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It's a curious thing how ancient music can sometimes sound so contemporary. Listen to "Morgunstjarna," and it's as if three centuries' worth of music history evaporates. The anonymous song from 17th-century Iceland sports a catchy, bittersweet melody and rhythmic hook that pop outfits like Peter Bjorn and John might be happy to whistle.
But "Morgunstjarna" is no pop song. It is, in fact, a hymn to Jesus, "my star of the morn." It's sung in the traditional Icelandic Tvísöngur ("twin singing") style, in which two vocal parts closely intermingle.
As the song opens, one of those "twin" voices is actually the breathy, atmospheric trumpet of Arve Henriksen. He appears throughout the new album Rímur, by the vocal ensemble Trio Mediaeval. The result is music that seems old and new at once. (In that sense, it's not unlike a previous project on the ECM label, Officium, which paired Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek with the Hilliard Ensemble.)
Anna Maria Friman, in husky voice, offers a perfect patina over Henriksen's slightly jazzy trumpet. Her colleagues Linn Andrea Fuglseth and Berit Opheim join in after the first stanza, providing an ambling beat. After the second stanza, Fuglseth takes flight, soaring beautifully above the groove. For a few moments, we're caught up in a heavenly swirl of improvisation. There's a repeat of the opening lines and we gently touch back down to earth — a little lost in time, perhaps, but smiling.