It’s amazing how music can create a powerful sense of place without the listener having to travel further than their armchair.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on Piramida, the musical collaboration between Danish band Efterklang and the Northern Sinfonia which I saw at the Sage concert hall this week.
The music was inspired by Efterklang’s trip to Spitsbergen on the Arctic circle last year.
Close your eyes and Piramida’s music takes you to this northerly island – one of the world’s ultimate wilderness locations.
Spitsbergen is a place only frequented by the hardiest of travellers, somewhere most people can only dream of.
When I looked at my world travellers’ map I found it right at the top corner, far far north of Finland and Russia.
Located close to the Arctic circle it’s part of a series of islands where the wildlife outnumbers human beings.
It has just 2,500 inhabitants, almost the same number as its polar bear population.
It was once an important whaling centre until mining took over as its main export industry.
Its climate is harsh with summer temperatures that barely nudge 4 degrees C and in winter the thermometer plummets to minus 12 + below.
It’s a frozen land where polar bears roam freely, wild geese congregate in their thousands, walruses lumber across the ice, and the Svalbard Reindeer herds wander through the snow.
So it’s amazing to hear music that captures completely the feeling and sounds of this place that some call ‘No Man’s Land’.
Last night Efterklang and Northern Sinfonia’s stunning concert at the Sage Gateshead took me – and 1,000 fellow travellers – to that island… by way of some amazing soundscapes.
Journey to the edge
For the uninitiated, Efterklang are a Danish indie band renowned for creating sound collages.
Their name means ‘reverberation’, which is very apt given that the band’s songs are full of sound experimentation and have strong emotional resonances.
The band come from the small Baltic island of Als, off the Danish coast which is the inspiration behind their previous short film – An Island – with film maker Vincent Moon.
Again, it’s a project that celebrates a particular landscape and tries to convey a true sense of place.
Perhaps this is why they’re have captured the ambience of another island so well.
In August 2011 they travelled to Spitsbergen to visit the Russian ghost town of Piramida which lies 1,000 km from the North Pole.
The abandoned settlement was once an outpost for 1,000 Russians working in mining but was abandoned in 1998.
Although the town is now slowly decaying it still has many relics from its past including, bizarrely, the world’s most northerly grand piano which was found in an abandoned concert hall.
I was delighted to discover that the sound of the old piano has been captured by Efterklang and features on their Piramida album.
The band spent nine days in the ghost town’s ruins collecting around 1,000 field recordings of various sounds.
Once back from the trip, Efterklang’s Mads, Casper and Rasmus spent months experimenting with the material and writing songs.
In a lucky creative move they were approached by the Sydney Opera House who suggested the band might like to play their music with the Australian symphony orchestra.
After this, they worked with composers Missy Mazzoli, Karsten Fundal and Daniel Bjarnason on arrangements for a further tour with the Northern Sinfonia from England.
Behold – the Piramida Concerts were born!
It’s unusual to see an indie band playing music that takes you to the heart of the Arctic permafrost of Spitsbergen.
Last night’s stunning concert at the Sage Gateshead had a visual backdrop of huge geometric and pyramidal shapes hanging over the stage with back-screen projection.
Northern Sinfonia came out onto the stage and played the intro to Hollow Mountain, a fitting scene setter which creates an instant mental image of the pristine Arctic landscape of glaciers, mountains and fjords.
When Efterklang appeared , resplendent in jeans and coloured jackets and bow ties, their sonic experience – complete with an orchestra – took flight.
The music took the audience on a wave to the frozen heart of Piramida and Spitsbergen.
With songs like The Living Layer, Black Summer and The Ghost the spirit of this archipelago of islands was captured in a series of musical sequences which sent a glacial chill down everyone’s spines.
The ghostly apparitions of the past were best encapsulated in the haunting song The Ghost with its repeated lyric of “The ghosts, the ghosts, the ghosts, the ghosts…”
You could imagine the Russian coal miners, the old mining town and the desolation of the Arctic landscapes stretching for miles and miles.
Efterklang have the uncanny knack of taking us on a journey to places we are unlikely to experience for ourselves – so why not lie back and enjoy the trip…
At the end of the night I felt compelled to visit the frozen islands of the archipelago, discover its ghost towns and the remarkable wildlife that survives in this inhospitable place.
It’s a funny thing but in a strange parallel world, I’m due to travel to Caerlaverock in Scotland which is home to – you’ve guessed it – Spitsbergen’s barnacle geese which migrate to avoid the hostile Arctic winter.
Perhaps Efterklang should make a follow up album about Caerlaverock and its connection with Spitsbergen?