This is the first studio album by Oslo’s Ensemble neoN, an eclectic but (oddly) coherent collection of five pieces of new music – music by Alvin Lucier, Oren Ambarchi and James Rushford, neoN clarinetist Kristine Tjøgersen, and resident composers Julian Skar and Jan Martin Smørdal.
They won a Norwegian Grammy Award for a collaborative album with Susanna Wallumrød, The Forester, in 2013, and trailed a piece by Jørgen Munkeby, 30-something frontman of The Shining, for inclusion here. It hasn’t materialised, but it’s interesting to know they considered it.
The album opens with Tjøgersen’s “Travelling Light”, which brief liner notes by Jenny Hval perceptively compare to the animation of Jan Svankmajer: there’s an unsettling, stop-start surreality to its prepared piano and percussion parts, and a similarly edgy darkness to its string shimmers and saw-tone shivers.
Smørdal’s constantly changeable “My Favorite Thing”, up next, is even more cartoonish, a frantic industry of fragmentary microsound that settles, at length, into passages of relative stillness. Tension’s maintained by a flux of agitative birdsong clarinet, trilling strings, and the muted gamelan blooms of prepared piano into which the piece eventually lapses, in a settling cushioned by softly bowed strings.
Ambarchi and Rushford’s “Monocots” marks a fairly radical turn of pace, its six quasi-meditative minutes constructed from intervals of more or less gently picked guitar, softly blown flute, and sound-sensory poured water, all silenced, at intervals, by obfusc whispers.
Alvin Lucier’s piece has even purer form. Born in 1931, and co-founder, in 1966, of the Cage- and Tudor-inspired Sonic Arts Union, which arguably set the template for ensembles like neoN, Lucier’s the biggest name here. But neoN have selected one of his most recent pieces, “Two Circles” (2012) – for flute, bb clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, accompanied by pre-recorded sine waves. It evolves through incremental, episodic variations enlivened by soft touches of percussion or piano, inducing a feeling of bewitched serenity queered by shimmering, off-pitch drones, which neoN spin into an extended time-lapse atmosphere: wavering tones dosed with unease by sympathetic acoustic touches. This 18 minutes is utterly engrossing – so much so that, like Hval, I didn’t notice the transition to Julian Skar’s “Kunsten å tvile”.
This album’s final piece reconciles, to some extent, the album’s earlier mood shift. It begins becalmed, an auricular sea mist of fluting and thin reeds sounds ghosted by the airy, wordless soprano vocal of Silje Aker Johnsen. But then there’s a dramatic change, a sudden onrush of turbulence that the ensemble pushes through, stresses evident in teeth-rattling piano ivories and Johnsen’s voice, now gasping, until an orchestral surge heralds a watershed gong-strike, a new stillness, then further stylized and increasingly heightened orchestral drama.
Hval thinks, but doesn’t feel compelled to confirm, that Johnsen’s last gasp, after all that strange weather, is a defiant “but I refuse“.
The most striking thing about this collection, above the flare of its realisation, is the boldness of its conception. The pieces by Lucier and Ambarchi and Rushford stretch the album’s fabric in ways that anything more obviously sympathetic to the neoN composers’ own works (a piece by Øyvind Torvund, perhaps) probably wouldn’t. End-to-end listening left me feeling rather frayed, but exhilarated.
Jan Martin Smørdal composer; Julian Skar composer; Kristine Tjøgersen composer, clarinet; Magnus Loddgard conductor; Karin Hellqvist violin; Inga Byrkjeland cello; Heloisa Amaral piano; Silje Aker Johnsen soprano; Ida Kristine Zimmermann Olsen saxophone; Yumi Murakami flute; Solmund Nystabakk guitar; Ane Marthe Sørlien Holen percussion.
Asamisimasa – Asamisimasa Plays the Music of Øyvind Torvund.
Apartment House – Antanas Rekašius: Fonogramatika.
Zeitkratzer & Keiji Haino / Reinhold Friedl – Stockhausen: Aus Den Sieben Tagen / KORE.
Jenny Hval & Susanna – Meshes of Voice.