Jacobssohn fields LWC1267

Ewa Jacobsson (b. 1956)
Hearbaricum Fields
Jarring Sounds (2019)
Hearbaricum Fields (2019)
Kenneth Karlsson (piano)
Ewa Jacobsson (electronics, field recordings)
rec. 2019, Marble Hall, Sentralen, Oslo, Norway
Lawo Classics LWC1267 [75]

Ewa Jacobsson is described in the booklet as a “visual artist and composer”; we are further informed that her music “…operates in a complex wilderness of presence and absence, past and present that arises in performance spaces when they come alive.” Both big works presented on this disc involve visual installations – there are copious pictures of various components of these in the booklet but I’m afraid their absolute weirdness proved to be unhelpful to this reviewer’s attempts to make sense of the sounds emanating from my speakers, which might anticipate the inevitable “you had to be there” type of reaction from the cognoscenti who were there. I do believe, however that I may have grasped at least part of the sonic concept lurking behind Jarring Sounds, Jacobsson’s half-hour work showcasing the collisions between a concert grand piano played live by new music scion Kenneth Karlsson and recorded material derived from a 75 year old German piano, previously owned by the composer’s parents, although the relevance of her strange visual constructions (they feature on or around the stage during a live performance) completely eludes me, in spite of Hild Borchgrevink’s game attempt in the booklet at enlightenment.

In a nutshell then, the title Jarring Sounds has been abstracted from the anonymous text set by John Dowland for his renowned song In darkness let me dwell: “My musick hellish jarring sounds to banish friendly sleepe….O let me living die, till death doe come”. Jacobsson seems to be appropriating the idea that the survival of the words and music of In Darkness for four and a bit centuries has ultimately transpired because of the pining for death expressed in the song. Perhaps the involvement of the older piano in this piece, its transformations via technology and its interaction with a modern piano work together to bring it back to some sort of meaningful existence? Or perhaps not….

In any case the purpose of my role is to convey to readers my perceptions of how the music on the disc actually sounds. Jarring Sounds incorporates four sections, whose single word titles, Zerstörung (destruction), Demdrang (a word related to ‘urge’), Tiergestalt (the form, or shape of an animal) and Schaden (damage) have apparently been drawn from a German text about werewolves, mythic creatures whose most obvious characteristic is a penchant for transformation, and their unpleasant motivation to pass such transformations on to others. Thus these four titles possibly allude to this idea of continuous renewal. In the first two movements, Zerstörung and Demdrang, Karlsson plays from a precisely notated score which is carefully synchronised with Jacobsson’s taped elements. Zerstörung is essentially a dialogue between the pianist’s delivery of notated chordal and decorative content and abrupt interjections from the tape– these have been manipulated to project far more than simply piano sounds such as an unpredictable if calm human voice, peculiar ghostly resonances and tinkling percussion (although I suspect this might be an electroacoustically achieved distortion of the highest registers on the old piano). Whilst I found these sounds to be a bit discombobulating and occasionally unnerving, they are also touched by beauty. This section melts seamlessly into Demdrang where Karlsson’s piano part projects the mood of a quiet, semi-improvised fantasia; the taped interventions here are subtler but more insistent and regular. Listeners may well perceive that something significant is being held back under the surface, not least via a low rumbling which seems to build during the second half of this section. Creepy electronica begins to take hold of the work’s direction as Demdrang fades. After a short pause the strange Tiergestalt emerges from the silence, a sinister electroacoustic collage which in a live performance is projected via 24 loudspeakers deployed on or around the performance space. The sounds are gentle rather than intrusive and unfailingly fascinating. There are further examples of speech and disembodied percussion. In my imagination the effect is akin to keeping in touch with a distant submarine. Tiergestalt evaporates into the concluding Schaden section – the clue is the restrained re-emergence of the live piano upon which Karlsson improvises quietly, whilst the composer synthesises pre-recorded content with four on-stage ‘objects’ which each project live sound. The notes, textures and effects float in and out of one’s listening space, apparently quite devoid of any direction or intended destination. This is certainly not a criticism. I would describe the residual effect of Jarring Sounds upon this reviewer as pleasantly hallucinatory, unequivocally disturbing and certainly worthy of further investigation.

And then we have Hearbaricum Fields. Where to start? With the booklet note perhaps, supplied in this case by Eivind Slettemeås. Apparently he is “…a producer, curator and writer…a graduate of the Bergen Academy of Art and Design, and is manager of the Harpefoss Hotel Kunsterena which hosts exhibition spaces [and] artist residency opportunities…with a particular focus on artist-driven practices and land art.” Frankly, for all these impeccable credentials, I do not get the impression from reading his 1200 word synopsis that he has much interest in really helping the likes of you, or me, or anyone else lacking an established background in the theory and practice of installation-based art get to grips with what Ewa Jacobsson is seeking to achieve in Hearbaricum Fields. He firstly considers Jacobsson’s theory of ‘The Weak Angle’. This seems to relate to human attentional processes and prioritisation, but his notions are developed in such wilfully obscurantist terms that the intention seems purely to exclude general music enthusiasts from appreciating or comprehending this piece. His laboured essay becomes increasingly dense as it proceeds – I can’t imagine the poor translator is to blame. I have made four attempts to unravel its secrets, each time taking the utmost care to minimise distractions in order to apply my unhindered attention. This frustrating experience has proved to be the epitome of the law of diminishing returns.

Nor does contemporary music (or art) really have to be like this. As a fervent afficionado of Simon Reynell’s pioneering Another Timbre label, a cursory look at the notes accompanying all the releases on that label’s website will reveal a profound enthusiasm and passion on the part of the artists and their advocates in explaining to the lay-person, to the potential consumer (or critic) and even to the passing visitor the ‘what?’, ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ of their wares in terms which are accessible to anybody with an interest. Another Timbre have recorded tons of music of a similar caste to Ewa Jacobsson’s, their approach strongly suggests that they really want folk to experience it and discuss it, too. Lawo’s notes, on this release at least, seem intent on excluding (the wrong kind of?) potential listeners.

All that remains for me then is to tell you that Hearbaricum Fields is a 45 minute audio-visual work designed for an installation. It encompasses nine sections divided into five ‘fields’ which seem to relate to specific environments, so among the sounds sampled and re-ordered are those made by trains, birds, the sea, the wind, spoken human voices (via what appear to be field recordings), the sounds made on building sites and by children running. One of the fields is entitled ‘Macron Europe’; I have no idea of the significance of this title but I think, and I may be wrong, that I could detect the dulcet tones of the eponymous French president. These sounds are often enveloped within (or linked by) smooth, attractive electro-acoustic ambience. The ‘fields’ are divided by three brief ‘interludes’ featuring material produced by what is described as a ‘mechanical’ orchestra. The concluding section identifies as ‘Objects I-IV’- These visual objects apparently feature miniature sound-sources which coalesce in an undemonstrative (and oddly calming) collage of buzzing sounds, conversation, strummed notes on a distant instrument. muted train wheels, metallic noise, electronic bleeps. whistles and crackling. The impression created by Hearbaricum Fields is far from unpleasant; there’s ample variety and much of what emerges from the speakers inevitably triggers curiosity. But it feels no more distinctive, original or profound than scores for other, similar installation projects I’ve heard over the years, and that may well be down to me, or it may be down to experiencing the audio without the visual element. In any case, I anticipate being at a complete loss should any reader wish to pose one particular FAQ in relation to this piece: WHY?

Richard Hanlon

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