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Bára GÍSLADÓTTIR (b. 1989) & Skúli SVERRISSON (b. 1966)
Bára Gísladóttir (double-bass)
Skúli Sverrisson (electric bass)
No recording information provided
SONO LUMINUS SLE 70020 [70:04 + 59:48]

For those that are unaware, Caeli is the Latin word for ‘Skies’. The packaging is either minimalist or maximalist depending on one’s interpretation. The two discs are concealed within a double gatefold sleeve. The eight visible panels are black in the main, sparsely dotted hither and thither with what appear to be stars, nebulae, galaxies, black holes (perhaps). Rippling, faint waves of cloud, but mostly blackness. The album title, the names of the artists, the track listing and information about the label, the artwork and the production team are reproduced in a tactful font of clean white. In three places the graphics hint at a ‘constellation’ type concept, with plain, thin, straight lines connecting two or three white dots. There are no notes, no mention of specific musical instruments, no reference to the specific ‘roles’ of any musician. Fair enough.

Those sufficiently interested can access some information about this album on the Sono Luminus website, but even the label is rather coy about it. Icelandophiles may already know something about these musicians. For those that don’t, Bára Gísladóttir is a pioneering double-bass player and composer; her debut album HĪBER was released last winter on Dacapo to considerable critical fanfare – indeed it was named classical album of the year by the most prominent Icelandic daily newspaper Morgunblaðið (it’s on Dacapo 8.226621). In her case the hype is far from idle. In comparative terms the bass guitarist Skúli Sverrisson is something of a gnarled veteran. He’s certainly been around the block and has collaborated internationally with (not especially ‘classical’) luminaries such as Leo Wadada Smith, Jon Hassell, Lou Reed and Ryuichi Sakamoto in addition to local favourites such as A-list soundtrack composers Hildur Guðnadóttir and the much-missed Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Whilst I’m certain Caeli has not been been ‘through composed’. I did read a review of last year’s (2020) Myrkir Músíkdagar (Dark Music Days) midwinter festival (it took place in Reykjavik just before lockdown) which described a low-key gig in which this pair performed as the improving duo Bára & Skúli; they played an hour long set in which their instruments were modified by a large pedal board. I suspect that the extended sequence laid down across these two discs represents some sort of ‘formal expansion’ of that event. Another clue is a reference on the package to ‘MENGI’; apparently this is a large performing space which Sverrisson established in the Icelandic capital which acts as a kind of venue/rehearsal area/ recording suite – I suspect much if not all of Caeli was laid down there – although I can’t be sure.

So what does this music sound like? One is plunged into the action in medias res, a primal catacomb of low string noise, each of the instrumentalists simultaneously battling and mirroring each other. The opening track unum caelum lays down the rules of engagement for the listener. Option A is to leave the disc playing to provide a daringly cool background soundtrack while doing the ironing and pondering upon the precarious state of the world/the country/your life/the ironing board. I found Option B far more conducive; banish the other family members and the cat (who was so freaked out by the sounds emanating from the speakers that she informally excused herself) and submit oneself completely to what swiftly proves to be a glorious cacophony of grungey string noise and mood. This kind of music almost seems deliberately tailored to tease out one’s most deeply repressed associations and impressions. While each of the 19 ‘movements’ seem sufficiently distinct from each other their individual arcs seem to follow a course of gradual bending and fragmentation. By that I mean that if each of the movements seems to begin and end in the same place, the excursion one experiences en route is abundant in microscopic timbral variety and largely imperceptible flux. For example, the epic second panel cieli pesanti is only thirteen minutes long but seems unfettered by anything so mundane as duration. Block everything out and the spontaneous dark harmonies that emerge at its slow withdrawal are inexplicably touching.

As the cycle unfolded this listener at least felt increasingly disconnected from the social and environmental zeitgebers of my own world, rather like those hardy volunteers who recently emerged from a 40 day sojourn in the Lombrives cave in south-west France without phones, watches or sunlight as part of a fascinating scientific investigation (the Deep Time study – read about it here) into the effects of the deprivation of these supposedly essential environmental cues. This struck me during the gentler third piece, Caelum Aapertum which literally does what it says on the tin, effortlessly evoking the mysteries provoked by overlapping layers of cloud as they momentarily part and reveal shafts of almost blinding light. The percussive bow tappings (I assume) that creep in at the close of SVEIFLA (No 4) recall my own historical dark nights in a cheap tent inadequately pitched somewhere in the Borrowdale valley during extreme weather. Anxious seabird cries punctuate the spume-splattereed cliffs of caeli movendi sunt et terra (No 5), an unforgettably immersive seascape.

