With digital sampling technology capable of reproducing virtually any musical sound source, a rear-guard action is being fought by some musicians who deliberately embrace older, somewhat primitive instruments – not only for the challenge and personal satisfaction of mastering a cranky old hunk of musical machinery, but also because the frailty and contrariness of some of these instruments introduces a sound world which can’t easily be duplicated digitally. Also, for folk musicians, these original instruments preserve and extend traditions while holding a mirror up to the culture.
Norwegian musician Apeland’s vintage instrument of choice is the harmonium, which is better known in North America as a pump or reed organ. Superficially resembling a piano but operating more as an accordion or concertina (air passing over vibrating metal reeds), the harmonium or pump organ has a bellows pumped with the feet and/or knees. (Technically, the pump organ has a suction bellows which pulls the air past the reeds, while the harmonium and some types of reed organs have a pressure bellows which pushes the air past the reeds.) Wind organs (to use a generic term) were popular in the 19th century, especially in rural churches, because they were much more portable and inexpensive than pipe organs. They were also suited to tropical climes because they shipped easily and unlike the piano with its complicated assembly of strings, hammers and keys, they stayed in tune. (A smaller version of the harmonium, with a bellows activated by hand movements, was brought to India by missionaries and is still popular today as a drone or chordal instrument in various types of Indian music.
The five solo improvised pieces on this CD, all in real time without overdubs, require attentive listening but offer considerable rewards. As Apeland mentions in his liner notes, even a harmonium in good repair will manifest various rogue mechanical noises as it is being played – clicking of keys and stops, pumping of foot pedals and operation of “knee swells” (which on this particular instrument provide additional volume control in the bass and treble registers). These are background sounds but usually quite audible, and they give the music a visceral reality which has no equivalent in the digital world. The listener can hear the music being “made” – there’s a real physicality to it. Of course, Apeland’s performances would fall into the category of mere novelty if he wasn’t a skilled improviser with some interesting ideas. He exploits the inevitably “churchy” aspect of the instrument – lush chords and melodic fragments sometimes suggest church hymns. But there’s a “New Age” element in pieces such as “Flyt” and “Stilleflytande” – an emphasis on drifting drones and glacially slow chord progressions which recalls the work of ambient synthesist Steve Roach. And with due respect to Roach, the organic nature of the harmonium grounds the music and adds a dimension not present in similar digital soundscapes.
Apeland’s improvisations utilize classical elements and motifs as well, which is not surprising when one considers that the harmonium was a legitimate keyboard instrument in the 19th century and a good many prominent composers wrote music for it. “Bulder og lys” is a particularly impressive and unusual piece, opening with a deep rumble in the lower register which exploits the size of the instrument relative to the smaller accordion. The effect is eerie and mysterious rather than celestial, with sonorities that sometimes resemble a tuba or bass trombone. The piece builds in intensity, and its minor key and minimalist trance style is worthy of Terry Riley. Apeland contends in his liner notes that the harmonium is “averse to all kinds of virtuosity,” but his playing is nonetheless quite impressive here. The next piece, “Mildt,” is equally mysterious and appealing. It uses a hypnotic, minimalist trill in the right hand as a motif, while the right hand improvises around it, tapering off once again with a very solemn bass ostinato rumble. The nature of these improvisations, together with the peculiar timbre of the harmonium, results in something quite original.
This music on this CD has both radiance and power; my only complaint is that at slightly over thirty minutes, the experiment stops too soon.