CIKADA & Oslo Sinfonietta: Maja S. K. Ratkje's And sing…
(2L Recordings 2L-124-SABD, available in various formats at https://shop.klicktrack.com/2l/475351)
Are you musically adventurous?
That question might seem dated in a spacy, Jimi Hendrix' first album sort of way, but it's an honest question for most music lovers. We all have strange and unique recordings in our collections and sometimes, when the right people are hanging out in our listening rooms, we might ask them if they'd like to hear something really, really weird. And in most cases the answer is sure Phil, dazzle me. In many cases it's a bonding experience—you and your companion made it through said selection together and now you can reminisce about it at some bar years later with the stipulation that it was a great memory but once was enough.
Now try that at a hi-fi show with a bunch of strangers. It doesn't quite work the same way. I've been exhibiting at these shows for a few years now and I'm always surprised at just how "safe" music has to be before attendees come in from the hotel corridor and sit down for a spell. Diana Krall brings them in, as does Stevie Ray Vaughan and Dire Straits and all those audiophile-approved tracks that periodically cause serious music lovers to scoff and invoke J. Gordon Holt's old rule about sound quality vs. performance. The truth is, straying from the safety zone and being musically adventurous is a sure way to chase people out of the room. So you go down the road more traveled even though you risk having one-third of the people roll their eyes and complain that everyone plays the same tracks at the show. The other two-thirds, however, will plop down in those padded hotel chairs that are way too tall and start tapping their toes. It's a numbers game, right?
I think about this each time I play a piece of music that's so far out of the mainstream I can't imagine anyone other than me liking it. (It's not that I have weird tastes, but I do enjoy being rousted out of my complacency once in awhile.) But exactly here's what I said to a fellow audiophile when I placed Maja S. K. Ratkje's And sing…into my CD transport, pressed play and let the first few seconds of daring avant-garde bliss wash over us:
"Oh, shit! Sorry, man."
Personally, I dug the sound of a woman—in this case the actual composer—singing like a creaky old door in a haunted mansion. I assumed my companion would not be so open-minded so I hit the STOP button emphatically, as if I was saying "There you go, buddy, I just saved your life. Let's go get a pizza and forget this ever happened."
This, of course, was after I'd gone on and on about the exquisite sound quality in 2L Recordings' Blu-ray audio and CD/SACD hybrid releases. He was expecting a lush, exhilarating introduction to this amazing Norwegian music label and I—well, I have to be honest. I knew something wild was coming and I just let it happen.
That's because I recently reviewed the last 2L Recordings release from CIKADA, Carola Bauckholt's Ich muss mit Dir reden, in March. "You can't just listen casually," I wrote. "You have to crawl inside these sounds and inhabit the same space." I described this thrilling recording as something that "might sound like a recording of random sound effects" that will make you "occasionally leap out of your chair." I also mentioned that repeated listening sessions reveal the structures underneath the sounds, and it all starts to make sense and even sound glorious in a sharp and bracing manner.
And sing…takes this a step further. The CIKADA Ensemble is still very present with its moments of startling and unearthly sounds via percussion as well as other traditional instruments played in unorthodox manners to create unusual timbres. There's even a typewriter that's featured somewhat prominently. The Oslo Sinfonietta expands this palette of sound into a much larger space with many more traditional instruments—woodwinds, brass and strings. That makes the crescendos far more dynamic than with the Bauckholt album (which sounded like someone wandering in a dark, cluttered attic without a flashlight), something more in line with atonal 20th century classical music.
But the element that pushes And sing… into even darker corners is the focus on the human voice, which is delivered by Maja S. K. Ratkje herself. Her voice isn't lovely or charming—it's a pure expression of noise, albeit one with curious tethers to real human emotion. Here's where the spectacular 2L sound quality comes into play—on the first piece, "And sing while thou on pressed flower doth sleep," Ratkje's voice is pre-recorded and played through single speakers placed among the musicians. On the second piece, Concerto for Voice (moods IIIb), Ratkje improvises live with the other musicians, although her voice has been amplified. An uninformed yet attentive first listen may quickly reveal these two different deliveries of the human voice, but it's even more fun to go in with a familiarity to these contrasts and see how these sounds interact differently on the stage in a spatial manner.
It's very clear that Morten Lindberg of 2L Recordings is appealing to rarer intellects with some of these oddly inventive recordings he's been putting out over the last several years. While the audience for these truly unusual musical sojourns is decidedly small, they do perform an important function other than chasing people out of trade show exhibit rooms when it's closing time. 2L has been a pioneer when it comes to exploring digital formats and technologies including Blu-ray audio, surround, Dolby Atmos and even MQA. While I still listen to a majority of my 2L collection through a more traditional two-channel system, I've recently been able to take advantage of the multi-channel tracks and that's when the brilliance of these strange sonic adventures starts to gel.
In other words, And sing… isn't meant to be experienced on a modest system. It's shrill and troubling and, to listeners with more pedestrian tastes, downright annoying. But listen to this and 2L's other CIKADA albums in a multi-channel system where you can audition Atmos or MQA or even Blu-ray audio, which I personally enjoy, and you can tell your friends that they need to come over and hear something that will truly change the way they perceive music.
But treat them to some pizza afterward. They'll probably need it.