Åke PARMERUD (b 1953)
Zeit aus Zeit (‘Kontakte’ Variations) for piano, percussion and live electronics (2002) [27:44]
Mirage for piano, ensemble and electronics (1995) [17:15]
Rituals for percussion, ensemble and electronics (2006) [14:55]
Kenneth Karlsson (piano)
Bjørn Rabben (percussion)
rec 2015, Sofienberg Church, Oslo; NRK Concert Hall, Oslo
LAWO CLASSICS LWC1161 [59:54]
A doyen of the Swedish electroacoustic scene over the last four decades, Åke Parmerud’s works have featured frequently on discs released by local contemporary labels such as Caprice and Phono Suecia. Perhaps the most high profile disc devoted to him was Grains of Voices (Caprice CAP21579) whose half-hour title track is effectively an extraordinary sonic global travelogue which starts with a spoken passage addressing the Creation from the Book of Genesis and quickly evolves into a collage involving cut-up extracts of voices from different cultures and regions. They shout, laugh, cry, babble, sing and speak inter alia. It makes an unforgettable impression, to say the least.
Now Lawo Classics have released this collection of three ensemble works by Parmerud, all of which involve piano, percussion and electronic manipulation to a greater or lesser degree. If Grains of Voices impresses through the sheer density of its constantly colliding gestures and ideas, its rapid montage-like structure also characterises the pieces on the present disc. Whether the musical material that constitutes them is sufficiently distinctive to make a lasting impact on the listener, or whether their underlying ambition matches that of Grains of Voices is a different question entirely.
There are certainly moments in Zeit aus Zeit (‘Time out of Time’) for piano, percussion and live electronics that are difficult not to perceive as confrontational, although one might stop short of characterising such content as ‘ugly’. For a piece from 2002 the descending spirals of synthetic sound that open the work might seem a little dated but that is perhaps to be expected given that the primary source material for the electronic part was derived directly from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kontakte, which is scored for the same forces as Parmerud’s work and which contributes to its subtitle (Evidently Cikada have performed both pieces in the same concert). Distorted shards of piano and percussion, treated bell sounds and the like, begin to infiltrate the fabric of a work that never quite seems to settle. Events come and go until an extended passage materialises which features some attractive marimba writing set against a halo of refined electronic content. As the work proceeds Kenneth Karlsson’s piano seems to these ears to take on some of the trappings of jazz, and simultaneously (and paradoxically) the work itself seems to become more centred and fully formed. There are further introspective, quiet passages which are interrupted by more assertive percussion gestures as Zeit aus Zeit moves towards its conclusion, but I found its coda rather formless, cold and oddly unsatisfying. I did wonder if Parmerud’s title referred to the preservation of Stockhausen’s older electronic content (or Parmerud’s treatment of that) within a cleaner-sounding 21st century sonic framework, a kind of ‘old tech meets new tech’ concept. Having said that, despite moments that are undeniably attractive, I ultimately found Zeit aus Zeit too diffuse and over-long for its material.
In his note for this disc, Parmerud himself characterises Mirage rather charmingly as “…a somewhat confused piano concerto…” All of its material seems to evolve from the piano’s two note descending phrase at its outset; this is immediately reversed and distorted. The piano’s soliloquy is eventually interrupted by muffled bell noises and overtones in sounds that are not dissimilar from those which dominate Jonathan Harvey’s moving electroacoustic classic Mortuos plango, vivos voco. The ghostly violin entry at 5:40 is the first indication that an ensemble is involved, although the piano continues to dominate the fabric of the work. Despite its earlier provenance, and its composer’s mild denigration of it, to my ears Mirage emerges as a more compact and cohesive entity than Zeit aus Zeit. The rest of the ensemble finally make their presence felt at roughly the ten minute mark when first attractive microtonal flute textures hover above the work’s surface, before the entry of a clarinet presages a brief episode of unbridled restlessness. The electronics become a little glassier amid rustling wisps of wind and strings before Mirage stutters towards its rather mysterious demise.
In Rituals from 2006, the slow drum taps which open the piece imply something processional and ceremonial, immediately justifying Parmerud’s title. The steady(ish) pulse re-appears intermittently throughout the work but its rather sombre, even elegiac mood is reinforced by repeated, rather tentative strokes on the tam-tam. Washes of tremelando solo strings seem to instigate an intensification of the pulse. At about 9:20, percussion and ensemble alike project much greater rhythmic insistence, resulting in a beat that is by now urgent and irregular, until it is swathed in string textures and the (elecroacoustically produced) sounds of wind and sea. A chorale is subtly implied at around the 12 minute mark, before the work just seems to peter out with the quiet drums and strings evaporating into the elements.
For a composer who admits to a struggle in terms of putting notes on paper for instruments to play (Parmerud formerly produced exclusively electroacoustic works) both Mirage and Rituals emerge as surprisingly coherent and agreeable pieces. I found they both took a couple of hearings to appreciate properly, and I strongly suspect they work because they don’t outstay their welcome, unlike the excessively fragmented collage that constitutes Zeit aus Zeit. The playing throughout the disc is undeniably virtuosic and committed, while Lawo’s sound is clean and natural as is customary from this source. Swedish electroacoustic repertoire has more aficionados than one might expect (if my experiences at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival at various times over the last thirty years are anything to go by) and they will not hesitate to snap up this disc. Other listeners may wish to sample first.