With 'Lysning' - in English a clearing or forest glade - the violin and Hardanger fiddle virtuoso and composer Nils Økland has created a landmark recording that counts as his masterpiece thus far. It is also the synthesis and culmination of a long career working between different forms - folk music, art music from the baroque to free improvisation, jazz, rock, whatever - where Økland, who is now 56, has continued to pursue the same questing approach irrespective of the restrictive rules and boundaries used to separate different historical or generic styles. Listening to ‘Lysning’, everything suddenly becomes clear: Nils Økland plays Nils Økland music. Like a very select few contemporary masters - one thinks perhaps of Jordi Savall, Bjørk, Jan Garbarek - he has become his own genre.
This is also very much a band album, a deeper and more concentrated follow-up to 2014’s ‘Kjølvatn’ (ECM), featuring the same personnel, who are all composers and virtuosi in their own right: Rolf-Erik Nystrom, reeds; Sigbjørn Apeland, harmonium; Hakon Mørch Stene, percussion, vibes, guitar; Mats Eilertsen, bass. While Økland has written the main themes (some of which had a previous life in various projects), everything, he says, has been developed in cooperation with the other musicians, following an ancient model whereby initial sketches are arranged by ear amongst the performing group until a satisfactory final variant is settled upon. As well as using the same band members as ‘Kjølvatn’ (which won a Norwegian Folk Music Award, and was nominated for a Spellemannspris, the Norwegian ‘Grammy’), the main sessions for ‘Lysning’ come from the same recording venue, the Ostre Toten stone church in Lena, in Norway’s Oppland country, with the same sound engineer, Audun Strype, who has worked with Økland since they played together in a new wave band, Lover & Tigre, in the early 1980s.
As to what the 'sound' of ‘Lysning’ sounds like, where do you start? The nine distinct tracks, each with its own provenance and character, function together as a kind of extended suite, and repeated listening gradually reveals what might be a deep, underlying structure evident in leitmotifs, internal rhymes and echoes, from the opening ‘Drøm’ to the closing ‘Sikt’. Whether this structure is real or imagined, ‘Lysning’ remains satisfyingly all of a piece and enormously pleasureable to listen to. In its nine individual pieces one can hear strong references to Celtic folk, to early music and the baroque (and to post-modern homages by Michael Nyman or Gavin Bryars), in fact to many things. Sometimes it sounds like the Chieftains, and sometimes a little like the Velvet Underground, which is a very effective combination. But mostly it sounds like the Nils Økland Band being entirely itself. ‘Lysning will surely be reckoned as one of the albums of the year, whatever the category.