The kind of happy moods and dancey sections that populate Border Woods recall the manner in which Henry Flynt referred to a “folk creature” in a manifesto from 1980: essentially it is one that wishes to ride and further the streams of folk cultural expression without looking to “improve” it with “high culture” or to homogenize it with the market-based mandates of “low culture”. It is to center the human, collective experience of music born from common sentiment, in contradistinction to both academic or industrial concerns, which are in fact transcended by it. “The music should be intellectually fascinating […], encourage dancing. […][and] should have an emotional profundity which comes from specificity of sentiment and passion”, Flynt states, and while Border Woods accomplishes each and every one, Frode Haltli has gone one step further. What his ensemble has done in this album is to explode that specificity by seamless integration of distinct folk traditions, emphasizing how their uniqueness is a product of myriad streams crossing in and out of each throughout history.
Haltli’s chosen instrument, the accordion, is a feature of popular and folk musics across Europe and America. Invented in Berlin in the early nineteenth century (before Germany as such even existed), it found a home in genres both diverse and interconnected, from Mexican norteño music to Scandinavian gammeldans, diverse in form, interconnected by historical processes as much as by their function, what Flynt associates with dance and communion. In the company of Emilia Amper’s nyckelharpa and percussions by Håkon Stene and Eirik Raude, what in principle is a Nordic folk unit becomes just a folk unit, utilizing a multiplicity of musical resources that would seem incompatible in the service of a deeply engaging exploration of sentiment. Usually derided for one-dimensionality, sentiment is shown as a complex texture of common thoughts and feelings in Border Woods. The coldness of “Wind Through Aspen Leaves”, for example, showcases not only these artists’ improv/avant-garde experience, with its expansive percussion-led drones, but also the way in which they are able to extract from modernist music the sense of simultaneous calm and unease we’ve all had in the presence of awesome nature.
In the same vein, “Momstamägg Polska” develops from a beautiful, seemingly slowed-down and simple melody of a Polish dance into a polyphonic meditation where percussions phase in and out of an order that appears to be beyond the music’s internal logic. The accordion ends up condensing all the voices into one, for a while remaining by itself until joined again by the nyckelharpa to create a style that bleeds into all sorts of folk traditions, be it Polish, from the US, or Scandinavian. However, I do not believe it has a “universalist” streak (the kind that Flynt would reject, and which would create “world music”), since Border Woods does not simply mash everything together, attempting to translate specificities. Instead, moving further from last year’s Avant Folk, Haltli and his ensemble truly grow these musics into something new, something much more simply common, that speaks not to the languages of music but to the sentiments they collectively articulate. It is a folk without a center, a tradition that does not pretend to speak for all, but that instead provides a platform for all to speak.
An important difference between Haltli and Flynt is that Haltli correctly diminishes the importance of dancing, in the sense that it is not the only mechanism through which a community’s music comes to be bound. “Taneli’s Lament (Sorrow Comes To All…)”, a short, sad piece, is followed by “Valkola Schottis”, a long-form exploration with a solemn beginning that slowly transforms into one of the most joyful tracks I’ve heard this year – it might have some danceable parts, but the key folk aspect here is a smooth transition from sadness to happiness, the kind that you only see in festivity-inclined funeral traditions around the world. Now that is the complexity of being sentimental.
The album ends with “Quietly the Language Dies”, which sounds like a classical Islamic piece, surprisingly well-rendered by the tones of the accordion and the nyckelharpa. The bright drones at the end signal the dissolution of music into sound, but they also highlight just how at home this music is with all the rest, even if it is completely different. After all, what is shared between them is life itself, always built in common like the woods and forests. (David Murrieta Flores)