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SP!TSBERGEN

concept, composer, director
harp
accordion
euphonium
double bass
live electronics

audio engineer
set designer & light director

video stills

George De Decker
Sophie Baguet
Suzan Peeters (video) / Kaat Vanhaverbeke
Julie Laureyn
Michel Labruyère
Joost Van Duppen

Ward Weis
Peter Maschke

Arthur Moelants

Musicians on the pre-recorded stereophonic tape

Raf De Keninck (clarinet)

George De Decker (waterphone, synthesizers, melodica)
Thomas Fruhauf (cello)

Karel Schoofs (oboe)
Joost Van Duppen (electronics)
Hans Van Kerckhoven (violin)
Els Van Laethem (vocals)
Pieterjan Vranckx (percussion)


Credits

Recorded 8 - 10 August 2023
Motor Music, studio 1, Mechelen (B)
Engineer & recording : Ward Weis
Musical director, mixing, editing : George De Decker

Artwork & design : George De Decker
Liner Photos : Guido De Bruyn, George De Decker


Antarctica Records  2023  AR 052

concertfilm by Evil Penguin tv & George De Decker

The full Concert 'ØRNEN 1897' can be viewed on Evil penguin tv

Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Peary and Roald Amundsen are arguably the most famous explorers to have undertaken expeditions to the North Pole during that golden age of derring-do which encompassed the turn of the 20th century. Among the least known were three Swedes: Salomon August Andrée, Knut Frænkel and Nils Strindberg who embarked upon an improbable and ill-advised mission to reach the Pole in a hot-air balloon, the Ørnen, which set off from Spitsbergen in July 1897. The dirigible shed its supply of hydrogen far too rapidly and smashed into the pack ice after just 48 hours. The three adventurers survived but having massively underestimated the practical demands of the trip were inadequately equipped to survive the long journey to safety. When the weather turned in October, they perished, exhausted, on White Island in Spitsbergen. 33 years later, the adventurers’ final camp was discovered by chance, Log books were recovered and the dots of the final weeks of their futile trek were joined. The media sensation this caused in 1930 ensured that the doomed trio were mourned as heroes in their homeland. 

George de Decker is a visual artist and composer from Belgium who in 2013 designed an enormous mixed-media project dedicated to the fate of the Ørnen. De Decker and his team constructed a huge wooden replica of the balloon (this brief documentary provides an idea of the demands involved in this venture) for an installation which was to be exhibited in Eindhoven. 

The music de Decker also devised for the work is presented on this disc in the form of a 64-minute composition which is divided into half a dozen sections de Decker has labelled ‘’Brisées“ – given that ‘brisé’ is a French adjective meaning ‘broken’ I am speculating that in this context the composer is referring to ‘fragments’ or something similar. Either way the entire arc comprises an introductory section followed by Brisées I – V which are performed without a break. The instrumental forces required in Ørnen 1897 are unconventional to say the least. There are four solo instrumentalists playing live on harp, accordion, euphonium, and double bass. The latter three also provide intermittent, rather fragile wordless vocals. The players are conducted by the composer and accompanied live by a pre-recorded tape which provides material drawn from other instruments and electronic manipulations to fill out the texture and extend the sonic impact. This seems to work very effectively in adding variety and a degree of unpredictability to the listening experience.

The introduction proves to be both disturbing and alluring, a glassy, ghostly, echoey soundscape ornamented with a fragile, folk like vocal delivered by the live double-bassist (I think: this is certainly the case in another, excellent filmed performance of this music which is to be found on YouTube). This sets the scene before evaporating into the synthetic sonics which seem pre-eminent the links between each of the six sections.

I feel It would be counterproductive (and repetitive) to describe the content of the five numbered Brisées in any great detail. There are two reasons for this. First, I am not for a moment suggesting that de Decker’s music is repetitive – on the contrary; given the small number of live players and their very distinctive instruments he has produced a score which is impressively varied in terms of pace, colour and atmosphere – but my experience suggests that these four lead instruments seem to adopt consistent roles throughout the piece. Thus the cantabile duties seem to be taken up in the main by the euphonium player, Julie Laureyn. She really gets her instrument to sing most beautifully and movingly in places; this may be unexpected given the reputation of bass heavy brass instruments, especially when taking into account the unique constitution of the rest of this ensemble. Less surprising is the role allocated to the superb double-bassist Michel Labruyère. When called upon, he provides the rhythmic foundation for much of the piece. He does so with the infinite variety and taste of his strummings, pluckings and bowings. The harpist Sophie Baguet is the colourist of the group, her delicacy of touch perfectly matched to the intricacy of her material. Completing the group is the accordionist Kaat Vanheverbeke. Her responsibilities seem a little more difficult to pin down but to say she is kept busy throughout is an understatement. She frequently appears to be the glue that binds the players together, the sound of her instrument at once alerting the listener to the mood of the material. Much of the time this is inevitably melancholy, but stylistically her part also seems to incorporate hints of jazz and dance which lightens the atmosphere. If the ensemble’s vocal contributions seem to be designed to reinforce an aura of gloom or even potential (or actual) catastrophe they are still unfailingly enchanting. 

Whilst I hope the above gives some idea of the sound of this music, I also baulk at approaching it on a movement-by-movement basis, as we are not informed in the all-too-brief booklet note whether the sequencing of Brisées I – V is meant to convey some kind of narrative. My view is that listeners are in any case going to create their own associations when experiencing these weirdly beautiful sounds. Combinations of timbre, melodic fragments and electronic textures do seem to re-occur here and there but not in so rigid a way that listeners will infer some specific meaning.

I was a little concerned that a duration of more than an hour might prove too much of a good thing but I can report that my attention was held throughout. The playing of all four principals is consistently mesmerising, not least since Ørnen 1897 demands keen listening and extreme concentration on the part of these performers from first note to last. The recording is terrific – atmospheric, detailed and completely immersive. 

Whilst it would be an exaggeration to suggest that this is a document to which one is likely to return repeatedly it is sufficiently unusual and attractive to keep on one’s shelves; it offers a colourful, engaging experience during which fresh details will undoubtedly emerge on reacquaintance.

Richard Hanlon

MusicWeb International,

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