Valdis Muktupavels,
(UPE, 2002)

The Latvian kokles is one of a family of zithers that is common around the Baltic; similar instruments include the Finnish kantele, the Estonian kannel and the Norwegian langeleik. Its shimmering yet ringing sound is showcased on this two-CD set, the latest entry in UPE's Latvian Folk Music Collection.

Valdis Muktupavels is an ethnomusicologist and musician who is a central figure in the Latvian folk revival. He leads the Rasa Ensemble and is a member of a musical family (brother Maris Muktupavels is a member of Ilgi). On Kokles, Valdis also plays stabule (flute), svilpes (whistle), ganurags (hornpipe), giga (bowed monochord) and sings, but his mastery of the kokles is the core of the album.

One disc is devoted to traditional music played on the kokles, while the other contains Muktupavels' original compositions for the instrument. The traditional CD has many more tracks, but both discs are more or less the same length because the original pieces tend to be longer than the traditional ones. Muktupavels is the whole show on the traditional disc, but he has several musical guests on the other. Ruta Muktupavela of Ilgi (also Muktupavels' wife) sings on three tracks and Ilgi's Ilga Reizniece plays violin on "Prusu Vedibu Dziesma."

The traditional CD has few frills. Muktupavels plays the tunes simply, without much ornamentation. This is good if you want to learn the melody, but some listeners will want a bit more variety to the renditions; they will likely prefer the disc of original compositions. The traditional pieces are a mix of lively dance tunes and quieter song melodies; some sound rather similar to other pieces on the disc but most are varied enough to hold one's interest. More information about these tunes would be welcome, but the liner notes (in Latvian and English) discuss the kokles in more general terms. The 24 tunes are divided into three sections: dances, songs from Kurzeme, and songs and dances from Latgale. (Kurzeme and Latgale are the regions where kokles music survived into the present.) Any kokles player looking for traditional tunes to learn will probably wear this CD out.

Muktupavels stretches out on the other disc. His intent is to explore the range of sounds and moods of which the kokles is capable; many of the 11 pieces include other instruments. Most skirt the new age genre as they highlight the contemplative side of the kokles; "Briezu Balss" combines the kokles with overtone singing to excellent effect. "Gaisi" is a duet with the svilpes, which has a wavering, shrill tone a little reminiscent of Nordic birch-bark flutes. The svilpes takes some getting used to, but its sound grew on me. One long experimental piece, "Austrumu Blusz," combines kokles, tambura (played by Ludmila Zurkova), tabla (Rytis Kamicaitis) and bluesy guitar (Sergejs Ancupovs) for an intriguing journey. Another long piece, "Dzelternas Lapas Tumsaja Straume," did not hold my attention as successfully, although its use of sarod (Ancupovs) and tambura was interesting. "Rasas Supladziesma" is soft as a lullaby and is another of the tracks that include overtone singing. On this disc, Muktupavels proves that the kokles has a life beyond folk music. The variety of these pieces means most listeners will like some tunes more than others, but there is something for everybody here, and those who enjoy musical adventures will appreciate Muktupavels' vision.

More than two hours of kokles music may seem like an awful lot, but for anyone interested in the instrument or in Baltic music, this is an excellent album. Valdis Muktupavels has delivered an impressive musical dissertation on the kokles' past, present and future.

- Rambles
written by Jennifer Hanson
published 21 June 2003