It’s been a while since BJ Nilsen has released an album proper, although last year’s multi-month, hours-long pandemic project Pending / Auditory Scenes Amsterdam should be an album ~ it stands as one of the year’s most enduring sonic documents. Now that Nilsen is no longer recording the daily sounds of his home town, he’s had time to return to more intense, layered soundscapes, the first fruits found on Irreal. It’s a strange title, as unreal is the more common usage, but the title lends the project a hint of the otherworldly. The recordings are in fact real, but since they have been culled from multiple continents, the tapestry is artificial: real / irreal.
While the album contains only three tracks, the closing piece is long enough to be an album to itself. The tracks operate as a triptych, imprinting a sonic spectrum, found, captured, created. Nilsen’s use of stereo is particularly noteworthy: in the opening seconds, a clank, a clunk, a whoosh from speaker to speaker alerts the listener that the conductor is making full use of all available tools. But within these works is also a crispness, whether droplets or doors; as well as an intimacy that makes one want to lean close, but not too close, as the current sound may be quiet, but the next may be loud. Nilsen adds his own electronic flourishes to the found sounds to create something wholly original. To find the field recordings, one must delve into the center of the pieces: for example, the birdsong and trains of “Motif mechanik,” embedded in the drone.
It all leads to the 38:28 behemoth “Beyond pebbles, rubble and dust.” The track affords Nilsen the opportunity to play with volume and density, two of his favorite spectrums. The piece rises slowly, carefully, not a hair out of place, building first to thickness, then silence. A door creaks, but what lies beyond the crease? The title may indicate progress, but the tone indicates destruction. At first, it seems that someone is poking through debris, but eventually it seems as if a grand structure is collapsing. Again, this is irreal. It happened / it didn’t happen. The dichotomy lies at the base of discussion. Indelible impressions can be created from the imagination. By leaving parts of the canvas blank, Nilsen invites listeners to adopt their own interpretations. Are we gripped by large forces that we cannot control? How much agency do we have? If we move pebbles, rubble and dust, are we making a difference? What might we rebuild from this wreckage? (Richard Allen)