Trondheim Voices / Batagraf: On Anodyne

There's something appealingly primal about On Anodyne, a three-part work composed by Jon Balke for the Norwegian vocal ensemble Trondheim Voices and percussion quartet Batagraf, of which Balke's a member. As he says about the project, “The musical idea was based on a return to the origins of music: voices and drums, without the involvement of any kind of processing, effects, or other instrumentation. Just a half circle of people singing and playing.” Yet though the work might be primal in one sense, it's also extremely sophisticated in the way it threads multiple dimensions into its compositional makeup.

Premiered as a suite for nine voices and four percussionists at the Molde Jazz Festival on July 23, 2011, On Anodyne draws from multiple stylistic traditions: based on the poem “Anodyne” by American poet Yusef Komunyakaa (as an adjective, the word means inoffensive and as a noun a drug used to lessen pain), a connection is drawn to spoken word, and inspiration for the piece was drawn from the Wolof song tradition of Africa (Balke again: “Komunyakaa's link to African rhythms gave the phrases a powerful drive that fitted the drums/voice constellation perfectly”). As prevalent is the presence of jazz in Trondheim Voices' vocal stylings, which is itself in keeping with the free-flowing nature of the text (it's hardly irrelevant that the singers were once students in the jazz programme at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology).

Sympathetically supported by Batagraf's drum accompaniment, vocal musings dreamily course through the nineteen-minute opening part, its combination of whispered voices and sung melodies soothing to the ear. During especially dense passages, the various vocal strands take on a glossolalia-like character, the key difference being that the language content in this case is largely comprehensible, stemming as it does from Komunyakaa's text. Arrangements are by turn sparse, with unison vocal harmonies backed by understated percussive colour, and hypnotic, as evidenced by the alluring, slow-motion sultriness of “Anodyne 3.”

Though the concert premiere occurred the day after the horrific murder by a lone killer of seventy-seven people in Norway (including teenagers at an island summer camp), On Anodyne is not only an aural analgesic, even if the first half of “Anodyne 2” feels like a requiem of sorts when its wordless vocalizing exudes a mournful quality; there's an oft-playful quality to the material that makes the album feel generally more lighthearted than funereal. The two ensembles complement one another remarkably in the way they so fluidly modulate between background and foreground, and as the forty-one-minute recording unfolds, it becomes increasingly evident that Batagraf, which has collaborated since its 2005 formation with poets, comedians, dancers and writers, found a kindred spirit for this project in Trondheim Voices.

April 2017