River Mouth Echoes reviewed by Brainwashed

As part of Tzadik’s ongoing Composer series, this album highlights the many sides to Maja Ratkje’s approach to sound. Ranging from her vocal work to her manipulation of recorded sound and all the way up (or down depending on your views) to her writing for other musicians. The versatility and flair she employs throughout this album, and indeed her career, is staggering. Even within a piece she shows more originality than many composers in a lifetime.

River Mouth Echoes begins and ends with a saxophone piece; Ratkje takes a recording and processes it into oblivion. The first, “ØX,” sounds somewhere between a dial-up modem and Albert Ayler. At first, it is impossible to tell that it is a saxophone being played but gradually some recognizable blasts of horn come through the ethereal electronic sound. As the piece progresses, it gets more and more rambunctious; the modem is having trouble connecting and the computer is on fire. The second of the saxophone pieces, “Sinus Seduction (Moods Two),” is in a similar vein but with more unprocessed sax.

The only piece where Ratkje performs everything herself is the beautiful and sometimes disorientating “Wintergarden.” Here she layers her voice; singing, screaming and talking to create a mesmerising atmosphere. It is at times sublime but shifts to being utterly dissonant, a sonic version of a sucker punch to the stomach. It was Ratkje’s vocal work that I was first exposed to and it is the one thing I always look for when I see a release of hers. This is not to say I do not enjoy her other styles but there is something unique about her use of voice that hits me hard.

The remainder of the pieces are written for other musicians, catering for small ensembles to the Oslo Sinfonietta. The title track, composed for the strings of the group Fretwork, is the most straightforward piece on the album. The long, droning tones from the four viola de gamba capture the same gorgeous dissonance that Ratkje achieves with her voice, although if played on its own I do not know if I would recognise it as Ratkje. “Waves IIB” for the Oslo Sinfonietta is very reminiscent of Gyorgy Ligeti, the drama and depth of the composition being impressive to say the least. The Sinfonietta play wonderfully and the recording is superbly captured; it is fantastic to hear such a piece being executed with such care.
River Mouth Echoes is a great release, so many elements of Ratkje’s skill coming together to form a very strong album. Despite it all being new music (or at the very least unreleased until now), this sounds almost like a greatest hits; it covers such a range of ideas that it is strange that it actually works as an album. Like a greatest hits collection, those unfamiliar with Ratkje might find this an ideal place to start as it gives such a good and positive view of her work.
(John Kealy)

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