Haunting, sonoristic contemporary classical suite.
This subject may have come up before, and I have no wish to reignite political debates on this blog, but suffice it to say it was only after transitioning that I realised what an indifferent feminist I had been before transitioning, and set about looking for ways to amend that, both in activism and in my personal and cultural life. While my bookshelves already have quite a decent gender balance, my music collection proved to be depressingly male-heavy, and particularly my classical music collection. Female composers to this day, alas, do not seem to figure much at all in the popular image of this field, and I struggled to locate many in the classical CD section of Cardiff Library, but I did manage to locate this example.
“Lijnen” (lines) is the work of Estonian composer Helena Tulve, and I ought to perhaps stress right now that I am in no way, with my “D” grade in GCSE music, qualified to review a classical CD, but here is my laywoman’s attempt …
The comparison that most strikes me with this album is with the “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” (1960) by Penderecki, which used a free-form sonoristic style to generate a sense of pain and catastrophe fitting to the subject matter. Tulve’s work follows a similar technique, with very little percussion, and that used only to generate specific effects, emotively and dramatically, rather than to generate any sense of rhythm and form. The main sounds one will hear in this album are woodwind, strings, and a haunting vocal in the second track, generating a very ethereal mood. “Soundscapes” would be a good word for the overall effects, and the album art gives a hint to the type of audio geography in store (and possibly to the title, the skeletal winter trees composing a harsh vista of mere “lines”).
The first piece, “À travers” (through), starts the album off on a Gothic note that will be sustained throughout, seeming to conjure that desolate yet threatening landscape of the cover art, and pulling us on a journey through it. Amidst the purely atmospheric noises of strange, alarming bells and ominous bass tones, a solo clarinet plays a forlorn melody, but it meanders and seems lost in its way, confused. Strings almost seem to echo it. Do they perhaps suggest pursuers, or merely imagined threats? The piece ends harshly, as if in shock or fright.
The second, title piece, “Lijnen,” is dominated by the vocal, which maintains the ghostly mood. It is a beautiful theme, but refuses to be pinned down, with sudden shifts of volume and intensity, almost suggestive of tides, winds, or other such unpredictable forces of nature. This dissonance and capriciousness undercuts any sense of serenity, and leave the listener ill at ease. It is almost like listening in on some esoteric witchcraft taking place in the depths of this frozen wood.
This is followed by “Öö” (night), in which saxophones now take over, although anyone expecting a sudden shift to cheery jazz will be sorely disappointed … They seem to resonate from the distance, atonally, like warning foghorns or plaintive cries. That mood continues into “Abysses” where flutes and other woodwind instruments seem (fittingly) to cry out of the abyss, competing to be heard over each other, their crescendos evocative of despair.
“Cendres” (ashes) is next in line, and introduces a harsh, jangling piano to the ensemble, its staccato, minor key notes perhaps suggestive of chattering teeth, and certainly evocative of cold and danger. Music now comes in fits and starts, with bursts of energy and urgency, and scraping strings that play into the subject matter (Is the traveller attempting, but failing to sustain the fire that may keep her from freezing to death?).
Finally, “Nec Ros Nec Pluvia” (nor dew, nor rain) pays homage to the Vulgate Bible with its title (referencing 2 Samuel 1:21, where David curses the mountain after finding the body of King Saul, killed in battle), while its anguished, unpredictable strings evoke grief, despair, and confusion. Again, they will not be pinned down, but seem to follow their own wilful, emotive melodies. The arrangement (for string quartet) is raw and minimalist. Elaborate orchestration would detract from the effect of these forlorn, screeching mourners.
I am, in conclusion, very pleased to have discovered this. It is certainly not “easy listening,” (if anything, it is designed to be unsettling and disconcerting, with an overarching eeriness) but as interesting Gothic mood music goes, I can see myself coming back to it very frequently. Eschewing traditional formalities, Tulve gives her music a primal, elusive, emotional quality while retaining enough sense of internal logic and structure to hold the listener’s attention (or mine, at all events). if you are in the mood for something darkly original, I would certainly give it a whirl.