Magnar Åm


Magnar Åm

Lindberg Lyd 2L51. Duration: 58:12

Magnar Åm / Ellen Sejersted BødtkerSONaR

Magnar Åm [composition] – Ellen Sejersted Bødtker [electric & acoustic harps] – Hildegunn Riise [recitation] - Berit Norbakken Solset [soprano]
Oslo Kammersolister: Jon Gjesme & Atle Sponberg [violins] – Catherine Bullock & Jon Sønstebø [violas] – Øystein Sonstad & Anne Brit Sævig Årdal [cellos]
Grex Vocalis; Carl Høgset [cond.]

Track 1. Vere meininga (Be The Purpose); Concerto for Harp and String Sextet (28:20)
Track 2. Det var mjukt (I Awoke); for Soprano and Harp (4:09)
Track 3. Dette blanke no (This Our Virgin Now); Concerto for Harp and Angels (25:42)

Magnar Åm
photo: liv åm

Magnar Åm:

SONaR is a sound signal sent out to create an echo from whatever it may encounter and thus reveal the unknown. I think we all send out symbolic sonars into physical and spiritual space, in a constant search for meaning. At least I do. And my life and music represent both this child’s sonars and the universe’s ever-unfolding answer.”

This release confused me to begin with. I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready to sit down to write about music again; not yet. I had taken a break from that particular kind of writing, that certain reviewing effort, which had taken so much of my time, and had made me listen in a special way; short linguistic figures falling through my awareness as the music rose through me like anti-gravity; me jotting down notes: elusive, transparent wordings, straight out of the spirit of the music.

I hadn’t meant for this break to be very long. Just a few weeks – but in the meantime I decided to finish a job I started decades ago, and which stalled a couple of years ago, when too much effort went into essays about music; namely getting my music collections in complete order... This archiving business turned out much more time-consuming than expected, and still I needed to get it done. It is important to find what you need out of your archives when you’re in the middle of an essay and need to listen to a few bars here, a few bars there. Therefore this tedious work was geared towards a future writing; make no mistake. I hadn’t left this writing about music; just taken a break.
However, when Magnar Åm’s music resounded in my home from this phonogram from Norwegian label 2L (Lindberg Lyd) I knew my time off had come to and end. I simply could not put this completely wonderful music in the “to-be-reviewed-somewhat-later” stack. That wasn’t an option. I played the CD over and over, and when I didn’t play it, it haunted me.

Let me also explain that this issue comes in an exclusive double-CD box, looking like nothing else I’ve seen. One CD is a high definition super audio CD, while the other CD is a blu-ray disc containing the same musical material. No matter how you decide to listen, technically, this release will bring you bliss!

When I first started to listen, I was caught unawares. I wasn’t prepared for the immediate effect on me, though I know that I really am a sensitive person, for whom the arts equal life, in many ways – and even the pure essence of life. Still, I was not prepared for the immediacy and the intellectual as well as emotional force with which the gentle beginnings of these works swayed me.

It was a day in early March, and a peculiar snowfall sort of took the breath out of me on my way home. It was an extremely dense snowfall, coming precisely straight down, but consisting of almost microscopic snowflakes, which were some kind of hybrids between tiny, sharp hail and very minor snow pellets. (I come to think about Yngve Ryd’s book SNOW, describing the more than 300 distinguishing words for snow that the reindeer herding part of the Sámi people use!). It was hard to breath in this white density, and I approached home with my hood up, steering the bike. It was like moving through the hasty motion of an old, flickering, black and white filmstrip. I opened my door and found the package from Norway, with this music that gives me plenty of space and breathing room.

Track 1. Vere meininga (Be The Purpose); Concerto for Harp and String Sextet (28:20)
Ellen Sejersted Bødtker [electric & acoustic harps]
Oslo Kammersolister: Jon Gjesme & Atle Sponberg [violins] – Catherine Bullock & Jon Sønstebø [violas] – Øystein Sonstad & Anne Brit Sævig Årdal [cellos]

The music starts with three cautious, scattered, thin plucks of the harp, gently joined by one violin, which emits transparent lines of high pitches, like barbed wire across a field, disappearing into mist, while the harp trickles a repetitious little figure that switches intonation and pitch; the two instruments moving in a hoquetus limp through the score, as the other instruments of Oslo Kammersolister (Oslo Chamber Soloists) emerge and follow suit.

The atmosphere thus created is charged with high tension, while remaining transparent and loose, like a person under the stars, deep in meditation – or like an old man with a frail anatomy, lost in powerful memories, his mind crystal clear while his body withers away.

As the bars of the first minutes paint these fine sketches of faint colors in wide strokes over the canvas of my mind, I realize why I feel so accustomed to the sensation. The music reminds me very much, initially, of Morton Feldman and especially his For John Cage, but Magnar Åm’s piece also opens analogies to Arvo Pärt’s miniature Mirror In A Mirror, none of which, however, features the harp, but piano and violin. Vere meininga is by no means imitating Feldman or Pärt, though, which should be obvious to the initiated by the two different examples given – but I am aiming, with those examples, at a certain atmosphere; a particular state of mind, which Vere meininga creates, carving this lucid cathedral of Mind out of Space and Time. Sincerely beautiful!

At 5:07 the ensemble breaks into more lively chatter, as if an opposing realization suddenly dawns on that musical mind, which has formed through the instrumental process. This breaking of principles serves as a starting point for the first vocal insertion; Hildegunn Riise’s initial recitation of Magnar Åm’s text of Vere meininga: Be The Purpose, translated into English by Howard Medland, accompanied by Ellen Sejersted Bødtker’s harp in soaring motions that dance like beams of light through the clouds across the ocean:

“human being
because you are human being
are creature
nothing else
you are what I long for
the fullfilment of my dreams
the meaning of me
the search for salt embodied

give me names
I thirst
I soak them up like trickling nourishments for emerald green
But give me always new ones
Give me fresh names every day
That I shall not dry up for you

For in the beginning was this changeable world
And you:
The purpose behind”

The rest of the ensemble also partake in the tonal illustration of these words, which reflect on the mysterious position of Man/Mind/Spirit in endless Space, where distance and time perhaps are illusions of the ever-present Here and Now… the sense of duality just a failing perception; the world out there just a reflection of me; I simply the Universe looking at itself…
Thus this music can make you think…

As the rhythm of the phrases shows minute changes and variations, the ensemble counters with underlining musical reasoning and intensity contracting; ease and relief expanding. Breathing.
There is no treatment what so ever of Hildegunn Riise’s voice, save a slight room reverberation. If there is one minor objection that I could voice, it is that perhaps Riise’s recitation could have been a little more present, i.e. amplified some more and brought somewhat closer up to the listener… but that is only if I look really hard to find something to complain about, and not at all an issue!

It is fascinating how lively the ensemble changes apparition. For a while they sound like the Kronos Quartet getting into a string quartet by Terry Riley; perhaps Sunrise Of The Planetary Dream Collector – and then they move like Alban Berg! At times I could swear that I hear Björk’s edge-walking harpist Zeena Parkins, as the incredibly sensitive and talented Ellen Sejersted Bødtker gets avantgardeous. Other times in Magnar Åm’s musical atmospheres, with the harp displaying its glimmering splendor, I come to think of a rather unknown composer and harpist in San Francisco called Victoria Jordanova, who has issued a couple of indefinable modern art music CDs on her own label ArpaViva, playing her electric and acoustic – and electronically treated – harps in a most dreamlike and hallucinatory way, one of the releases a free-wheeling interpretation of John Cage’s Postcard from Heaven. (While I’m at it, I may as well mention another new harp CD, which has no bearing what so ever on these modern harp pieces, but which shows that the harp as an instrument might be experiencing a revival; the new interpretation on harp of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations by French harpist Sylvain Blassel on a sub division of major label Warner Classics, although that magnificent interpretation is all but destroyed by the choice of recording space, which wasn’t sufficiently sound-insulated, letting in very, very disturbing murmur and hum from passing heavy trucks… which has also happened in a grave way on an earlier Gidon Kremer recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin on Philips, and also on Rachel Podger’s recording of the same on Channel Classics. In each case I contacted the label, and got various excuses and promises for the better in the future…)

