Vertical Music ~ Northern European Soundscapes

The third tape batch from Vertical Music covers the lands of Iceland, Finland and Norway.  With sounds both natural and manipulated, these artists seek to reflect not only the acoustics, but the feeling of the vast and vibrant north.

The first of these comes from a familiar name.  Abby Lee Tee hiked across Iceland in the pre-pandemic summer of 2019 (great timing!)  While this is not the time of year to catch the Northern Lights, July boasts up to 21 hours of daily sunlight, perfect for those who wish to see a lot without having to worry about the clock.  Or in this case, to hear a lot.

The remarkable list of characters is worth listing in its entirety: Meadow Pipit, Black-legged Kittiwake, Thick-billed Murre, Common Murre, Razorbill, Common Redshank, Artic Fox, Arctic Tern, European Golden Plover, Northern Fulmar, Redwing.  Which of these is not like the other?  The Arctic Fox, of course, a serendipitous encounter.  We’re equally impressed at the artist’s ability to identify what he has heard.  In the third minute, a group of birds seems to laugh at him; in the fourth, another group imitates squeaky toys, reappearing on Side B (our guess: the Black-legged Kittiwake).  The birds mock, the water flows, the thunder rolls, and Tee is the luckiest tourist on earth.

Hornstrandir is a nature preserve in the Westfjords, a gorgeous area (speaking from experience!) that in summer can seem like seasons at war.  It’s a bit disconcerting to learn that early settlers ate the ancestors of the birds we hear, and that the fox considers them fair prey as well; although to be fair, sometimes polar bears were known to drift down from Greenland and eat foxes and humans alike.  Today, no humans live in Hornstrandir, which is allowed to flourish.  Abby Lee Tee’s field recordings capture the rare sound of the real wild: untouched ecosystems, icy water lapping and flowing, 580km of unspoiled land.

Now for a moment, we’ll hop over Norway and Sweden on our way to Finland, where we travel the southern coast with Rasmus Östling.  Vaste combines field recordings and bowed objects in an effort to amplify the “cold and silent winter.”

These expeditions were likely a welcome break for Östling, who lives in the former capital of Turku.  While the sounds include “motionless cities,” caught in the grip of unforgiving winds, they also investigate the Vaste open ocean spaces, removed from human interference.  There’s a huge difference between isolation imposed and isolation chosen, the second possessing a sweet allure, especially when one has all the quiet waves to one’s self and can hear one’s own footsteps.  Halfway through “inlaesus” (“unharmed”), the artist seems to relish the sleet as he approaches a shore filled with glacial remnants.  As the sounds of industry sneak into the mix, a clear contrast is created between awe and resignation.  Plodding work beckons while the great outdoors sings its siren song.  And which will win?

Norway’s Signe Lidén and Espen Sommer Eide travel ever farther afield, creating a blended, electro-acoustic work.  The cassette title Studies: Altitude and History may sound like a term paper, but the contents are far more active and exciting.  In the first seconds lie breath, song, and the sound of manipulated waves, then something heavy, like a manhole cover, pulled across the ground.  A storm visits and withdraws, objects are struck, music is improvised on found metal.  The artists call the work Spiral.

Midway through Side A, a series of drones develops, low hums met by high-pitched tones.  The low end vibrates while the high end chimes.  This does not sound like Norway, but a mysterious encampment of improvisers, inspired by landscape and weather.  That is, until the third minute of Side B, when the birds descend with a vengeance, taking over the sonic field, defeating the drones in the name of the avian kingdom.  A few minutes later, a different flock enters, a brief skirmish leading to a change in residency and timbre, the birdsong modified until it becomes an electronic conversation and midway through the side, an excitable jam.  When the drones inevitably return, the fun seems to end, but the listener looks back with gratitude; this lecture was much more engaging than it sounded on paper!

Best played in this order, Vertical Music’s third batch begins with a mirror of the north and ends with a painting.  Might we ever hear a Black-legged Kitawake in the wild?  Does ice still float off the southern coast of Finland?  Do Norwegian birds really sound like synthesizers?  For the past two years, we’ve had to rely on our computers and our imagination.  Now that the skies are open, the world’s sights and sounds may flow once again into our eyes and ears.  (Richard Allen)

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