Disc 2 begins with the arid, discomfiting roar of anche la terra è un cielo, a piece whose complexity and sophistication grows by stealth into a cataclysmic din and collapse at its mid-point. Any apparent release of tension is fleeting and tentative in the extreme. In the face of such an auditory upheaval, any attempt to disentangle one’s emotional response from a purely visceral one seems pointless. The shock and awe continues unabated in the white-heat of soaring skies and subsequently in the elusive high heavens, a panel which oscillates between granite and ether. Harmonics, overtones and feedback evaporate from the febrile string textures of stretching skies. It’s fair to say that in common with the finest music of this type (if there is music of ‘this type’; I baulk at using the word ‘ambient’) the magnetic attraction of drone is never too far away but Gísladóttir, Sverrisson and their gifted sound engineers at Sono Luminus never allow it to dominate the sound, allowing one’s attention to be drawn to all sorts of extraordinary details and events. The last fifteen minutes of Caeli consists of six ’miniatures’ (starting with No 14, harmonic interlude) which coagulate into a kind of winding-down, perhaps making fleeting references to earlier incident, such as the circling seabirds in No 16 gul viðvörun. With afterlife the sequence concludes gently, almost apologetically.

At this point I might suggest that any reviewer is likely to be hamstrung by the recognition that simply linking his or her personal experiences or half-memories to each movement is a subjectively futile exercise. To cut quickly to the chase, I had absolutely no problem experiencing this awesome aural banquet in one sitting. So much did I enjoy it that I have repeated the experience three times in all. I have no doubt I shall do so again.

The electronic manipulations which emerge or fade into greater or lesser focus over the course of Caeli are never so excessive as to completely exclude the knowledge that one is ultimately listening to a cellist and a double bass player; yet the broadening of the timbral possibilities available to both performers seems infinite. It is difficult indeed to imagine that this music could have been made anywhere other than somewhere in the distant north. It is most serendipitous therefore that our now familiar friends at Sono Luminus take such an interest in Icelandic music; the beauty of this music lies in its remarkable detail. The audiophiles involved with this terrific label consistently take enormous pains in converting raw material which might seem harsh and unwieldy at first hearing into spans of almost overwhelming beauty.

There can be little doubt that Bára Gísladóttir and Skúli Sverrisson are outstanding musicians in every sense; if their virtuosity as players per se takes ones breath away that’s not even the half of it. As a feat of musical imagination, their intuitive harnessing of the power and possibility intrinsic to a combination of their instruments over the duration of a two hour improvisation beggars belief. I’m sure there will be readers who are aware of my own limitless admiration for what might be characterised as ‘the Icelandic music phenomenon’ who are thinking ‘well, he would say that’. Indeed I would; I am simply deeply anxious that curious, adventurous listeners who may be cowed by the prospect of immersing themselves in what is effectively a 130 minute dual improvisation involving a double bass and an electric bass are reassured that this is an experience of profundity, wonder and indescribable beauty. Caeli is all-encompassing and astonishing in a literal sense; at once it can be monolithic and elastic, dark and luminous, purposeful and daydreaming, bold and terrified, triumphant and sad. It’s all on these discs. Believe me.
Richard Hanlon

Previous review: Gary Higginson

Disc 1:
1. unum caelum [5:40]
2. cieli pesanti [13:40]
3. caelum apertum [9:57]
4. SVEIFLA [7:12]
5. caeli movendi sunt et terra [18:31]
6. anche il mare è un cielo [3:26]
7. I believe so [1:59]
8. SEIGLA [9:39]

Disc 2:
9. anche la terra è un cielo [10:10]
10. soaring skies [5:44]
11. all heavens [10:27]
12. stretching skies [6:29]
13. anche l'inferno è un cielo [10:38]
14. harmonic interlude [2:51]
15. the heavens have no mercy[2:22]
16. gul viðvörun [1:53]
17. FORCE [2:12]
18. some sort of closure [4:03]
19. afterlife [2:59]

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