Frode Haltli / Vertavo String Quartet LOOKING ON DARKNESS

“Looking on Darkness” is the solo recording debut of Frode Haltli, a major talent from Norway, destined to make his mark on several genres. His primary commitment, however, is to contemporary composition and this album features Nordic new music – from Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland -  written for the accordion. Four of the five pieces are premiere recordings, with three written especially for Halti. They add up to a fascinating landscape of new music from the north, music which casts its inspirational net wide.
The centrepiece of the album is the 24 minute “Gagaku Variations” of Norwegian composer  Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje, which sets Haltli’s accordion against the strings of the Vertavo Quartet. Maja Ratkje (born 1973) is  an unusual figure, a “multiple artist” (not unlike Haltli himself in this respect) working on many fronts – she is a composer, improviser, singer, keyboardist, violinist, studio engineer, the list goes on. Ratkje, who recently won the “Arne Nordheim Prize” for her compositions, has appeared on three ECM-distributed albums as singer with the improvisation ensemble Spunk, and a solo album “Voice” is in preparation for 2003 release. Her “Gagaku Variations” is in part the outcome of an extended trip to Japan, and subsequent transcription and study of  ancient Japanese court music. There are no direct quotations from gagaku in her composition, but instead an intuitive, poetic translation of the concept of “becoming”, of beauty taking form in silence that is central to the idiom.  Ratkje’s work also effects a ‘discourse’ between East and West, as haiku-like episodes are interspersed with blocks of sound whose elemental power recalls Xenakis or Stravinsky. Exchanges between the soloist and the quartet are, as Erland Kiøsterud notes “orchestrated as if  the string quartet and the accordion shared a long tradition”; it seems a most natural instrumental blending.
PerMagnus Lindborg, a Swedish composer (born in Stockholm in 1968) who studied in Norway, Holland and Japan,  and now lives in Paris, is not to be confused with the similarly named Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg (of whom more shortly). Lindborg’s teachers have included Brian Ferneyhough and Ragnar Soederlind.  Amongst his compositions are a series of “SonoSofisms” for diverse instrumentation. The “Bombastic SonoSofisms” (which are in fact playful rather than bombastic) were written for Haltli’s solo accordion; Lindborg has since also developed a version for septet. The music was conceived while travelling through Europe in the winter of 1996.  “SonoSofisms are musical sophisms”, Lindborg explains.  The composer has studied the sophists, working backwards, philosophically, from Bertrand Russell to Plato and Protagoras. Quote: “I like ancient history. It throws light on my own little spot of existence.” Although improvisation has increasingly  played a role in Lindborg’s writing, the leaping flurries of sound in these particular “SonoSofisms” are all written. Haltli calls this piece “the most ‘jazzlike’ composition on the album.”
Magnus Lindberg’s “Jeux d’Anches” is, like much of his music, an adventure in sound exploration.   Kiøsterud: “The notes spread out eagerly and playfully in this informally excessive work. With brilliant energy, Lindberg investigates the potential of the instrument.” Written in 1990, “Jeux d’Anches” is the oldest piece on the album. Instructive to listen to it now, when the received opinion is that the composer has grown beyond the “kinetic” and abrasive qualities of his early work to emphasize craftsmanship, and more conventional approaches to melody, harmony and colour. It is  clear that craftsmanship has been secure all along, and that Lindberg has never been exclusively obsessed with extremes.  As he has said: “I am avant-garde if that means being in the front-line of modern music, deeply aware of tradition. I do feel specifically that I am continuing the tradition of western art music.”
As indeed are  Denmark’s Bent Sørensen (b. 1958) and Norway’s Asbjørn Schaathun
(b. 1961) with their pieces. Haltli gave the premieres of these two works in 2001, and Schaathun’s composition is also written for Haltli.
Sørensen’s “Looking On Darkness” takes its title from Shakespeare’s 27th Sonnet: “Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed/ The dear repose for limbs with travel tired./But then begins a journey in my head /To work my mind, when body's work's expired./For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,/Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,/And keep my drooping eyelids open wide, Looking on darkness which the blind do see”. The yearning quality of the poem is matched by the pensive melancholy of Sørensen’s music. Bent Sørensen, of course, was the subject of an earlier ECM New Series album, “Birds and Bells”,  released in 1999 to considerable acclaim, with the press testifying to the vividness of  the composer’s “dreamscapes”: “this is music you can almost see as much as hear” (BBC Music Magazine).  
Of Shaatun’s “Lament”, Kiosterud asks, “can a modern atonal work be a lament without grieving over its lost romantic melody?” and answers in the affirmative. “Classically structured in its composition with clear-cut formal elements, Schaatun’s piece makes use of the polyphonic potentiality of the accordion.” At times the instrument seems to be in dialogue with itself. (ECM Records)

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