Velimir Pavle Ilic meets Susanna and her Magical Orchestra, a troupe putting Norway on the musical map...
You might associate Norway with Eurovision and 'nil points', but today's cutting edge Norwegian music eclipses all that song contest nonsense and is actually in very rude health.
Over the last seven years or so, the exciting proliferation of jazz, electronica, improv and contemporary music has risen to almost epic proportions, as young generations of adventurous musicians cross genres and collaborate with peers to create vibrant hybrids and compelling sounds.
The most recent focus has been the music of Susanna Wallumr?d and Morten Qvenild, otherwise known as Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, who are set to play the Big Chill festival in August at Eastnor Castle.
Their visionary debut album - 2004's List Of Lights And Buoys on acclaimed esoteric Norwegian label Rune Grammofon - was one of last year's most celebrated releases, leaving in its wake a litany of fawning superlatives from music critics the world over.
Minimal and pastoral in approach, the 'less is more' tenet definitely pays off here. What really sets it apart is Wallumr?d's distinctive vocal style, delivered as though on the verge of sleep or complete exhaustion.
Her beautifully fragile voice (complete with fantastic Norwegian twang) and Qvenild's delicate, spectral electronics combine to fashion an austere and utterly awe-inspiring sound that threatens to lull anyone within earshot into a melting stupor.
The album's zenith has to be the extraordinary reworking of Dolly Parton's Jolene, as Wallumr?d's unadorned whispers plumb hitherto untapped depths of sadness. Along with an exquisitely brittle version of Leonard Bernstein's Who Am I? it's one of many inspiring moments on an exemplary set.
"We have tried doing a lot of covers," explains Qvenild. "These two tunes work out very well because we made them ours by solving them musically in our own way. It's not like you think: 'Oh, here's someone doing that Dolly Parton thing again'.
"A lot of bands do covers that sound like the original. People will hopefully still think that we are Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, even if we play a cover. I think that's what makes it a bit special, and of course these songs are brilliant to begin with."
Hailing from a small Norwegian town called Kongsberg, Qvenild and Wallumr?d were aware of each other but finally hooked up in 2000, when both had moved independently to Oslo.
Wallumr?d was looking for a piano player to work with, Qvenild agreed to help her out and Susanna and the Magical Orchestra were born.
The pair came to the attention of Rune Grammofon boss Rune Kristoffersen after he got hold of a demo featuring versions of Jolene and Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.
While Wallumr?d was relatively unknown at the time, Qvenild had been a member of Norwegian experimental jazz outfit Jaga Jazzist - having recruiting former bandmate Andreas Mj?s and the legendary Helge Sten (aka Deathprod) as producers, they set about repaying Kristoffersen's faith in them and began to create the gorgeous crystalline murmurings of List Of Lights And Buoys, but even Qvenild must have been taken aback by the album's glittering plaudits.
"I sensed during the process that we made some really communicating stuff. Sometimes we were blown away by how the music developed - I had this feeling afterwards that we had achieved something important.
"Actually, when the record came out, I was very afraid because I hoped that people would share my feelings about this music. I didn't really know if they would but they did, and of course that's fantastic for us."
At the core of the album are themes of love, loss and regret, but the maturity of the songs is astounding, given the duo's relatively tender years (both are in their twenties). Whether through bitter personal experiences or vivid imagination, this is incredibly moving stuff.
"We have both had our hard times," concurs Qvenild, "but I think we also have the ability to see other people and their stories. We couldn't have made this album so truthful if it wasn't for a certain amount of personal experience and compassion with others."
Emotional empathy apart, it isn't easy to categorise this music into glib reference points, although comparisons have ranged from Bj^rk and Stina Nordenstam through to electronica innovators such as Fennesz or The Postal Service.
"The most important one here is Nordenstam," says Qvenild.
"Bj^rk has also been important to us and I listened a lot to Vespertine in the period before I started to do electronics. Generally, I understand that people have to compare music, but the picture of influences is so diverse that I really don't know where to start.
"For me this is a history of strong personal experiences with lots of different stuff that inspired me to go home and develop my own musical kitchen. My main influence is the sound of the voice.
"That's the most lyrical and personal instrument there is, and I try to relate everything I do to the idea of this sound. It's the measure of something being organic or artificial."
Aside from touring and working on the next Susanna album, Qvenild's prolific output also extends to his piano trio project In The Country (check out their This Was The Pace Of My Heartbeat album) and a solo concept centred around piano and electronic music.
"Besides fly fishing - I just bought a fantastic new rod today, far too expensive - that solo thing is my hobby right now, and I'm enjoying having all the time in the world to get it finished. Most people do solo records when they are 40 and upwards. And I can still fish if I don't make it!"