The Stockholm-based composer Ellen Arkbro has recently recently written music that spans several decades and coordinates of the globe. Following the work of micro-tuning maestro La Monte Young, Arkbro has employed a unique tuning known as meantone temperament. You can find this tuning in pieces of 20th Century avant-garde obscurity, such as György Ligeti’s Passacaglia Ungherese, a piece that is literally impossible to play for its intended instrument. But meantone is also found within the Sherer-Orgel, a pipe-organ dating back to 1624 in St. Stephen’s Church in Tangermünde, in Northeastern Germany. It is this instrument which features as the centrepiece of Arkbro’s new album, For Organ & Brass.
Despite its seeming obscurity, meantone temperament can also be found, strangely enough, in that most universal of genres: blues. “Hidden within the harmonic framework of the Renaissance organ are intervals and chords that bare a close resemblance to those found in the modalities of traditional blues music,” explains Arkbro. “The work can be thought of as a very slow and reduced blues music.” When this occurs, music becomes metaphorical: one genus for another. It decouples the instrument from its historical and traditional constraints, opening up possibilities for future intepretation.
A few examples like this immediately spring to mind. Think of Animal Collective’s ‘Visiting Friends’, an epic attempt to write a piece of ambient music with acoustic guitars, aping the wall-of-hums style of Wolfgang Voigt’s ‘Gas’ project. Steve Reich is notorious for this kind of move. David Bowie once (inappropriately?) described Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians as, “Balinese gamelan music cross-dressing as minimalism”. And in 2012, Reich composed Radio Rewrite, a piece of minimalist orchestral music following the contours of a Radiohead chord progression.
But one curious thing about Blues is that it doesn’t seem to suit its intended purpose. Where drone, glitch and noise do exactly as they say on the tin, blues expresses anything but ‘the blues’. Putting the issue of ‘blue notes’ to one side, Blues as a genre is intended to uplift. They carry songs full of spirit and hope. As B.B King once said, “Blues is a tonic for whatever ails you. I could play the blues and then not be blue anymore.” In this sense, For Organ & Brass really isn’t a piece of blues music. If this record is some kind of tonic, then the ailment must have been gruesome. The whole record sounds like a doom horn, an alarm signalling an oncoming conflict, or the curtain call of a bloody battle. Like Jed Kurzel’s score for the 2015 Macbeth adaptation, it is as broad and open as the Scottish highlands, but thick with fog and filthy air.
For Organ & Brass will be out April 14th on Subtext Recordings.