Terje Rypdal guitar
Palle Mikkelborg trumpet
Iver Kleive church organ
Åshild Stubø Gundersen soprano
Bergen Chamber Ensemble
Kjell Seim conductor
Recorded live July 19, 2000 at Molde Domkirke
Recording engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Regarding the modern Lux Aeterna (Eternal light), György Ligeti’s setting of the Latin text comes foremost to mind. Made famous by way of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (incidentally, my first exposure to Ligeti’s music), it did, of course, through that association take on cosmic aspects that may or may not have been originally intended. Although Ligeti was an earlier influence on Norwegian guitarist-composer Terje Rypdal’s take recorded here, the latter’s mapping processes are as distant as the faintest star. It is a setting in the truest sense, nesting one vocal movement among four others in a large-scale work that defies idiomatic description.
The first movement, subtitled “Luminous Galaxy,” is a serenade to the universe. Rypdal’s epic arranging skills and attention to color clear the sky of all pollution and distraction, leaving a naked belt, a cleft in the chin of darkness. The strings of the Bergen Chamber Ensemble (under the direction of Kjell Seim) reach heavenward even as their intentions burrow into the soil, spreading fingers and toes in pursuit of a shared, nameless goal. A celeste adds handfuls of stardust to the palette. Palle Mikkelborg then takes to the stage, almost startling in his surety. Warmed by the horse-haired fire around him, his echo-processed trumpet describes a vaulted architecture, of which windows and doors are galaxies unto themselves. The dialogic relationship established here at the outset encompasses so much space that the bulk of existence seems within reach. Swaying key changes mimic the flapping of a dress in the wind, the swirl of Jupiter’s eye, the quiet circumscription of Saturn’s rings. Through it all, the light of many suns coalesces in planetary alignment. And then, another entrance as a church organ (played by Iver Kleive) throws all satellite transmissions into paroxysms of static with its volcanic breath. It looses a subterranean call, rumbling more than singing, and bows in a gesture so luminous that only the pitch of night can contain it.
Rypdal explains the meaning behind “Fjelldåpen” (Baptized by the mountains): “For some reason now forgotten I wanted to teach my parents a lesson. I was 9 or 10 years old. I found a track used by sheep—very steep—and climbed the mountain fast. Once on top for a while I felt a very special connection to the mountain (and still do). At first I felt quite brave, but then a forceful wind started to scare me. And this feeling I’ve tried to capture in the second movement—you can hear when the wind is coming.” Rypdal goes on to say that he came down from the mountain to find that nobody had missed him: the world had gone on turning without him. The profundity of this realization at such a young age—the knowledge that one may be nothing more than an arbitrary arrangement of dark matter—is captured achingly in the composer’s lonely electric guitar as it leaves a trail of fuel to the mountain’s apex. Only when he surveys his achievement does he hold his axe to the sunset and light that trail with its fire. And as the world goes up in flames and licks the sky with its profound indifference, Rypdal shreds, balancing his trademark melodic lasers with the mercury of their fragmentation. His feet lift from the peak and float him beyond the clouds.
Hence the third movement, “Escalator.” Here the strings flow unlike earthly water, moving from land to mountain: a return to origins. Mikkelborg makes a subtle return. Spilling from a caesura in the very firmament, the trumpet liquefies and returns to a solid state in the musician’s hands, already itching with muscle memory to coat the landscape with elliptical grammar.
The fourth movement, “Toccata,” is an interlude for organ that twists the frame until all beings expire as they are, leaving only ruins behind. There, beneath tattered banners and dilapidated thrones, before the corpses of servants and skeleton-inhabited armor, a wordless sermon emerges with the force of a jumping spider. Distant flutes sing the praises of an idyllic age, when maidens and warriors needed no excuse to weep for love. This luxury of beauty plays out tearfully in the windowless corridor of this most titanic of instruments.
The titular movement ends the work with the voice of soprano Åshild Stubø Gundersen, introduced in points of contact and unison with electric guitar. Gundersen is captivating in her fallible tone, whereby she reveals the imperfections that make outer space such a ageless vessel for fascination. The difference between media blurs over time, so that Rypdal and the singer emote on almost exactly the same wavelength. The relationship between throat and pick feels entirely organic, less a shift between than a transfusion from one sonic entity to another. The organ sustains a drone and drops single notes like the signal tones in Close Encounters of the Third Kind—only here, the answer comes from within, from the trumpet (the messenger of peace), from the very rhythms of the heart by which all things cohere and expand. Descending chords—a recurring motif in Rypdal’s classically minded outings—leave their footprints clearly in mind. Thus spent, the densest matter spins into diffusion, leaving only the core theme intact, billiard-struck toward a black hole, silent and waiting.