Photo courtesy of ECM Records

Ketil Bjørnstad’s Beautiful Ode to Solitary Travel

Pianist Ketil Bjørnstad, singer Anneli Drecker, and poet Lars Saabye Christensen have created an unassuming masterpiece with A Suite of Poems.

A Suite of Poems
Ketil Bjørnstad
18 May 2018

Moby’s 2005 album Hotel came with an essay where the DJ/electronic musician tried to wax poetic about the anonymity and sterility of hotel rooms, bringing up the carnal aspect of hotel life too many times for comfort. If memory serves, he was musing over how all of these rooms are rendered impersonal in the end, despite our presence. Norwegian pianist and composer Ketil Bjørnstad’s liner notes for the album A Suite of Poems comes with a more refreshing take on occupying all of those faceless hotel rooms: “[Jazz guitarist] Terje Rydpal taught me to unpack the suitcase immediately after arriving in a new hotel. The shaving soap and the portable CD player had to be visible and easy to use. Books and records should be put on the night table or the writing desk. As I followed this method, every hotel I visited became a friend: A place to work, write, rest and make plans. Most importantly, hotel rooms taught me how to be alone.”

A Suite of Poems is an album that goes in and out of hotel rooms around the world. Norwegian-Danish writer Lars Saabye Christensen had been sending couplets to his friend Bjørnstad for several years, capturing the nature of travel and occasional solitude. Bjørnstad decided to start setting them to music about 20 years ago. Vocalist Anneli Drecker had a similar habit of sending some verse from the road to Bjørnstad, making her a logical choice to sing Christensen’s poems. That’s all A Suite of Poems is — Christensen’s poetry set to music by Bjørnstad, who plays the piano while Drecker sings. Call it easy-listening, call it neo-classical with words, call it contemporary song, call it lounge music that rarely swings, A Suite of Poems is a terrific album.

The poetry, all written and performed in English, is generously reproduced in the album’s sleeve. Even though most of the lines do not rhyme, they are still ridiculously fluid. All I have to do it grab a few lines at random to illustrate my point: “Do you know how many wounds / One bullet can make / Do you know how many years / One sorrow can take[?]” I’m also particularly fond of “The elevator is so slow / That you don’t know whether you’re going / Up or down.” Each track is not named after a refrain in the poem, but after the name of the hotel of origin and its corresponding cities. For instance, the first lyric in this paragraph is from “Savoy, Lisbon” while the latter comes from “L’Hotel, Paris”. The first track is “Mayflower, New York”, and it appears to have a special meaning to Bjørnstad: “I could relate to his first poem about Hotel Mayflower in New York because I had stayed there myself. It was such a unique building, before it closed down and gave more space to another [one] of the Trump Tower Hotels.” Nothing lasts forever, and Christensen knew it too well: “The drummer sends me flowers / While the dancers buy me a beer / I’ve this funny feeling / That the end is near.”

The melodies Bjørnstad writes for Drecker are superb. Rather than working to cram the words into some pre-existing music, it sounds like Bjørnstad is writing in service to the poetry. Even when there is a slight shift in the music, as on the slow shuffle of “Astor Crowne, New Orleans”, Drecker’s singing runs the show: “It’s brass band in the bathtub / It’s the devil in the minibar / It’s voodoo in the wall / I think I’ll call it a day.” The vocal passages are delicate, memorable, just about perfect in their range and fluidity. He gives himself solo piece at the end, “Schloss, Elmau”. By this point, a shakeup in format does nothing to dampen the album’s blooming beauty. A Suite of Poems may not be the kind of music that is taking over the world right now, but it’s still a bright spot in a dismal world full of ugly, towering hotels.

RATING 9 / 10
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