Release Date: Aug 19, 2014
Record label: Susannasonata
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”– Laurie Anderson, Steve Martin, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Elvis Costello, Martin Mull, et al. This well-worn and heavily attributed apophthegm, or any of its variants (like singing about pottery, like knitting about literature, and my personal favorite: “like talking about fucking”), is often regurgitated whenever a person is either deeply fed up with art’s perceived ineffability (a rut that everyone has been in and one that seemingly grows deeper with exposure) or when telling a disarming joke about how silly this whole critical endeavor is. Of course, at day’s end, this sphinx-like platitude is humorously obvious (this kind of categorical crossover is a universally acknowledged downfall of symbolic language), sharply short-circuiting (doesn’t music mean more anyway when it’s not just experienced as a series of physiological responses, when there isn’t just one Janus-like subject speaking for themselves?), and — in this case — entirely moot, as I will contend as clearly as I can in this review (a medium clearly separate from that of these subjects’) that Norwegian songwriters and sound artists Jenny Hval and Susanna Wallumrød’s vast and resonant Meshes of Voice is multiflorous in form and in theme and in affectation, despite its fluid singularity; it therefore deserves and enkindles multiflorous responses.
The temptation at the suggestion of a collaboration between Jenny Hval and Susanna Wallumrød is to bristle. Yes, they are both female Norwegian singers—strong leaders and writers with consistently compelling visions for the music they make, too—but that’s where the similarities seemingly cease. Hval is the tempestuous imp to Wallumrød’s version of graceful austerity.
Far more so than its male counterpart, the female voice is capable of heartbreaking beauty and often-absurd grotesqueries that border on the aurally profane. In the avant garde, exploring the extremes is commonplace, with performers often stretching their vocal possibilities to absurd lengths to create wholly new and, more often than not, wholly unpleasant sounds. But in this pushing of vocal boundaries and capabilities performers often find the truest realization of their artistic selves, perfectly encapsulating the darkness and light; the glorious, delirious highs and the crushing, nearly insurmountable lows.
When referring to an album by a Scandinavian artist as being ‘a bit glacial’ there is an associated sharp intake of breath. It feels a little wrong, and not a little meteorologically stereotypical; the equivalent to the Norwegian music press refusing to describe a British artist as anything other than squally, with patches of lighter drizzle. And yet, here it just fits.
Norwegian singer/songwriter Susanna Wallumrød doesn't flinch from raw emotional realities, but she usually traverses them with a seraphic, pure-toned calm. Conversely, Jenny Hval (Susanna's compatriot, and a poet and novelist as well as one-woman band Rockettothesky) negotiates the same terrain with a fierce, dissonant candour – their meeting was always likely to strike sparks. They jointly wrote Meshes of Voice for Ladyfest in 2009, inspired by Maya Deren's 1943 surrealist film, Meshes of the Afternoon, and the gothic visions of Antoni Gaudí.
It is said that two heads are better than one, but are two voices an improvement on the singular? If the voices in question belong to Jenny Hval and Susanna Wallumrød, then you should be expecting an answer in the positive. As well as being two of the most prominent voices in Norwegian contemporary music, they are also two of the most distinct. Though the material on collaborative record Meshes of Voice is original, not all of it is new.
The most startling moment on Meshes Of Voice occurs in the space between two songs. The exchange takes place towards the end of 'Thirst That Resembles Me', a live adaptation of an of a spectral song that appears on Jenny Hval's terrifying folk flick Viscera, and the beginning of 'I Have A Darkness', a fucked and distorted response to the former that surveys noise like rubble and picks out remnants of Susanna's sonorous vocals. A sound that resembles a wind tunnel begins to filter through the song, blowing behind Hval's vocals.