Biosphere: Autour de la Lune

In a move that calls to mind Rick Wakeman's Journey To The Centre Of The Earth (in spirit only, thankfully), Biosphere (Norwegian Geir Jenssen) finds inspiration for his fourth Touch release in Jules Verne's De la Terre à la Lune (Earth To The Moon). Written in the 1860s, Verne's prescient novel describes a trip undertaken by astronauts who launch from Florida , journey into space, and land in the Pacific Ocean upon their return. In fact, Jenssen's choice of subject matter emerged circuitously, as Radio France Culture first commissioned him to create a piece to be premiered at the Le Festival de Radio France et Montpellier. Given access to Radio France's audio archives, Jenssen discovered an early-‘60s dramatization of Verne's novel and, noting its potential, settled upon it as the basis for Autour de la Lune (Around The Moon), a seventy-four minute “symphony” of nine “movements,” with sampled bits of dialogue from the dramatization and sounds recorded at the MIR space station incorporated into the work.

The mesmerizing epic “Translation” comes first. Above hypnotically looping cells that give the track a perpetual propulsiveness, Biosphere adds single elongated tones that modulate at a glacial pace and, consequently, a mood of mystery and portent gradually builds. Two-thirds of the way through, similarly stretched tones of high-pitched electronics appear, mirrored by deeper rumbles that are so soft they're nearly subliminal. It's a masterful exercise in controlled tension that Jenssen sustains over the full course of the track's twenty-two minutes. At half its length, “Rotation” suggests the ship's imminent plunge into deep space with distant rumbles, gentle bass throbs, and glistening tones that gradually layer until they resemble dissonant string clusters. After these intense excursions, “Modifié,” a brief array of static-laden space ship transmissions, provides some welcome relief and contrast.

The conundrum posed by the work arrives with the fourth track “Vibratoire” and lasts for twenty minutes until the end of “Circulaire.” The material becomes increasingly skeletal and drone-like, suggesting that the ship is traveling through sonically desolate deep space. Quiet tones intermittently surface, just enough to retain some vestigial trace of life. An even deeper move into micro-sound transpires with “Déviation,” a ten-minute bass drone of subtle ebbs and flows. The softly vibrating hums and glacially panning treble whirrs of “Circulaire” announce the ship's imminent exit from this cold expanse. Wisps of melody are then faintly audible in “Disparu,” perhaps suggesting the ship's re-entry into earth's atmosphere until “Tombant” ends the journey by reprising themes from “Translation.”

The conundrum in question concerns whether one's assessment emphasizes the work's conceptual or musical merits. On a conceptual level, Jenssen convincingly conveys the ship's journey, but musically the trip into deep space is less enthralling compared to the opening pieces. While admirable aural fidelity to the concept is demonstrated, a more interesting and compelling evocation would have made a stronger impression. In short, the work's core is one that invites intellectual appreciation but satisfies less musically, as ideally the central section should deviate in style from the outer pieces yet remain as powerful. Having noted that weakness, Autour de la Lune is otherwise imaginative and original, a quintessential “headphones” work full of constantly mutating (if at times extremely subtle) streams of sound.

August 2004