Agnete’s Laughter. Melencolia.
Birgitte Alsted (electronics, voc);
Rasmus Schjærff Kjøller (acc)
DACAPO 8226575 (56:32)
Some composers—not many, but a few—know how to use electronics creatively, making a web of sound that is subtle, not overbearing, and changes both colors and rhythm in interesting patterns. I reviewed one such work a few issues back, Erdem Helvacioglu’s
Alas, most of the others who use electronics get so wrapped up in the wacko-funky-distorted sounds they make that they forget that what they set out to create still needs to have some relationship to, well,
This, then, is the barrier we encounter in the music of Birgitte Alsted (b. 1942). However serious her intent, however profound she thinks this stuff sounds, when it hits the ears of a listener unsympathetic to wacko-funky-distorted electronics, it just emerges as ambient noise, and its effect is bound to be unintentionally comic. Indeed, I believe one may be forgiven for thinking the composer, or more accurately compiler, of this electronic web of trash is either putting us all on or bordering on mental issues.
For Exhibit A I give you the opening track,
after which the entire CD is named. The liner notes describe it as “a sonic work with recordings of vocal exclamations, calls and songs” based on such early 19th-century Danish poems as Oehlenschläger’s
Agnete from Holmegaard,
and Hans Christian Andersen’s
Agnete and the Mermaid,
in all of which, apparently, Agnete dies of a broken heart. Ah, but Alsted—how fortunate for us and posterity!—lives “in a time with a different view of women,” so her Agnete laughs madly and cacophonically while waves of electronic sounds morph from echoes in the hills to something that sounded to me like Gerald McBoing Boing in a hyper mood (remember him?), or possibly a bad offstage moment when Barney and Cecil get high and have a fight. In any case, it’s just ambient junk with oohs, aahs, laughs, and squeals echoing around in the electronic ether. Oh, yes, it goes on for a half hour. How fortunate for the auditor assigned to review this gem…yet this piece was awarded the Major Prize for a Woman Composer of the Danish Arts Foundation in 2011. I can only presume that the other entries sounded like boiler rooms exploding, or didn’t have enough cries and laughs in them.
Oh, but listen! Alsted has yet another talent, writing psychotic accordion music!
for accordion solo, sounds like what one might expect if someone had slipped something into Myron Floren’s coffee and he went on the air under the influence of psychotropic drugs (really heavy-duty,
psychotropic drugs). I don’t think Larry Hooper would have been amused, nor Lawrence Welk’s audience. The ol’ squeezebox grunts, groans, and moans dolorously in turn. Was it really
12 minutes long? I particularly love her “up the scale, down the scale, up the scale, down the scale” passages. Alsted must have lain awake at nights trying to come up with those. You may be lying awake at night replaying them in your head, because she doesn’t stop them for two minutes.
Next we get
and return to Alsted’s mad electronic wonderland of funhouse noises. Come to think of it, that’s what this music reminds me of most…the kind of wacky sounds you heard over the loudspeakers when you went through funhouses, “haunted houses,” and other such things at amusement parks when you were a kid. It’s eerie, weird, something not part of everyday life and something you never wanted to hear again because the first time around it gave you nightmares. The best you can say about the final piece,
is that it’s just electronic bells, and though the patterns make no more sense than her other pieces, at least it’s relatively quiet and not as unnerving.
The concluding paragraph of the liner notes says that “Alsted’s own description of her composition is of course important…on the other hand, any listener is ‘entitled’ to read into the work what he or she directly experiences in listening.” I thank the annotator for that permission. I have given you my analysis. If you like this sort of thing, however, go for it.
Lynn René Bayley