Vannstand begins with what sounds like underwater breathing, a quiet back and forth surrounded by something that feels vast and yet is made up of but a few tones and noises. The sensation of a great multiplicity coming into being from the voices of a few marks the entire album, like looking at the sea from the beach and knowing there is an infinity contained even within our limited perspectives. Instruments gradually come into play, but never in a decisive way, never in the interest of mastery and perfection, but softly and carefully as unique strands of an egalitarian musical environment in which no singular sound or their collective equivalent takes over the rest. That does not mean everything sounds flat or that there are no interesting dynamics where a type of sound takes center-stage, but that there is no leading voice. Putting it differently, Vannstand truly feels like it grows from play.
Maja S.K. Ratkje has been one of the most interesting composers working within the noise and experimental scenes in the past couple decades, tracing a multi-faceted voyage through styles and methods that engage with everything that we understand as ‘music’ has come to exclude. In the case of this album, that means integrating children musicians in-training from different cities, who interpret graphic scores produced with water level measurements from the Norwegian populations indicated in the title tracks. But their role is not simply instrumental – sometimes the kids can be heard speaking over the sound of the waves, and it is in their playing that we can find their particular expressiveness, rather than in their domain over their chosen tools. As the drama of the Vannstand (which translates as “sea level”) develops into increasingly intense moods, their interactions grow more adventurous, but not in an avant-garde, brazen manner. The unexpected and the unknown are here not the negative implications of the sea’s infinity, but its positive qualities of fullness and abundance, an excess that puts the life of our species, among many others, at risk. Thus, the exciting unpredictability of the children’s play(ing) seems to flow from a certain gentleness, from a humbling place where noise does not mean harsh abrasion but the steady low grumble of the waves crashing; awe is not paralysis before the sublime, it is a moving sadness before beauty without end, an uncertainty that does not whisper ‘no future’ but ‘too much’ of it.
The cover art by Frida Helene Haltli shows an earth personified, where the ‘outside’ is just more earth: relatively few kinds of sounds and instruments make up this album, and yet it feels like there are many, like every time the winds or the strings come in they are entirely new. Whereas different professional musicians would sound alike, in the sense that they are all expected to meet certain standards, all the different children from different cities sound startlingly unique in their playful approach to every instrument. Thanks to Ratkje’s studio intervention, they’ve all come together into one album, but the composer has taken care not to unify their participations into a singularly-minded production. This is what makes the music feel so vibrant and genuinely organic, inasmuch as we are listening to many voices condensed into relatively few instruments, projecting a diversity of sounds that seems to transcend the amount of players involved. It creates an exploratory sound-world where no voice takes over another, where the ‘outside’ is not the coldness of the void but simply more of itself, always warm and thoughtful.
Vannstand is about an uncertain future, but it is more complex than a unitary idea that finds in apocalypse or brightness its foremost expression. It resists either doom or blind hope, and it is in the vitality of all of its players where it finds another path, one in which the fear that everything will change is accompanied by the reassurance that we can pick each other up as we stumble towards the unknown. Instead of a hard, defined (musical) program, here we have a diffuse, relatively sweet and peaceful invitation to play with each other to better understand our role in a world heated up by the greed of those who would make themselves protagonists and leaders of our collective voices. (David Murrieta Flores)