Mutual Choice

Another strong set of music from Norway’s Sofa Music label, and the welcome (for me) return of Ensemble neoN, one of the most adventurous and exciting orchestras operating today. Choosing To Sing (SOFA 579) is composed by Jan Martin Smørdal, and was penned with the Ensemble in mind (he is the co-leader of the group), plus the addition of trumpet player Eivind Lønning, whose focussed puffing is showcased on six of the eight parts of the programme. Smørdal played electric guitar on the Niblock / Lamb album we noted some time ago, and wrote one of the five pieces on the Ensemble’s striking debut for Aurora in 2017. I’d be happy to note more of the amazing achievements of this fellow, but we don’t have the space to list all the numerous records on which he’s credited with production, composition, and arrangement; he did some touring at the middle of the 2000s, but concentrated on composition thereafter, and there’s also a long string of concert and festival appearances.

If there’s been any trend to the Ensemble neoN records I’ve heard, the threads would include an interest in interpreting the work of the grand masters of minimalism (Lucier and Niblock for starters), but also an interest in finding ways of developing their ideas into new areas; taking on compositions of what appear (to me) to be tremendous complexity, and making them seem easy; playing with such virtuosity that the art conceals the art, and the idea of the “soloist” or “first violinist” seems to belong to the 19th century, which it probably does. On today’s record, I’m noticing less of the players’ need to demonstrate their prowess for variety and surprise, and instead finding a very tight unit creating seamless blocks of teeming, microtonal noise with the efficiency of a squadron of trained sharpshooters. All the musicians are great, though I will single out the string section and woodwinds for extra praise, as they deliver some incredible passages on this record, yet without feeling the need to go nuts with extended technique or prepared instruments; I assume it’s all about the craft of good instrument-playing, and of course the boldness of the composition.

As to this aspect, I feel unqualified to utter a word on the accomplishments of Jan Martin Smørdal, but what I like on Choosing To Sing is the near-complete departure from conventional form, the strange dynamics, the allusive gaps in the music. He turns in a new form of “microtonal” without the music collapsing into a cloudy morass of drone or overtones; and he does something resembling “minimalism” without resorting to a laboured, mathematical system. The music is inventive the whole time, and there are rewarding turns and developments at every corner of this three-masted flying carpet that happens to be about the size of the state of Utah. We’ve got Smørdal’s concise notes in front of us, and he alludes to the use of scores and instructions to realise it; he refers to “a huge catalog”, which might mean he produced a lot of material to draw on. The key words seem to be something about repetition and reaction, and the creation of a constantly-moving space within this abstract area. Most tellingly, he embraces chaos – or a lack of order – as something “that is necessary for something to emerge as meaningful”. Perhaps “embrace” is not quite the right word, but he seems to be thinking about this potent chaotic force as an agency within nature, as one that will impact on our daily lives and the way we organise and think about society. He sees it manifesting in “swarm behaviour”, for instance, so I suppose he’s out there watching the flocks of birds and their movements with an open mind, a sharp pair of binoculars, and a composer’s notebook to hand.

This is jolly interesting to me, as many artists allude to the “stochastic” in their work – there seemed to be a time once when lots of people were gibbering animatedly about the power of fractals – yet not everyone is able to organise their high-minded ideas into meaningful and beautiful music. Smørdal, with these gifted musicians, not only succeeds, but if he keeps this up he’ll be capable of designing abstract templates that help us understand life better. When I hear music as good as this, I am once again convinced that artists should be organising the world, rather than mediocre self-serving politicians, but it’s rarely as simple as that. On vinyl and CD…highly recommended…from 12th February 2020.