As innovative as it is, modern classical music has settled into something of a comfortable pattern, with a relatively predictable interplay between acoustic instruments and electronics. What once felt like progressive, modernistic flourishes now feel familiar; there’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but with a few notable exceptions, it’s often easy to form an impression of what a modern classical album will sound like before you’ve even put it on.
One of those exceptions is Norwegian composer and ensemble leader Christian Wallumrød. After a series of celebrated albums for the venerable ECM label, alternative musical paths in his sibling electronic duo Brutter, and parallel time spent in the Dans Le Arbre quartet, Wallumrød released the brilliant Kurzsam And Fulger through Hubro in 2016. His is a modern classical that nudges into jazz territory without ever fully giving in to that movement’s improvisatory pedigree, creating music with an inherent fluidity that nods to traditions in its foundations, but which aggressively looks to more experimental territory for its final appearance.
Wallumrød’s new ensemble recording, Many, finds inspiration in the musique concrète innovations made by Pierre Schaeffer at the Groupe de Recherche Musicales in 1950s Paris or the early deployment of tape technology by John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen. What you won’t find here, however, are moments of forcibly-processed sound or intrusive technological gestures. This is an album which – at times – is heavily electronic without using heavy electronics, its reverential concession to musique concrète being some of its confounding, nonconformist rhythmic basis. A piece like ‘Danszaal’ with its chiming trumpet and saxophone passages from Eivind Lønning and Espen Reinertsen respectively progresses with a dizzying, stop-start judderiness that nevertheless carries subtle, microtonally shifting beauty. A similar effect is achieved on ‘Staccotta’, led by Wallumrød’s unswerving piano stabs and plucked cello, blasts of brass and a breakdown into pure electronics giving this a playful, elusive, ever-changing quality.
Elsewhere, that use of electronics is more prominent, and each of Wallumrød’s ensemble – himself, Lønning, Reinertsen, cellist Tove Törngren Brun and drummer / percussionist Per Oddvar Johansen – is credited with the use of electronics alongside their usual instrument. Opening track ‘Oh Gorge’ weaves sprinkles of bleeping, synths around Brun’s mesmeric cello cycles, the whole thing pushed through a heavy echo that gives any of the additional elements – Johansen’s vibraphone, Wallumrød’s upper register piano playing – a sense of spinning out from a turbulent vortex. ‘Abysm’ is perhaps the moment where the electronics take over, the whole piece dominated in the foreground by droning synth textures, effects, loops and a general feeling of wild experimentation, its discordant tendencies operating at odds with a prevailing sense of calm.
The key piece here, perhaps, is the fourteen-minute ‘El Johnton’, a series of three movements that begins with a strident piano, saxophone and brushed snare passage that sounds like the coda to a Billy Joel song, before evolving into something firmer and yet more free. The following section develops as a thrilling minimalist, electroacoustic sound field of electronic pulses, bursts of synthetic tones and arrays of metallic non-rhythms, offset with unpredictable acoustic interventions, almost as the extremest counterpoint to the opening passage; brief passages of that starting point’s piano section drift in and out like melodic memories, suggesting and forcing a connection between the two with the most unlikely sonic construction. By the time the original section is reprised, it feels altered somehow, less straight, its traditional structure sounding suddenly alien after being mauled, manipulated and brutally erased in the ten intervening minutes.
Many by the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble was released February 28 2020 by Hubro.
Words: Mat Smith
(c) 2020 Further.