Jexper HOLMEN (b.1971)
Oort Cloud (2008) [41:40]
Martin Stig ANDERSEN (b.1973)
Cosmogyral Echo (2010) [14:00]
Torben Snekkestad (soprano saxophone)
Frode Andersen (accordion)
Frode Haltli (accordion)
rec. Engholm Church, Copenhagen, December 2009. DDD
DACAPO 8.226562 [56:23]
If prizes were awarded on the basis of user-unfriendliness, this CD would be in line for a Pulitzer. To begin with there is the glossy 24-side booklet - with nothing on any of the pages but strings of apparently random letters, looking like computer printout run amok. How on earth to tell what is on the CD? Step one, take the disc itself and read the text that spirals around it in ever-decreasing circles. That supplies recording details, engineers' names, instrumentalists' names, works' titles, composers' names and some legal warnings. The clue for step two is also there: "Further information www.dacapo-records.dk". Unfortunate for those who come across the disc in a shop - but it could be that this release is altogether too 21st century for shops.
According to the Dacapo website - and anyone considering buying this will need this link - this is the world première recording of Jexper Holmen's "international breakthrough work", fresh from plaudits at the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music. It is a "1-track, 1-hour cloud of sound - an extraordinary experience in every way!" It is extraordinary, but so is the fact that Dacapo would claim that a forty minute work is a sixty minute one. Because the last fourteen minutes belong to a different piece - well, sort of (see below) - by Martin Stig Andersen ... even though, in a further annoying twist, they are both part of the same CD track, with a thirty second silence inserted between them!
All of this rigmarole is apparently intended, however, according to the composer - to lend the CD the appearance or aura of an artefact of electronica. The booklet, Holmen says, is "a piece of conceptual art that unfolds chaotic principles related to those of the music." Bizarrely, the recording is part-sponsored by the Danish Composers' Society and "KODA's Fund for Social and Cultural Purposes." One can only suppose that both societies have very deep pockets - they certainly have a strange notion of marketing.
But is the music any good, after all that? In fact, the first question to answer is, is Oort Cloud music? Naturally, much hinges on one's definition of music. The strange soundscape of Oort Cloud - an astronomical term referring to a vast, hypothetical region beyond the solar system containing an immense number of icy objects, including billions of potential comets - suggests electronic music, but everything here comes from a soprano saxophone and two accordions, which have been amplified. Holmen frequently uses saxophones and accordions in his work, not only for the aeriform soundscape they can conjure up, as here, but also, according to the composer, because they are not heavily associated with classical music, a fact which is important to him, with his boundary-blurring mission.
Oort Cloud is forty minutes of dense, relentless sostenuto - an unremittingly slow, dissonant, swirling, mesmerising mass of ethereal sonorities, punctuated by shrill outbursts. It is both 'ambient' music, and intellectual music; it is also what many might imagine deep space sounded like, if sound could carry in a near-vacuum, which it cannot, not even the screams of those who loathe it - of which there will doubtless be many.
In an online interview, Holmen says that his original inspiration for the piece was listening to concert music in church with poor acoustics - though the music itself was spoilt by over-resonance, he found the sound enthralling.
For their uncompromising/radical approach to music, Holmen counts Iannis Xenakis and Karlheinz Stockhausen as among his most important influences - something which will be immediately evident to anyone listening to this disc. One thing Oort Cloud is not is easy listening. According to Holmen, it is "intended to be difficult to listen to, because its structure is so complex that it is practically impossible to perceive everything. I have no complete overview of its structure myself either." Be that as it may, Holmen is heavily influenced by 'electronica', citing Aphex Twin as one of his favourite 'composers'. Fortunately his other influences - house, trip-hop, punk techno and experimental death metal - are nowhere in evidence.
The work is very physically demanding on performers. The saxophonist must constantly draw on the advanced techniques of circular breathing and 'multiphonics'; the accordionists must repeatedly stretch the bellows right out, requiring sustained muscular effort.
The second work on the CD, Cosmogyral Echo, is actually a remix of Oort Cloud by producer Martin Stig Andersen, who is also a composer of electronic music. It is a quieter, even more static distillation of the original. Less extreme, but also duller.
The sound quality is very high. For no obvious reason, the apparently random letters of the booklet are actually endless permutations of the letters of the composer's name and of Oort Cloud. Overall, this is music best heard through headphones.
It would be perpetuating a fatuity to say that this is the kind of CD for those with 'open minds', but it really is only for those who are comfortable in the Kuiper Belt of experimentalism.
Only for those who are comfortable in the Kuiper Belt of experimentalism.