Hildur Gudnadottir: Saman

Jacaszek & Kwartludium: Catalogue des Arbres

Like all Touch releases, these respective albums by Hildur Gudnadottir and Jacaszek & Kwartludium are united by Jon Wozencroft's photography. But beyond that, clear differences are evident, foremost among them the musical resources involved, with Gudnadottir's set focusing almost exclusively on her cello playing and Jacaszek's devoted to expansively textured scenepainting.

Gudnadottir's Saman (“Together”) presents twelve settings that effectively alternate between pure cello pieces and others that enhance the instrument with vocals. It's a Gudnadottir solo recording in the truest sense, as all but one of the tracks were composed by her, and all sounds were produced by Gudnadottir too except for bass playing by Skúli Sverrisson on one piece. That Sama's focal point is her exquisite cello playing is made clear when the plaintive opener “Strokur” devotes itself entirely to her deeply felt execution of the material. But though she's the sole performer on the piece and the cello the sole instrument, “Strokur” develops into something considerably more than a minimal exercise when Gudnadottir makes extensive use of multi-tracking possibilities. At times the instrument is heard alone, but in other moments, such as during the mournful “Rennur upp” and “Torrek,” her sumptuous material gives the impression of being performed by a cello quintet.

A marked change in character arises during “Frá,” which, though brief, hauntingly augments the string drone with Gudnadottir's choir-like vocalizing, and “Heyr Himnasmiður,” a folk-like setting by Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson that sees Gudnadottir's fragile voice initially draped across a cello drone as a single element before multiplying into a small choir. At such moments, it's hard not to draw connections between her music and Holy Minimalism, and other tracks, such as “Bær,” likewise suggest similarities between her compositional style and Arvo Part's. Such connections are downplayed, on the other hand, by “Heima,” which underpins her fragile Icelandic whisper with Sverrisson's insistent bass patterns. While the album might seem modestly timed at thirty-nine minutes, one comes away from the recording fully satisfied by its stirring and at times otherworldly content and cognizant of Gudnadottir's considerable gifts as instrumentalist, arranger, and composer.

A bit of background, courtesy of the composer himself, provides helpful context for Catalogue des Arbres, the debut Touch release by Gdansk, Poland-based electroacoustic composer Michal Jacaszek. Drawing inspiration from Messiaen's transcriptions of birdsong for piano (Catalogue d'Oiseaux), Jacaszek collected nature recordings of rustling tree leaves that were then transformed in order to be used as a drone-like background for instrumental and voice improvisations. In addition, musical material performed by Kwartludium—violinist Dagna Sadkowska, clarinetist Michal Górczynski, pianist Piotr Nowicki, and percussionist Pawel Nowicki—was electronically processed and merged with the tree recordings to produce eight soundscapes (or, as Jacaszek calls them, “forgotten songs performed secretly by my beloved trees”).

The musicians' playing is present but sometimes muffled, with the result that only the faintest trace of a piano or voice element is audible during the opener “Sigh (Les peupliers),” despite the presence of vocal contributions by the 441 Hz chamber choir. Instrument sounds assert themselves more conspicuously on “Green Hour,” however, such that an even balance is struck between the dense nature ripples and Kwartludium's piano, clarinet, violin, and percussion offerings. Stylistically, the album veers as much into a smoky chamber jazz zone as ambient-classical, especially when the swish of drum brushes and honk of a bass clarinet emerge from the foliage of “A Book of Lake (Roselière).” During “Garden (Les sureaux),” one feels as if one has entered inadvertently into some dark and enchanted fairy tale-like realm, while the shimmer of Nowicki's vibraphone adds an ethereal glimmer to the bass clarinet undertow of “Anthem (La forêt).”

If Gudnadottir's music suggests affinity with Arvo Part's, the forty-six minutes of creeping material on Jacaszek's recording suggests a similar connection to the material produced by dark ambient soundsculptors Deaf Center (plus, as the closing piece makes clear, both Ligeti and Steve Reich). Catalogue des Arbres is about as deeply textured as ambient music gets, and the dense masses of rustlings, creaks, and crackle lurching through its eight settings evoke the image of a mysterious and impenetrably dense forest. The album obviously emphasizes texture over melody, which renders it less immediately accessible than Saman, but Jacaszek's release is as worthy of one's attention as Gudnadottir's. A quintessential headphones listen, Catalogue des Arbres certainly provides no shortage of stimulation for the ears.

October 2014