Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Deep Listening: The Immersive Music of Rosanna Gunnarson and Karin Johansson

Cover: Dan Froberg

I Grunda Vikar Ar Bottnarna Mjuka, 2024
(Outerdisk Recordings, Gothenberg Sweden)


“When they trailed their spikes over the strings, the strings sounded again; but they played in a new way, for now they were tuned to another pitch.” – August Strindberg

“The rest is silence.” – Hamlet’s last words

I once knew an artist, Mario Reis, who told me in a sotto voce tone that he desperately wanted to capture what he called the slow accretion of time, in a painting that would contain the true sediment of time. Not a mere representation of that phenomenon, mind you, he emphasized, but the actual sediment itself, splayed out on the canvas for onlookers to behold in all its fleeting and melancholy essence. He then proceeded, over the course of several years, to immerse his large stretched canvases in rivers, lakes, bays and occasionally oceans, allowing the silt to autograph his paintings, using the riverbeds and rocks as living brushes to establish a base upon which he would subsequently improvise his own subtle stylistic markings. His pictures thus became snapshots of time itself, and also left a residue of flowing watery movements amounting to frozen music. They stunned me in their beauty as artifacts which skillfully narrated nature as a sequence of uncontrolled and uncontrollable moments.

Over the years I’ve also encountered a few aesthetic parallel examples of the exploration of what I call sonic shadows, a zone of sound art which stretches the received limits of aural beauty asserted in the classical programming of harmony through an embrace of creative dissonance and audio-visuality. Such encounters, which have a curious semblance with the deeply immersive new music of Rosanna Gunnarson and Karin Johansson, which has similarly stunned me of late, have taught me that much is to be gained by the radical assault on continuity being deftly explored by these two fine Swedish collaborative composer/musicians. Morton Feldman might be an example of the American branch of this fertile musical tree, as well as Edgard Varese when he decided to leave behind the well-beaten path of European composers who preceded him.

Another intriguing overlap is the incorporation of actual field recordings, an experimental practice conducted by composers as diverse as Frank Zappa and Béla Bartók, into the very outer edges of sound they were both compelled to collage into their compositions. This is a creative device that Gunnarson and Johansson have since taken to both new heights and new depths, through the invitation to deep listening contained in their new collaboration, the evocatively titled album In Shallow Bays the Seabed Is Soft. The title poetically embodies both the actual physical form and discrete musical content of their shared compositional efforts together, in a conceptual artistic vibe that once was referred to as “musique concret.” Some of us, myself included, still call it that, and their latest excursion is an ideal example of both control and letting go, at the same time. It’s also somewhat anti-ambient, in a good way.

I recently wrote about the collective expedition into these outer shores of discontinuity in an essay called “Dynasty of Dissonance,” which examined the momentous changes in 20th-century perspectives which inaugurated many of the serial and sonic innovations of Varese, Bartók, Ligeti and others, and eventually led us directly into the gentle waiting arms of John Cage and his prepared piano experiments (themselves edged into being by the creation of the tone cluster notion advanced earlier on by fellow Yank Henry Cowell). In that essay I recalled the stunning encounter between John Cage and Marcel Duchamp I witnessed in the late 60’s just before Duchamp, whose Musical Erratum from 1913 remains a seminal aural-text appreciation of the laws of pure unalloyed aleatory composition and improvisation, left our dimension for more ethereal climes.

In this 1968 encounter between two modernist titans, Cage and Duchamp played a game of chess on stage at a large concert hall, using a chessboard and pieces which had been altered to record, in ever accelerating and accumulating avalanches, all the moves each artist made. The experience was revelatory, not least because it grew louder and louder as each successive move triggered a tidal wave of all the previous moves, and also included the sounds taking place within the rapt concert hall’s audience.

Duchamp was making his last public appearance, both as himself and as a chess master. Lowell Cross, a graduate student and research associate in the Electronic Music Studios at the University of Toronto, had designed a specially fabricated chessboard with photo resistors capable of broadcasting a range of electronic sounds and oscilloscopic images based on the state of the game on television screens visible to the audience.

Entitled Reunion, this event was the opening salvo in a festival organized by composer Udo Kasemets called Soundsystems. The classic encounter between two saints of modernism was also a celebration of their shared aesthetic of indeterminacy, an attempt to obliterate their personalities from their works and to develop what Cage liked to call “a kind of purposeful purposelessness or purposeless play.” This event came to mind for some unknown reason while I was experiencing the deep listening of immersive music by two Swedish musicians who, as postmodern inheritors of the Cagean/Duchmapian anti-epic mode, were successfully engaged in sharing a similar love of indeterminacy and purified play by collaborating both with each other and with the formless elements of water and sound for their magnificent sonic shadow work In Shallow Bays the Seabed Is Soft.

