Great minds think alike, or perhaps it’s just coincidence ~ but three albums about Svalbarð have been released in a short span of time, including two in a ten-day span. Each occupies a different genre, and brings something unique to the table. Together, they draw attention to an endangered region on the frontlines of climate change.
Glåsbird‘s album appeared in late summer, at a time when climatologists take stark inventory of glacier erosion and count the polar bears as they float by on ragged pieces of ice. The sound of the recording is itself eroded, a metaphor of disintegration. One can hear tape hiss crackling like ice melt. The album serves as a pre-elegy, as Svalbarð retains a stark, white beauty, crisp nights reflected by cool piano, the Northern Lights by elegant strings. Aldona Pivoriene provides exquisite photography. Awash in peace, the album recognizes the unpredictable climate yet concentrates on landscape, recognizing the fact that there is still beauty in every cold corner, from the contrast of brightly-painted houses to the shimmer of the midnight sun. One might call this the peace of pause; the threat of climate change lurks at the edge of the music, yet never finds its way in.
While listening to Svalbarð, one feels an intense slowness, like riding a cutter ship as it winds its way through imposing icebergs ~ an image transferred to the teaser video for The Svalbard Suite. From the opening minutes, one encounters here a more direct approach, communicated by the sound of footsteps on snow. Blind Cave Salamander‘s single-track piece twists and turns, providing no indications of where it will go, but every shift makes sense. The album is part of a larger project that also includes material for film and dance. Working in tandem, the multi-disciplinary artists paint a portrait of an unspoiled land “where there are no armies and where you cannot be buried.” They call attention to the Seed Bank below the permafrost, embedding narrative dialogue that comes across as warm despite the climate ~ a source of national pride. Thanks to the on-site field recordings, one hears, and nearly feels the precipitation as it dances across a bed of drone. But the timbres soon turn, tumbling past ambience into modern composition, showcasing a midsection of strings. Longyearbyen’s Store Norske Mandskor miners’ choir makes a robust impression, eventually ceding space to a barrage of drums: first clear, then distorted, like the deterioration of pack ice. The dynamic contrast is astonishing. The suite ends as it begins, boots on snow, a reminder of the work that must be done to preserve the region. But wait, there’s more! The digital bonus is a second score, including contributions from Julia Kent and Xiu Xiu, doubling the length of the overall release.
Ecker & Meulyzer push the envelope even further, zeroing in on the Seed Vault. Their recording is the darkest of the three here, yet they refuse to give in to “popular images of dystopia.” Instead, they highlight the many contrast of Svalbarð, the most relevant being the preservation of seeds in permafrost that is itself endangered. Like The Svalbard Suite, their recording begins with footsteps, yet these boots walk the length of a hallway, leading to a series of beeps and the closing of an immense door. By the ending of “Enclosure,” the sounds of crackling ice grow to a near-cacophony, a harbinger of catastrophe. The rhythms of “Growing” stand in stark contrast, promising a future in which the Svalbard seeds might not perish, but thrive.
While Ecker & Meulyzer’s Carbon shares some obvious DNA with that of Blind Cave Salamander (the project began as a dance commission and led to a film), the listening experience is – pardon the expression – the polar opposite. Glåsbird soothes and Blind Cave Salamander intrigues, but Ecker & Meulyzer unsettle. High drama is apparent throughout, with quiet components set against loud (for example, the dripping water of “Commons” landing on a bevy of drums). These are high stakes. The urgency peaks in “Metabolic Rift,” which is clearly a club track ~ until it’s not. In the center, the music stops like a crevasse, and the wind descends. Wolves (or sled dogs) howl and whine. A vehicle whips by. It’s as if the rift is more than physical, but intellectual: a rift between reality and perception, ignorance and understanding, entertainment and threat.
How long can we allow politicians and corporations to ruin the world? When should we get involved? To Koenraad Ecker and Frederick Meulyzer, the answer is “now.” Otherwise, the beautiful landscape celebrated by Glåsbird will no longer be a place to visit, but a place to memorialize: just another tale we tell our children about how wonderful life used to be before we ruined it all. (Richard Allen)