Ruthie Dornfeld: Duets Abroad / Nils Olof Söderbäck and Peter Michaelsen: Kvarnresan, Journey to the Mill

Cover image for Ruthie Dornfield's Duets AbroadThese CDs taught me to listen before passing judgment. My initial impression of them when I got them for review was honestly less than enthusiastic. Both are acoustic, traditional, self-published, and packaged in very unassuming cardboard cases. On my first listen, using them as background while I did other tasks, I remember being quite pleasantly surprised at their quality and charm. On my second listen, when I was writing notes for this review, I found myself even more favorably impressed.

According to the bio on her website, fiddle player Ruthie Dornfeld has been performing and teaching at concerts, festivals, contra dances, schools and camps for over thirty years. Originally from Oregon, she lived for many years on the east coast, attended the Berklee College of Music, and traveled extensively to listen to and play traditional music. She currently lives in Seattle, and plays in a French cabaret band called Rouge and a medieval ensemble called Cinnamon Bird. Her website offers ten of her CDs for sale. Duets Abroad is the most recent of these.

As the title suggests, this CD is a compilation of duets featuring Dornfeld with another musician playing mostly traditional tunes from a variety of cultures. She performs with seven guest artists: four from Finland, one from Denmark, one from France and one from Hungary. Her liner notes indicate that the tunes were recorded during 2009 at studios in the towns where these guest artists lived. It also appears that she stayed with each guest artist while they were playing together–these are people she met at earlier stages in her life. So she experienced a really interesting journey while collecting the material for the album.

Duets Abroad runs nearly an hour in length and features twenty tracks, all instrumental and all abundantly listenable. On some tunes, Dornfeld plays violin; on others, she plays vielle, a medieval fiddle that sounds a bit like a violin but not entirely. Her musical partners add some nice complexities to the tunes, contributing such varied instruments as guitar, mandola, jaw harp, harmonica, 2-row accordion, singing bowls, Hungarian bagpipe and an assortment of flutes. I made particular note of track 4, a medley of two traditional Finnish tunes, one a stately minuet, the other a lively polska. The Transylvanian Shepherd’s flute, played by Tapani Varis on track 7, has an overtone quality that put me in mind of some of the jazzier pieces Ian Anderson did in the early years of Jethro Tull or the work of the Swedish-Finnish band Hedningarna, especially on Hippjokk.

After listening to this CD, I wanted to hear more of the albums listed on Dornfeld’s website.

On Kvarnresan, Journey to the Mill, fiddlers Söderbäck and Michaelsen have assembled twenty short tunes (just over fifty minutes’ worth of music) collected from villages in the rural areas of Sweden over the last thirty years. The brief liner notes explain that these musicians sought to preserve a slightly rough feel to the tunes, reflective of their origins. Thus the album was recorded straight through in Söderbäck’s barn in Oregon. Like Dornfeld, these musicians call the Pacific Northwest their home base. Makes me wonder what the connections are between this region of the United States and the cultures that inspired both of these CDs!

Again, all these tracks are instrumental. On most tracks, Söderbäck plays the melodies, Michaelsen plays the harmonies. Without guest artists, these are very simple and straightforward tunes. Overall, I would characterize them as stately rather than lively. They sound like they are in a walking rhythm, although track 3 (“Enviken vals”) is recognizably a waltz, and a number of the tracks are polskas. Very brief notes on the package tell the interested reader/listener the geographic origin of each piece–although you would need a good map of Sweden, or intimate familiarity with the countryside, to know where most of these places are!

Like Dornfeld, both of these musicians have websites that provided me with some background about them. It turns out that Soulfelt Music is Söderbäck’s personal label. In addition to Kvarnresan, the label offers two solo CDs from Söderbäck as well as offerings from two artists from India. According to his biography, Söderbäck traveled to India to study tabla and meditation. Born and raised in Sweden, he has degrees in ethnomusicology and music therapy. Michaelsen, his music partner on this outing, has been playing folk for over thirty years, specializing in Scandinavian fiddle tunes for the last twenty years. He calls Seattle home. Both men teach, conduct workshops, play at concerts and festivals, and in other ways share the music they clearly love.

In spite of their apparent obscurity, both of these delightful and eminently listenable CDs are readily available in physical and virtual formats from a variety of on-line sources.

Ruthie Dornfeld, 2010

Soulfelt Music, 2010

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