Bjarni Gunnarsson – Processes & Potentials (2013)

21/10/2013

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Bjarni Gunnarsson – Processes & Potentials (2013)

Bjarni Gunnarsson’s Processes & Potentials is underpinned by a series of beliefs about the nature of processes, transformations and events. Although the sleeve notes explain some of what is supposed to be going on I should really say something about the composer’s mission statement. It’s possible that the simulation of chemical or biological processes is an attempt to defy linearity (or the perception of linearity), in which case gestural activity and its behaviour will be crucial, as will the complexity of relationships between different layers, their interpenetration and miscibility. This is a bold mission. On a different tack Gunnarrson would also seem to be advocating a compositional approach which is guided by the qualities and attributes of the materials to hand, allowing them to inform the work as it unfolds, instead of working from a preconceived plan or score. This much is usually expected within the contemporary electroacoustic idiom. Plenty is said then about process, some of which I don’t understand fully, but it would seem as if a process is made of events as opposed to things, which I also don’t understand because an event can also be a thing. You could of course take the view that none of this is particularly relevant to the music which has its own measure of complexity without the subtext.

As first impressions go Aukera is a dense piece, and harsh on the ears at times. It is also very loud, as are all the individual pieces in terms of high average levels and reduced dynamic range, which places the album in the same mastering domain as pop music or some electronic noise forms from the look of the squared-off waveforms. The overall impression is of a very involved and dense totality but on closer listening there’s less activity going on between the different levels of composition and more in the way of crossfading between enveloped layers. Some of the electronic blips are rather hackneyed as are some moments where the whoosh of panned broadband sound come straight out of the academic acousmatica handbook, though in the second wave of this particular piece some interesting sounds begin to develop.

Portholes offers a crackly and noisy hiss with a cacophony of metallic sounds and electronic squiggles, all somewhat familiar from the core of the concert electroacoustic idiom. The music becomes well-paced with the introduction of tonal passages and machine-like sounds. There follows a somewhat predictable return to the first sounds, then to a more static interlude which at least gives the piece a feeling of an evolving linear structure. What I don’t hear is any great effort at creating inner dynamic morphological investigation across the various micro-, meso- and macro- levels of the work, which would have convinced me that processes were indeed being investigated in depth. The piece ends with a return to the more tonal passage which then morphs slowly into machine-like sound with crackly textures.

Momentaries is even more tonal, almost orchestral as a nascent chord emerges and then recedes in different inversions. Eventually the hissy bits return, as expected, though less forcefully than in the previous pieces. Here Gunnarsson is still working with simple polyphony in crossfaded layers and, again somewhat predictably, something of the alien movie begins to creep in. More whooshing sounds reappear– is this the consistency across the work that we read about in the sleeve notes – similarity in timbres appearing and reappearing throughout? I still haven’t heard much transformation in the liquid sense – perhaps what he means is the representation of these processes as in perhaps a film score accompanying a visual presentation of the various processes. There is certainly something of the mad-scientist-in-his-lab going on and indeed there is plenty of this kind of music currently doing doing the rounds. The bump and fizzle of the ending once again presents us with a fine textbook acousmatic gesture to end the piece.

Signac – more crackle and hiss with a fine low end. If it wasn’t for the hissy crackly stuff then something more recognisably ‘musical’ might be heard to develop. The condiments run the risk of overpowering the main dish. There are some effective efforts at creating variety in the flow of the piece, with some harsh cuts and even a synthy sweep, again very sci-fi and filmic. The listener will inevitably come away with the feeling that a lot of compositional attention has gone into producing these pieces, in a conventional sense: change of pace, flow, some effort at varying dynamic range, contrast and so on, and, if this is a compositional virtue, a recurrence of similar sounds in different combinations. Many of the foregrounded sounds could be machines or simulated machine sounds. I’d guess that these are not field recordings – if they are then they are heavily processed and would benefit from having retained some of the rough edge that field recordings can offer. Again the overall structure is a fairly simple 2 – 4 part polyphony.

If one listens carefully Concomitance is not too different from the others. This leaves you, depending on your interpretation, with either a very tight sound world or lack of variety. A justifiable reason for the introductory compositional mission statement might be that Gunnarsson wants the listener to lean towards the first interpretation. Some well-shaped dynamics in the helicopter sounds take us again into the realm of solid film sound design, which (with all due respect) is where I think Gunnarsson would excel. The world of robotics, space flight, phasers, the take-off and landing envelopes, the timbres themselves, all beefed up with a good measure of well crafted reverberation where necessary to spread out the elements of the soundworld – it’s all classic stuff. Technically there are some cleverly wrought passages, for example the use of bandpass filtering to foreground low and high sounds at the expense of the the midrange. There is certainly a lot of attention given to varying the frequency range. On the downside the hiss by this point is becoming pervasive and even slightly intrusive.

Pedicel offers us more of the same which makes me wonder why Gunnarsson chose to present this album as six smaller pieces instead of one long piece. Waves of hiss and crackle play over a low drone. The restricted range of timbres forbid any deeper level morphological development which to me is the essence of progressive electroacoustic music, otherwise there’s a risk that you are simply producing linear and/or simple contrapuntal orchestral music with computers. The panoramic activity, as with all the pieces, is excellent. There is some unpredictability in a sudden break to a less frenetic and more tonal episode at around 3 ½ minutes which risks confusing the listener – is the next bit a new piece or is it a contrast as in a slow/fast or loud/soft classical movement?

A lot of hard work has gone into this album and despite my seemingly critical stance, I think that it stands a good bit above many similar works, though largely in terms of compositional craftsmanship as opposed to invention or originality. One element or quality that seems to be lacking is the incisive edge which the use of concrète sounds can bring  to the textures.

Finally processes, in the sense that I think the composer wishes to have us understand them, are chemical reactions or other events that result in a transformation. One might listen to the music and imagine such events taking place, though this will depend on the individual’s imagination. For music to act as some kind of analogue to the workings of biological or chemical processes, a much higher degree of complexity would be required in the use of the sonic materials to hand.

Bjarni Gunnarsson’s Processes & Potentialsis released on 3LEAVES

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