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Sigbjørn Apeland: Glossolalia

img  Tobias Fischer

I can distinctly remember good friend Fred Wheeler once asking drummer and accretions-labelhead Marcos Fernandes whether a piece of sound art had ever given him the goosebumps. Apparently this caught Fernandes, who must have had the odd leftfield interview questions aimed at him in his more than three centuries and over fifty releases as an active member of the California-improv scene, entirely off guard: The response was a long bout of happy chuckling and laughter, from which it took both him and Wheeler considerable time to recover. The response, despite it humorous undertone, meanwhile, is a representative one: Ask any person on the street which region of the human body they'll associate with experimental music and they'll steadfastly point to the head, where intellect and reason hold sway and physical pleasure at best manifests itself in abstractions and metaphors. In short, they'll associate it with cerebral stimulation rather than sensual enjoyment, with complex concepts instead of a rush of hormones and with work, not fun. To someone like Sigbjørn Apeland, on the other hand, these terms are by no means contradictions. As anyone who's ever lost himself in the mesmerising maze of Bach'ean counterpoint can readily testify, intellectual depth and profound emotion need not be mutually exclusive. And so, although in his liner notes,  Apeland will relate the historical dimensions of his „suction bellow operated harmoniums“, the modes and techniques of interaction through which they can be integrated into a folk-  and improvisation-oriented context as well as the sonic particularities owing to their construction, Glossolalia, in the end, has turned out an album about rediscovering one's youth and letting go – about the inner spaces, thus, only sounds can reach.

Apeland has spent a decade trying to define, delineate and discover these spaces. Ten years, in which he established a profound musical relationship with Harding fiddler and ECM-figurehead Nils økland, explored electronica and turned into a coveted live performer. Ten years, throughout which his solo oeuvre may occasionally have seemed like a side thought and from whose nostalgia-drenched tissue he has now wrung a mere five pieces and just over thirty minutes of music. And yet, the all but evanescent brevity of the release works to its advantage, as possibly countless sessions and hours' worth of material have been reduced to a precious concentrate. A lot of it was recorded in the „coastal capital“ of Bergen, where the harmoniums featured on Glossolalia were also constructed – a sort of macrobiotic approach to creation. And although there is an astounding coherency to these pieces, they're just as clearly reflections of Apeland's idiosyncratic process of mastering his instruments, tapping deeper and deeper into their potential, finding suitable compositional forms and, generally speaking, growing as an interpreter in a bid of realising his personal vision of acoustic ambient as precisely as possible. Never once, however, does the inherently „experimental“ nature of the work impinge on its emotional frankness: The twin aims of arriving at his own voice and striving for music „that has not been heard before“ are intricately related here.

Perhaps it is due to this dual nature that every single tune on Glossolalia establishes a distinct, unmistakable architecture and seems to follow its own rules, as though Apeland were redefining his musical vocabulary from scratch on each occasion. In one moment, he will build a swelling and deflating drone from a slowly undulating bass-tonic and a handful of melodic cells. On another, a descending four-note-row in the right hand, delivered with tiny variations in accent each time and gradually stretched to an expansive yet fragile Leitmotif, serves as a steady rhythmical foundation for single tone- and chord-patterns in the left, resulting in a kaleidoscopically shifting series of harmonic constellations. And while „Stilleflytande“ essentially comprises of a single idea stretched to the length of a complete composition – which simply consists in juxtaposing downward movement in the lower registers with upward arches in the upper – the nine and a half immersive minutes of the album's centerpiece „Mildt“ take their audience on a convoluted and perpetually surprising journey, as a pastoral, melodic opening section seems to flow straight into the coda - a yearning exercise in minimalism, mood and momentum, in which nothing but a tender trill, culled from the opening like a happy memory, serves as the main organisational element. And yet, despite the at times artfully crafted transitions, these changes never serve to introduce new feelings, but instead probe deeper and deeper into a particular ambiance, until every fibre and nerve end is oscillating at the same wavelength.

This consistency focuses all attention on the myriads of tiny sonic details making up Glossolalia, the noise, as Apeland points out, „that comes from the keys, the bellows, the pedals, the knee-operated swells and other mechanical devices.“ Instead of surgically removing these impurities, they are consciously left in, turning into an integral part of the music, like a natural blueprint to the crackles and glitches of contemporary electronica, in which perfectionist producers are desperately trying to recreate these acoustic distractions through time-consuming studio operations. While these artifacts are creating a spatial micro-texture, some of the musical content appears keen, conversely, to expand the timbral palette and exceed the limitations of the harmonium. As much as these are solo performances, Apeland is thinking like a symphonic composer, pitting different groups of themes against each other, creating instances of perplexing orchestral splendour and bathing some of his intimate inventions in rich, romantically-tinged chromaticism: It is hard not to think of Mahler on „Mildt“ or be fooled into imagining a string orchestra on the slowly gyrating harmonies of „Stilleflytande“, on which various melodic strands are woven into dense yet airy structures.

It is in these moments, too, that one realises that, above all, Glossolalia is Apeland's peculiar declaration of love to an instrument which allows for no virtuosity whatsoever and, on the face of it, seems as outdated as a harpsichord. And yet, in his hands, it is turning into an arrow, whose head has been dipped into melancholia's sweet poison. Even the outwardly inconspicuous booklet, which looks as though Apeland had personally written each copy on an old typewriter, is enough to make one cry. And yet, there is no formula here, no apparent recipe: It is a futile effort trying to analytically explain the emotional impact of these pieces, on which a final remainder of magic and mystery always remains. Goosebumps assured - here's one for you, Fred.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Hubro Records

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