Unusual item from Iceland composed by Charles Ross and played by the Ensemble stelkur. Ross is a composer and improviser who grew up in Scotland but has been living in Iceland since 1986, where the rural environment is like a second home to him. Ross has long had an interest in “outsider art”, the rather unfortunate term we have evolved to pigeon-hole those singular creators who work outside mainstream culture and/or are treated as pariahs by the rest of society, for instance due to mental illness. I have always preferred the term Art Brut, devised by one of the pioneers of the discovery of this art, Jean Dubuffet. But Ross goes further, and also professes an interest in other forms of underground and under-documented “hidden cultures”, as he calls it, and includes everything from Oceanic art, early manifestations of the game of chess, and certain forms of experimental music, in his world view. Like many who appreciate outsider art, Ross sees within a wild freedom which eludes the rest of us in conventional society; he likens the situation to an invisible wall, which hems us in; outsider art just jumps right over that wall.
His composition stórval (TRAKTORINN) is intended as a tribute to the local Icelandic painter Stórval, whose real name was Stefán Vilhjálmur Jónsson. Stórval created numerous simple and heavily stylised paintings of the countryside and farm animals, including several images of Mount Herðubreið, and his work is now highly regarded in Iceland. Ross’s plan was simple: “to try and translate [Stórval]’s paintings into a piece of music”. He went further though, and tried to replicate Stórval’s actual creative processes, wondering what music would emerge if Stórval had been a composer instead of a painter. From here, he evolved the idea that a symphony was needed, to match the range and scope of the painter’s work. Accordingly we now have a symphony in eight parts, not directly inspired in a literal way by specific paintings of Stórval, but working very much in the spirit of this rugged outsider. That alone takes a considerable amount of empathy and compassion, and there’s no doubt that Stórval is a very sympathetic piece of music. We’re already quite some way from Pictures at an Exhibition, a popular classical work also about paintings, which is utterly prosaic by comparison.
The players in the Stelkur ensemble – seven in all, including Ross – are likewise some way from being your conventional classical chamber group. They perform the music on electric guitars, saxophones, glass flutes, and horsehair fiddles. Ross didn’t make their job especially easy, either. Instead of a conventional score, he gave them his own eccentric brand of “graphical scores”, in the form of colour codes and “strange marks”, instructional sheets whose interpretation was admittedly rather difficult. Realisation of the score has apparently taken a lot of effort and patience on both sides. All of this should prepare you for an extremely unusual piece of music, almost impossible to describe or categorise. While it’s all evidently composed, it contains a lot of elements from outside conventional classical music, including something that could be heard as a form of primitive folk music. There are very bold intervals, dynamics, stark silences, and wild leaps of imagination within the compositional form. The unorthodox instrumentation produces eerie sound combinations. The unfamiliarity experienced by the players has ended up on the finished recording, and this means there’s a hesitant and halting quality to the music, which at times appears uncertain as to where it’s going next.
While these things I describe may seem like obstacles to your listening pleasure, in fact I think it indicates that Ross’s attempt to provide a sympathetic portrait of this lone outsider has been a success; it’s music that arguably complements the paintings of Stórval, and tries to help us understand his thoughts and view of the world. As mentioned before, doing this takes a good deal of compassion; the psychologist John MacGregor has that compassion also (in his books The Discovery of the Art of the Insane, and the one on Henry Darger), save that his aim was moving towards understanding it through the world of the mind. Conversely, Charles Ross does it exclusively through art; visual art and music. From 8th February 2019.