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Jonathan Woolf
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Horn and Sound
Marcus FJELLSTRÖM (1979-2017)
Deanimator [9:52]
Leilei TIAN (b. 1956)
Om [10:27]
Jenny HETTNE (b.1977)
Calls, undulating [8:03]
Per MÅRTENSSON (b.1967)
Define [8:59]
Åke PARMERUD (b.1953)
Dark Harbour [7:58]
Joakim SANDGREN (b.1965)
Bifurcations Simples [6:52]
Marie SAMUELSON (b.1956)
I Am – Are You? [10:44]
Sören Hermansson (horn with electronics)
Dana Johnson (voice)
rec. August-November 2020, Stockholm, except I Am – Are You? 2002

Swedish horn player Sören Hermansson has pursued a solo career, in addition to his teaching work, for over thirty years. Over that time, he has commissioned and premiered about 60 works for horn, including major new Scandinavian concertos, and in recent years has focused on commissioned works for horn and electronics. His latest disc gives a good indication of his virtuosity, versatility and fearless commitment to new music.

Some of these works – I think it often goes with the contemporary territory – have punchy one-word titles and there’s something rather daunting about pieces called Deanimator and Define. In fact, there’s something dauting about some of the music too. Marcus Fjellström is the only composer no longer living. He died in 2017 before he had reached 40, a death that caused a serious shock in the contemporary-experimental musical world. He had a large portfolio of works to his name and his work in Berlin brought him prominence. Deanimator takes the organic and the mechanical and fuses them, a ‘man machine’ running throughout within which the electronics act as a variable beat. The horn focuses on sustained or repeated notes – warmly vibrated and including the use of trills – and becomes more emphatic as the work develops, the sonic juxtapositions revealing a clarity that impresses through almost filmic means. Leilei Tian’s Om takes the Hindu belief that the vibration of ‘Om’ symbolises the manifestation of God in form. Here it functions as a kind of electronic drone, in which this original vibration brings life to the void, but it’s not static. The horn’s urgency is not at all sublimely peaceful.

Each of the pieces has its own distinctive point of view and approach to sonority. Jenny Hettne, for example, worked in collaboration with Hermansson on Calls, undulating and there’s a strong ‘Alpine’ quality to some of the writing. In fact, as the work develops a distinctive song emerges – a rare example of folkloric music appearing in these cutting-edge pieces – and it turns out to be a cattle grazing tune from the north of Sweden. The electronics are active, though, and at their most athletically developed in the quieter sections of this intriguing work. For Define Per Mårtensson employs shards of pre-recorded classical pieces played on the horn – Debussy is prominent – alongside tone generators and a fixed pitch sequence used in a loop; this all produces a sure sense of continuity, the quotations taking on greater formality and shape as the work develops. I have to say, though, that the piece that grabbed me most in this album – at least with the greatest sense of immediacy – is Åke Parmerud’s Dark Harbour which employs samples of Gothenburg harbour – steam pipes and vehicle horns – in an evocative study of waterside industry and actuality as mediated through electronica. It has an almost painterly quality that effortlessly lingers in one’s mind.

Bifurcations Simples is another of those forbidding scientific-sounding titles that turn out to offer rather more rewarding things, such as blizzard-like electronic effects (they sound not unlike a speeding train) but in which the solo horn seems to be subsumed into the electronic fabric. In fact, Hermansson, to whom the work is dedicated, is very much there, taking us through the cellular life of this piece. Finally, we reach the question to end most (if not quite all) questions; I Am – Are You? which is posed by Marie Samuelsson. This includes a vocal part, declaimed by Dana Johnson, with a text by Magnus William-Olsson (the text is not long and its salient moments – I think all of them – are reprinted in the card gatefold). This was recorded back in 2002 and released before on the Phono Suecia label (PSCD 1947) but has now been licensed to Blue Music Group. Distance and a sense of playfulness – even sometimes a touch wintry – pervade this intriguing work which I think would work splendidly on stage.

Sören Hermansson is a questing musician who has inspired these and numerous other works for the horn. Nothing is really forbidding or arcane, even if one privately baulks at the obscurantist nature of some of the titles of the works. That said, it’s not always an easy listen but perhaps that’s as it should be. One has to work at this and allow the music to speak clearly. With Hermansson’s help and that of the engineering team, that’s precisely what happens here.

Jonathan Woolf

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