25 November 2012

Sväng’s Arrangements of Chopin for Harmonica Quartet

Sennheiser e608

W   e use a special bass harmonica microphone manufactured by Suzuki. This mic is attached directly to the body of bass harmonica, so it gets really close to the source of the sound. The mic module is as long the instrument, and there are several electric condenser mic capsules in it. The capsules are engineered to have different frequency responses depending on their location in the bass harmonica, according to register. The mic has an built-in preamp operating on battery power. Because the capsules are omni-directional condenser mics, the mic module is very prone to feedback on-stage. It feeds back really easily in the monitors and sometimes also on the main PA. To solve this problem, we use in-ear earbud monitoring and very careful equalization on the bass harp.”
  — Sväng.
F   or diatonic and chromatic harmonicas, we use handheld Audio Technica ATM350s. The mic is held between player’s left-hand fingers, but there are seldom problems with any handling-related noises. Microvox has its own belt clip preamp with volume control knob.”
  — Sväng.

O nly recently I came across Sväng’s 2010 recording of their arrangements of Chopin piano etudes, mazurkas, and polonaises. Sväng—the award-winning harmonica quartet from Finland—was commissioned by the La Folle Journée de Nantes festival to create these arrangements. Eero Grundström and Jouko Kyhälä, two of the group’s members, responded to this challenge with dazzling facility, adapting and orchestrating Chopin in such a way that the ethnic texture and musical intent of the originals are honored and preserved and yet new and interesting possibilities are revealed.

I n much the same manner as Chopin wrote the bulk of his compositions while living on ‘foreign’ soil, so too this work by Sväng feels deeply ‘transnational’.

T he arrangements have the motorics of festival dancing and outlawry, and all the confessional intimacy of close friends. The tuba-like bass lines alternately convey polka-like or gypsy-like feel. We have klezmer/ladino clarinet figures in here, rendered by harmonica with awe-inspiring technique. Story-telling, pneumatic phrasing of free-reeds clasped to emphatic lips, the music hovers between conserving traditional values and surrendering to pressures for assimilation into an alien culture.

T here are sad songs of separation, improvised deployments of non-standard instrumentation in service of musical ideas that hail from another culture. The collection co-opts Chopin, infusing it with Baltic jazz sensibilities.

T he informality of the recordings makes you want to get up and dance and join in song. The arrangements of the mazurkas are all bright and uplifting.

    [50-sec clip, Chopin - Mazurka Op. 68/2 arr. Eero Grundström ; (track 1), 2010, 2.4MB MP3]

M ore than anything, the effect is a ‘caravan’ soundscape—like a great kumpania—a nomadic band of families, traveling with horses and sleeping in the rough. The sonic ‘wagons’ in this caravan are elaborately carved and fantastically painted; the outlook of Sväng is heterogeneous, with a strong sense of the whimsical and the absurd.

T he music evokes nostalgia, but nostalgia for what? A return home? No. This is a musical pattern of chronic displacement; of families who have winter digs but are of uncertain origins; of clans who have no permanent place and few possessions. Or maybe you feel a resemblance to the saudades and fatalism of portuguese fado. Or you listen, as you might listen to a ribald uncle telling aphorisms. The fascination in which he holds you derives from his concision, which stuns... and also from his wit, which throws you down. The Disenfranchised and Appropriated become the Appropriators!

T he engineering and production values achieved at Studio Kyhättö do great credit to the arranging and performing on this disc. The sound has great warmth and intimacy, with just enough reverb/chorusing for liveliness. (For harp players who wish to learn about the miking equipment and techniques that Sväng utilizes to such advantage, have a look at their website.)


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