Hal & Nikolaj: Music from the Edge of the World

By Morten Alfred Høirup |

“We had been in Australia to play some concerts and see some of my old friends, and on the way home we were to fly via Papua New Guinea and Thailand for a bit of a holiday. But the GPS in our small aircraft was on the blink, and we got lost out over the ocean. The weather was terrible, visibility poor, we thought we were goners. We crash-landed in the water near what we thought was an island.”

One summer morning, we are sitting in the little kitchen of my fourth-floor flat in the Danish capital, Copenhagen. For centuries, Copenhagen has been a trading and cultural centre for travellers from all over Europe and the rest of the world, and it was here the Danish poet and fairy-tale author, Hans Christian Andersen, lived for most of his life. “To travel is to live!”, were his words, and he knew what he was on about, since he really was one of the most widely-travelled artists of his day.

Now, 137 years after Andersen left the building, I’m here with two of Denmark’s most brilliant roots and folk musicians, violinist, singer and multi-instrumentalist, Hal Parfitt-Murray, and pianist and keyboard-player, Nikolaj Busk. Together they are the Danish duo Hal and Nikolaj.

Hal Parfitt Murray has an English mother and a Scots father, grew up in Australia, and now lives in Denmark with his wife and their children. Nikolaj Busk is Danish born, but on his way to Sweden to continue his studies in musical composition.

These two musicians and composers have an unusual and thought-provoking story to tell, of an experience which has had a deep influence on their work this past six months. It is the story of how they came to spend three intense months at the Edge of the World, a sojourn that lead directly to the creation of their second duo album Music from The Edge of the World.

Journey to the edge of the World

“We were saved by a local fisherman, who towed our plane in to the shore,” relates Hal, and goes on, “He took us to his home and fed and warmed us. He spoke a strange form of English, which we understood only partly. It was mixed up with   what I think were Maori words, some Asiatic language I didn’t recognise, some French, some German… We couldn’t find the island on any of our maps.”

Nikolaj breaks in, “But the local people told us we had come to the land they called The Edge of the World.”

Hal: “Of course, at first we couldn’t take it seriously. We know that the world doesn’t end, it’s round. Everybody knows that!”

Nikolaj: “But it’s not so!”

Hal: “No, it’s not! I think we must be among the first to visit The Edge of the World, and come back to tell of it. It’s dangerous, because you risk being sucked over the brink and into the abyss, or worse…!”

Hal and Nikolaj had known each other for years without playing together, then one day a couple of years back, Nikolaj heard one of Hal’s solo concerts. That launched the well-reviewed duo, and soon followed their first album – an album that won that year’s titles of Debut of the Year and Composer of the Year at the Danish Music Awards Folk. Now here comes their second duo album.

The album Music from the Edge of the World  consists, according to Hal and Nikolaj, partly of traditional melodies and songs they learned from the old tradition-bearers at The Edge of the World, and partly of music they composed themselves, inspired by their stay there, but influenced by a variety of other material. “We both have a grounding in modern music, jazz, electronica and classical music,” Nikolaj and Hal explain:

“It’s hard to say how conscious we are of sources when we are composing. It’s a product of everything we hear. We write long, complicated melodies, because we listen to long, complicated music every day. All composition, I suppose, is no more than the result of everything you have listened to through the years, mashed up in a big pot and poured out over the table. What you write is just the product of everything you have heard!”

Nikolaj smiles and adds a “Hallelujah!”

The wind organ

As an example of the powerful inspiration they experienced at The Edge of the World, Hal and Nikolaj tell of the day they went with some of the locals out to the actual edge, where the great fall begins. It is here they see for the first time the Wind Organ. Nikolaj says, “The Edge itself is a very holy place for these people. They do not talk of it as a place, but as a Moment of Recognition. Hal continues:

”There are monks who live on the mountain-top, and you can actually see the Edge from their monastery. The air is always so clear up there because of the strong winds that blow over the Edge. The monks observe many complicated rituals, some of which involve this enormous instrument which is built into the cliff. They call it the Wind Organ, it is a huge thing, and the caves in the mountainside form part of its massive pipes, so that it is the whole mountain that plays music. The reeds in these gigantic organ pipes vibrate in the blast of the wind that roars over the Edge of the World. I don’t remember how many octaves the Wind Organ spans, but the sound is incredibly loud. It takes 10 to 15 musicians to play the organ, each with a five-tiered keyboard. The most delicate tones come from pipes of ice, and the combined sound is amazingly powerful because of the strength of the wind blasting through it all.”

Hal and Nikolaj tell that they have an example of the music played on the Wind Organ on their album. The track is entitled Music for Looking Over The Edge. They try to be as faithful as possible to the music from The Edge of the World, but they do not have the same instruments at their disposal. The Danish duo play violin, piano, accordion, oud, mandolin and more, and they also use electronic instruments, “So that it sounds like the real thing,” as Hal puts it.

“But the music from The Edge of the World is not really so very different from what we are used to,” says Nikolaj. “It has a good deal in common with Scandinavian music, with middle eastern music, and others, because the people who live at The Edge of the World are descendants of people from all over the world.”

Hal explains, “They are descended from sailors who drifted ashore there. In 1794, I think it was, a shipload of prisoners bound for Australia ran aground at The Edge of the World. That was the first ship with women aboard, which was fortunate, for then the population could continue and survive.”

On tour with music from the edge of the World

Finally, after three months living with the inhabitants at The Edge of the World, sharing their ups and downs, the pair managed, with help from their new friends, to repair the aircraft they came in. Thus it was that they, perhaps the first to do so, succeeded in leaving The Edge of the World and returning to Denmark.

Now Hal and Nikolaj have recorded an album of music from The Edge of the World. There’s more. In early 2013 they set out again, this time with two local girl singers. Then they will present the music from their album Music from the Edge of the World at music venues and festivals in Denmark and abroad, for to travel is to live, as Hans Christian Andersen says!

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