Bjørn Fongaard: Galaxe
Having listened to music of various experimental kinds for many decades, I figured I'd probably heard by now every possible sound a guitar could produce. But the two-CD set Galaxe, a collection performed by Anders Førisdal and dedicated to the work of Norwegian composer, guitarist, and teacher Bjørn Fongaard (1919-1980), has most thoroughly enlightened me otherwise. There are sounds on this collection that I had no idea a guitar could make, and calling Galaxe an invaluable document of Fongaard's work is an understatement of the first degree.
There are many things that make his music challenging to the ear, at least until one becomes acclimated to it, foremost among them its focus on microtonality and quarter-tone systems (an octave divided into twenty-four tempered intervals). He also extended the guitar's vocabulary and the playing techniques associated with the instrument by equipping it with straws, sponges, metal rods, plastic discs, and a small violin bow; in doing so, the electric guitar was transformed into a veritable electric orchestra, which Fongaard came to refer to as his Orchestra Microtonalis.
Notated as graphically as they are, his scores are fascinating to study (the one for Galaxe is shown in the mini-booklet that comes with the release, and it's also displayed at a larger size on the fold-out panels of the CD package). One glance at the idiosyncratic, even cryptic character of Fongaard's notation and one can begin to appreciate at least one reason why his works have not become better known. This makes Førisdal's accomplishment all the more important, given that the release presents the very first interpretation of the composer's scores and thus brings Fongaard's music into the realm of performance as opposed to academic study only.
It's important to note, though, that while Førisdal is the primary musician on the recording, he's supported on a number of pieces by percussionists Håkon Stene and Eirik Raude. In addition, while Fongaard's compositions constitute the recording's core, works by Brian Ferneyhough, Ole-Henrik Moe, and Øyvind Torvund also appear. Their pieces aren't unrelated to Fongaard, however, but are in fact works Førisdal commissioned to highlight different aspects of the composer's output: Ferneyhough's Renvoi-Shards (2010) centers on Fongaard's early quarter-tone work; Moe's KRAV (2007) focuses on microtonal resonance generated by electric guitar and microtonal glockenspiel; and Torvund's Guitar in the Mud (2014), like Fongaard's work in general, concerns itself with developing a highly personalized soundworld, in this case one so wild and bizarre it calls to mind an early game piece of John Zorn's.
As mentioned, it takes a few moments for one to wrap one's head around Fongaard's microtonal pitches, but once one does they begin to sound perfectly natural. Performed by Førisdal on 1/4-tone electric guitar, the opening eight-part Inventions (1964) makes for a fine introduction to the release, especially when nothing more than the guitar's spider-like picking is featured. The soundworld expands considerably during Renvoi-Shards, where Førisdal's 1/4-tone guitar indulges in explorative interplay with Stene's 1/4-tone vibraphone, as well as during Fongaard's 3 Concertinos (1964), in which cymbals, triangles, gongs, drums, and other percussive accents share the spotlight with the 1/4-tone guitar; three short Reflections even feature Førisdal's speaking voice. A remarkable range of sonorities also emerges during Galaxe (1966) and two Sonatas (1971, 1975), with the guitar—triple electrics in the former and microinterval in the latter—generating shudders, scrapes, shards, croaks, glissandi, and all manner of startling, oft-nightmarish convulsions. So unusual are the effects generated that during one Galaxe episode the guitar resembles the revving of an engine.
The mini-booklet includes text by Førisdal that provides the listener with illuminating detail about Fongaard's development, compositions, and techniques (the non-guitar playing reader might struggle with a line such as this one, written in reference to Improvisations: “... the sound of the actual attack, which is performed by the bridge of the guitar, is only picked up by the piezo pick-up, whilst the seemingly endless resonance of the open strings is only caught by the humbucker”; for the most part, though, Førisdal's text is accessible to guitarists and non-guitarists alike); in addition, there are helpful commentaries by Ferneyhough, Moe, and Torvund on their respective compositions. But as wonderful as it is to have such supporting material at one's disposal, it's the music, all 134 minutes of it, that makes the most strongest impression. Put simply, Førisdal has done experimental music devotees a remarkable service in presenting Fongaard's music so comprehensively.