SANS, Home Festival, Dartington (22 & 23 June 2012)

Tagged with: SANS Andrew Cronshaw Sanna Kurki-Suonio Tigran Aleksanyan Ian Blake world music Europe UK Armenia Finland zither kantele marovantele fujara duduk bass clarinet soprano sax Home Festival Dartington Glyn Phillips review

SANS is an international band made up of four integrants of varying European and cultural backgrounds but with a common desire to search out not just the creative common ground in front of them but to explore the areas just off the musical map - the sonic equivalent of “There be dragons…!”

The members are Sanna Kurki-Suonio from Finland on vocals (and kantele), Tigran Aleksanyan from Armenia on duduk, Ian Blake on soprano sax and bass clarinet, and the man responsible for pulling them altogether, Andrew Cronshaw, on a plethora of instruments, including chord zither, kantele and Slovakian flute.

I caught them at Devon’s Home Festival at the 15th C Great Hall of Dartingon - a stunning acoustic setting. They had the late shift and were due to perform from 11pm to 12.15. However, due to the heavy rain outside, the outdoor stage had been abandoned and bands had been diverted into the Great Hall. This meant that rather than the relaxed peaceful hour or more that they needed to set up their equipment and complex electronics and to have a meaningful soundcheck they had little more than 20 minutes to turn it all around, which they just achieved but left everyone naturally somewhat flustered.

"a dark night of ethereal beauty"

However, with a few lighting directions from Andrew Cronshaw - bringing down the main lights and having just a few lamps on stage and next to no light on the audience - they managed to create their own intimate, meditative ambience, very different from the high energy, dance-based music and performance of the previous act, the Krar Collective, from Ethiopia.

With scene set, SANS led us into a dark night of ethereal beauty. In fact it was almost perfect night music - like an evening raga, matching music to time and place and state of mind.

The first piece was long, spacious and slow moving - like a bubble gently rising and falling in a lava-lamp.

Andrew played a 74 string German chord zither out of which he coaxed the most amazing sounds.

I don’t know whether it was the natural sonority of the zither or processing via the various footpedals and electronics but it was very impressive how he barely seemed to place his fingers on the strings yet sheets of audio-joy rippled across the room.

"sheets of audio-joy rippled across the room"

There were also some wonderful bass pad sounds, which I’m guessing were digitally produced since I couldn’t see what else could be making them.

One instrument I could definitely identify was the rare sight and tone of Ian Blake’s bass clarinet.

The distinctive shape (straight, wooden body with curly metal bits at either end!) and colouring (black and silver) make it look like the slightly comical Steampunk bastard love-child of a tenor sax and a liquorice stick (although it predates saxophones).

However, the distinction of its sound and the quality of its tone is undeniable: a sound like warm resin infused with honey, rich, resonant and wonderfully ‘woody’.

Tigran Aleksanyan’s duduk (made - seemingly like everything else from Armenia - out of apricot wood) was another characteristic sounding instrument: a double-reed woodwind. In this respect it works similar to an oboe or the medieval shawm, but its cylindrical bore and large reed make it closer to a clarinet in tone.

It is has a large 'colour' range and is a very versatile instrument capable of conjuring up feelings of longing, disquiet and nostalgia as well as harmony, peace and contentedness. Certainly in the hands of someone like Tigran it is!

The final instrument in this opening piece was Sanna Kurki-Suonio’s voice, which rather than the common vocal role of sitting on top of the instruments, was woven into the very fabric of the overall sound to great effect.

For the second piece Andrew moved onto a very special double-sided zither he’d designed and had especially made for him (by Finnish kantele maker Kimmo Sarja) and which he calls a marovantele. He plays both sides at once as one answers the other.

Although he invented this particular instrument, the inspiration came from the Madagascan marovany (a double sided box-zither as used by bands like Tarika). Andrew used a traditional Finnish kantele shape but with double strings and slightly different tuning either side.

Sanna added to the crystalline sound on a small blue 5-string electric kantele (in the Finnish style), whilst the duduk and soprano sax completed the instrumentation. The overall effect was a gentle, relaxing, quite otherworldly atmosphere which gradually built up into a slow march rhythm.

Each tune was quite long and slowly unfolded as the audience relaxed in the midnight closeness, many lying stretched out full-length on the floor drifting not so much off to sleep but utterly submerged into the music, on fabulous journeys borne on the wings of these evocative sonic creations. I don’t know where each of them went, but it looked like they all travelled some distance. The atmosphere was quite magical.

The third piece was a fabulous solo by Tigran on the duduk and the fourth another ensemble piece but featuring Andrew on the fujara - a Slovakian shepherd’s fipple flute.

But forget any thoughts of penny whistles or recorders! This was a beast of an instrument 5-6 feet in height! It is played vertically and standing up and has a deep, breathy timbre which is quite extraordinary.

In fact the whole number was based around whistles, flutes and reed and the air in the medieval hall crackled with the sonorous vibrations of the fujara and pulsating tones of the players.

The only shame was that quite soon after starting Cronshaw’s fujara developed some nasty electronic cracks and rumbles (probably due to a faulty lead or crossed wire?) which necessitated stopping the tune and interrupting the ambience to try and rectify, although luckily after the first one, the rumbles soon became nothing more than intermittent background noise like a thunder storm in the distance.

"Sanna’s powerful, supple and subtly toned voice"

Sanna’s powerful, supple and subtly toned voice started singing and soon the number gained a pulse, which ran through the tune until Andrew brought it all back down again, both dynamically and texturally, on his chord zither and closed the set - as delicately as a snowflake falling to the ground . . .

"as delicately as a snowflake falling to the ground . . ."

Quite, quite beautiful and precisely the right emotional place to stop. After this I floated contentedly off to bed and fell into a deep, replenishing sleep.

Glyn Phillips
(28 June 2012)

SANS have - as yet - no CD recorded or released; however, the integrants all appear on Andrew Cronshaw’s last album “The Unbroken Surface of Snow”

Andrew Cronshaw:

Sanna Kurki-Suonio:

Tigran Aleksanyan: no details as yet.

Ian Blake: