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Kent Olofsson: Cordes & The Bells

Corde for guitarist and orchestra (2002/2006)
Fascia (2002) for charango, electric Midi – guitar and orchestra
Collagene / Fascia II (2006) for glissentar, 11 stringed alto guitar and orchestra
Colloide / Fascia Epilogue (2006) for banjo, oboes, harp, percussion and violas   
Stefan Östersjö, charango, e-bow, guitars and banjo; Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra / Mario Venzago

The Bells
for solo voices, double choir, ensemble and electronics (2000/2005)
Vokalharmonin, Stephen Fitzpatrick, harp; Staffan Sjöholm and Thomas Gertonsson, double bass; Mårten Landström, keyboards; Mats Nilsson and Karl Thorsson, percussion; Fredrik Malmberg, conductor

Phono Suecia PSSACD 170 [74 mins]

Kent Olofsson (b. 1962), best known internationally for his chamber music, is one of the most innovative Swedish composers of his generation. His works are very often composed in close collaboration with specific ensembles, regularly utilising electronics or unusual instruments and combinations to create new original sonorities.

All these elements are in play in Corde and The Bells, two spectacular and captivating pieces that resemble symphonic forms in their construction, character and, of course, duration.

Corde is written for guitars (11 string alto guitar, electric Midi – guitar), charango, banjo and glissentar (1 player) and orchestra. The work consists of three pieces / sections. The first section, Fascia, is very celebratory in character with bright colours and a distinctively exotic South American colour in many parts, thanks to the use of charango. It oscillates between more Western contemporary idioms (and at times quasi-jazzy sections) and more folk-like material presented with the soloist, who embarks on multiple dialogues of different characters with the orchestra. The orchestration is very imaginative, creating very convincing organic timbral relationships between the various protagonists. The whole work functions as a guitar concerto but one of complex formal profiles. The orchestra is not restricted into just accompanying the soloist, but the latter’s role is to be, on several occasions, part of the overall texture, blending remarkably well with the other musicians. The composer achieves his stated intention to connect and unite both the orchestra with the solo instrument as well as the various elements of multiple musical cultures, and he nothing less than that.

Collagene/Fascia II provides a good contrast to the first part and sounds improvisatory in character, using glissandi as an expressive means of accompaniment and combining the plucked guitar sounds with unusual uses of percussion. Collagene/Fascia II, dedicated to Ligeti, has a more reflective character, perhaps this is due to Ligeti’s death in June 2006 when the composer was still working on the score? The orchestration is very imaginative here and, once again, often used to accentuate formal points, especially links between the macro-form and micro-form of the work by emphasising particular gestures, colours and techniques. The overall work also resembles many spectral music mannerisms at key points. These gestures, nevertheless, are organically linked with the primary material and always relevant within the scope of the overall context, and as such, they are extremely effective and refreshing. Colloide / Fascia Epilogue provides the final coda for this work and uses material from both sections, such as the use of high wind and glissandi. Similar to the previous work, it is more reflective in character, using darker colours and sounds. The banjo is very effective here playing microtonal sustained figurations and hand rubbing, which refers back to the use of maraca at the very beginning of the work as a means of filtering.

In my opinion, Corde is a must-study work for anyone interested in writing works utilising plucked strings and orchestra / ensemble. As such, it should be of particular interest to guitarists and composers. Throughout the 32 minutes of music, it demonstrates an astonishing variety of instrumental colours, microtones used in a beautiful melodic context and virtuosity on all parts. Many composers have been attempting to combine elements of various cultures to bridge traditions and techniques. Oloffson achieves all these almost effortlessly in Corde, a remarkable achievement indeed by any standards. 

The Bells (2005) for solo voices, double choir, ensemble and electronics was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's poem, which had been set by Rachmaninoff as his Op. 35. Olofsson's began as a work in progress with a first version for soprano, flute and guitar. This final version was premiered by the Swedish Radio Choir. Oloffson used this Poe influence in choosing further texts such as Baudelaire and Mallarme, which help to create a connection with Poe’s intentions on a philosophical, philological and musical level. On a clearly musical level, the four sections of the work have a clear audible and dramatic unity and thread. The composer is using similar materials at many parts with small variations of “mood”, achieving a work of organic contrast. The main primary source of material could not have been any different than the sounds of bells that constantly transmogrify and are redistributed either at the electronic part or with the ensemble. The role of the singers is quite traditional as the main carriers of the text, concentrating on delivering its verbal meaning effectively with the utmost clarity. As such, they do not usually blend with the instruments. They are generally in the foreground, but there are, however, a few points in the work (third and fourth sections in particular) where they blend remarkably well with the ensemble. Both works show Oloffson not only to be always in control of his material but also as a master of dramatic control, and a naturally gifted composer for guitar.    

Both performances are absolutely stunning, with precise control of dynamics, balance and timbre and really demonstrate the high level of performance in Sweden today. This CD is an exceptionally fine and detailed project where all parts of the production team have made a fantastic contribution towards the composer’s musical vision.

This is my second review involving Swedish composers and performers, and I am really impressed by the high standard of both productions. The cultural authorities in Sweden must be very proud to have such talent within the contemporary music scene, and it must give great hopes for the future of this particular genre in that country. 

Evis Sammoutis