recorded in Oslo as well as a Bulgarian church in Istanbul, the 13 songs on “Tre Vise Menn” bridge East and West and the modern and the eternal. It’s the latest inter-religious classic on KKV.

First published Dec. 24, 2008; updated Dec. 22, 2009

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