If one would pick up a practice as a musician, one wouldn’t normally pick up the kantele as a focus. Of Finnish descent, this instrument that features close to 40-strings, whose closest relatives are a hammered dulcimer, zither, or a Japanese koto, requires nearly devotional study to accurately pick up all its nuances and capabilities. Intricate damping methods, complex plucking technique, and relatively tight string spacing make for an instrument that has historically/traditionally been friendly to female musicians. Few instruments require a certain kind of intimate sensitivity and dexterity to play them, but a kantele requires it by the tonnage a reason. It’s a certain physiology. For thousands, upon thousands of years, there’s just something about its sound that is intrinsically special, that requires a special kind of sacrifice. Such is the case of Sylvan Grey’s Recurring Dream: Music for the Kantele.
Released in 1989 by Fortuna Records, home of other brilliant New Age artists like Steve Roach, David Parsons, and Masayuki Koga, the finished album was a product of nearly 9 years of gestation. You see, little is known of Sylvan Grey. What we know is that when Sylvan was a young college student she took a trip to Finland and fell in love with the sound of the kantele. After taking a few lessons with master Finnish kantele teacher Ulla Katajavuori, she completed her masters degree, and devoted herself to composing for the instrument. In 1981, she released her first album Ice Flowers Melting: Music for the Kantele, The Finnish Folk Zither which married all sorts of unique musics together — Celtic, Asian, Americana, and ambient — into a powerful treatise for the unity of traditions. Simply beautiful, its tracks showed Sylvan combining all sorts of arpeggiation and resonating tones from her kantele into streams of melodies that could affect unlikely, affecting tones that most would get through synthesis or effects.
It took Sylvan another 9 years of study and composition to create the music of Recurring Dream: Music for the Kantele. When you listen to her performance, it’s the little things that add up to its big palette of color. Focus on her use of volume. Focus on her play with reverb. It’s music that grows in stature the more you pay attention to it. Play it softly, and it’s mystical, and delicate. Now, this is where it requires practice: play it louder, and it’s sonorous, and utterly sublime. Anyway, enough of my gushing, I’ll let Fortuna take it from here:
Recurring Dream is inspired by those elusive visions that fascinate us – the time just before waking, shadows in the rain, scenes that visit our sleep again and again, and the icy light accompanying these nighttime images. These original compositions by Sylvan Grey contain sensitively phrased melodies and delicious harmonies. Grey produces a lush, full sound from the kantele by skillfully adding bell-like accents, ringing harmonics, arpeggios, and delicate ostinatos. The music is both exciting and intimate. Solidly constructed, it appeals to our intellect as well as our emotions.
…or as a wise man said once before: dream baby dream.