Exercises in Estrangement
Styles: modern composition, avant-garde, experimental electronic, post-classical
Others: Gyorgy Ligeti, Steve Reich, Krzysztof Penderecki, Igor Stravinsky
Marcus Fjellström's Exercises in Estrangement is an unsettling, visionary work of modern composition that falls soundly within the idiom of contemporary electronic music yet evokes the darker aspects of the work of many of the more brooding mid- to late-twentieth century European classical composers. The album consists of nine tracks that, considered as a whole, convey a sense of tension that extends beyond any of the bleakest dark ambient recordings, or even the more terrifying works of Ligeti and Pettersson. The pieces contained within Exercises in Estrangement run the gamut from electronic minimalism to dense orchestral bombast, and are often jarring in their execution. Fjellström's use of silence and space -- the quieter, ambient moments between the more cacophonous ones -- make for a recording of ominous, edgy pieces.
Exercises in Estrangement begins with "Planchette," which is undoubtedly the most bold and intriguing work on the album. The piece is somewhat reminiscent of Ligeti's groundbreaking and experimental organ work Volumina on a number of different counts. Volumina is a piece whose notes (every key on the organ, in fact) are sustained throughout its entire fifteen-minute length. What makes this piece so unique, however, is the way in which these static notes are manipulated in order to demonstrate the instrument's full range of sonic capabilities. The work is not about melody; in fact, most casual listeners would consider it to be somewhat if not entirely unlistenable. Rather, Volumina was composed to explore the complete spectrum of sound that can be expressed by simple, unchanging notes without any reference to melody whatsoever. "Planchette," similarly, consists primarily of a single, stabbing piano chord that is repeated throughout the track's length. The variation in this piece simply involves the degrees by which this chord is incrementally transformed, or mutated, if you will, as the track progresses. Tone, pitch, volume, phase, and other general musical properties of the notes are gradually modulated, compressed, and otherwise manipulated, until the chords are almost unrecognizable as having been produced by a piano. Repetition in this piece, to a lesser extent, also recalls some of the minimalist compositions of Steve Reich. "Planchette" begins benignly enough, though it ends on a more palpably menacing note. Nonetheless, it is a mesmerizing piece whose fascination lies in how it demonstrates the astonishing range of the instrument.
Most of the other eight tracks on Exercises in Estrangement are quite atmospheric, though frequently punctuated by chaotic interludes. The pieces are also considerably cinematic, like the soundtrack to a dream (or possibly a nightmare). Seemingly random, electronically-created mechanical sounds, incidental noise and carnival-esque orchestration, coupled with melancholic, somber melodies, give the music an incredibly visual quality. Images of bleak, industrial landscapes, nineteenth-century urban European environments and dusty attics filled with antique toys are easily conjured when the listener is immersed in Fjellström's compositions. The tangible presence of electronic programming on Exercises in Estrangement makes it a distinctly postmodern work, while the beautiful, somewhat simplistic classical motifs, in contrast to the record's more synthetic elements, envelop the music in a gorgeously anachronistic, ghostly dissonance like a diaphanous shroud.
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