Here’s a quote from Norwegian composer Øyvind Torvund:
“My chief concern is keeping an open approach…trying to combine several kinds and levels of elements. Contrasts, juxtapositions and completely opposite perspectives interest me because I believe that there is a lot happening around and beneath the ordinary musical framework, and a lot of unconscious forces to be explored.”
Asamisimasa Plays the Music of Øyvind Torvund pays testament to that. There’s so much going on in these chamber pieces* – incorporating improvisation and precise notation, seriousness and humour – that an initial attempt to sit through all four in a single hour-long sitting, left me twitchy and nonplussed. Yet the density and animist immediacy of the music proves compulsive.
Asamisimasa, an ensemble founded in 2001 to explore new and repertoire avant-garde music, has previously worked with composers Helmut Lachenmann, Alvin Lucier and Brian Ferneyhough, among others. Of the five principals, I know Tanja Orning from her work with the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble (cf. Outstairs (ECM, 2013)), and Håkon Stene for his solo album Lush Laments for Lazy Mammal (Hubro, 2014), which also featured Orning.
Oyvund himself plays noise and/or tapes on three out of the four pieces here. On “Neon Forest Space” (for clarinet, electric guitar, percussion, cello and tape), the ensemble plays an abstract form of call-and-response to Oyvund’s forrest field-recordings, while on “Wolf Studies” they accompany tapes of wolves. “Willibald Motor Landscape” features more diverse sounds, sourced or “collected” by Torvund from Oslo’s streets, alongside “musical ornaments” and conversations transcribed into music. And “as in every collection,” as the booklet notes note, “there is the feeling of ‘too much of something’ … more ornaments than the ear may ask for.”
On “Willibald Motor Landscape”, for clarinets, electric guitar, keyboard, percussion, cello and tape, the mixology includes harpsichord-like guitar trills that recall Yes circa Fragile, though a truer point of comparison might be Matmos, and albums such as The West and The Civil War that splice playfully innovative sound processing with ‘period’ acoustic instrumentation. Delightful as Torvund’s sprightly movements for cello and/or clarinet and power tool are, however, his music is more abstruse and demanding than Matmos’. Elsewhere in this landscape, street sounds emerge from a rich ensemble drone, tyres on wet roads running up spumes of clarinet.
Those forest sounds on Neon Forest Space are initially subsumed by raw noise and instrumentation that includes cello and clarinet besides unplaceable hisses, twangs (of electric guitar?) and whirrs, plus an unmistakable toy laser gun. The use of cello and clarinet, here and throughout the album, sometimes evokes Charles Ives’ bricolage of New England Americana, but Torvund is properly postmodern, and restlessly magpie eclectic. Halfway in, there’s a sudden irruption of distorted, Tom Waits-alike hobo percussion, mutating to jungle drums on a fade to background birdsong, and a concluding movement of abstract chamber music.
After the opening brace of multi-section pieces, “Wolf Studies” and “Plastic Waves” are more focused. The wolves on the former make their presence felt throughout in whimpers, howls and barks, as live-collaged clarinets, trombone, acoustic guitar, percussion and strings thread through Torvund’s spooling tapes like turntablism, as if (sound)tracking a wolf litter from dawn to dusk.
“Plastic Waves”, for piano, clarinets, electric guitar, percussion, cello and noise generator, begins with riffles of snare drum and ghosted electric guitar, but waves of piano soon break over them. The piano feature – the closest anyone gets to a solo – was apparently inspired by Cecil Taylor and Conlon Nancarrow’s music for player-piano, but Ellen Ugelvik doesn’t get a clear run at untangling the complexities Torvund wrote into her part; she’s constantly interrupted by bursts of Frippertronic ambience and, more often, harsh, disruptive noise. The entry of earthy clarinet leads to a full ensemble denouement of acoustic sampladelia.
Best taken one at a time, or spliced with timeouts, these complex pieces are blessed by vigorously animated performances, making them compulsively enjoyable.
Øyvind Torvund noise generator, feedback and cassette players; Kristine Tjøgersen clarinets, harmonica, whistling; Anders Førisdal electric and acoustic guitars; Håkon Stene percussion, sampler, electric drill, cardboard box, amplified water bottle, milk steamer, toy lazer gun; Tanja Orning cello; Ellen Ugelvik piano, keyboards + (on “Wolf Studies” only) Torild G. Berg trombone; Karin Hellqvist violin.
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* For details of Torvund’s other music, including solo pieces and works for orchestra and Sinfonietta, see oyvindtorvund.com.