Sult album reviews (in English, German and Italian)

SultTheGuardianThe Guardian: ‘Contemporary album of the month’.

Norwegian composer Maja SK Ratkje has immersed herself in various eccentric projects over the years – free improv outfits, performance art installations, a concerto for electric guitar, and even a 2002 album entirely comprised of breaths, gasps, squeaks, grunts, growls and tongue clicks that had been digitally manipulated. Her latest project Sult (Norwegian for “hunger”) was inspired by Knut Hamsun’s 1890 novel of the same name and uses music that she initially composed for a Norwegian National Ballet production. To add a further layer of complexity, the entire album is performed on an instrument that she built herself: Ratkje has taken an old-fashioned pump organ, powered by foot pedals, and added PVC tubes, wind machines, bass strings, resin threads and glass percussion – to the point that it now resembles some crazed Heath Robinson contraption.

But the results are quietly compelling. Using her homemade steampunk synthesiser, she’s able to sound like a Bontempi organ, a wheezy accordion, a zither and orchestral percussion section. Her aim was to conjure up the sound of 19th-century Oslo, but the tracks on Sult sometimes nod towards Steve Reich-style organ minimalism, Ennio Morricone soundtracks, folksy ballads and breathy, effects-laden folktronica. Ratkje can also write strong, vocal-led songs, such as Sayago and Øine Som Råsilke, that transform this collection into a compelling album. (John Lewis)

Link to album

The Quietus:

(…)Midway through the stark novel, the writer wanders by an organ grinder and his daughter singing “a mournful song” which, in his malnourished condition, affects him profoundly: “I felt drawn to the notes, dissolved in them, I began to flow out into the air… high over mountains, dancing on in waves over brilliant areas…” And this is as good as any description for the effect Ratkje’s compositions achieve here. Unlike her fiercely experimental voice improvisations, large scale orchestral work or sound art installations, Sult has beguiling folk-like songs touched with a transcendental air. It reflects the starving artist’s hyper-sensitive state that sees him experience not only abject poverty but also heights of joy.

But, Ratkje’s experimental sensibilities clearly run through Sult, seeing her heavily modify her accompanying organ, transforming its repertoire with plastic and metal tubes, guitar strings, resin thread and a wind machine. Like an acoustic form of glitch, the mechanism’s malfunctions, squeaks and rattles are emphasised in the arrangements to lend uncanny, dilapidated rhythms and textures to the affecting, sensitive suite. In doing so Ratkje has produced a rare recording that balances beautiful, uncanny song, rich, acoustic composition and startling originality in equal measure. (Listening With Uncertainty: Rum Music With Russell Cuzner)

By the musician’s own self-created standards, via projects including noise duo Fe-mail and the improv-based Spunk, these compositions feel objectively palatable: existing at the fringes of pop-song structure, sure, but there are euphoric vocal refrains that serve as hooks, and playful organ melodies, threaded through pieces such as ‘Et hvitt fyrtårn midt i et grumset menneskehav hvor vrak fløt om’. In the same way high street evangelists are allowed to bellow at the public while someone standing outside New Look gargling death metal lyrics would be moved on, you wonder if the moments of atonal thud and junked cacophony on Sult feel implicitly acceptable because we know they were created as a ballet soundtrack. Maybe it even induced mild shock in the Oslo auditorium. Most importantly for this review, it thrives without its original visual stimulus. (Noel Gardner)


Maja S.K. Ratkje’s spellbinding ‘Sult’ is based on her soundtrack for the ballet suite by Jo Strømgren for the Norwegian national ballet. Leading on from her previous solo LP ‘Crepuscular Hour’, Ratkje is here accompanied by a wildly modified, out-of-tune pump organ in 9 wonderous songs that attest to her non pareil, improvisational brilliance.

Stemming from the ballet adaptation of Sult, Knut Hamsen’s classic novel about a starving writer in late 19th century Kristiania (now Oslo), Maja’s treatment closely follows its themes in the lyrics and music, but works as a distinctive document in its own right. Under song titles taken from the novel, Maja unfurls surreal, anachronistic scenes akin to a steampunk echo of olde Oslo.

