Knodel & Valencia,
(Spookytree Music, 1996)

"They felt in their minds the dance of those magical notes, and wrote them down and earthly instruments played them; then and never till then have we heard the music of Elfland."

Several years ago, I attended a concert by Debra Knodel and Jane Valencia, two harpers from California. This wasn't so much a concert as a magical journey. This wasn't the kind of concert where the performers get up and play some tunes, chitchat with the audience, play some more tunes, engage in more chitchat and so on until the final encore. At this concert, Knodel & Valencia took the audience on a journey deep into a forest, pointing out the sights, revealing wonders great and small, and eventually -- much too soon! -- leading us back out into the real world.

After the concert, my wife bought Forest, Knodel & Valencia's most recent album. I was overjoyed to discover that this album was essentially a studio version of the concert. The songs and tunes that had enthralled me in their concert were on this recording.

Knodel & Valencia played many types of harps for this album -- nylon-strung, gut-strung, wire-strung, African bow and Paraguayan harps -- as well as the psaltry and oboe. They were joined by Sarah Burns (vocals), Michael Carey (bamboo flute, whistle), Elizabeth Golen (vocals) and Verlene Schermer (cello, psaltry, violin, vocals). The musicianship is artful and sensitive. The tracks are a mix of Knodel & Valencia originals, traditional tunes and a few other recent compositions.

The album is amazing. Listening to this recording is an experience, not just a collection of disparate tunes and songs. The liner notes, by Valencia, lead you on the journey and describe each step of the way. Notes are also included on how Knodel & Valencia chose each song, and Knodel provided a number of pieces of art. My favorite of these pictures shows a trio of polar bear musicians leading the Northern Lights in a dance. The beautiful cover gives the impression of a watercolor stained-glass window.

The album starts with "Into Forest Halls," which is our processional into the forest. This is a sparse song that grows as the track continues. The liner notes for this song say:

"We have entered a deep magical forest. Great ancient trees surround us. Branches vault above us, forming a chapel in the dark leaf. Moonlight suffuses the many forest paths with a pale glow. These paths criss-cross, traveling between all places and all times. We have no idea which one to follow. We ask the Keeper of this forest chapel, the Green Man. In a language that whispers like leaves he tells us any path will lead to magic...."

The journey continues with "Benachie Sunrise" by Paul Machlis, a tune about the dawn in Benachie, Scotland. This is followed by "Cradle Song," an old Welsh poem translated and set to music by Valencia. This song is a mother singing to her baby of the mother's husband, a hunter, who has been lost.

A beautiful, pastoral version of "Carolan's Concerto" leads into "The Calling of the Cows" by Valencia. This song tells of a time at a music retreat when the playing of a solo piper summoned a herd of cows. The oboe and cello combine to do a nice job of imitating a bagpipe. The feel and mood of the song also gives the impression of a piobaireachd -- often considered to be the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe, is composed of a theme and set of variations. Since piobaireachd is one of my favorite types of music, this tune was especially appealling to me. A languid, entrancing version of Ian Burns' "Spootiskerry" is next up. This great tune is arranged here with a bit of a western feel to it, and the harps are joined by a fiddle.

"...when he went with Threl a mystery haunted the wood, so that one could not say what creature might not appear nor what haunted and hid by every enormous bole."

Halfway through our journey, we come to the haunting "Binwag's Lullaby." Knodel wrote the lyrics and Steve Baughman wrote the melody. This song is a mother bear singing to her cubs of the North Wind dancing and whirling through the Winter, of the Great Bear smiling down from above, of the coming Spring. This song is easily my favorite on the album and it gives me chills every time I hear it.

"Willafjord," a traditional tune from the Shetland Islands, is played here with a calypso feel. The energy of this track lifts you up and carries you along like a boat on the waves. This is followed by "Hwiangerdd" -- a reprise of the earlier "Cradle Song," but this time the lullaby is sung in Medieval Welsh -- and "Masque" -- an arrangement of a Galician melody, inspired by the image of the Green Man dancing in the moonlit forest.

The journey draws to an end with two final tracks. "Wild Geese" is a traditional Irish tune, here combining harp, bamboo flute and whistle. This is a very poignant, touching version of an already beautiful air. The final steps of the journey are with "Hin Hin Haradala," a piece of mouth music from Scotland performed a capella; it is a fitting end to this magical experience.

From the beat of the drum at the beginning of the album to the final piece, you are compelled to travel ever onward. You can't stop listening.

"And there were tears in Orion's eyes when they left the great wood; for he loved the mystery of the huge grey oaks."

[ by Wayne Morrison ]

All quotes from The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany.