Jonsi may have popularized the invented language in modern music, but he hasn’t cornered the market. Just ask Jan Kleefstra, whose Frisian dialect crashes head-first into Icelandic on Skeylja. The title itself is a blend of the Frisian Skylge (Terschelling, one of the Frisian islands) and eyjan (the Icelandic word for “island”, which only ironically includes the name “jan”). The album is the sound of two cultures getting to know each other, as The Alvaret Ensemble teams with Icelandic musicians, the most famous of which is Kira Kira, for a horn-filled lesson in mist and mood.
Nine improvisational concerts were held to create the source material for this album. In Cage-like fashion, each artist designed a rough outline for an evening’s performance, and the others were invited to interpret as they saw fit. Somehow Greg Haines managed to cull ten hours down to 41 minutes. The result is a tight collection that still manages to seem sprawling thanks to its improvisational pedigree.
One thing Skeylja is not is quiet. To be more accurate, it’s not consistently quiet, as one has come to expect from the Kleefstra brothers; nor is it as openly melodic as The Alvaret Ensemble’s debut. This becomes apparent as early as 3:21 of opening track “Hoarn”, as trumpet and drums explode like a dissonant Eyjafjallajökull. At various times throughout the album, each artist takes advantage of the offer to wander afield. Kira Kira, never known to play it safe, sings over a trumpet and trombone squall in “Aaster”, the furthest thing from a hit that one can imagine, despite the components (soft female vocals, peaceful piano, ambience). And “Sjouw” bellows like a herd of crippled elephants falling onto a family of seals. The impact is intended to be visceral; the remarkable aspect is that the eight musicians create something akin to harmonic dissonance, forming a space in which multiple “wrong” notes coalesce into something very right. As the album progresses, it’s clear that the performances possessed a certain flow, despite their unplanned nature.
While Kleefstra’s poems are not translated here, they share a common theme. Some are inspired by the artist’s first visit to Iceland, while others are inspired by Friesland and the Waddensea. Fragments of each wander throughout the sonic field, trading places like the musicians who came from different islands to forge an alliance of word and note. By “Kleifarvatn”, major key melodies begin to emerge, as if all issues have been resolved. As such, and perhaps intentionally, Skeylja becomes a plea for all nations to recognize their common ground, especially if it is surrounded by water. (Richard Allen)