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Ellen Arkbro - CHORDS Music Album Reviews

On the follow-up to her 2017 album For organ and brass, the Swedish composer delves even deeper into microtonal interplay, balancing heady theoretical terrain with a rare emotional resonance.

The title of Ellen Arkbro’s CHORDS couldn’t be much more succinct—or accurate. Her longform compositions, first encountered on 2017’s stunning For organ and brass, consist entirely of rich harmonies rendered in obscure tuning systems, unfurled one at a time. Melody, rhythm, lyrics, and other beloved chestnuts we tend to enjoy in music are unflinchingly cast aside. Listening to Arkbro’s work means listening to chords and nothing else.

If that sounds dull, or strict, or technical, then you haven’t heard these chords. Though in interviews Arkbro enthuses about high-functioning academic subjects like septimal intervals, the ultra-complex computer program SuperCollider, and “microtonal tuba,” her music is infused with a profound emotionality that transcends its heady origins. Passing through the gates of extreme rigor, CHORDS finds private infinity in a handful or stretched-out drones.

The A-side returns to the organ with “CHORDS for organ.” Here the instrument is rendered bare and unaccompanied, and the first impression is one of scale—a mammoth stack of tones that swells, churns, and undulates in place. Notes are added and taken away with a technician’s cool remove. Sunn O)))’s Stephen O’Malley recently described the experience of working with frequency relationships as being akin to becoming a “witness to phenomena,” a comment that finds much purchase here. Arkbro’s cadence has a strikingly chunky quality; she plops each new harmonic shift down with the matter-of-factness of a butcher weighing meat. Yet this absence of romance or theatricality works in the music’s favor, allowing us to hear the depth and power of the organ without feeling manipulated or needled into some calculated epiphany.

These austerity measures are a step or two away from her debut. Comparing the albums, CHORDS is notably more severe, and also more mercurial. For organ and brass at times recalled the muted yearnings of Arthur Russell’s Tower of Meaning, but CHORDS feels less expressive and more like a force of nature. It may inspire awe, dread, deep calm, or nervous discomfort, but that’s on you. The press release describes the album as built from a “carefully selected combination of tones,” but you get the feeling that the tones selected Arkbro, rather than the other way around. The longer you sit with them, the more they speak.

On the B-side, Arkbro shifts her focus to the guitar, though it sounds particularly alien here. Could this be a function of tuning? Or has Arkbro returned to the world of software, where she worked until recently? We hear each string sounded one at a time, strummed with a dirge-like solemnity, in a languid cascade. The action is really in the decay, where the strings resonate together in beautiful stasis, though it doesn’t sweep you up with the same immediacy as her organ works, which essentially feel like limitless explorations of those same fading harmonies. I’m reminded of Morton Feldman’s search for “sourceless” sounds. “The attack of a sound is not its character,” held the composer. “Decay, however, this departing landscape, this expresses where the sound exists in our hearing—leaving us rather than coming towards us.” A piece built entirely out of these floating evaporations could be an experience. Though “CHORDS for guitar” moves in the direction of this mystery, it doesn’t quite arrive. It’s almost majestic, almost hypnotic, and almost feels sublimely empty, but not quite.

This is not a blow to Arkbro’s work, however. Her debut showed a young artist composing with remarkable assuredness and clarity of vision, and CHORDS is a strong, occasionally astonishing next step. Give it a close listen and try to resist being entranced by the subtle, pulsating viscera of the A-side. A single note hangs in the air, oscillating with a sludgy tremolo. A second joins, and suddenly the interaction of the two causes a fluttering. But then there’s something below, a deeper moan, answered by the jackhammer drill of the next combination. Time seems to freeze as you sit there, parsing out this gentle paradox of stillness and movement. When Arkbro reintroduces a long-neglected lower octave—forget it. This could go on forever.

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