Boat Woman Song

The latest release from German limited-edition art-object vinyl label Corvo Records is by Ingrid Schmoliner and Elena Kakaliagou. I think Nabelóse (CORE 012) arrived in the same package as Gilles Aubry’s And Who Sees The Mystery, noted here. Elena Kakaliagou is a French horn player who is a member of Zeitkratzer, so we may have heard her performances by default on one or more of the many releases from this prolific neo-classical Ensemble, but she also plays in the RANK Ensemble. Piano player Ingrid Schmoliner is also a vocalist. They’re also two-thirds of PARA, and we’ve encountered them before on the 2012 para-ligo record, along with bassist Thomas Stempkowski, when Stuart Marshall noted the “achingly subtle atmospherics” which is one of their hallmarks.

Nabelóse certainly reaches new heights of subtle atmospherics, but the music this time is arranged around ideas and inspiration taken from Greek and Austrian folk songs, and folk stories. Both artists have thus brought their respective personal nationalities into play. There may also be subtexts and narratives to do with women and their place in society. I don’t feel qualified to say too much on this feminist theme, although at least two of the pieces here have women as central figures; in the title track, a very symbol-laden epic tale, an apparition of the Madonna is key to the whole story. ‘Frau Im Berg’ – translated as ‘woman in the mountain’ – is a funeral march piece which draws on everyday household objects as symbols for the cycle of life and death, mortality and rebirth: eggs, bread, and mud.

Another key theme is strangeness and exile. This strand is most clearly articulated in the lengthy ‘To Be Given Up’, where the hero is a man who can’t ever go home again. The sadness of his plight is expressed as a dirty handkerchief that can’t be washed clean; in fact it pollutes the very river it’s washed in. No English folk song I know has ever come up with such a potent and poignant metaphor for alienation. You’ll find more such metaphors in the title track ‘Nabelóse’, where pain, distance and alienation are mainly transmitted in terms of water and a painted boat.

I’m only able to tell you any of this because I was sent a printed press sheet with annotations, translations, and other useful contextual information. The meanings of these folk songs and stories are not directly communicated by Ingrid Schmoliner and Elena Kakaliagou on Nabelóse. There are vocal sounds, for sure, but I don’t think either of them ever gets so far as to utter a single recognisable word. Instead, the pieces are conveyed through low-key modern music, very abstract, quiet, and brittle. The funeral march in ‘Frau Im Berg’, for instance, is only suggested by the regular French Horn measures of Kakaliagou. There may be some attempt to convey the nature of the ocean in the ‘Nabelóse’ story, but it’s hard to discern. The cold and distant approach taken by this duo probably works best when applied to the themes of desolation and bleakness that are contained in the exile story. After hearing this one, you too will feel homeless and adrift in an uncaring world.

The other two pieces, ‘Goldgefüllter Lippenrand’ and ‘Schlangenfrau’ are not included in the annotations and I don’t know if they connect directly to the theme. They are instrumental pieces of severe modernism – prepared piano making unnatural sounds, breathy horn tones, highly subdued playing, a very delicate beauty. ‘Goldgefüllter Lippenrand’ has the serial arpeggios of a Reich or a Glass, only performed in a very restricted and stern fashion. ‘Schlangenfrau’ combines the percussive rattles of the prepared piano with free-form vocal purrs and whispers, the voice resembling a cross between a chicken and a snake.

I’m assuming most of the folk elements here come from Schmoliner, who is credited here as moving “between the genres of new music, improvised music, free jazz and folk music.” Not to deny any of that, but I think on this record at least it’s more accurate to say that elements of folk music have been subjugated to the need for experimentation – newness wins out over tradition. Things I tend to associate with folk songs – clarity, directness, narrative – have been sacrificed in favour of this very open-ended abstraction. But I am basing this opinion on English folk song and ballads, and the records of such singers as Shirley Collins, Bob Davenport, Isla Cameron and others. Greek and Austrian folk scholarship is not my strong suit! Wendelin Büchler’s cover art tries to restore a little of that narrative, homing in on the symbols found in the stories. From 20th March 2017.