For composer, fiddler, and instrument builder Dan Trueman, tradition and innovation in music-making often coexist. He’s recently worked on projects that explore their meeting place, like bitKlavier, a digital prepared piano, and Olagón – A Cantata In Doublespeak, which amalgamates Irish folk tales, pop, contemporary classical, and fiddling. With his 2019 album, Songs That Are Hard to Sing, he continues in this vein, mixing inspiration from Norway’s Hardanger fiddle with spiking contemporary sounds to form a chamber work that is at once danceable and challenging.
The recording brings together two titans of contemporary classical music performance — JACK Quartet and Sō Percussion — who present a crisp rendition of the ornate music. It ties contemplative instances with ecstatic momentum, blending droning chords and lilting melodies. Recorded quickly and with minimal retouching, it’s practically a live record, but it carries the pristine sound of something that’s been perfected.
With “Sister Song,” syncopation and peppy embellishments intersperse to create a sound that recalls raucous Hardanger fiddles. The Hardanger fiddle is native to western Norway, originally developed in the 17th century. It’s nearly the same as the modern violin — but has five extra strings and is usually decorated with elaborate artwork. Trueman transforms JACK Quartet into an ensemble that sounds like these fiddles, using their instruments to explore complex ancient tunings, rhythmic patterns, and ornamentations in addition to meditative harmonics and drones.
While wave-like thematic motion colors Songs That Are Hard To Sing, the pieces begin to slip together as their nearly indistinguishable moods collide into each other. Similar combinations of ruminative slowness and upbeat melodies force the music to rely on off-kilter intonation in order to create depth. “Summoning Song,” for example, slithers through harmonics and a clock-like beat, but fails to find footing in its shaky melody. Because the pieces are each formed by related structures, there is a sense of cohesion, but detail becomes lost in the equivalencies.
“Seizing Song” provides a welcome jolt to the otherwise placid atmosphere. Jagged trills punch out at seemingly random times, alternating between fast-paced frenetic sounds and measured slides. The essence of the music is finally strong in this ominous aura. Frenzied percussion quivers as strings hold uncomfortably dissonant chords, until “Sad Song” reclaims the previously established softer narrative. But this time, it sounds like a revelation. Strings reach a pinnacle of high-pitched counterpoint as a piano twinkles in the background, creating a sense of finality that bleeds into vocalization — “sad songs are hard to sing.”
Perhaps the steadiest through-line of the record is its inspiration from the Hardanger fiddle, whose folkish whimsy appears in each piece. “And so we must sing the best we can” is the final call-to-action of the collection. We’re reminded of the ways in which trudging through difficulty often begs forward motion. On Songs That Are Hard To Sing, the idiosyncratic mashup of disparate musical traditions eventually gives way to clarity.