The Alvaret Ensemble: The Alvaret Ensemble
Denovali Records

If you've heard the 2010 Experimedia release Wurdskrieme The Kleefstra Brothers issued as members of Piiptsjilling, you'll already have some idea of what The Alvaret Ensemble sounds like. But though Jan Kleefstra's unmistakably soft murmur is heard once again reciting poems in Frisian (an old European minority language), The Alvaret Ensemble is considerably more than another outlet for the musings of Jan and his guitarist sibling Romke. The self-titled album's material as much belongs to the group's other core members, Greg Haines (piano, accordion) and Sytze Pruiksma (percussion), as well as to the guests whose contributions enhance so markedly the sonic palette of the recording: violinists Iden Reinhart and Peter Broderick, trombonist Hilary Jeffery (Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble), and Martyn Heyne on church organ. Jan's voice is thus merely one element among many, and the album's purely instrumental passages are plentiful in number.

The collective recorded material over three nights (entirely at night, incidentally) at the Grunewaldkirche in Berlin in August of 2011, eventually resulting in twelve hours of recordings that were then crafted into the eighty-five minutes spread across two discs featuring five tracks each. The recording plays, however, as two long-form settings as no breaks have been imposed to separate the pieces from one another. The group works its slow-burn patiently and at times so restrainedly that nothing more than a single instrument, voice, piano, or otherwise, inhabits the space at a given moment. The Alvaret Ensemble is also, however, able to marshall the resources at hand and generate a dramatic mass that breathes loudly as a single entity (such as occurs in the thick, pulsating drone that brings “Ulc” to a close).

The album begins in a near-whisper with guitar atmospheres and piano accents in “Byd” and unfolds at a glacial pace thereafter with the first track flowing into the second and swelling gradually to bring “Eac” to a climactic end. Jeffery's playing, a haunted moan that sometimes resembles a French horn, adds a sense of desperation to “Dde,” an otherwise powerful showcase for Haines' and Pruiksma's expressions. The second disc's “Teq” and “Muo” are most distinguished by the dramatic and oft-mournful interplay of the violin and piano, an effect that carries over even more powerfully into the penultimate piece, “Wju,” where a series of violin expressions culminate in an emotionally raw climax.

Jan's soft utterances lend the material a cryptic quality that the others are more than willing to perpetuate in their own textural ruminations. The packaging includes translations for the spoken texts, but even if a translation hadn't been made available for “Ysj,” the ominous foreboding of the setting would still communicate loud and clear. But while the mood is generally dour, there are bright moments, too; bolstered by the sparkle of violin, piano, and glockenspiel, the first disc's closer “Ond,” for example, feels so radiant compared to the material preceding it that it's like the sudden appearance of sunlight after prolonged cloud cover.

February 2013