Sounds from the Arctic Cool: Deaf Center
Posted In: Deaf Center, Erik Skodvin, James Catchpole, LIFEM, Otto Totland
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LIFEM – The London International Festival of Exploratory Music – kicked off on the 31st of October in King’s Cross, Central London. The festival is currently featuring a cool list of Scandinavian musicians as part of the series ‘Sounds of the Arctic Cool’. Friday saw a special live performance from the Norwegian duo of Erik Skodvin and Otto Totland, together known as Deaf Center. In retrospect, it may have been more appropriate for the duo to perform 2 days earlier in celebration of Halloween, as their set evoked a dense, consuming atmosphere dripping of natural wilderness; an icy slab of the darkest of dark ambient, set amid the jaw trembling, blood thawing Scandinavian cold.
On the night, the music seemed to reflect their latest release, 2011’s Owl Splinters, focusing on the darker side of Scandinavian life while still retaining dry shards of light in almost minimal piano melodies. The highly confined style of their sophomore release enjoyed a higher sense of freedom in a live setting, uncaged slabs of drone that brooded along the cold lakes and eerie forests as long as they pleased, not always returning home. Piled as high as sheets of ice, lit thinly by a red beam behind the stage, the atmosphere began to morph into a curious beast straight out of Nordic nightmares. A sinister presence, where one is only able to feel instead of see, came to life in between the rows of seats, and by the end of the performance the room felt a lot colder than the icy London air waiting outside.
A lovely, cosy auditorium couldn’t hide the oncoming chill, or help prepare for it. For the night, the formal, highly respectable interior of King’s Place turned into the haunted arctic; the wood paneling and smooth architecture inside the building may have been cut from Scandinavian trees. It seemed dangerous sinking deeply into the dense atmosphere, but this only demonstrates the power of Deaf Center’s music, and the futility to defy what is inevitable.
A palpable tension increased as the drones swept over the pure, natural land, testing the nerve, tasting the air, for a much needed relief that never arrived; this was an unforgiving world of ice that would injure and kill without a second thought. Sounds of the Arctic Cool described their music as ‘echoes of half-remembered horror movies, love songs and the dark arts…’ – this was ice that was never going to melt. Day by darkening day the temperature drops, almost as slowly, as deliberately, as Deaf Center’s own darkened soundscapes. Patience is never an issue; the music needs a close listen and full attention on the part of the audience. Totland’s piano playing stayed in the lower register – although at points lighter flourishes reflected the peaceful , stark daylight beauty of Norway – and came as a shift that strayed from brooding dark ambient to glistening, ethereal beauty. The entire set was music for deep thought, and for introspection in the cold. Organic, natural and at one with nature, but eerily so, the drones hinted at paranoia and insanity, as if surrounded by shifting trees…They’re all around us.
A pedal creaked to life and crackled around the room, as Skodvin occasionally tweaked the pedals for the desired effect. The result was a surge of cold drone, shivering around the audience. This was a composed performance, although with this kind of dark ambient and drone soundscaping, the focus really tunes into the music, casting a mist over the visual elements of performance. Although there was a silent atmosphere on the stage, Totland’s black grand piano on the left and Skodvin’s guitar, pedal board and Apple laptop on the right were linked by invisible, shivering hands.
A cavernous drone rumbled on for minutes, a deep bass note frozen by the dropping atmosphere and mutated by the laptop. A ghostly cry for help emphasised the sense of painful loss in a terrain that just doesn’t care; it felt like losing the trail we were warned never to leave among the decreasing levels of visibility. It’s a stinging environment, but also one of heartaching beauty. Clouds of breath hang in the air, only just a shade whiter than the overcast clouds above, and the trace of footsteps blanked out, wiped out, all too quickly by the blizzard.
Near the end, Skodvin placed his guitar horizontally and began to play with a bow, creating a stunning evocation of the wilds. The effect was chilling, scraping and scratching at the instrument like thin branches pointed with the blade of a dagger, carving the tree of its cold bark. Forests of thickly cut trees, cold to the touch, began to emerge as the air temperature dropped degrees once again.
‘Time Spent’ was a fitting end to what was 45 continuous minutes of an arctic assault. The piece remains claustrophobic outside of the recorded sound, even with the piano as the sole instrument; a perfect marriage between dissonance, realised by the unsettling, clashing notes on the resolution, and the fragile harmony within the dissonance – the seismic iceberg among the serenity of the arctic. This now familiar piano melody slowed down to near stasis, unaccompanied by the haunted house creaks and cracks of a difficult, drone environment. The music may have been blasted by the cold, but it radiated with the warm circulation of serenity, perched heavenly on its icy throne. Life still exists in the cold extreme. In its dark heart, amid the pounding crescendos and the dashed hopes of finding the lost way, it was beautiful.
- James Catchpole for Fluid Radio