Jesper Nordin (b. 1971)
The View from Within (2016)
Sculpting the Air (2015)
Fredrik Ekdahl (bassoon), Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding
Quatuor Diotima; Manuel Poletti (computer music designer)
Ensemble Intercontemporain/Lin Liao (live electronics); Manuel Poletti (computer music designer)
rec. 2011-20, Berwaldhallen, Stockholm; Théâtre de Hautepierre, Strasbourg; Cité e la Musique, Paris
KAIROS 0015101KAI 
How does one approach the music of a totally unfamiliar contemporary composer? Diligently study the notes and comments, the descriptions, if offered, of their techniques by the artist themselves, before listening? Or just plunge in (you can always read those notes later) and listen again?
I incline to the latter approach; just get the music on. Engage ears, brain and heart…
The 2011 Vicinities is a three-movement bassoon concerto, which may at first seem at least to adumbrate the classical fast-slow-fast pattern. In the Vicinity of the Open Sky begins with strings hovering tensely, softly, as the bassoon wails its first phrases; a tam-tam resonates, slowly and repeatedly, in the background. The mood is dark, troubled. More winds chorus into the wild plaint, then sink back. The movement is built from these elements: soloist, strings in tense, shifting moods, percussion in different roles.
Suddenly, drum fusillades erupt into the uneasy calm, provoking screams and protests from the orchestra; the bassoon hides away but then, having sung high for the first few minutes, now roughhouses gruffly and grittily with the timps. The violence eventually abates; a cadenza seems to reflect on the troubled events, before the orchestra gives a final ominous growl and the bassoon returns to its opening phrases.
Open Sky is classically built, shapely yet expressively wide-ranging often wild at heart.
In the Vicinity of Intimacy has an improvisatory feeling, the bassoon duetting with a classically elegant violin. A series of detached phrases, short, reflective paragraphs - and yes, a closer more intimate mood, but with those black-body strings quietly radiating, watchfully, in the background; the conscious cosmos, absorbing other sounds and reflecting back. But the calm is breached by the storm as the timpani erupt suddenly, the gong growls a quiet menace, the timpani return louder still, and our two intimate soloists recapitulate their affectionate duet and peace is restored. There is a truly classical shape to Intimacy, as with some of the slow movements in the concertos of Bartok and Mozart, the respite and stability interrupted by a central conflict.
The finale, shortest, fastest and most aggressive of the three (that classical model again), is In the Vicinity of Noise. After dark, resonant outbursts (winds faintly chattering, as of birds in the rafters, somewhere distant, beyond), a threatening repeated rhythm rattles skeletally in the pizzicato; wild percussion and orchestral eruptions against it. The bassoon whirls around and within the mêlée, tries to reassert its soloistic identity. There is a crisis, near-silence, wails and screams from the ensemble, relentlessly darker textures, the soloist panics - a last, huge, roaring crescendo, then the fragments scatter and fade.
What does the composer’s note say?
Nordin uses his “Gestrument” technology to assemble various intervals, cells and scales that influenced him at the time, and improvising with it. Then he begins the composition process of building the form, which took another nine months. Vicinities was based on impressions from a visit to Tokyo. Open Sky was inspired by the shakuhachi, Intimacy by classical chamber performers at the Takefu festival and Noise by “Noise Music from Noise clubs”, traced back to German Industrial Rock such as Einsturzende Neubaten (some may recall hearing John Peel playing them on his late-night Radio 1 show in the 80s.)
The View from Within, for string quartet and live electronics, presents a series of sonic encounters between the instruments and their co-responsive electro-artifices. Sometimes the quartet emerges loudly, furiously, then the response is echo, opposition - or empowering - powering the strings “from within” or behind. There is a huge, raucous, metallic climax, the acoustic instruments reflect pensively to their slow-fade end. The work starts from nothingness and returns to it; it feels like a cosmos, both empty yet industrially populated. (There is quite a lot of space-junk up there, floating around in orbit now…a silent roar. Imagine if it had a voice).
Both these first two works sing with vividly atmospheric voices, a compelling sense of tension and release, the expressive lines wild and soft offset against that dark, ominous background of almost continuous hums and throbs, like a sonic realisation of cosmic black-body radiation.
Turning to the composer’s note on Within, this is what I found: part of a large -scale work called Visual Exformation, which includes a visual installation but the present work exists in its own right, the live electronics and interactive soundscape “a way for me to show my music “from the inside”, as it refers to his earlier works. “Familiarity can be a way to express new things, in the same way that you can tell your secrets to your closest friends.”
Finally, to the epic-in-length-and-feel Sculpting the Air, an IRCAM commission for ensemble and live electronics nearly thirty minutes long, in which the ensemble-conductor can also control the electronic response and play upon bells suspended before them.
A highly dramatic piece of wide-ranging sonic extremes, this begins with a series of noise-explosions repeating over several minutes; screaming winds panic and fly; a side-drum crashes into the tumult; wild confusion. Slowly, gradually, the riot dissipates - but the mob tries again and again to rejoin the fight, to sustain it, winds become part of the fury and relish it. The side-drum returns to battle, making me think of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony. After almost ten minutes, soft, fluttering electronics, calmer wind and string gestures, attain an uneasy calm. Dark, sustained electro-sonorities now, a layered soundwave rising and falling, soft chimes of pitched percussion. Solo strings breathe and relax, sketch a song, pause and hesitate. In the stage after destruction, the sound-creatures reflect. A gentle wind-pulse tries to stabilise this mood; the wind/string voices grow warmer, the uneasy peace in longer sonic sustainments - longer silences too. (The electronic and acoustic sounds are beautifully blended here; often almost indistinguishable). Finally, an earthly beauty floats in softly in wind, string and electro-chords, then a long slow fade into silence.
How far we have travelled, from explosions, conflict, struggle, panic and destruction! It can seem so hard to contemplate recovery from war, pain and anger, for life to continue; but continue we must.
The composer’s note on Sculpting the Air - Gestural Exformation tells us that with the live electronics “the conductor is freezing the sound [the ensemble] play, looping them and controlling the balance and so on. It is a real challenge to the conductor who has to navigate all the different aspects of the electronics as well as the physical bells and at the same time conduct the ensemble” - so if ever you doubted that the orchestra is the conductor’s instrument…
As for “Exformation” - a term coined by the Danish science writer Tor Norretranders in his book The User Illusion - ”it is everything we have in our heads when or before we say anything at all - whereas information is the measurable, demonstrable utterance we come out with.”
I found the music of Jesper Nordin, on this, my first encounter, physically exciting and expressively compelling; he is an artist to really listen to, not just keep an eye on. As I was writing, I noticed a new release from BIS, of Emerging from Currents and Waves, for clarinet, orchestra and live electronics. First impressions are very vivid indeed. After browsing across several Nordin albums on Qobuz, I would suggest Residues, a “portrait CD” with a series of shorter works in various instrumental, choral and ensemble combinations as a good point of departure for further exploration.
Jayne Lee Wilson