River Mouth Echoes reviewed by Paris Transatlantic

River Mouth Echoes is a reminder that Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje (the “SK” is part of the package, like the “L” in L. Ron Hubbard and the “J” in J. Edgar Hoover) is not only an acclaimed performer on the noise circuit but also a bona fide conservatory-trained composer. Indeed, the 20-minute title track would have made a splendid submission as a show-me-what-you-can-do final year comp assignment (having said that, no Music Faculty I know of would have specified the instrumentation of four-piece viol consort). It does take some time to find out where it’s heading, though, the first twelve-and-a-half minutes jumpcutting from threads of folksong-like melody to airy, fluty harmonics, skittering col legno, snapping Bartók pizzicati and quite a bit of ugly scraping – once frowned upon, but now kosher since Lachenmann – before settling on some ethereal trills which herald the start of a slow build-up towards the “surprise” scordatura ending (not a surprise at all if you know Penderecki’s Second Quartet, and I’ll bet you a Norwegian kroner or two Maja does). Essential Extensions (1999), scored for accordion, alto sax and double bass, is another impressive if not particularly attractive exercise in standard Euro avant-garde instrumental technique, all gnarly clusters, ugly multiphonics and wailing glissandi, but like the viol quartet seems to lack some overall motivic coherence; the composer’s sympathies seem to lie more with the spectralists than the serialists, and 2005’s Øx, once more for Rolf-Eric Nystrøm’s alto sax, this time accompanied by Ratkje’s own processing, is more convincing in its exploration of the undertones – Hugo Riemann would be thrilled – of the piercing top C that dominates the piece. The earlier Sinus Seduction Moods Two (1997) also moves in spectralist territory – Scelsi and Radulescu both come to mind at times – but the sax writing seems a bit laboured and Torben Snekkestad’s playing tense and uptight. Paging Mats Gustafsson, white courtesy telephone please. Likewise, anyone familiar with the flair and subtlety of Ratkje’s live electronics might find the textbook post-WWII orchestration of Waves IIB rather staid and fusty, despite a sensitive reading by the Oslo Sinfonietta under the baton of Christian Eggen. The piece that sounds freshest on the whole disc is Wintergarden, the one featuring Ratkje’s own extraordinary voice, an amazing instrument somewhere between Annick Nozzati, Diamanda Galas and Joanna Newsom (“tell me darrrling did you taste his food?”). With the Tzadik album under her belt, can we now look forward to a Ratkje outing recorded by Steve Albini, produced by Jim O’Rourke and arranged by Van Dyke Parks? That’d be something.


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