Väsen started off as a string trio in 1989. They expanded to include a percussionist, André Ferrari, in 1996, then changed again in 2002 when Ferrari decide that international touring was becoming too much of a strain. Their website explains that the band now exists in two versions: a quartet that plays at home in Sweden, and a trio that tours overseas. Live In Japan features the trio.
I think I prefer them like this. After listening to Live In Japan I put on a track from their 1997 album, Gront, and the drum on Gront felt intrusive. It was too much, too blatant. Thump! – it said—listen to me!—thump! thump! With the percussion strutting along inside them they sound like a good modern Swedish folk band, but without it they sound like something more, a marriage between a folk band and a chamber orchestra, a marvellously intelligent sound, dynamic, intimate and fluid. The emphasis has been placed back on Olov Johansson’s kontrabasharpa and nyckleharpa, Roger Tallroth’s guitar, and the violin and viola, which are played by Mikael Marin.
Free of interruptions from other instruments, the strings talk together on this live concert recording for slightly over an hour. They’re old friends, so they feel comfortable enough to be quiet sometimes, and also to argue their case loudly when they need to, or pass a point to and fro. (There’s a recurring back-and-forth movement in “Nipponpolka,” which culminates in a burst of busyness.) The viola shifts into “Fallandepolskan” with the joyful gravity of a Vivaldi enthusiast embarking on “The Four Seasons,” while the next track, “Calles Vals,” abandons all seriousness and skips around like a country dance.
There is no singing. The only voice on this recording comes from one of the band members who pauses between tunes to say, ‘Thank you” to the audience in English and then again in Japanese. The audience itself is the low point of the CD: their live applause rattles like dried beans in a can but happily it doesn’t go on for long enough to distract you from the music.
This is a good thing because Live In Japan is the kind of album that works best when you listen to it as one long river of sound rather than a series of short highlights. There’s nothing much here for mix tapers who want to pick out a favourite track, separate it from the rest and put it in a compilation as an example of the band’s work. If that’s what you need then you’re better off with their old albums. No section of this concert is going to sound as good as the whole. Part of the pleasure comes from hearing a simple bit of musical business—a polka tune, for example—rise to the surface, submerge, and then reappear in a modified shape later on. Live In Japan is an example of the inventive heights acoustic instruments can reach when they’re played by people who know what they’re doing and never seem to run out of fresh ways of doing it.
The DVD that comes with the CD is a fairly substantial bonus extra. Roger Tallroth and Olov Johansson go into detail discussing the development of the band; they refer to people they’ve collaborated with, and explain the histories of two of the tunes they’ve composed. Johansson, who has a droll sense of humour, spends four minutes talking about the nyckelharpa, a Swedish instrument that resembles a steampunk violin with a row of black wooden keys running along one side. You play it with a bow (“a short bow, so you don’t poke your eyes out”), using the wooden keys to alter the sound by modifying the pressure on the strings. It has about a thousand different parts and looks like something the Inquisition would have enjoyed. “Get one yourself,” he advises, giving the camera a deadpan look. Mr Johansson , if it meant that I could make music like Live In Japan, I would.