In the booklet one can read that Vere meininga originally was a commission by Jun Zhi Cui for Chinese harp and string sextet, and that the present version for European harp and string sextet was written for Ellen Sejersted Bødtker and developed in collaboration with her, or in consultation with her.
The Asian link is not at all out of place, for Sejersted Bødtker’s playing sometimes, in particularly lucid passages, reminds me a lot of the traditional Japanese string instrument koto, which in turn came from China in the 6th century. Koto has also been revived into modern art music, and the most obvious example of this, to me, is the recent collaboration between U.S. composer Pauline Oliveros (accordion) and Miya Masaoka (koto) on the Deep Listening label, which has been reviewed here at Sonoloco.

Magnar Åm:

“In my music I try to appeal to all aspects of listening, including perception of direction. The music must therefore not only respond to the question of what the sound is and when it occurs, but also the question of where it comes from. Sound is like a heavenly body moving through time and space. Concert halls, however, are constructed to concentrate sound in front of the listener, at best spreading out in stereo, and surround-sound systems at best present sound on a single plane around the listener. Nonetheless I often write for a three-dimensional space placing sound both above and below the audience, pending the arrival of concert halls and sound systems designed to produce three-dimensional sound. Through my work with electroacoustic installations I am aware that the spatial element contains a potential for powerful experiences, which can’t be realized by means of a single surface of sound. The difference would be like seeing a character step out of the cinema screen and become a physical body. The music changes from being a phenomenon which appeals primarily to the mind and imagination to something which evokes a physical experience to a much greater degree.”

Much of what Magnar Åm states above could have been quoted from Karlheinz Stockhausen. On numerous occasions I heard Stockhausen speak of the necessity of building concert halls like globes, with the listeners placed in the middle of the sphere, with sounds below as well as above and around them. It was one of his greatest hopes for the future to see such performance spaces occur here and there, for his new, spatial music; his trans-real compositions. He had the opportunity to actually oversee the construction of such a concert space in Osaka, Japan in 1970, for the World Fair Expo, when Germany built the first spherical concert space, with 50 groups of loudspeakers placed all around the audience, and in which Stockhausen’s composition SPIRAL was performed 1300 times from March to September 1970. One would have thought that, with the development of electroacoustic music, such spherical auditoriums would pop up like mushrooms all over the world, to accommodate the new music, but this has come to nothing, surprisingly, which is why we have to wait for proper performances of Magnar Åm’s spherical compositions.

The music continues as we speak! Some of the most fascinating parts are the truly Japanese ones, when the harp talks sparingly to itself; when mind enters mind, into the lacquer of a Mount Fuji painting hanging on a wall in a room with a marble floor, one side open to a raked rock garden. So much space for these sharp and brittle tones, so much air. Gravity feels just like a light thought of someone you love from a distance…

The music finds its way, winding between visions in my mind, entering hovering spheres of occasions from my life or anybody’s life: a sudden awakening in a summery meadow, dense with fragrance of flowers – or a childhood week spent in a hospital with kidney problems; white walls, rows of metal frame beds and starched cotton; the view out the high windows: the pine trees.

And Ellen Sejersted Bødtker starts talking like a little girl through her harp; tiny musical figures in intonations that equal the wrinkled forehead of an insisting little one who needs some affirmation; a nagging urgency disguised in something pretty.

