Musicians, composers and folk music scholars The Rheingans Sisters release their third album Bright Field on 23rd March 2018, on Rootbeat Records (RBRCD39). Since their award winning album Already Home (2015) the duo have cemented their reputation as an unmissable live act on the folk and world music stage, captivating audiences across the UK, Europe and Australia. As full-hearted and graceful performers, arrangers and on-stage improvisors, theirs is a rich artistic approach to the deconstruction and reimagining of traditional music via the adventurous use of fiddles, voices, banjo, bansitar, tambourin à cordes, poetry and percussion. Their poignant compositions have also gained them many new fans and a busy night at the 2016 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, where they won the prestigious Best Original Track award for their song ‘Mackerel’ alongside a nomination in the Horizon category for Best New Act.
While Anna Rheingans lives and works as a musician and violin teacher in Toulouse, Rowan Rheingans is one of the most in demand musicians on the UK folk scene today. She has been kept busy with no less than four other notable releases over the past two years; her trio Lady Maisery’s critically acclaimed third album Cycle as well as Nancy Kerr’s astonishing Instar, Welsh songwriter Gwyneth Glyn’s debut album Tro and the remarkable Songs Of Separation project, which won the BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for Best Album in 2017.
A spacious, adventurous and quietly revealing album, Bright Field is The Rheingans Sisters first collection of newly composed music. If Already Home told listeners where the fiddle-singing duo were coming from, both in their pan-European musical scholarship (Anna and Rowan have studied in France, Sweden, Norway and Ireland) and in their vivacious nurturing of connections between the folk music of different geographical origins, then Bright Field tells us where they are going and explores more deeply than ever the grounded yet experimental artistic approach with which they travel. It is also a more reflective album, drawing on their own personal experiences of the world and finding expression for this via their unique take on musical knowledge passed down through generations.
Although Bright Field is a powerfully personal album, Rowan and Anna’s approach to telling their own stories remains one of openness; just as their performances leave room for spontaneity, their compositions leave room for new interpretations. It was after the success of their award-winning song ‘Mackerel’, which was based on a specific true event and yet evidently resonated with so many, that the sisters’ realised the artistic power of harnessing this musical space:
The sisters’ divergent but symmetrical musical journeying, in Southern France and Scandinavia in particular, remain a central thread of inspiration for Bright Field. For example, Rowan’s dark poem-song ‘This Forest’ – an existential lament on the idea of humanity’s historical progress – is intentionally constructed along the lines of a traditional French Rondeau, giving the song a fittingly relentless cyclical rhythm which carries on in the mind long after hearing it. Likewise, ‘Green Unstopping’ teases listeners with a dreamlike series of half-seen images of environmental catastrophe and potential for redemption. It toys with the comforting form of a traditional dance melody, but refuses to let listeners settle via deftly changing time signatures and a fluidity of genre eventually leading to a pop sensibility almost reminiscent of Swedish pop giants (and fellow folk fans) ABBA.
Anna’s recent travels also permeate her compositions. Bright Field’s sparse opening track ‘Glattugla ‘was written last year while Anna was studying in Norway. A contemporary, almost minimalist piece inspired by a dark winter spent in the far north, it is imbued with the stylistic elements of Scandinavian fiddle playing while half retaining the shapes of old dance music from Anna’s adopted home in South West France. Similarly, her poetic song ‘Appel’ (the long-awaited solo of Anna’s soft and almost bluesy vocals, accompanied sparingly by Rowan on an earthy low strung baritone banjo) captures a timeless yearning for other landscapes.
fRoots magazine once commented that The Rheingans Sisters “inject genuine freshness into well-worn themes and ideas” and this remains a central endeavour on Bright Field. Unable to resist including one traditional melody, Anna and Rowan efficiently deconstruct and rebuild in their signature style ‘Lo Segoner’, a Branle from the Béarn region of France. It soars under the wings of Anna and Rowan’s spirited playing, punctuated by the low drones of Anna’s Ttun-ttun, a Pyrenean string drum, and high pitched flabuta (a three holed flute played simultaneously). This old melody, joyfully stretched and pulled, becomes something quite different when the sisters’ vocal chorus climaxes over raw, muscular fiddles and an ancient, gut-strung bassline. ‘Xaviers/The Honeybee’, both newly written bourrées, retain the very best of these infectious, energetic old dance forms while Rowan and Anna use them to explore new rhythmic and harmonic places. Once again, The Rheingans Sisters’ music is anchored in tradition but never, ever bound.
Produced by the sisters themselves, Bright Field was recorded and mixed in Abergavenny by Dylan Fowler, also responsible for their critically acclaimed 2015 album Already Home as well as other recent records from the more innovative end of the British folk scene, such as Lady Maisery’s Cycle, Gwyneth Glyn’s Tro and Hannah James’ Jigdoll, as well as world music star Tcha Limberger and folk-rock legend Robin Williamson. As can be expected, Rowan and Anna play a plethora of instruments on Bright Field, many of them handmade by their luthier father Helmut Rheingans. Musically it centres around the sisters’ expansive and imaginative use of their fiddles, banjos and voices, but they also invite in other sounds such as Dylan Fowler’s subtle percussion and the peaceful voice of Welsh storyteller Dafydd Davies-Hughes.
Bright Field goes beyond bonds to specific traditions while remaining unquestionably steeped in the The Rheingans Sisters’ life-long love and study of traditional music. Fans of Rowan and Anna’s previous albums will welcome this richly detailed, poetic and timely record dedicated to the duo’s considerable skills as composers of arresting instrumentals and writers of timeless songs. This is the kind of record many folk fans will have been hoping The Rheingans Sisters would soon create. New listeners can look forward to a wholly different kind of introduction to these two musicians at the height of their powers.
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‘Lo Segoner’ – official video: