Elegi: Varde

Given ambient's fundamental nature, the recent deluge in “deep-sea ambient” recordings doesn't come as a total surprise though it's hard not to take note of the works' synchronicity. Gavin Bryars' The Sinking of the Titanic, which arguably kick-started the genre, has been joined in recent times by Willits + Sakamoto's Ocean Fire, Mathieu Ruhlmann and Celer's Mesoscaphe, and even Fennesz's Black Sea (admittedly more emblematic of the genre by title than actual sound). Varde by Norwegian composer Tommy Jansen (aka Elegi) advances the genre by positioning itself midway between conventional music-making and evocative sound-design, with funereal arrangements for piano, musical saw, percussion, and violin on the one side and a rich mix of creaks, rustlings, slams, and natural sounds on the other.

The background story for the recording concerns the discovery by a 1912 Antarctic search party of the frozen remains of Captain Robert Scott and two companions who were found inside sleeping bags inside a tent, the three dead for eight months at the time of discovery. Jansen's sound design powerfully conveys moods and feelings appropriate to the subject matter: the isolation and creeping terror the three men might have experienced as they stared death in the face, gradually realizing what their fate would inevitably be as they gazed upon the barren and unforgiving frozen landscape around them. During the unsettling, fifty-four minute work, one hears excavation sounds of digging through ice and snow, moaning winds drifting across the desolate plains, the corroded tape recording of a speaking voice, channel-switching on the radio between melodramatic classical music and clarinet playing, with all such materials augmented by muffled strings, piano, static, and crackle. The four musicians Jansen recruited for the recording make strong contributions: often theremin-like in tone, Dan Cantrell's musical saw deepens the material's mysterious character, while the bowed creak of Ronny Sveen's double bass suggests a huge ship slowly rocking against blocks of ice in “Svanesang.” “Skrugard” is rather similar to Bryars' writing in the way that Meredith Yayanos's violin sinuously navigates its way through the atmospheric gloom “tonmeister” Jansen sculpts around her. Yayanos's plaintive violin also charts a course through a haunted mass of spectral tones in “Råk.”

Listeners familiar with Sistereis will recognize that the funereal melancholy of the first Elegi release remains solidly in place on this second outing, prompting one to wonder what particular subject matter Jansen will take on for the third installment in his projected trilogy. Whatever it turns out to be, one presumes that it will perpetuate his affinity for classical-influenced “gloom” ambient.

February 2009