Bent Sørensen: Birds and Bells (ECM New Series 1665)

Birds and Bells

Bent Sørensen
Birds and Bells

Christian Lindberg trombone
Oslo Sinfonietta and Cikada
Christian Eggen conductor
Recorded October 1997 at NRK Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Audun Strype
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Visual practitioners have experimented with processes of decay for centuries. Their art has even become subject to it over time in varying degrees. Those working with sound, however, face different challenges in evoking the same. Electronic musicians have perhaps been most successful in this regard. Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin, better known as Boards of Canada, often subject their creations to a sort of virtual oxidation whereby the music loses its sheen and welcomes blemishes and distortions into its fold. William Basinski inadvertently took this one step further when he captured the process live while recording what came to be known as the Disintegration Loops. And now we have Bent Sørensen, whose quasi-spectralist sound-world dons the ECM New Series cloak in this program of instrumental works.

Bent Sørensen

Most of the program places soloists inside an ad hoc group under the moniker Cikada Ensemble. The Lady and the Lark (1997) centers on viola amid a spray of other colors. And yet this series of five miniatures (the longest at three minutes) turns soloist into periphery, dotting a mandala-like framework with textured bodhisattvas. Amid fluttering intentions and water-drip effects, woodblocks touch the night with their toad-throated vibrations. Like paintings subjected to X-ray, they reveal underlying sketches. Such attention to microscopic detail further shapes the Funeral Procession for violin, viola and 6 instruments (1989), which similarly pulls up the carpet from the forest floor and shines a flashlight on all that squirms beneath. Like an astronomer, it focuses on the negative space as much as the stars, each nothing without its limpid backdrop.

By contrast, while The Deserted Churchyards for violin, cello, flute, clarinet, percussion and piano (1990) designates no central instruments, piano and flute act as quasar to its gaseous system. Their transcendent relays render invisible fissions audible. A tubular bell bends to the will of a shifting wind and drowns in a wisp of distance. From the title alone, one might imagine a still and neglected scene. We instead encounter a microbiome of scuttling activity. Desertion does not mean death; it means the freedom of kinesis to run its course unimpeded, except by its own zeal.

The Bells of Vineta for solo trombone (1990) dips freely into the Uncanny Valley. Christian Lindberg is the soloist, and his presence throughout is almost disturbingly vocal. With every muted slur he walks the line between cartoonish mockery and cathartic mourning. He travels with an eerie persistence in the tripartite title composition. Composed in 1995, it drops him into the larger palette of the Oslo Sinfonietta under the baton of Christian Eggen, who elicits a viscous, bleeding mosaic with wounds that sparkle from the touch of a healing ear. Each grows a tiny hand of light, plucking thorns of shadow from its own luminescent skin. Lindberg again animates his playing vocally, closing and separating to the pulse of a larger body. The result is a Doppler effect of the soul, the tinnitus of collected verses that make up any life. The occasional rhythmic passage cuts through the fog, each a tadpole swimming in the piano’s darkened well, a place where reality and childhood intermingle like ink and water, respectively. References to George Crumb, Gideon Lewensohn abound inside these cellular whispers, dreams yet to be dreamt and whose realization flowers with the tide’s recession.

The Cikada Quartet draws a curtain with The Lady of Shalott (1993), which allows us to feel water and glass as if they were the same. Yet the cut of its passage is less like the boat in the famous John William Waterhouse painting…

Waterhouse Lady of Shalott

…and more like the threads in William Holman Hunt’s rendering, spilling from their loom with all the profusion of Christmas yet clipped by cerebral destruction. These are the paths we have taken, and they lead us all to where we began.

WHH Lady of Shalott

And on that note, these pieces, if only by virtue of their programming, exist as part of a phosphorescent whole. They arch their backs along the edge of a crescent moon, feeding off the oscillation of the night. By the humble touch of a fingertip to string and bone, their effect births as much as it dissolves. Though the foliage may change, the branches pulse in synapses of life. There is destiny in these leaves and it quivers with every verdant breath. In this music, sun and moon can touch each other without the slightest hint of destruction, for in that contact they acknowledge having been spun from the same breath.

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