As a member of Fe-Mail, her duo with Hild Sofie Tafjord, Maja Ratkje has toyed with gender and expectations, appearing made up like a model (or a more mainstream female musician, maybe), creating thick, abrasive music, working with death metal band Enslaved and generally challenging the notions of women in music. She has also worked with Jaap Blonk and the four-woman group Spunk. These settings have all featured her (to varying degrees) as an improvisor. Her solo album Voice showed a strong sculptural sense in organizing sound, but River Mouth Echoes puts Ratkje squarely in the role of composer, and is as varied in an hour’s time as has been her discography up until now.
And since with Fe-Mail she opened the gender question, it seems fair game here. While she is unafraid of brutality, her music can also be quite delicate. The six works here range from processed saxophone to pieces for chamber orchestra and viol de gamba quartet, some compositions dating back to 1997, and could arguably be said to represent a more feminine side to her work. Her voice is only heard on one track (the solo-with-electronics piece “Wintergarden,” at six minutes the shortest track on the disc), but surprisingly it isn’t missed; in a less literal sense, her voice is heard throughout.
On “Sinus Seduction (Moods Two),” her processing of Torben Snekkestad’s saxophone sounds works convincingly like a sax/voice duet. It’s interesting to compare that to the other processed sax duo on the disc. “Ox,” recorded eight years later with Rolf-Erik Nystrom, is more jagged and could almost pass for pure electronics.
The other three pieces are for acoustic instruments: “Essential Extensions” is a slippery trio for accordion, saxophone and double bass, performed by the group Poing (with whom Ratkje has often worked). It makes use of all the romantic and vocal qualities of the instruments, with the occasional interrupting outburst. The title track — at 20 minutes the longest piece here — is performed by the viol quartet Fretwork and is a beautiful, episodic exploration of the resonant strings. “Waves IIB,” played by the Oslo Sinfonietta, is the most dramatic work presented — listening to it, one can easily imagine a sort of post-Stravinsky ballet unfolding. Percussive explosions and high string-section screams work at odds with prolonged wind tones and quick turns of pace.
With just vocals and electronics, Ratkje occupies considerable territory. Voice remains her essential work, and now, with the added feather of non-performing composer, her River Mouth Echoes is an impressive addition.