Sigbjørn Apeland: Glossolalia

Focusing exclusively on sounds generated by Norwegian suction bellow-operated harmoniums for his debut solo album, Sigbjørn Apeland presents a powerful argument on behalf of the instrument. Once commonly found in churches, schools, and private homes, the harmonium is now rarely heard; Apeland himself admits that though he grew up with it, he shifted his focus to piano and church organ until rediscovering the harmonium as an effective choice for collaborations with Norwegian folk musicians, such as Hardanger fiddler Nils Økland (Apeland's also worked with Norwegian folk singers and electronica outfit Alog).

The music developed through Apeland's interplay with folk musicians, improvisers, and computer musicians and his own self-described attempt to create a form of “ambient acoustic music.” Such a description fails to capture how lovely the album's five improvised settings are, however, and how powerfully emotional they can be too. Apeland wrings the most affecting degree of melancholy possible from the material, whether it be the wistful opener “Flyt,” brief coda “Lite,” or the mournful “Mildt,” a meditation that is at certain moments so lovely it verges on heartbreaking. Apeland also manages to push the material into other directions, too, such as when the ruminative approach he brings to “Bulder og lys” gives it the feel of an Indian raga (it's here, perhaps, where the album's title relates most directly, as glossolalia—the term comes from the Greek, with “glossa” meaning “tongue” and “lalia” meaning “to speak”—is associated with speaking in tongues in such a way that the unintelligible sounds emitted suggest a state of religious ecstasy).

A major part of the music's charm comes from the fact that the harmonium doesn't just produce musical sounds but also natural mechanical noises generated by the pedals, the bellows, the knee-operated swells, and other parts; as a result, the creaks, clicks, and rustlings that are omnipresent throughout the recording lend it a homemade and rustic character. Wisely, Apeland has chosen not to hide such natural sounds but instead embrace them as an integral part of the instrument's character. In confronting whatever technical limitations the harmonium presents, he states, “I have instead tried to face these weaknesses and discover their potential for creating a kind of music that has not been heard before.” In that regard he has succeeded splendidly, and though the thirty-two-minute recording may be short by CD standards, it hardly feels incomplete.

August 2011