Animated Notation

The Traktorinn label is based in Iceland and claims to be the “only major label” in that part of the world – a fair claim, since they appear to have command of manufacture and distribution of their product as well as making records. We did hear the Storval record in 2019 by Charles Ross (Scots by birth, currently living in Iceland) which Traktorinn released, and today we have two items created by Gudmundur Steinn Gunnarsson, who founded the S.L.Á.T.U.R. organisation in Reykjavik, an umbrella for experimental arts in that area. I see he’s enjoyed tutelage from a number of great names around the world, including Stockhausen, Alvin Curran, Pauline Oliveros, and Fred Frith, as well as studying under a number of Icelandic musicians. We heard Gunnarsson’s Horpma in 2011, released in America on Carrier Records, and we were impressed by this “fairly staggering and highly innovative work”. Since 2006, he’s produced dozens of compositions using his inventive “animated notation” technique, a method which involves having the musical notation (largely instructional in nature, it seems) scroll past the payers on a computer screen, in defiance of the conventional method of reading printed sheet music on a stand. This is all in pursuit of his central goal in music, to move away from any form of pre-set rhythmic grid, a form which he evidently finds too rigid and constrictive.

This may account for the diffuse nature of his work, which on these records is more like “organised sound” rather than music which follows a predictable structure. Slowly and almost unobtrusively, the music comes to life according to its own natural logic. On Vorlag/Sumarlag, it’s done with samples of field recordings, but mostly played on flutes and recorders by Gunnarsson and Georgia Browne, the Australian flute player. Or to be more accurate, sampled recordings of flute playing; and the recorders are “ethnic” recorders, instruments found at street markets. What emerges is a slow-moving piece of enormous charm and beguiling sadness; it’s like the world’s most forlorn hurdy-gurdy or calliope, playing a melancholy dirge. The two pieces represent the seasons; the full title translates into English as ‘Song of Spring / Song Of Summer’, and it’s a follow-up to his 2017 release Haustlag / Vetrarlag which covered Fall and Winter. That’s a pretty well-worn theme in mainstream classical music (for instance Vivadli, Haydn, Glazuno), but Gunnarsson’s personalised and subtle take on it is new and refreshing. The field recordings used were captured in town and countryside to reflect the season in question; they are deployed incredibly sparingly, almost as background atmosphere to the gentle flute-recorder music. A mesmerising set; absolutely gorgeous music.

The second item, Skartamannafelagid, is quite different, representing Gunnarsson’s approach to purely electronic composition. Eight short pieces were realised, using an odd collection of outmoded hardware, sampled recordings of found objects, flutes, and a large number of born-digital sounds; he refers to this informally as a “digital orchestra”. Again, the underlying ethos is to get away from the strictures of conventional rhythm; here he describes it as a “flexible and entirely unmeasurable approach”, a phrase which suggest to me that a large amount of this is fuelled by his own personal intuition and feeling in the performance and composition. While just about everyone who can program a laptop these days fancies themselves as a “composer”, few have achieved the same degree of integration as Gudmundur Steinn Gunnarsson. This non-linearity could be his signature sound; something that’s not easy to convey to other musicians, no matter how ingenious the notation. Every piece on Skartamannafelagid is a triumph of this deeply integrated way of composing; layers pulling in different directions, astonishingly novel textures and sounds. We have something that appears to effortlessly bypass many conventions of form, melody and rhythm. Some pieces here continue the “forlorn calliope” effect noted above, but there are also many abstract, crunchy and broken non-natural sounds too. He’s found a way to be true to the nature of electronic sound, while still somehow keeping it organic and human.

English visual artist Sam Rees creates the cover art for Traktorinn releases, using old printing methods that owe nothing to digital typesetting, desktop publishing, or True Type fonts; instead he uses rubber stamps, hand-set typography, and anything that’s similar to the old John Bull printing sets so beloved of any English lad born circa 1950. I imagine him hand-inking his rollers and adding potato-print stamps at a final stage on these low-run handmade covers, a process which extends to the CDR front as well. Lovely. Both the above from 29 July 2019.