What is early music? Once in a while an innovative concert on the excellent Early Music Now series raises that question. The vocal ensemble Trio Mediaeval, from Oslo, pushed boundaries and definitions in a program of Norwegian folk songs last Friday night at All Saints' Cathedral.
Folk music is old music by nature, its anonymous origins lost in time, passed from one singer to another, and undoubtedly undergoing changes along the way. I recall folk music as incidental content on past Early Music Now concerts, but not as an entire program. There is no need to be a philistine about it. This was an exciting, fresh, musically accomplished evening.
As implied by its name, Trio Mediaeval has more customarily performed conventionally composed old European music (though, by necessity, with some arranging), as well as contemporary pieces. In this compelling concert of intricate folk song arrangements one sensed the group evolving into something new. Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth and Torunn Østrem Ossum all have voices that are pure and naturally light in vibrato, blending easily and singing wonderfully in tune. Each is a capable soloist, and can also sustain complex vocal accompaniments to the principal tune.
Many numbers were accompanied by Terje Isungset on jaw harp (also known as the jew's harp) and an array of natural percussion (stones, tiny bells, drums). Isungest is a jazz musician, and applied that free, improvisatory aesthetic in his work with the trio. Throughout the evening one could sense the lonesome, barren landscape of the north. Isungest helped paint these canvases of northern sounds with taste and subtlety.The program was beautifully paced, presenting a variety of moods, often enhanced by the strange, stylized words common in folk song. The captivating wordless pieces, based on the folk tradition of tralling (or tulling, or sulling) would not be out of place at a Present Music concert. The lokk (or laling) is another wordless folk tradition derived from summoning cattle home. A vivid number in this style was a highlight, with Isungest on ram's horn answering the women's lively calls.