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The Sound of Bornholm

BY: Sara B. Gildberg Foto: Anders Beier

The sound comes from within. The sound of ourselves. Closing our mouth keeps our voice inside, but we can still be heard by the world around us when we hum.

Bornholm musician Kristian Finne Kristensen, better known as ‘Chorus Grant’ and half of the duo ‘Cancer’, has just released his seventh album: ‘Underbelly’. His first solo album, on which the by now 40-year-old musician actually uses humming as his point of departure.

It all started during long walks pushing a pram with his newborn son along the winding pathways in the parks of Copenhagen’s Østerbro district. A familiar routine for most parents: long walks with a slumbering baby, as monotonous steps become a trance-like ramble of kilometres and thoughts. He would hum as he walked. Short, improvised and intuitive melodies that slowly emerged in his consciousness.

We’ve agreed to meet on one of the first real summery days of the year in blazing sunshine, with the sounds of the city as a rumbling acoustic backdrop. Slowly this is replaced by birdsong and buzzing insects as we enter Østre Anlæg park. This was where he went for his pram-pushing walks, humming along the way, until one day he became aware of the improvised tones and started recording them on his smartphone. We walk through the park together, each of us holding a cup of coffee that Kristian bought for us at Den Franske Café overlooking Sortedam Lake. The enthusiasm with which talks about his latest album project would make any revivalist preacher envious. He gesticulates, eyes lighting up, as he describes the universal quality, the connected commonality of sound, and how humming is the most primitive, intuitive way that we humans produce sound, melody and tones with our vocal chords. “I could just feel that it was bigger than me somehow,” he explains. It is precisely this universal quality and the unarticulated, inherent melodies around which Kristian’s sensory and experimental ‘Underbelly’ revolves, comprising both an album and a podcast.

We sit on a bench overlooking a backlit lake near the National Gallery of Art. He describes what it was like to grow up on Bornholm: “Everyone knows that Bornholm is an area of outstanding beauty whose unique qualities aren’t found anywhere else. It’s an island of contrasts and magnificent beauty in all sorts of ways, but also a place that conceals a brutality of sorts. An underlying fierce intensity, reminiscent of a quality you find among indigenous peoples and tribal societies. A mystic quality pervades the island and an ethos that somehow links times and places in a kind of pivotal sanctuary.” Time seems to stand still when Kristian talks about his music and his relationship to Bornholm, but I soon realise that you could fry an egg on my black jeans in this scorching sunlight, so we get up and find a different bench shaded by pale green leaves. Kristian lights the first of a succession of red Kings and removes a stack of yellow Post-Its from his breast pocket with notes written in black marker pen. Well-prepared and well-thought out. The words ‘the Bornholm guy’ are written in capital letters in quotation marks on the first. Being known as ‘the Bornholm guy’ as a young musician was an almost unavoidable label, and as Kristian thinks

back on what his Bornholm background has meant to him, he answers: “Well, I’ve always felt that I was well-liked due to my Bornholm origins. And I’ve always felt connected to the sea, too. Perhaps because I was surrounded by water throughout my childhood.”

Kristian pulls out another yellow Post-It on which ‘Bornholm surrounded by the sea’ is written. He explains how his affiliation with the sea runs deeper. It’s a place where he finds calm – preferably alone. “Obviously, others may be a little vexed by my urge to go down to the sea, almost daily and preferably alone. That’s also why I like living here in the Østerbro district, because the sea’s close by.”

His penthouse flat on Øster Farimagsgade, where he now lives, is also mentioned on a yellow Post-It. “Like a boat, like a cabin, you can sail around the world in it.” To him, the flat is a free space for reflecting, imagining and exploring his thoughts. Which is precisely the impression I have of Kristian Finne Kristensen. There’s no hotshot bravado or rock star attitude about him. I’m talking to an artist who is exploring and personally investing in his artistic project with an almost autistic insistence on thoroughly considering every aspect.

The journey from his childhood home in Knudsker (near Rønne) to the Conservatory of Music in Copenhagen and pursuing a musician’s career in the US started when, at the age of 16, he and his band ‘Softporn’ won the Danish rock music championships and he moved alone from Bornholm to Copenhagen – from the rocky island to a dark basement flat in the suburb of Husum. He describes his years in Copenhagen as ‘reasonably rock n’ rollish’. “It was exhilarating. All we did was play our hearts out, dream big dreams and pursue lofty ambitions,” he explains. This soon resulted in an international record contract, and the band changed its name from ‘Softporn’ to ‘The River Phoenix’.

Thinking back, he realises how very young and maybe even vulnerable he was: “I recall having to turn on this little round red lamp, a night light, you know, so it wasn’t pitch dark at night. I’d brought it with me to Copenhagen. I think I found the soft light comforting, something familiar from my bedroom back home. All of a sudden, I was quite alone and actually very young and unproven.”

His musical development from then to now includes three releases under his stage name ‘Chorus Grant’, two albums with the duo ‘Cancer’ and the hit ‘Echo Valley’ from ‘The River Phoenix’ album ‘Ritual’, that became the first song to ever replace the classic ‘Bornholm, Bornholm, Bornholm’ emanating from the ferry’s loudspeakers as it docks in Rønne.

But where did his musicality and artistic fervour actually come from? Kristian tells how his childhood home wasn’t ‘filled with music’, but that his father as a young lad played bass in the Bornholm band ‘The Vanguards’, who were immensely popular with their electric pop music à la the Clifters in the mid-1960s. “He played for only a few years before work, kids and life took over, but some of the best moments with my father were when we talked about those times and shared our love of music.” The field of tension between community and solitude – like humming to himself and sharing the sound with others at the same time – was apparently a key theme in the creation of the album ‘Underbelly’. Although his teenage Bornholm years seem like a distant past,

he remains keenly aware of and influenced by them to this day. During the first Covid lockdown, he experienced driving from his holiday-home exile in Store Lyngby Skov to the closest grocery shop and feeling the exact same joy and enthusiasm he’d experienced in his teenage years on Bornholm. “I was alone in the car and suddenly thought: ‘Why the hell am I so happy?’. I had the same feeling when I was a teenager cruising around on Bornholm. Alone with time and space for thoughts, immersed in nature and with time to spare to pursue thoughts down all sorts of rabbit holes.”

Only a few yellow notes remain. The last one reads, ‘Something out of the ordinary’, which could refer to his exploration of hummed melodies symphonically merging on the ‘Underbelly’ album with expressive recorded layers of sounds of classical guitar, organs and real life. The lad from Knudsker who’d pursued his passion for music across the Baltic while still a teenager, has not only matured, but is emboldened, as well: “I’ve always focused on making this an unpretentious project. Rather than turn my heart inside out with lyrical texts about feelings, I let the music decide and the unsaid speak.”

We’ve finished drinking our coffees long ago, so we make our way out of Østre Anlæg’s peaceful park back to rumbling traffic, before bidding farewell. I feel that we could’ve kept talking about music, immersion and Bornholm until late in the evening. Kristian Finne Kristensen truly has something to say, a special insight that he enthusiastically wants to communicate. My thoughts keep returning to our conversation. To what extent do the sounds of the sea, surrounding Kristian in his childhood, help shape his music? Does his humming produce the same sense of freedom that he’d experienced as a teenager, because his inner tones emanate in a spontaneous musical flow like the realisations emanating from the undisturbed trains of thought in his youth? Are any of us even aware of how the cacophony of everyday sounds influence us? I shut out the sounds of the city with ‘Underbelly’ playing in my EarPods as I bike home.


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