Prepared piano is also one of the principal modes of expression for Johansson as she navigates the improvisatory waters, literally, being structured by her collaborator/composer Gunnarson in their mesmerizing series of duets on this splendid album of thoughtful yet also thoughtless durational pieces.

Yes, vertiginous reverie would be an accurate descriptor of what they’ve accomplished here. There is something obliquely narrative about these delightful pieces, not in the sense of programmatic music per se, but rather the unique way in which they encapsulate a certain kind of theatre. In fact, I was charmed to discover that a theatre company in Manitoba, One Trunk, surprisingly staged a performance based upon the self-same story that formed the initial point of departure for this album, a story written by one of my favourite authors, August Strindberg, whose quirky short stories and exotic avant-paintings are even more compelling than his stellar plays. “The Big Gravel-Sifter” is an impossible-to-describe story, almost as challenging to characterize as this Swedish duo’s remarkable album.

The initial impetus for their shared journey into and out of the abyss is characterized well by One Trunk: “Originally a short story by August Strindberg, The Big Gravel Sifter is the tale of a family’s piano abandoned to the sea. Its recovery is determined to be too expensive and not worth the investment. The creatures of the sea who discover the piano give it new life as they try to determine what it could be and, in the process, discover music in the key of X. For those who live above, the mystery of the strange ocean music speaks the love that unites them, excites the possibility of their imagination and rebels against forces that cannot see beauty beyond utility.”

Perhaps the most emblematic of the pieces on the album is the last one, “Barnkammariek,” an enigmatic and gorgeous sound work that is always beginning and ending simultaneously.

In profound and mysterious ways, almost as mysterious as Strindberg himself, In Shallow Bays the Seabed Is Soft was partly triggered by Strindberg’s wild story about a pianoforte being dropped into deep waters off an archipelago island, Stora Grusharpan. The musical material, as explicated by the duo’s equally unique recording label Outerdisk, was assembled from underwater field recordings and composed between 2021-2022. The recorded sounds were then mixed into an audio file, based on a graphic score by Gunnarson, and accompanied by Johansson’s prepared piano improvisations. In many ways, configuring above and below in juxtaposition, the work is also about the deep water within all of us, our bloodstreams, which we can listen to as children do by blocking our ears.

Rosanna Gunnarson is a composer and sound artist based in Stockholm and educated at Gotlands Tonsättarskola and the Royal College of Music in Stockholm by Pär Lindgren and Marie Samuelsson, among others. Her music is often created with a combination of field recordings and notated music, preferably with a site-specific idea and inspiration. During her career, she has also collaborated across genres in projects with everything from dancers to artists. Karin Johansson is a pianist and composer in a wide range of improvised music, free jazz and contemporary music. She works with alternative techniques and prepared piano and is active both in Sweden and internationally, while based in Gothenburg, where she studied at the Academy of Music and Drama.

Their record label, Outerdisk, is accurately (and poetically) described as a recording imprint initiated in the year 2017 by Dan Fröberg and Jerry Johansson, devoted to all original sounds and recordings, those stretching from a distant future as well as those floating towards us from an obscured past. Outerdisk is also a publisher of esoteric poetry, drawings and what they call “random echoes from worlds afar.” All sounds and album releases are curated from their own archives of recorded gems and “magical dust.” In Shallow Bays the Seabed Is Soft is just such a glittering gem dispatched by two gifted musicians from a richly imagined subterranean place. The technical details are even more crucial in producing an album like this one: recording of the prepared grand piano, Linus Andersson; mixing, Linus Andersson, at Elementstudion; and mastering, Hans Olsson, Svenska Grammofonstudion.

Because, for instance, the torrential tranquility of their powerful piece titled “Sommarregn” brings us into contact with a nether world at once alien, strange, and yet somehow familiar, perhaps because it feels like a film soundtrack unfolding in our own minds, a pulsating museum of dreams, purged of all extraneous memory, embedded in the present moment: transcendent. This magnificent new album from Gunnarson and Johansson feels like the national anthem of an as yet undiscovered country, the name that Hamlet once gave to the Unknown, the unknowable, the unnameable, just prior to annunciating his watery last words, and just after intoning, silently, his personal response to the unanswered question hidden in its depths. Just as Strindberg used words, and Reis used canvas, Gunnarson and Johansson use sound in order to embrace the sediment of time’s fleeting passage. In that sense, their poetic music is almost Proustian in tone.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work is a book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, published in January 2024.


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