Despite being only 34, Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje is one of the world’s leading modern composers and musicians and has been for well over a decade. Her extensive discography alone shows her multi-faceted approach, from her regular forays into noise, improv, electronic composition and avant-garde jazz to vocal experimentation and more traditional orchestral and chamber work. Her impressive solo work is dwarfed by the sheer number of collaborators she has worked with over the years, either as part of formations such as all-female improv quartet SPUNK, Fe-mail, the duo Ratkje formed with Hild Sofie Tafjord, and X,Y,Z, an electro-acoustic ensemble formed of Ratkje, Risto Holopainen and Asbjørn Blokkum, or on various projects with Jazzkammer’s Lasse Marhaug and John Hegre, Lotta Melin or Jaap Blonk to name but a few.
Her latest solo release, published on American imprint Tzadik, brings together quite a few strands of Ratkje’s work, from the all-out noise and electronic experimentations of Øx and Sinus Seduction (Moods Two), which are not without evoking the work of Pierre Schaeffer or Pierre Henry, and the dense clusters of sound of the title track, a piece for four violas de gamba, to the threatening collages of orchestral sequences of Waves IIB, performed here by the Oslo Sinfonietta under the baton of Christian Eggen, the abstract experimentations of Essential Extensions or the processed vocals of Wintergarden.
While the majority of the tracks featured here were recorded between 2005 and 2007, they were composed over the last ten years, Sinus Seduction, dating back to 1997, being the oldest piece. River Mouth Echoes is an impressive testament to Ratkje’s uncompromising body of work and an almost ideal entry point to her career. Right from the opening moments of the record, the listener is plunged in a hot bath of high pitched frequencies, set at the limit of bearable, which, through distortions and processing, become in turn more substantial or almost non-existent. The addition of very occasional saxophone tones, especially toward the end of the piece, contrasts greatly with the linearity of the noise formation to substantiate the non-musical aspect of the piece.
The saxophone links Øx and Essential Extensions, which follows. Performed by Poing, this piece, composed in 1999, was the first of many compositions Ratkje wrote for the ensemble, formed of accordionist Frode Haltli, saxophonist Folf-Erik Nystrøm, who also performs on the pervious track, and double bass player Håkon Thelin. On this piece, each musician is provided with his own particular space to fill, but it is when their three worlds collide that they reach an altogether more ambitious and exciting dimension. A similar approach is found on River Mouth Echoes later. The piece, written for four violas de gamba and performed by string ensemble Fretwork, is an extraordinary piece of music which goes through wonderfully detailed and quiet moments, during which the four instruments appear engaged in various dialogues and exchanges, and intense eruptions, which reveal much more heated interactions, over its twenty minute course.
Waves IIB, which follows, is another piece which is subject to impressive mood swings. The only fully orchestral composition here, it showcases Ratkje’s work at its most ambitious, at least in term of execution. An incredibly complex piece both in its concept and in its resulting form, it is also a deeply heart-warming and evocative piece as melodic strips rise to the surface almost constantly before exploding in a variety of form, some utterly concrete, others much more abstract.
The remaining two pieces are equally as challenging and experimental. On Wintergarden, a piece originally composed for the 2005 film of the same name by American-born film director Daria Martin, Ratkje returns to the entirely vocal forms she has experimented with throughout her career and which she documented in part on her 2002 Rune Grammofon album Voice. She provides all the vocal textures, from spoken words and lyrical lifts to noises, and, once processed, layers them to create a piece which in turn fascinates, inspires and frightens.
Sinus Seduction (Moods Two) is a collaboration between Ratkje on electronics and Torben Snekkestad on saxophone. Once again, the piece evolves at the confines of musique concrète and electro-acoustic, but unlike on Øx where the saxophone was almost unsubstantial, it is here very much as the heart of the piece and casts a surprisingly human shadow over the overtly atonal frequencies and distortions.
Due to its form, River Mouth Echoes certainly lacks the sonic consistencies of Maja Ratkje’s previous releases, but it is an interesting compendium of genres and serves as an excellent platform for her work. While it is pointless to try summing up the outputs of someone with such a wide spectrum in just over an hour, River Mouth Echoes isolate some of her most radical, and radically different, compositions and should be regarded as such.