Poetry and music make such a perfect pairing that one would think we would hear more of it. Earlier this year we met Norwegian poet Lars Haga Haavand on Roméo Poirier’s Kystwerk,and soon we’ll be hearing Irish poet Stephen James Smith on Elma Orkestra and Ryan Vail’s Borders. On Nausikaa, siblings Pär and Åsa Boström create exquisite musical settings for the poetry of Swedish mystic Gunnar Ekelöf (1907-1968). While Ekelöf is by no means a “forgotten” poet, his poetry is not as well known as that of Tomas Tranströmer, who passed away only in 2015. Their work, like those of many great poets, has fallen out of international print. But they deserve better. Ekelöf’s phrasing drips with timeless beauty. Consider for example the opening words of “Totemdjur:”
In the Greek city of Neapolis
In the dusty park with sick palm trees
over the grey sea
filled with hidden colours and shipwreck
the museum of the silent world:
Something may be lost in translation, but not much; English preserves the sense of magical realism that decorates Ekelöf’s work. The selections here ~ sea-drenched, myth-encased ~ lead the reader beyond the realm of eye and ear. An encounter in the deep leads the narrator to question if he is alive or dead, or transported beyond wonders. Kudos to Hymnambulae for embedding the poet’s voice in their compositions while saving the translations for the liner notes. Ekelöf’s world-weary tones would be difficult to duplicate, as his intonations rise and fall like exhausted tides. The siblings mimic the sea with undulating tones, now in, now out, steady and dependable, cradling the words as if their letters might drift apart in the rocking surf.
“Ty Han Den Döde” (“For He The Dead”) focuses on “a Silence” akin to “an eternal Snow.” The music drifts like the sullen Swedish wind, soft keys carrying a melody across the tundra. One can imagine the weary pilgrim, caught between worlds, adrift on an ocean of white. The love of the Boströms is apparent in their tenderness. The foreboding repetitions of “O Du Okände” offer a striking contrast, dark tones like fog horns intimating the unknown. The most textured piece, “O Du Okände” turns intonation into instrument, capturing the feel of the poem through timbre rather than translation.
In the end, the poet’s voice fades, as all voices do, the final track an instrumental testament. And yet, by some trick of the ear, we still hear the echoes. This is the success of Hymnambulae: not that they have honored history, but that they have produced a history of their own. (Richard Allen)