Saman, which the liner notes indicate is Icelandic for “together”, grounds itself on a subtle form of melancholy, as if the listener was looking at a landscape where something cherished used to stand a long time ago. The ‘togetherness’ surely alludes to cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir‘s singing, in the sense that she’s incorporated her voice to an expression mostly based on the string instrument. However, there is another aspect to it, suggested perhaps by the album’s cover in its dislocation of conventional perspective: the sky in the water, the trees on a horizontal line, the plants that seem to compose a shore but in reality are another part of the river or lake… the mirror image seems to compose a life that knows no bounds, that weaves a whole in which everything flows into a rational form and yet is also deeply driven by emotionality. The voice and cello, like the sky and the water’s surface, grow into each other, shifting the perspective just enough to suggest the listener to think about that landscape where times meet, where it is no longer possible to know the place in separation of a memory of it, and the warmth of the sun mingles with the cold of the wind.
This is not to say, of course, that they become one, but that there is a playful degree of both in each, the voice flowing into the cello and vice versa, inviting us to hear the harmony as a companionship instead of as a balance, a coming together that treats the cello’s lament as a vocal one and the song’s uplifting melodies as the tones of strings. They do not attempt to define the landscape, to anchor it as irredeemably a memorial expression or a fact of nature, but to make the inner (the quiet, modern singing, the contemplative, long strikes of the bow) coincide with the outer (the quicker pulls and strikes, the choir-like medieval style of certain phrases) in an act of friendship – while the voice is not pervasive, it certainly seems to be meant to linger, to accompany the cello as it expresses the landscape into being. This composition of an organic whole leads the listener through a paradoxical movement that is simultaneously still, as the music intensely evokes a sadness that is carried for miles and miles by streams that nurture all sorts of life on the shores, life that, in drinking all that melancholy and looking up at the radiant sun finds an unspeakable joy, an understanding that the choice between one or the other has always been false.
Against other kinds of solo albums, Guðnadóttir’s playing is restrained, non-virtuosic, passionately modern in its affirmation that every piece, every note, is equal under harmony, that every moment of tears shed is as important as every smile and laughter. Together, the voice and cello work towards a multiplicity of goals, a great variety of feelings that is far from a unity, developing into an album that remains constantly open to re-interpretation, that treads on shape-shifter territory that is haunting and fulfilling, always at the same time, never at the same time. This is what makes Saman special, and it invites constant engagement as much as constant re-articulation: take it with you, change place, be alone or in the company of others, and it will nevertheless later seem to recreate the exact same memory in different ways. So go ahead, look at your surroundings, remember how they’ve changed, and let yourself become part of it not as its center but as its companion. (David Murrieta)