On Disappearer, Mads Emil Dreyer, accompanied by NEKO3, demonstrates why he is considered one of the most sophisticated and original composers in Denmark right now. The album unfolds as an adventure with frozen music, glistening and thawing slowly under a cool winter sun, in an uncanny world it is hard to tell where the acoustic ends and the electronic begins.
Deeper Into the Ice Palace
By Tim Rutherford-Johnson
Forsvindere 2 by Mads Emil Dreyer begins like a fairy tale. Its nursery rhyme-like quality is thanks to the gently chiming sound of the celesta and the steady, simple pulse of the vibraphone. But it is also frozen music, glistening and thawing slowly under a cool winter sun. As the layers of sound accumulate to reveal hidden spaces between them, I’m reminded of the young girl Unn’s first encounter with the ice palace in Tarjei Vesaas’s novel of the same name – a frozen waterfall swollen by the cascading river into ‘an enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and confused tracery’.
Dreyer’s piece builds slowly, adding bowed vibraphone and crotale tones, short glockenspiel flourishes, and different harmonic shades. Yet as the layers of chimes and bowed metal slowly grow and thicken, there are subtle hints of something flickering just beyond, past the range of peripheral vision. A subtle magic, or an uncanny presence, perhaps, like a figure walking out of sight into the dark. But it’s OK, the music says. Listen: that minor fall is only a bluesy twist. I’m just having fun, building intricate towers and secret alcoves with the harmonies. Sorry if I made you worry.
The four pieces on this album – two titled Forsvindere, two titled Vidder – are composed in similar ways. Each combines a small group of acoustic instruments with live electronics. The electronics consist of short snippets of the instruments, which are sampled live in the performance and then looped and projected back. It is these loops, which reflect the live musicians back on themselves, that build up the layers of sound like the layers of the ice palace. Like Unn, the music is compelled to shout – ‘Hey!’ – into the empty space, and to listen – startled – to the echo that comes back. But in this uncanny world it is hard to tell where the acoustic ends and the electronic begins. The speakers are placed close to the musicians and the sounds are only minimally processed, so the differences between them are almost impossible to hear. Reality and echo, object and space blend into each other.
Drawn by the echo ahead of us, we walk slowly deeper into the ice palace, discovering hidden rooms and passages, seeing more and more of its glittering detail. Vidder 1 applies layers of breathy bass flute tones to create a ghostly wall. Forsvindere 1 adds a hesitancy to the chiming of glockenspiel, crotales, vibraphone and celesta, through phrases that wind down and restart with each new layer. Most striking of all, Vidder 4 applies electronic glissandi to its loops of organ and harmonium tones, as though melting the meticulously built-up wall around us.
And as we go further into the dark and cold, the shadowy figures become more real. The hollow flute sounds of Vidder 1, call like a ship in the fog; the repeatedly slowing phrases of Forsvindere 1 are like a music box winding down; the glissandi of Vidder 4 lurch queasily, as though the instruments themselves are running out of breath: each suggests a world that is no longer functioning reliably or predictably. It waves and wobbles, needing constant input to set it upright again and correct its course. It is important to Dreyer that these are all live recordings – with all the human imperfections and extraneous sounds that that entails. ‘It’s music that, for me, thrives best within a concert hall, capturing the ambiance that I’ve been interested in preserving’, he says. ‘Not the polished studio recording with flawless performances from the musicians and perfectly calibrated electronics, but rather the live performance situation with all the minor irregularities that naturally come with it.’ These are not pristine objects, then, captured and pinned behind clear glass. They are environments; living beings, even.
It is also important to Dreyer that he composes in series: there are two Forsvindere pieces so far and seven Vidder pieces, for forces ranging from solo bass flute to full orchestra. Each series takes a single idea and explores it from many angles; others include Lys, for acoustic instruments, electronics and lighting; and Miniature, for instruments with electronic transducers (small speakers) attached to alter their sound. Dreyer often composes this way, returning to the same idea and the same principles: building up, going deeper, turning slightly. It is a way to both construct a world and test its limits, a way to continue, in spite of whatever turns up. The idea comes, he says, ‘from the desire to explore an area, either aesthetically, stylistically or technically. It has been conducive to my curiosity to say that each individual work does not necessarily have to contain the entire concept unfolded, but that I can explore it within several chapters.’
And so the Vidder and Forsvindere series explore different ways to augment the sounds of acoustic instruments through electronic looping and live sampling. One concentrates on percussive metallic chimes, while the other applies the same principles to the sustained sounds of wind instruments, keyboards and voices. With this single exchange, the contrary images of vastness and disappearance may be brought together in a single conception. The six pieces in the Lys series, meanwhile, extend the electronic interactions visually, using rows of lights that are triggered by different pitches. And the Miniature series turns inwards, integrating the acoustic and electronic sounds through the use of transducers. Room after room, each similar, each different.
Inside the ice palace, Unn, shivering with cold and fear and excitement, walks from one extraordinary room into another. Crouching through an opening smaller than the ones before, she finds herself in a space whose walls trickle with drops of melting water: a room of tears. ‘It made her sadder and sadder: it was no use calling anyone or being called in a room like this. She did not even notice the roar of the water.’ Shedding clothes in order to fit through smaller and smaller doorways, inevitably she is consumed by the ice and dies. In the village outside, the searches fizzle out unsuccessfully. A new arrival, shy and little-known, her memory fades as spring comes and the ice melts away: she disappears. Dreyer does not take us to quite such a terrible place, but it is there in hints, a distant edge of darkness around the fairy tale.