The Alvaret Ensemble is a modern composition supergroup that features Peter Broderick, Nils Frahm, Greg Haines, Martyn Heyne, Hilary Jeffery (Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble), Jan Kleefstra, Romke Kleefstra, Sytze Pruiksma and Iden Reinhart (Strië). Most people won’t need to read more. We’re used to hearing these folks help each other out from time to time, but having them all in one place at one time (the Gruewaldkirche church, Berlin, August 2011) is a sonic treasure.
With so many people and personalities, one might expect a raucous album, with every player attempting to get their sound in: strings and horns everywhere, piano keys strewn about with hopeless abandon, Jan shouting to be heard. The opposite is true. The Alvaret Ensemble is tender, quiet and restrained, and it may be the season’s most understated and introspective album. Its stark beauty is perfect for winter, when color has been leeched from the land and all has been laid bare. Instead of splaying its skills across the board, the ensemble pares its sound down to the barest elements. By drawing inside itself, the album conserves its energy like a hibernating bear. And when Big Moments are needed, it awakes.
It may seem counter-intuitive to note that despite the stripping down of sound, a lot is happening. Deciding when to be quiet, for how long, and in what way can require even more energy than going all-out. In this way, the album resembles Daniel Bjarnason and Ben Frost’s Solaris, recorded with an orchestra that was fully present but barely heard. The decision to record by candlelight, at night, in a church, certainly added to the sense of reverence. Cutting the twelve hours of recordings down to an hour and a half must have been a heartbreaking exercise. An hour and a half will seem either overly long or hardly enough, depending on the listener; it’s a generous amount, but it’s one that requires patient attention. Kleefstra’s Frisian poems may be impenetrable without liner notes, but they draw the ear away from other pursuits. As soft as the delivery may be, this is still a foreground album.
So what is Kleefstra saying? Those who purchase the hard copy will have the privilege of complete knowledge, although perhaps not interpretation (“Write a song for a bird that doesn’t exist. Write to all the dead that they should walk with the fire until there is enough water in the pail.”) The album is clearly devoted to winter, as evidenced by frequent references to wind, snow and ice; the final track moves forward to spring and summer. And yet, despite the ocean setting, a deeper, more elusive subject is at hand: thunderclouds, nightmares, tombstones, sleep. This is an expanded winter, a winter of the heart and mind.
A pervasive sadness is draped over the delivery; even in the closing track, Kleefstra seems resigned to an unknowable fate. And yet all around him the instruments offer consolation. Reinhart’s violin is a blanket against the cold, Haines’ piano an encouragement to put one foot in front of the other. Even Jeffrey’s humid trombone brings a balm of empathy, while Romke Kleefstra’s guitar seems to say, “I understand, my brother”. Heyne’s organ contributions, which were initially unplanned, offer a hint of spirituality, while Pruiksma’s percussion provides a pulse beneath a frozen land. The album was released on the longest day of the year, the winter solstice. From this point forth, by increments, the long days decrease as the earth moves closer to the sun. All is not lost; the known world and even the heart may be in stasis, but the slow melt awaits like an unexpired promise. (Richard Allen)