As the music of Magnar Åm develops further, I seem to integrate it into a preponderant psychological atmosphere that I’ve existed in since my daughter Josefin, who studies English literature in Oxford, recently sent me a book that I’ve completely taken to heart: Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I live parallel lives since I opened the book up unto its first page, and now the Japanese side of my current existence resounds with the translucent music of Magnar Åm’s sound worlds. I never cease being fascinated by how my personal world recreates itself by the hour and by the day, in this fashion, right now directed by Haruki Murakami and Magnar Åm! Not long ago this psychological atmosphere was dominated by Deepak Chopra (SynchroDestiny) and Andrey Kurkov (Death And The Penguin). It keeps on changing, keeps on keeping on. I flow with it, observing the scenery.

Ellen Sejersted Bødtker suddenly rattles off glaring tuttis on her harp, intertwined with the girlish question mark urgencies of before, until falling out into the embrace of lyric inwardness, like slowly lowering yourself into a swimming pool outside an apartment house in Dallas on a hot night growing dark.

The work - Vere meininga (Be The Purpose) - seems to recompose itself towards its conclusion in a gesture of recollection and reflection, as you might expect your life to do at a ripe age, when experience itself provides a tower of mental strength and see-through magic.

Track 2. Det var mjukt (I Awoke); for Soprano and Harp (4:09)
Ellen Sejersted Bødtker [acoustic harp] – Berit Norbakken Solset [soprano]
Clark E. Moustakas [text from HEURISTIC RESEARCH, Design, Methodology and Applications]
Magnar Åm [translation of Moustakas’ poem into Norwegian]

The Norwegian title for this shorter work would translate into It Was Soft, referring to a mild rain, but one has decided on simply using the first words of Moustakas’ poem for its English title; I Awoke. The author is one of the leading experts on humanistic and clinical psychology.

The first verse of Clark Moustakas’ poem:

“I awoke this morning
to a soft and gentle rain,
remembering a night not long ago
when we paced back and forth while you struggled
to come to terms with your dying”

and a later verse in the same poem:

“I have counted on you
like the ground I walk on
and the air I breathe.
What grieves me now
in this time of painful loneliness
is that I never put my feelings,
my sacred valuing of you,
into words”

There is nothing very lighthearted about this work, then, if you start in the text, and in the thoughts that this text will bring to almost anybody – since the loss of a loved one, or indeed of someone who used to be a loved on, or someone who could have been a loved one, will inevitably touch all of us, several times. Loss and parting is the one circumstance we can be absolutely sure of, since we tend to grasp for, and be enormously attached to, people and phenomenon; not least to ourselves and what we consider our self, the core of our present being. Of course, this is what Buddhism and a host of humanistic philosophies and therapies try to get at; practicing the thought that even our selves as we generally perceive them are illusive, like everything else, or like the Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf put it in one of his poems from one of humanity’s darkest ages, dealing with our perception of ourselves as individuals, from the suite Tag och skriv from the collection Färjesång (1941), two sections of the text translated by the reviewer:

“You say ‘I’ and ‘it concerns me’
but it concerns a ‘what’: (translator: might also mean ‘a bet’ or ‘a fording place’…)
In reality you are no one.
That is how anonymous and formless reality is!
It was in fear of it you began to cloth yourself,
started behaving and call yourself ‘I’,
cling to a straw.
In reality you are no one.

Judicial systems, human dignity, freedom of will,
are all images painted in dread in the empty hall of reality,
in fear of acknowledging anything beyond right and wrong, beyond thesis
and anti-thesis!
Yourself outside of good and evil a battlefield of good and evil,
the upper beast’s struggle with the lower –
you sometimes sense truth like an abyss by the road,
without courage to know, without wanting to know,
you who get dizzy at the slightest pothole!
In reality you are no one.
A place, a piece of clothing, a name –
everything else is just your wish,
your I a wish, your unsavedness also, your salvation another:
You’ve claimed everything in advance! […]”

This said, immediate sensations of loss and grief aren’t that easily ignored, nor remorse. I keep lingering in thoughts of my ex-wife, whom I haven’t been married to since more than twenty years, but who now withers away at a cancer clinic in Baltimore, Maryland, with no hope of recovery, our son Ivan at her side. Flashes of our years together come as uninvited guests at the most inconvenient times; memories of tenderness and trust, or just pictures from a time of closeness never to be recreated. Therefore this piece of Moustakas’ text and Åm’s music really mean something to me.

