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Positive Feedback ISSUE 50
july/august 2010


Showcasing the Harp, Sonar, by Magnar Am, Blends Composition, Audio Engineering and Musicianship on Dual-Disc Blu-ray/Hybrid SACD
by Greg Maltz


The harp is among the most celestial, haunting and intriguing of instruments. In the right hands it becomes a transportation device. That is exactly the metaphysical device composer Magnar Am is after in Sonar, his collaboration with harp virtuoso Ellen Sejersted Bodtker. As the Norwegian composer says of this project, "sonar is a sound signal sent out to create an echo from whatever it may encounter and thus reveal the unknown. I think we all send our symbolic sonars into physical and spiritual space, in a constant search for meaning. At least I do. And my life and music represent both this child's sonars and the universe's ever-unfolding answer." As one might expect from that explanation, his compositions verge on new age, driven by harmonic and textural fuel. Rhythm and melody take a back seat. But that is exactly why the harp deserves to be featured in these compositions. Each of the three pieces is perfectly recorded and engineered for two and 5.0 SACD and Blu-ray. The Norwegian label 2L has earned a top-tier place among audiophiles for consistency and dedication to excellent sound quality. Thus far, the label's dual-disc SACD/Blu-ray releases have raised the bar for digital audio production. This recording continues that high standard.

The Artists and Compositions

Trained at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, Hochschule fur Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Vienna and Indiana University in America's heartland, Bodtker frequently performs with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. She is no stranger to contemporary works and her feel for new age and the avant-garde serves her well with Am's work. As for the composer, he studied composition at the Conservatory of Music in Bergen and the Academy of Music in Stockholm. Characterized by polyphony, free dissonance and atonality, Am's music came to international recognition in 1972 with Prayer. He frequently uses writers and artists in his work. The three pieces included here, "Vera Meininga", "Det Var Mjukt" and "Dette Blanke No" all include spoken or sung words--the first adapted from a Chinese piece commissioned by Jun Zhi Cui and the two others incorporate poetry by Am himself.

The first piece, "Vere Meininga" or "Be the Purpose", was originally written for Chinese harp, and rearranged by Am for the European harp. It is a concerto backed by a string sextet--two violins, two cellos and two violas—as well as recitation by Hildegunn Riise, which I believe is in Norwegian. The English translation is as follows:

human being

because you are human being

are creature


nothing else

you are what I long for

the fulfillment of all my dreams

the meaning of me

the search for salt embodied

Bodtker plays electric and acoustic harps in the piece and describes the composition as "insistent, powerful and existential, bringing out the dramatic qualities of the instrument. In the cadenza, the electric harp with all its effects carries on a dialogue with its acoustic counterpart, as if the new and ancient world were melting together. A Mongolian shepherd's song winds its way between the strings."

The second composition, "Det Var Mjukt" or "I Awoke", features the acoustic harp with only vocal accompaniment by soprano Berit Norbakken Solset. The composer's poetry is showcased in Norwegian, but the included booklet provides an English translation:

I awoke this morning

to a soft and gentle rain

remembering a night not long ago

when we paced back and forth while you struggled to come to terms with your dying The poem continues in that vein.

The final composition, "Dette Blanke No" or "This Our Virgin Now" again showcases the poetry of Am recited in Norwegian by Berit Norbakken Solset, a choral backing and Bodtker's acoustic and electric harp out in front. She commissioned the work as a two-movement concerto for harp and choir. "I realized that my 47-string acoustic harp alone would not suffice. More parts and differently tuned string settings were needed to cover the seven-voice harp part. I used a 30-string electric harp, tuning it differently to provide the sound required by the music, and had to learn a new playing technique. Performing on two harps with a total of 77 strings simultaneously gave the harp new potential as a solo instrument." The first movement, which Am describes as "timelessness" uses 14 vocalists which the second movement representing "weightlessness" involves 25 vocalists.

Strikingly Strong Sonics

Sonar is yet another reference quality recording from 2L. The harp and voices achieve a tonal and palpable realism that is a unique audio experience. 2L uses DSX technology, DPA microphones, Millennia Media amplifiers and SPHYNX2 converters to a PYRAMIX work for the audio excellence consistently achieved by the label. If any 2L recording could have and should have made use of 7.1, this is it. Strictly from the perspective of the surround mix, I can't help but feel it is an opportunity lost for the label, but of course very few audiophiles have a 7.1 system. Although 2L engineered Sonar for more conventional five channel surround sound, the mix is anything but conventional.

For example, in the final work, "Dette Blank No", the two movements feature vastly different soundstaging. In both parts, the harp is engineered front and center, but the choral groupings are set up differently. The first movement assigns one alto singer to the center, but far away, a soprano to the center rear, but a bit closer, and then mixes all remaining sopranos to the left side and all altos to the right side of the soundstage. A symmetrical arrangement is achieved, with vocalists emanating from the surrounds and front L/R speakers, although the recording is done so well that the speakers themselves disappear and just throw images. The second part of "Dette Blank No" is a bit more weighted to the front and back than to the sides. One row of altos is assigned to each of the rears with a row of sopranos imaging directly behind the listener. Only a single soprano soundstages to the center and a single soprano also appears on each side. The rest of the activity is up front, with two rows--one alto and one soprano--assigned to the right front and the same assortment assigned to the left front.

The first piece also makes excellent use of the soundstage. As always, the harp images front and center. The other instruments in the chamber piece are assigned elsewhere, with one violin on each side and the violas imaging behind the listener. As Am says, "In my music I try to appeal to all aspects of listening, including perception of direction. The music must therefore not only respond to the question of what the sound is and when it occurs, but also the question of where it comes from. Sound is like a heavenly body moving through time and space. Concert halls, however, are constructed to concentrate sound in front of the listener, spreading out in stereo, and surround-sound systems present sound on a single plane around the listener. Nonetheless I often write for a three-dimensional space placing sound both above and below the audience, pending the arrival of concert halls and sound systems designed to produce three-dimensional sound. Through my work with electro-acoustic installations I am aware that the spatial element contains a potential for powerful experiences which cannot be realized by means of a single surface of sound. The difference would be like seeing a character step out of the cinema screen and become a physical body. The music changes from being a phenomenon which appeals primarily to the mind and imagination to something which evokes a physical experience to a much greater degree."

While Am's goal of placing the sound above and below the audience may have to wait for another technology, the composer is very lucky to have hooked up with 2L because the 5.0 mixes delivered via DSD on the SACD and via DTS HD Master Audio and LPCM tracks on the Blu-ray are mixed and engineered to perfection. On my system, the best performer was the LPCM and SACD 5.0 track, followed by the DTS HD MA track. Since the performances were recorded in a church there is a great deal of reverberation. I usually prefer a dryer recording, but the microphone engineer Hans Peter L'Orange and mix guru Morten Lindberg are truly gifted at what they do, and left me no choice with the audio quality than to give Sonar highest marks once again.

Worth Picking Up

While not my favorite compositions recorded by 2L, Sonar is yet another fantastic recording by the label, making use of the pinnacle of digital audio technology. From microphone placement to delivery of dual-disc SACD/Blu-ray releases, the label has become the most consistently dedicated to audio excellence in its multichannel mixes. Here, the beauty of the harp is on display with remarkable playing by Ellen Sejersted Bodtker. The compositions are both cerebral and emotional, but may not be for everyone. Nevertheless, if you enjoy harp music with all its wondrously pensive tones and textures, there is every reason to order this fantastic dual-disc release. The Divertimenti and Mozart/Grieg piano duets, also from 2L are very much worth seeking out.