Using an era-appropriate pump organ rigged with metal and PVC tubes, and a wind machine built in, along with resin threads, metal and glass percussion and bow – which she had to learn to play before recording – Maja regales the narration with a fine but beautifully loose grasp of her instrument’s chaotic analog nature, skilfully harmonising with her own, incredible vocal abilities.

Despite having never read the book or visited Oslo, Maja’s music and singing takes us right there, to the same cold cobbled streets where Hamsen wrote his semi-autobiographical account of a starving artist trying to make it, and where you might encounter images that gave rise to Edvard Munch’s ’Skrik’ [1893]. Through the resilience of her voice and the queasy, off-kilter shanty feel of the pump organ, Maja most romantically and acutely connotes that atmosphere with the timeless charm of a bard, troubadour or dramaturgist, or quite simply the ambiguous, dreamy nature of the most potent art.

The Wire:

(…)Ratkje allows herself time and space to feel the limits of her new, unique instrument, and to capitalise on the opportunity for sonic invention through unfamiliarity.(…) “En Træflis Å Tygge på” is an abstract street scene, approximating the surprising harmony of a street musician, a whistling passerby, and the rattling of chains and crunching of papers underfoot. These abstract, atonal interludes interact with mournful chamber songs such as “Øine Som Råsilke, Armer Av Rav” – a mirror of the erratic and nonlinear depiction of varying states of madness described in the novel. Reflecting on the initial performances of Sult, Ratkje stated her intention for “the music to be ugly and tender and rough and fragile at the same time”. Her audacious, adaptable voice and Frankenstein’s monster of an instrument are well-suited to this contradictory reflection of the complex, damaged human psyche. (Claire Biddles)

Link to reviews in Norwegian

Bad Alchemy:

Sult, das ist die Musik, die MAJA S. K. RATKJE für eine Performance des Norwegian National Ballet geschrieben und auch live gespielt hat. Nach “Hunger”, dem Roman, der Knut Hamsun auf den Weg brachte, King Nut zu werden. Mit “Mysterien”, “Pan”, der “Landstreicher-Trilogie” und “Auf überwachsenen Pfaden” gelang ihm, denke ich, genug, um den Höllenhunden das Maul zu stopfen. Ratkje spielt ein verstimmtes Har­monium, an das noch Metall- und PVC-Pfeifen und eine Windmaschine angebaut wurden. Und sie erzeugt weitere Sounds mit Gitarren- und Basssaiten, mit Metall- und Glaspercus­sion und durch Bowing. Um mit dieser Steampunk-Bontempi-Akkordeon-Zither-Orgel Kristiana-Stimmung mit 1890er-Flair zu erzeugen, und mit zartem und wenn nicht frommem, so doch kunstfrommem Gesang das Weh dieser Welt fühlbar zu machen. Raue, scharrende Laute, aber auch klirrig funkelnde mischen sich bei ‘Den spraettende’ zu dudelig orgelndem Minimal-Drang und Purzelbäumen der Zunge. Hamsun war zweimal als Auswanderer in der Neuen Welt gescheitert und hatte einen Beißreflex entwickelt, aber hatte nichts zu beißen, außer seinem Ehrgeiz und Eigensinn. Ratkje besänftigt ihn mit ‘Sa­yago’ als Wiegenlied, sie evoziert bei ‘En træflis å tygge på’ pfeifend Spätwesterntristesse und vokalisiert mit folkloresker Sanftmut, nicht ohne Hamsun pathisch die Hungerleider-Krone aufzusetzen. Aber noch faucht der Wind durchs dünne Hemd, was freilich kein Grund ist, zu windspielerischem Klingklang nicht mit der Pump Organ und mit Donner­blech komisch zu quallen und dazu launigen Singsang anzustimmen. Untergeher- und Größenwahn-Akkorde kreuzen sich mit paukendem Trotz, heulendem Alarm und Sirenen­gesang zur dramatischen Klimax. Aber das Extro pumpt Ratkje nochmal mit den Kirchen­maus-Registern, denen Hamsun freilich das gegenstrebige Flüstern seines Bluts und seinen tragikomisch stolzen Wider-Geist als Imp of the Perverse entgegen gesetzt hätte. (BA 101 rbd)


La crudezza di certi racconti non si edulcora nel tempo. La società scandinava moderna non poteva più essere la stessa dopo le pièce teatrali di Ibsen e Strindberg e, più avanti, le angosce morali del cinema di Bergman. Così anche il romanzo semi-autobiografico di Knut Hamsun, testimonianza sofferta e allucinata di una vita in estrema povertà nella Oslo di fine Ottocento: uno spartiacque letterario che nel tempo ha ispirato due adattamenti cinematografici e un recente balletto del regista Jo Strømgren per il Norwegian National Ballet.

