Somnambule - Writing About Music

Arve Henriksen ~ Chiaroscuro

Arve Henriksen is a trumpeter whose name will be familiar to anybody listening to the new music flowing out from Norway over the past decade or so. Chiaroscuro is Henriksen’s first outing as leader since his debut in 2001. It’s less thematically transparent than Sakuteiki, which took its title from a medieval Japanese book on garden design. Titles such as Opening Image, Bird’s-Eye-View, Circled Take and Ending Image imply that Chiaroscuro has a filmic aspect, though its origins are surely very personal. As well as being a remarkably experimental stylist as trumpeter – in concert it sometimes seems impossible that the shakuhachi flute and saxophone sounds are actually created by the trumpet he is playing – Henriksen sings with an angelic, falsetto voice. On Chiaroscuro he’s provided with sympathetic support from Jan Bang on samples and Audun Kleive on percussion.

Opening Image begins with orchestral swoops, distant hints of shaken percussion and manipulated gongs. Henriksen’s voice seems to be reaching towards the ineffable and then unexpectedly he captures and expresses it. The music appears to have been siphoned directly from the cool, clear air of remote mountain ranges via a natural alchemy. The opening moments of Bird's Eye View recall a passage from Brian Eno and Harold Budd's ambient masterpiece The Pearl. As it progresses the music evokes images of South Sea islands in balmy high summer. Klieve's percussion spins pitter-patter webs on which Henriksen's breathy notes surge like gentle breezes blowing in from the Pacific. In contrast to the suggestion of its title, Chiaro changes the atmosphere to something twilit, as though the listener had strayed from the aforementioned sunlit beaches into a shadowy jungle full of hidden creatures.

Blue Silk acts as Chiaroscuro’s gorgeous fulcrum. As riven with cruelty and tragedy as our world is, this piece feels like an undeserved benediction, a momentary reminder of the beauty that it’s possible to realise if we’re only given the chance. Trying to describe this piece would be a waste of words, better for you to seek the music out and listen yourself. Parallel Action carries brief hints of Henriksen’s early mentor, Nils Petter Molvaer in its weary, but proud playing. Circled Take cuts closer to the bone and turns towards a haunted darkness, Bang or Kleive provide sloughing sounds like trudges through snowdrifts. Scuro’s opening phrases recall Jon Hassell’s later work, particularly Fascinoma (Henriksen’s playing clearly betrays the influence of Hassell). There’s a strong sense of haunted and fearful aloneness that causes this listener to long for the light explored earlier on. Time Lapse appears to either fuse light and dark, without achieving grey, or stand apart watching the procession. Chiaroscuro ends like a short farewell, an ode to the emotional journey travelled over the preceding nine pieces.

The entry for ‘beauty’ in the online Wikipedia encyclopedia states:

“The composer and critic Robert Schumann distinguished between two kinds of beauty, natural beauty and poetic beauty: the former being found in the contemplation of nature, the latter in man's conscious, creative intervention into nature. Schumann indicated that in music, or other art, both kinds of beauty appear, but the former is only sensual delight, while the latter begins where the former leaves off.”

This definition is particularly apposite: Arve Henriksen’s music effects a union of both the contemplation of nature and the expression of unmediated feeling. It seems that Henriksen is wringing his soul out to find the notes that he plays and sings. He expresses emotion in the same intensely heightened, verging on hallucinatory, way that the Fauves used colour. Chiaroscuro as a title is well chosen, for each of these tracks does represent a shade between light and darkness. The focus upon both of these aspects, rather than only upon one or the other, results in a profound and singularly moving statement.

Colin Buttimer
October 2004
Published by the BBC