The tender, extremely clean and high-pitch voice of Berit Norbakken Solset begins alone, inspiring angelic as well as medieval associations. Soon Ellen Sejersted Bødtker joins on her acoustic harp, which glitters and gleams like crystals on moonlit snowfields, or like the reflections on Lake Saimaa in Finland through the birch leaves blowing in the morning breeze of June. There is a transcendental sensation about this music, and yet it comes so close to the listener, primarily through the timeless vocals by the soprano. No vibrato; nothing superficial: just the human touch and the angelic touch joined in this Clark Moustakas’ text. I feel my mind purifying in this music, these vibrations through the ether; definitely music of the spheres, if ever I heard it!
Berit Norbakken Solset’s voice is time slowly moving like winter light across the snow-free ice expanses outside Saltsjöbaden in the late years of Swedish aphorist Vilhelm Ekelund (1880 – 1949) in the 1940s, when he walked his skeleton sleigh, pondering Pindarus (app. 522 BC – 443 BC).

Track 3. Dette blanke no (This Our Virgin Now); Concerto for Harp and Angels (25:42)
Grex Vocalis; Carl Høgset [cond.] – Hildegunn Riise [recitation] – Berit Norbakken Solset [soprano] – Ellen Sejersted Bødtker [electric & acoustic harps]

The concluding work on this brilliant CD is commented on by the composer as well as the harpist.

Magnar Åm:

“The work was commissioned by Ellen Sejersted Bødtker and is constructed as a two-movement concerto for harp and choir. Listen to it with your gaze fixed on a point of nothingness, far, far away. The fragile, almost intangible sense that time and weight do not exist invites us in through the doorway of ‘now’. The first movement is the face of timelessness; the second that of weightlessness. And before and in between each movement the harp plays cadenzas which attune our ear to silence.”

Ellen Sejersted Bødtker
photo: lena gill

Ellen Sejersted Bødtker:

“While working on Dette blanke no (This Our Virgin Now) I realized that my 47-string acoustic harp alone would not suffice. More parts and differently tuned strings were needed to cover the seven-voice harp part. I used a 30-string electric harp, tuning it differently to provide the sound required by the music, and had to learn a new playing technique. Performing on two harps with a total of 77 strings simultaneously gave the harp a new potential as a solo instrument.”

The text that the choir emits like rays of light through the score is written by composer Magnar Åm, interpreted from the Norwegian by Howard Medland:

“Meet me
by this unscrippled water
beneath these velvet hours
before we wake our worry

Meet me
betwixt of night and morning
within this boundless mirror
in this unblemished now

just before every murmur
before the burst of breezes
while the new dawn is doubting
and spoken words not yet have stolen our beholding

by this unscrippled water
beneath these velvet hours
in this our virgin now”

The music is as pure, as transparent and hypnotic as the text. I’ve seldom heard music so totally in communion with an accompanying text, or the other way around. The choir is illuminating the music like a low sun at dawn shining through a bank of mist. The harp(s): embellishments on the spiral motion of time, deviations on the protraction of mind – caressing fingertips across a face of a loved one, momentarily expressed through an anatomy pulled out of timelessness into time, pulled out of the endless resources of nothingness into somethingness… for the time being… for the time; Being!

I think Dette blanke no (This Our Virgin Now) comes as close to describing in sound what the Buddhists call Rigpa – the innermost nature of mind; our ultimate nature, the state of omniscience or enlightenment – as anything I’ve ever heard.

To round this review off, I must express that the content of this CD has the potential of being perceived as spiritual in a deeper sense, as well as musical: high praise indeed from me. I don’t hesitate to express my profound gratitude to everyone involved, and especially to Magnar Åm, Ellen Sejersted Bødtker and Berit Norbakken Solset, who have provided me with a tool of beauty and reflection that appears almost God-given in this early spring of 2009.