Bent SØRENSEN (b. 1958)
It is Pain Flowing Down Slowly on a White Wall (2010) [21:30]
Hans ABRAHAMSEN (b. 1952)
Air (2006) [11:04]
Three Little Nocturnes (2005) [8:51]
Sigrid’s Lullaby (2010) [3:26]
Frode Haltli (accordion)
Arditti Quartet (nocturnes)
rec. October and November 2014, Seibu Kirke, Norway
ECM NEW SERIES 2496 [44:52]
Bent Sørensen tells of how the title It is Pain Flowing Down Slowly on a White Wall was written down and passed to him by an audience member at one of his concerts. This, and Paul Griffiths’s opening line of the booklet note, “Shapes lost and rediscovered, in swirling mist...”, are both suggestive of the atmosphere in the music. Right from the start there is a suggestion of familiarity in cadences and snatches of melody from the strings which emerge from tonalities that have both instability and a strong sense of expectation.
The “white” sound of the strings blends well with the solo accordion. The latter’s straight notes are set at times against string glissandi which add to the disturbances in orientation offered to the listener. There is no lack of incident, the complexities in interaction between soloist and orchestra developing a remarkable mass of intensity at times, though there is always an underlying feel of subtle sonority and minor-key melancholy. The string techniques used always have musical importance, and there is no messing about with texture for the sake of effect. Just beyond halfway the accordion plays its innocent melody over sounds from the orchestra turned into noise through sheer pressure on the strings, creating a striking juxtaposition of imagery. The contrast then is screwed even tighter through gentle humming from the orchestra and the use of melodicas to create a massed accordion in answer to the soloist—a strange cabinet of wonders that is as much a psychological resolution as it is a musical one.
Hans Abrahamsen's Air is “an air, a song—or rather a set of four songs, or perhaps three... relatively simple, and thereby inhabits”, as the composer suggests, “a clearer air.” The multiplicity of meanings in the title is reflected in a piece that has open-ended associations. There is abstraction tempered by tonality, mood infused with enigmatic character and a sense of variation on a theme that remains inchoate.
The Three Little Nocturnes have a comparable transparency of texture, the string quartet initially taking on upper harmonics in a first movement described as a “decelerated high-wire act”. The second movement is explosive, with an oompah essence in a constant state of flux, the strings at first refusing to adopt the accordion’s folksy banality, but ultimately at the very least acknowledging its existence. This descent from loud to soft is concluded in a third movement that progresses “mit unsicheren, schleppenden Schritten” (“with slow, uncertain steps”). This is a nocturne of invisible things, of dripping mist and shapes that are suggested by our imaginations rather than by any feel of reality.
The final piece is Sørensen’s Sigrid’s Lullaby, a piece originally written for piano but now adapted for “the adjacent but so different space of the accordion”. This is a gentle lullaby but also one with a fair dose of harmonic strangeness to go along with its peaceful nature.
If timings bother you then this is a fairly brief listen, but for those intrigued by the subtle atmospheres and unique creative voices of these composers this is a fascinating and rewarding place to visit. In recent decades, the accordion has very much come of age as an instrument of refinement and expression. Collaborations with the likes of adventurous virtuosos such as Frode Haltli mean that new explorations of sonority of this kind are an ever-evolving resource in contemporary music.