That River Mouth Echoes is issued as part of Tzadik’s “Composer Series” is entirely apropos as it’s obviously more a portrait of Maja Ratkje the composer than Maja Ratkje the vocal provocateur (whether in a solo capacity or as a fe-mail member). Though the Norway-based artist is renowned for her remarkable and audacious vocal approach, only one of the album’s six pieces features her voice while the rest showcase her conceptually bold composing gifts. Ratkje emphasizes that contrast is central to her work, and we hear that principle repeatedly play out in the extremes of harsh noise and near-silence that emerge during these electro-acoustic chamber settings.
River Mouth Echoes is provocative, something made immediately clear in the opener “Øx” where her processing of an alto sax produces slabs of piercing screeches so scalpel-sharp they verge on eardrum-shattering. Recognizable traces of Rolf-Erik Nystrøm’s alto sax surface here and there but the piece largely exemplifies Ratkje’s controlled shaping of abrasive elements. Less brutalizing by comparison, Torben Snekkestad’s tenor sax wends an adventurous path through the thickets of processing treatments in a 1997 recording of “Sinus Seduction (Moods Two), while “Essential Extensions” provides an explorative space for the fluid interplay of accordionist Frode Haltli, double bassist Hakon Thelin, and Nystrøm. “Wintergarden” (created for the film of the same name by Daria Martin) may be the sole vocal setting but Ratkje manages to fit a panorama of amazing effects into six spellbinding minutes, everything from possessed spoken passages and haunting laments to animal grunts and screams of the damned. Scored for four viols (violas da gamba), the twenty-minute title composition likewise explores the full sonic potential of a single instrument with scrapes, swoops, and pizzicato effects appearing in episodes that range from serene to agitated and everything in between. On paper, it might appear to be the most classical of the album’s pieces by virtue of its baroque instrumentation but labeling it as such is superficial at best. Ratkje brings the same wide-ranging sensibility to “River Mouth Echoes” as she does to any of the others and never lets genre conventions constrain her handling of the material. The embrace of atonality and dissonance in the brooding “Waves IIB” (performed by Oslo Sinfonietta) suggests kinship with modern classical composition (whether by coincidence or design, there are moments near its end that recall the opening of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps) though here too Ratkje strikes out on her own. Transcending genres like classical or jazz, the album’s six pieces might best be classified as electro-acoustic experiments liberated by Ratkje’s fearless sensibility and open-ended methodologies.