Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje: improvisational vocalist, electronics artist, composer. She’s been a member of the electro-acoustic quartet SPUNK since 1995, and has an extensive portfolio of work in various media – her life as a sound artist is beautifully portrayed in a new film, Voice – Sculpting Sound with Maja S. K. Ratkje (reviewed here). But her latest album release, Crepuscular Hour (Rune Grammofon) documents probably her most monumental work to date. It’s an hour-long piece, intended to be performed by three choirs, three pairs of noise musicians and the organ in a cathedral or similar environment.
Rune Grammofon’s Crepuscular Rays package includes the audio on CD or vinyl plus a film on DVD, both of which document an installation performance at the 2012 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Three North of England university choirs sound off against guitarist Stian Westerhus, saxophonist Antoine Chessex, multi instrumentalist Hild Sofie Tafjord, noise artists Phil Julian and Mark Durgan, and organist Nils Henrik Asheim.
The players surrounded the audience, with the noise musicians on stage and choirs on balconies and at floor level. The lighting rig was lowered to the stage floor to project light through performers and audience alike. The audience was unseated, free to move around immersed in radiance, shadow and sound, and the DVD (with 5.1 surround sound option) captures the ambience nicely.
The performance begins with a short, sharp soprano choral vocalisation that bleeds into Lasse Marhaug’s sound processing and bowed electric guitar- shimmering, translucent sounds over deep, lambent drones. Then a baritone chorus, accompanied by murmurous guitar effects, weighs in with solemnity.
As he piece develops, male and female choirs come variously into counterpoint. As to their effect, Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna is an obvious precedent, but Crepuscular Hour foregoes its delicacy to amplify the sense of awed cosmic/numinous revelation intimated by Lux Aeterna‘s use in 2001, a Space Odyssey. And this is only the climax to the 20 minute opening movement. Two thirds of the journey lie ahead.
Crepuscular Hour was inspired by texts from a codex discovered in upper Egypt in 1945, which offered new perspectives on early Christian history. Ratkje says she chose text fragments that touch on the origin of the world, “chaos and consolidation”, fragments that describe a female divinity who cautions that “imbalance still creates darkness and war.” On the DVD, unobtrusive subtitles spell out each lyric fragment.
Sometimes the music and the accompanying film linger on atmospherics, as when the slow tracery of a lunar eclipse is shown arcing behind light-shafted smoke. At other times individual performers are shown spot-lit, and knowing whether it’s Phil Julian’s laptop generations, Hild Sofie Tafjord’s more grainy noise processing, or both that’s currently thickening the brew, makes listening more aware and receptive.
Mark Durgan’s homemade electro-acoustic gizmos and the processed saxophony of Antoine Chessex are more often heard in solo or pure noise contexts, and seldom as subtly orchestrated as they are here. Westerhus is quite restrained, but he’s in his element in such a voluble and richly textured sound mass. Antoine Chessex’s saxophone, Hild Sofie Tafjord’s French horn and Westerhus’ bowing bridge the textural rift between the vocal performers and noise artists.
The end of the first movement brings a new beginning. Dry ice in the cathedral swaths an auricular mist of vocals and electronica. Here the ‘noise’ musicians and massed choirs play en bloc, but slowly the mood shifts, and a section of the chorus adopts a recitative style indebted to Eastern Orthodox liturgical singing, as is the music of Arvo Pärt. A massive irruption of church organ after about 46 minutes is certainly Pärt-like, though the atonal mashup with a reprise of the Lux Aeterna style it triggers certainly isn’t.
If some of the elements feeding into this piece are’t particularly original, the ways in which they are manipulated, and the merging of ‘noise’ and new music in a performance-cum-installation evidently makes for a near-awesome experience. Ratkje and conductor James Weeks marshal the massed forces at their disposal impressively throughout, particularly in a sustained climactic plateau and the eventual diffusion of accumulated tension.
The 24 (a capella choir); RNCM Chamber Choir; University of Huddersfield Chamber Choir; Stian Westerhus guitar and electronics; Hild Sofie Tafjord French horn and electronics; Phil Julian, Mark Durgan, Antoine Chessex and Lasse Marhaug electronics; Nils Henrik Asheim organ; James Weeks conductor.
Maja S.K. Ratkje, Ikue Mori, Evan Parker, John Wiese at Cafe Oto, 30 March 2012.
Stian Westerhus – The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers + Sidsel Endressen and Stian Westerhus – Didymoi Dreams.
Zeitkratzer & Keiji Haino – Stockhausen: Aus Den Sieben Tagen + Reinhold Friedl – KORE.
Buy Crepuscular Hour direct from Rune Grammofon.