È nell’ambito di quest’ultima produzione che entra in gioco la già ben nota figura della compositrice e performer sperimentale Maja S.K. Ratkje: l’artista di Trondheim si è affermata dai primi anni 2000 sotto l’egida della Rune Grammofon (e non solo), soprattutto per gli arditi estremismi vocali figli di Diamanda Galás, dall’esordio “Voice” al recital con orchestra di “And Sing…”.

Dopo l’ambizioso oratorio “Crepuscular Hour”, eseguito assieme a comprimari di prestigio della scena elettroacustica e avantgarde norvegese, il progetto per la messa in scena di “Sult” (“Fame”) appare come un esercizio in scala ridotta, ma la cui inventiva e il profondo lirismo non sono da meno rispetto alla produzione antecedente.

Con l’assistenza dei tecnici del teatro dell’opera nazionale, Ratkje ha modificato le componenti e i meccanismi di un vecchio organo a pompa, applicandovi tubi di metallo e di PVC, corde di chitarra e percussioni, creando uno strumento ibrido degno del più bizzarro immaginario steampunk. La fase di composizione per l’artista è dunque coincisa con un graduale apprendimento, volto a sviluppare la capacità di suonare e cantare mentre i piedi azionano i mantici che forniscono aria alle canne.

Ratkje ha eseguito le sue musiche dal vivo per ciascuna replica del balletto, esponendosi ogni volta alle imperfezioni tonali dell’anomalo organetto: ciò nonostante l’esito è quantomai rispondente alla descrizione che lo sguardo miserevole di Hamsun offre del capoluogo scandinavo alla vigilia del progresso industriale.

“Questa città meravigliosa”, titola la commovente introduzione strumentale, memore dei sommessi temi di Mihály Víg per il maestro del cinema ungherese Béla Tarr, laddove nel secondo brano il canto melodico di Maja è introdotto da acute vibrazioni di lamiere sfiorate da un archetto.

“Mentre, semisdraiato, facevo scorrere lo sguardo lungo il petto fino alle gambe osservai i piccoli scatti del mio piede a ogni pulsazione”: questo il passaggio cui si riferisce il terzo brano, attraversato da progressioni minimaliste e sottili clangori da vecchia orologeria; qui Ratkje inizia a dar voce al delirio del protagonista con vocalizzi e sillabazioni asemantiche alla Meredith Monk, nume tutelare che subito ritorna nell’invocazione mantrica di “Sayago”.

“Nel tormento della fame avevo raccolto per la strada un pezzetto di legno e mi ero messo a masticarlo”: come la prosa di Hamsun coniuga rassegnazione e meraviglia, osservando il presente come all’ombra di un passato luminoso, anche il canto di Maja oscilla continuamente tra alienazione e malinconia, senso claustrofobico e modeste elevazioni liriche – “Se era bella! Era magnifica, stupenda, soave. Occhi come la seta, braccia come l’ambra!” (“Øine Som Råsilke, Armer Av Rav”).

In terz’ultima battuta l’incedere sulla tastiera si fa arcigno e zoppicante, infantili e autoriferite le poche linee vocali, sintomi di una follia ormai incipiente che pure non scalfisce la dignità dello sconfitto: “La sensazione di essere un uomo di carattere, un faro bianco e luminoso in mezzo a una marea spregevole di relitti umani”.

Ma in questa riduzione per il formato album Ratkje lascia poco spazio al precipizio che conduce alla perdita del senno, accumulando qualche rumorismo e fraseggio sconnesso nel passaggio che precede l’accorata dedica finale a “Kristiania”, topònimo originario della capitale norvegese, condensata in un quadretto invernale di umile poesia.

Tutt’altro che opera minore, “Sult” è per Maja S.K. Ratkje la riprova di come si possano imboccare sentieri espressivi “tradizionali” a partire da una strumentazione inortodossa, scoprendone il potenziale senza guide all’uso né scorciatoie. (Michele Palozzo)

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