abelóse, released by Berlin-based sound art label Corvo Records, is a collaboration between Austrian prepared piano virtuoso/yodeler Ingrid Schmoliner and Greek French horn player Elena Kakaliagou, breathing new life into traditional folk songs from both artists’ native countries. If this description piques your curiosity (as it did mine), you are hereby encouraged to get your hands on the LP sooner than later because at 300 hand-numbered copies, it seems destined for scarcity.
The opening track, “To Be Given Up / Γιάννη μου το μαντήλι σου,” begins with a slow, plaintive melody from Kakaliagou’s French horn while a bowed string from Schmoliner’s prepared piano sings out an open A. The drone intensifies gradually and the horn weaves around it: up a minor second, and then settling in unison, the tension-and-release evoking alternating feelings of dread and acceptance.
Around seven minutes in, we finally hear a voice: full-bodied yet light, like a radiant bloom springing forth from the sound world defined by the two instrumental elements. Sung in Greek and based on a traditional folk song from Epirus (an area along the border between Greece and Albania),”To Be Given Up” is about ‘xenitia‘ — the emotional state of one in exile; of being far from home and not being able to come back.
The second track, “Frau im Berg,” is an Austrian funeral march full of pagan images of cleansing, rebirth, and the dissolution of time and space. Here, Schmoliner’s yodeling is foregrounded. Most familiar to American audiences, perhaps, from the sing-song yodeling introduced to country music by German, Swiss, and Austrian immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, traditional yodeling is an extended vocal technique characterized by an oscillation between head and chest voice which originated in the mountains of Europe and Central Asia where the sound could play off a natural echo. In “Frau im Berg,” Schmoliner’s yodeling is rapid-fire and commanding, reminding me a bit of the nasally flutters of Devendra Banhart’s voice on songs like “See Saw,” or the staccato cries of Yoko Ono’s avant vocal masterpiece “Fly.”
Side B begins with “Goldgefüllter Lippenrand,” a Steve Reich-esque piano composition accompanied by a soft, percussive popping and French horn swells that build in intensity, eventually giving way to the kind of sputtering, farty sounds that make junior high band directors question their life choices. It’s a playful track that blends tightly composed structures with expressive improvisation, revealing a deeper range of possibilities for this instrumentation.
“Schlangenfrau” delves even further into this expanded range. The insistent piano is here again, this time tonally altered, with the percussive pops sweeping through like a woodpecker versed in spirit rapping. The voice and horn are both muffled and strange, wrapping around the spine of the prepared piano liked the gauzy cries of ghosts (some of whom, once again, are farting). This is the most experimental track on the album, and it sets the stage for “Nabelóse / Βάρκα μου μπογιατισμένη,” the final, and title track. A traditional song from the coastal shores of Greece, the lyrics reveal fragmented, dreamlike images of water, the Madonna, and a boat that has been painted, but has not yet been out to sea. Dramatic and spare, this is Schmoliner and Kakaliagou at their most emotionally resonant. About halfway through the song, the horn begins to cry like a whimpering dog, and soon a bowed piano string starts crying alongside it. I can honestly say I’ve never heard anything quite like this — my favorite sentence to type in an album review. It’s a spellbinding, cathartic combination of beauty and discomfort, a stunning climax for a record that seems to be about investigating textures as much as it is about loneliness, longing, and the inevitable drift of history.