Music and culture columnist Torben Sangild on Jexper Holmen and his work Oort Cloud...
[English translation: James Manley]
OUR CULTURE is afflicted by a wide range of unfruitful distinctions that need to be shaken up now and then so one can take a subtler view of things. One of these distinctions is between complex and ‘catchy' music, which often grows further into a distinction between mind and heart. Complex music is hard to listen to, so it must be ‘brainy', while catchy music is easily accessible and therefore has more heart - and body. So runs the myth, the dichotomy, the distinction. But it does not hold true.
Let us skip over the fundamental discussion of the relationship of heart, mind and body this time, and go directly to the related notion that complex music is difficult and simple music is easy; that complex music requires great concentration, while simple music can play in the background. For Jexper Holmen shakes this notion up with the work Oort Cloud. It is in fact so complex that no one can take it all in, not even the composer himself, and at the same time it is more or less a kind of mood music that is suitable for playing in the background.
Jexper Holmen cuts through the demands of the age for easy comprehensibility and has created a work that is so complex and demanding that it borders on the absurd and unreasonable. No one can hear the difference whether a chord is held for 39.4 or 40.2 seconds, but it is a fixed requirement for the musicians that they are accurate with these and innumerable other systematic details - so many that it is in practice impossible. The accordionists must draw out their instruments until the bellows is all the way out. So it is physically hard on the arms. The saxophonist Torben Snekkestad makes use of ‘circular breathing', a highly demanding technique where he breathes in through his nose at the same time as blowing out with his mouth, which enables him to sustain a constant note. At the same time he plays several notes at once by using various ‘multiphonic' techniques. It mustn't be easy, says Holmen, there's far too much in our culture that's too easy. This has to be hard - for the audience, too.
And in a way it is, but not only that. The soundscape is harsh, with shrill notes, the harmony is full of dissonances and closely woven chord patterns, and the work lasts three quarters of an hour, unfolding in one long process, a gesture in slow motion. While with these qualities the normal prejudices would classify the work as belonging to the ‘difficult' and ‘intellectual' type reserved for the ‘contemporary music' segment, who are imagined as listening in incessant, reverent concentration in order to see through all the structures of the work, you can view them from a quite different angle, as ambient music.
Ambient music is characterized by being atmospheric, often in the form of gliding sheets of sound with gradual changes rather than sudden events. There is no real melody, not is there a harmonic development in the classical sense. The modal stasis of the Aeolian harp is one of the models. The developments that take place are as a rule slow, and above all it is about creating an atmosphere that is not intrusive, but simply gives tone to the space in which it is played. For the whole idea of ambient music is that it can be played quietly as background music, while at the same time it is interesting enough for you to choose to listen more attentively to it.
In principle ambient music is consonant, although gentle dissonances occur. But it does not really have to be that way. I have often had the experience that atonal music, as a result of the weightlessness that the absence of a tonic produces, can have ambient qualities. There is no centre, no tension (despite the many dissonances) and no predictable sequence. All events are of equal value, and this gives the music a state of coolness not unlike that of the Aeolian harp, but with far more notes and more varied dynamics. This is rarely the composers' own view of their music, but that is not their decision.
Nor will Jexper Holmen be allowed to decide that this music must be hard to listen to. Indeed he is himself aware of the ambient feel, and has composed music for ‘wet' rooms with great reverberation that obscures the contours. In the performances the music is reinforced by a huge array of speakers placed around the audience, who are surrounded and flooded by the liquid sounds that change imperceptibly over long intervals.
With this recording you can arrange your own listening situation: sitting concentrated by the stereo, working with the music in the background, jogging with it in your ears or whatever suits you. I have tried all of them, and the fact is that this work is so powerful that it grips me whatever the listening mode. Not constantly, but in passages that crowd in with their dense sonorities weaving their way into the nerve paths. Both the quieter, airborne passages and the louder, howling passages. A sound-object in the space, which you can glide in and out of with your attention.
Oort Cloud is the name of a spherical cloud of ice particles thought to lie around the solar system a light-year away, and from which the comets come. Holmen's work is also an icy cloud of sounds that move in stretches we cannot grasp. When you do not see the much-tried musicians, the music seems to move of its own volition, to follow its own laws, of which we only see the surface. For that very reason the work can be heard again and again, both alien and familiar, easy and demanding, sensitive and objectified. A cloud of jarring atmospheres.
Torben Sangild, 2010