Arve Henriksen, Eivind Aarset & Jan Bang - The Heights of the Reeds [Rune Grammofon - 2018]The Heights of the Reeds is a somber cinematic soundscape created by Norweigen musicians associated with the world of modern jazz, led by trumpet player and vocalist Arve Henriksen. The most audible timbres on the album are that of the trumpet and winds, but there are (sparing) orchestral touches as well, and a faint presence of ambient electronics from producer/sampler Jan Bang, which contributes to its immersive filmic quality.
There is a strong feeling of creeping dread in the 1st two pieces, driven by ominous warnings from Henriksen's trumpet and his voice, an eerily quivering falsetto not unlike what you might hear in 20th century avant garde classical music such as Schoenberg. Sounds emerge from a restless quiet, signalling an unspecified impending danger. Calling back the dissonant, anticipatory chords of the most suspenseful moments in classic films, the patience of the playing is almost maddening, progressively deepening the eerie tension with no release in sight.
Thankfully, after the second piece, eight minutes in length, we do find a kind of release in the lush reed chorale of "The Swans Bend Their Necks Backward To See God". At this moment it is as if the clouds part, and a blessed torrent of hope and light rushes in. From here on, the album becomes outright beautiful with the titular "Height of the Reeds in the Wetlands", a deeply sensitive and heartfelt orchestral piece with unabashed consonant harmony. The suncharged radiance of this piece is easily the highlight of the album, and feels like a moment taken from a more stridently melodic, active piece of work. From this glimpse of sensitivity and hope, the album quickly retreats back into the dark, sombre waters from which it initially drifted, in something of a parabolic structure.
While the music is never dense with activity, the instrumentation is always changing, with members of the group adopting new roles as befitting their skills. The fifth piece "Is There A Limit For The Internal?" introduces both flute and guitar playing, masterfully recorded. While there are no sounds of purely electronic origin, there is definite use of delay effects and spatial processing to create a larger than life, surreal atmosphere, the acoustic timbres imbued with a supernatural glow. Producer Jan Bang's skills with mixing and EQ are impeccable.
I often hear the sound of a women's chorus floating up from the depths, only to find in the liner notes that there is an actual choir credited (with arrangements by Alexander Waaktaar). While this undoubtedly increases the album's subtle beauty, I find it a strange decision to mix the orchestral and choral elements so quietly beneath the sparse ambient soliloquys from the primarily instrumentalists. It creates a strange illusion in which the album appears initially to be slow, empty and freeform in rhythm and structure, when in fact the initially audible elements are only parts of a vast dramatic tapestry with all the detail of a classical piece.
Closer "Pink Cherry Trees" and the aforementioned moments of lush beauty found in the middle of the album ("The Swans...", "Height of the Reeds...") are the only points at which the orchestra is really allowed to shine and become a fully present part of the music, instantly adding a world of harmonic depth and emotional sophistication. These tragic moments are as affecting as the most tear inducing scenes of hauntingly sad films.
This is the sort of album that sneaks up on you, initially seeming small and inconsequential, somehow increasing in scope beneath your nose to become a work of earth shattering importance, with all the meaning and variety of life experience, exemplifying the grand and the small, the bombastically massive orchestra and the tiniest violin played alone in the bedroom, the electronic music of now and the acoustic timbres of yesteryear.
While I certainly yearn to hear more of the album's most active moments, in which the orchestra is used to its truly amazing potential, I can't completely fault the decision to keep the overall recording closer to the realm of ethereal ambience, as the finished product is quite listenable, perfectly suited for bedroom contemplation. That it can guide me through such a wide emotional arc is impressive. Its melodic sensibilities are natural and fluent, and the musicians, it would seem, are fully cognizant of the implications of embracing such stylistic contrasts. I must give it a perfect rating for the sheer weight of its valuable content, even if some of the decisions appear strange. I would be very excited to hear a more bold, active orchestral work from Henriksen and orchestral arranger Alexander Waaktaar.Josh Landry