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The Lawo booklet essay is entitled ‘Listening as Musical Method’ which provides as good a description of what’s happening on Karin Hellqvist’s intriguing album as is possible within a phrase of four words. In Doppelbelichtung (Double Exposure) the German Carola Bauckholt has created an immersive backdrop of looped birdsong (recorded in the field) and brief violin figures which in a live performance of the work would emerge from numerous small loudspeakers both suspended from the ceiling of the auditorium and placed underneath the audience seats. The solo instrumentalist then has to imitate what she hears as it occurs. Right from the repeated ‘pipe’ like figure that begins the work, the effect is quite startling even through two speakers; it is at times difficult to distinguish instrumental sounds from avian ones. There are extraneous field noises too – a buzzing interloper is especially musical. Clicking sylvan percussive sounds leave one wondering which is the real woodpecker. The allusions to folk fiddling and minimalism emerge cleanly. The effect is utterly beguiling (and somewhat disorientating for our cat). 95 years have elapsed since Beatrice Harrison gave her famous live broadcast recital from her Oxted garden accompanied by nightingales (an event which inspired Cyril Scott to compose his delightful cello concerto The Melodist and the Nightingale); notwithstanding its contemporary language I imagine she would have been most impressed by Carola Bauckholt’s triumphant experiment.
There are similar (albeit avian-free) procedures at play in Jan Martin Smørdal’s dizzying flock foam fume. It’s not easy to reconcile its initial sounds with a violin at all. A harsh unnaturally rapid glissando eventually does the job. Bauckholt’s birds are replaced here by individual slivers of pre-recorded material from Hellqvist’s trusty fiddle. She plays live and adds to the synchronised recordings as the piece proceeds. This creates a less clearly defined environment than Doppelbelichtung; here gentle repetitions of violin tone are juxtaposed with more volatile blends of rougher string sound and synthetic manipulation. Yet the events proceed with unlikely coherence. Hellqvist interpolates some almost inaudible proceesed folk-fiddling into the textures at one point. The question of what is live and what isn’t barely matters in this tautly conceived, expertly performed and recorded work.
Henrik Strindberg is the elder statesman among these five composers and as overtones constitute the source material of his delicately exhilarating work Femte strängen (The Fifth String) the necessity for completely focused listening on the part of the performer is self-evident. The sound Karin Hellqvist produces at its opening is actually redolent of the Bauckholt piece, although there are no synthetic sounds. The little arpeggi and conventional repetitions of the material she produces seem recognisably tonal and clearly require considerable virtuosity. One ascending six note motif quickly gets under one’s skin. Femte strängen is a surprisingly hypnotic piece which re-presents familiar sounding materials in unusual, beautiful ways.
In Malin Bång’s solo...när korpen vitnar (When the Raven Turns White) isolated gestures from traditional violin technique are abstracted and juxtaposed cleverly to again present something novel yet oddly familiar. Forceful attack and florid passagework merge with eerie tremolandi and virtuosic flourishes. The individual components seem to be distilled in such a way that the material seems distorted or amplified; indeed for most of the piece’s duration Hellqvist’s sound seems huge and is occasionally overwhelming. From 6.15 thin spindly fragments of arco and pizzicato demarcated by silences come to the fore, a gradual deconstruction of the excess of the piece’s beginning. ...när korpen vitnar takes its strange title from a Swedish medieval ballad and emerges as both fresh and disarming.
Flock is certainly well filled and concludes with Natasha Barrett’s half-hour Sagittarius A*, effectively a concerto for solo violin and electroacoustic sound. Barrett was born in East Anglia but has lived and worked in Norway since 1998; she’s well respected for her albums of electro-acoustic music (mostly released on Aurora). In this concertante example Barrett’s invention never flags, nor does the work’s extended span outstay its welcome. Amateur astronomers may be aware that the title refers to a radio source at the heart of the Milky Way which can be observed in various X-Ray images and is presumed to be the location of what the experts term a ‘supermassive’ black hole. The allusion to a galaxy of sonic phenomena (in this case rotating around a solo violin) is clear. Multiple solo violin lines (sometimes in eerie not-quite-right unisons) hover above what appears to be an infinite electro-acoustic ambient background. This incorporates elements such as birdsong, a spoken voice, radio interference, little finger bells, gentle strumming and water. There are washes of beguiling, glittering percussion. Barrett plays about with the nature of the space – a resonant environment imperceptibly becomes dry and vice-versa. This virtual orchestra can appear conventional and confident at one moment, fragile and out of reach at the next. A section from 8:20 projects a peculiarly ill-defined and high-pitched sustained drone which expands and contracts, simultaneously background and foreground; the moment seems just as crucial within the context of the piece as anything Hellqvist is doing with her violin. From 15:20 (halfway) ambient noise seems to nullify and stun the soloist into fragile, barely touched notes, while the background becomes yet more diffuse and indefinable. In the final section of Sagittarius A*, from 24.57 it becomes increasingly hard to detect the violin at all until an unexpectedly raw reappearance which seems rather at odds with the overall mood of the work. Thereafter the sound-space seems to open up and multiply, somehow projecting weird reminiscences of decaying gothic organs from beyond the ether.
Listeners perhaps daunted by the potential for dry academicism in a 72 minute album of sometimes challenging contemporary music for solo violin will be astonished by the variety of colour and the fullness of sound which emerges from the speakers via the interaction between Karin Hellqvist’s simultaneously precise yet liberated fiddling and various sophisticated electronic wizardry. The Lawo recording is warm and refined while the accompanying notes are written with real insight and empathy for prospective listeners. providing them with a comprehensible idea of what these pieces actually sound like and how they work. I certainly found flock both entertaining and refreshing.