Alle Snakker Sant

December 18th, 2011

Siri Nilsen

First, a couple of disclaimers.

Siri Nilsen is the daughter of Shari Nilsen, whom I knew back when she was jus’ plain li’l Shari Gerber back in the ‘hood.  Shari had long straight black hair, perfect olive skin, considerable personal beauty, and one of those pure angelic soprano voices.  Kind of like a short, Jewish, Buffalonian Joan Baez, only more buxom.  She was a year ahead of me at Kenmore West Senior High, and I used to go listen to her play her guitar and sing folk music at the Rue Franklin coffeehouse.  I had a hopelessly unconsummated crush on her, of which she was either entirely unaware or in denial.  But we were good friends.  (Ouch!)  A few years out of high school we lost contact.  She went on to marry and then divorce a Norwegian folk musician, Lillebjorn Nilsen.  No, I never heard of him, either, but he is a big deal in Norway.  Siri is one of their daughters.  Not long ago, Shari and I came back into contact via Facebook.  So that’s how I know of Siri.

The second disclaimer is that I have little or no received vocabulary or context from which to talk about Siri’s music.  That is, I am even more entirely ignorant of the Norwegian folk and pop traditions in which she works, than I am of contemporary American music, which is saying something. I’m like the guy in American Graffiti who said, “Ain’t been no good music since Buddy Holly died.”   A few years ago, my son convinced me that there can be artistry to rap, but that doesn’t mean I listen to it.  Every once in a while he tries to get me interested in this or that band.  Mostly it sounds like derivations of stuff that I had already heard a thousand times twenty years ago, and was tired of then.  Exceptions are one album by Bjork and a few compositions (when I am in the right mood) by Radio Head.  I don’t listen to them much, either.  My daughter has had more success, in that she introduced me to a now defunct Chinese all-girl punk band called Hang on the Box that I think is the greatest rock and roll band there ever was.  Great road music, great music for washing the dishes, great music for scaring the neighbors.  My brother, the professional musician, hates them.  So there you have it.

But I want to tell you about Siri’s music because, after repeated listenings to her second CD, Alle Snakker Sant, I really, really like it.  It holds up for me, and my appreciation of it keeps getting deeper.

So… how to describe it?  Siri’s voice is one of those pure angelic sopranos, a bit lighter and more agile than I remember her mother’s, with a silken quality.  Now it skips playfully up a ladder of notes, now it sighs with understated melancholy, now it rings.  “Silvery” is a word that comes to mind.  Understated: perhaps part of the freshness of Siri’s music for me is that the emotion in it is not shoved in your face, as with almost all current North American pop. It is implicit, for the most part.  The listener is allowed to come to the music, is treated as a listener rather than as a sonic receptacle.  This makes the experience more intimate.  Instead of hearing the singer’s melismatic or screaming ego interpreting the song, you hear the song that she is singing.  In that sense, the illusion of a shared experience is fostered.  Some great singers do this – Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson come to mind.  So does Siri.  Her silken, silvery voice is transparent to the music.

The arrangements are reasonably spare.  Although electronics are not eschewed, the sound is basically acoustic, based on guitars and keyboards.  Against this often arpeggiated background Siri floats melodies identifiably rooted in a folk and classical tradition. Occasionally, layers of lovely harmony are interposed, and a few songs end with drawn-out choral “aah.”  This enterprise is grounded in melody and harmony.   The melodies often sound familiar.  I don’t mean derivative.  One is conscious that one has never heard this melody before, but one also feels that one knows it.  Somebody once said of Richard Thompson words to the effect that he writes tunes that sound as if people have been singing them for three hundred years.  Siri’s tunes often have a similar feel – not quite as if they should be credited to “trad. anon.” but perhaps Trad. Anon.’s Cousin would do.  The melodies are often deceptively light; there’s that understatement again.  But it’s not the tired trope of setting pain to brightness, oh no.  I’ll say it; I am sick of irony.  This music is not ironic.  It may not blast you with its guts, but neither does it hide behind self-consciousness.

I don’t speak Norwegian, but I have a translation of the lyrics prepared by their author.  Siri’s mother, Shari, is a professional tranlator, and her verbal ability doesn’t seem to have skppped a generation.  If the lyrics are better in Norwegian than they are in English, this girl’s one hell of a songwriter.  The words are spare, clear, eloquent, with a gift for the elegant or surprising turn of phrase and the quietly apt image. They express concerns typical for a twenty-something – what is love and how to find it, how to know one’s path in life, how to deal with adversity.  They do so with intelligence, sensitivity, and the self awareness that results when self consciousness has matured.  I am as aware as anyone that an artist’s statements beginning with “I” are not necessarily autobiographical, but Siri seems to be working from experience.  “Where should you go/when every road leads to a wall/and in the wall is a dent/from old encounters with your head?”

The predominant mood is one of uncertainty and loss, with moments of happiness and moments of quite searing grief, and a playful liveliness running throughout.  It all feels earned and authentic and honest.  She is least convincing, I think, in the happy moments; but that is the thought of a man nearing sixty, who believes that happiness, that is, a sense of the rightness of things, is beyond the grasp of most young people, who experience happiness as some form of gratification.  In one song Siri expresses a deeper wisdom about happiness, but – I am guessing here – it still might be an intellectual insight for her, not yet fully realized.  There is also, I think, a hint that Siri has experienced greater heartbreak than the merely romantic.  The last verse of the last song on the record, Still Waters, says,

for I can cover things up and I
can patch things up and I
can pick up the pieces of everything that is broken
but nobody can save a grown man
who wants to disappear in still waters

Elsewhere, she says, “I have sold the title deed/to the family sorrow, and I will never ever go there again.”  One doesn’t want to read too much into it, but it seems that some family tragedy has touched her, and she has grown beyond it, and it has made her stronger and deeper and wiser.  More power to her, and may she continue to grow and to add to this beautiful, heartfelt, profound record of her growing.

This entry was posted on Sunday, December 18th, 2011 at 3:18 am and is filed under Music. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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