I generally don’t like music with too much pathos. I’m not sure I believe that making listeners feel things is music’s only purpose, or even its highest; even if this were true, I usually find myself moved more by music that simply is what it is, in the manner of a mountain or ocean or sunset, than by out-and-out attempts to manipulate my emotions. Sometimes, however, music that on first hearing seems to be going for the emotional jugular turns out to have more layers to it on closer listening. This was my experience with “Harmoniske øvelser”, an album of two long-form pieces by Danish composers and sound artists Ragnhild May and Kristoffer Raasted, the title of which translates as “Harmonic exercises”.
That initial impression was one of darkness and gloom. The title track opens with low, vibrating moans that gradually deepen and broaden as more layers are added. Low pitches, a minor key, slow drones, and quivering oscillations combine to create quite a maudlin atmosphere. High-pitched banshee wails rub abrasively against one another, and a faint humming or growling resembles a human voice at its most basic and sub-lingual. But the piece is shrouded in a vagueness and ambiguity that at times seems to underscore the pervasive sense of doom, and at others undermine it. Various resonances emerge out of the interactions between different pitches, allowing the harmony to shift and drift in such engaging and transfixing ways that I end up forgetting all about the darkness and depression the piece may otherwise have conjured.
The ambiguity is even more pronounced on second piece “Live in Kyoto”. Here, a deep bass tone slides around like an 18-wheel lorry on ice, while atonal chirping and whooping comes and goes. The music feels very definitely there — the low bass weight makes sure of that — and yet its harmonic form and structure is very vague and amorphous. It’s sort of like the difference between using a representation of fog to symbolise some emotional state, and actually being wrapped in fog, if that makes sense: the music both hides its form and elicits the desire to know that same form. It may be the case that we are hard-wired at some subconscious level to interpret low pitches and unclear tonality as a sign of something dark and doomy, but May and Raasted have created music that manages to transcend those instincts and arrive at a very interesting and beguiling place.[bandcamp width=100% height=120 album=2451983563 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 tracklist=false artwork=small track=2143681097]