Nordic Voices Sing…Weird Stuff!

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EVERYTHING IS GONNA BE ALRIGHT / HAAS: Hertevig-Studien. THORESEN: Land of Your Love. RATKJE: A Dismantled Ode to the Moral Value of Art / Nordic Voices / Aurora ACD5106

Sometimes…you open the score, and you realize that this time you are dealing with a composer that has a vision of sound that you have no clue of how you are going to find. It is one small step for a composer, one giant leap for a performer.

So says the promo sheet accompanying this CD, scheduled for release in November, but Nordic Voices has faced such challenges often in the course of their 22 years of existence.

The group describes Georg Friedrich Haas’ Hertevig-Studien as a tour-de-force, “challenging the outer limits of what our voices are capable of producing.” It is a pre-study for Haas’ 2008 opera Melancholia. The text uses the titles of paintings by Lars Hertevig (1830-1902) which are sung. spoken and whispered in Norwegian. These titles are arranged one after another as isolated speech events; the string of words has no specific meaning.

It’s easy to understand why this work is so hard: it is microtonal music with only occasional “rest stops” in tonal chords sung by the chorus, music strongly related to the music of Julián Carrillo and some pieces by Harry Partch. Very strange things are going on here, mostly starting at a low point and gradually rising upward in pitch but always on a portamento curve. Without any sort of guidepost, tonal or atonal, for the listener to hang on to, it is simply a listening experience; yet Haas is a composer who has a clear grasp of basic musical principles, thus the music does have some direction even if it sounds as if it does not. At the midway point, the music rises to an extremely loud high D sung in unison by the sopranos; then a pause, and suddenly a few moments of soft tonal chords before the microtonalism creeps in yet again.

Lasse Thoresen’s Land of Your Love, in three parts (“The Impatient Bride,” “Riddle of the Twin Revelation” and “Stenen i Stefanens Pande”), examines women’s lack of freedom, expression and religion, specifically in Iran, though of course it could encompass almost the entire Muslim Middle East. The music throughout sounds very raw in its monadic plainchant, possibly simulating the Call to Prayer in the Muslim world. The music also includes some very strange vocal effects, as if the singers were aiming their voices into a cup mute or something similar that covers and distorts their sound. The last section is performed for the first three and a half minutes by a single female voice, which gives the music a forlorn quality. This is exaggerated by a long section in which she seems to be simply breathing into the microphone, following which the rest of the chorus enters. Some of the female singers also return to whispering around the 6:30 mark. Then the full chorus returns in a louder, more celebratory section.

The last piece on this album is the relatively short (12-minute) A Dismantled Ode to the Moral Value of Art by Maja S.K. Ratkje. This work, described as “a firework of sounds,” was developed by the composer in conjunction with Nordic Voices, which has sung it “in almost all the different corners of the world.” It opens with some very strange sounds indeed, soft and guttural, sung in no specific pitch although the hooting tenor voice reiterates the note A. It almost sounds as if the chorus was snoring! As the music progresses, we move from snoring to a sort of buzzing and growling from the lips, again tending towards the note A. Then, suddenly, we hear a bass drone in D which only stays a while before the female singers go all blooey singing high, almost Chinese music-like figures, answered by the baritones in a figure of their own. A few isolated melodic fragments come and go, but don’t stay long. Essentially, the music primarily consists of effects, including bird song imitations. In the last section, a single singer cites Neil Young’s words “Everything is gonna be alright” from his song Angry Young World.

An album this strange may not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it fascinating despite the fact that some of the pieces went on longer than I wished they would.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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