There’s a strong temptation to turn descriptions of Arve Henriksen’s Cartography into a litany of map and topography images. They’d be apt. But this strange, haunting collection of aural effects and audible vision quests is more about the journey than its path. A mélange of synthesized sounds, samples, organic percussion, spoken word and Henriksen’s soft and pensive trumpet play, Cartography takes us into uncharted territory. It’s dozen selections meld in a sort of somber tone poem framed beginning and end by spoken word. The country that it travels is seldom wild but primitive, impoverished and sometimes despondent. What good feeling exists comes of collective, almost religious voicing, as in “Assembly” with its repeated choral samples, sandy percussion and radio static; or in graceful celebration of the individual heard in the waltzing, chamber-backed trumpet on “The Unremarkable Child.”
Henriksen, a disciple of Jon Hassell and other acoustic-electronic experimenters, has spent plenty of time on the borders of this country, recording with Jon Balke, Arild Anderson, Tygve Seim and other European art-music innovators. His trumpet playing follows the pitch and cadence of speech, often utilizing whispers to dramatic effect. Voice is central to the recording, the collection holding two suggestive, dream-like poems written and recited by former glam-rocker David Sylvian. Sylvian’s opening recitation, “Before and After Life,” follows a path past “hayseed haloes” through Napa Valley to “Temple” Mountain where, “I throw down a rope that others might follow/ but no one came.” The words are spoken against a chill background of spare percussion and crude wooden flute lines, the syllables sometimes obscured in echoes. The second poem is even more dreary with its “cold in that place of perpetual summer” and a woman ”born bearing the face/of irrepressible grief.” The disc’s few encouraging moments are grounded in an undefined spirituality. When Stale Storlokken’s sweet, solemn chant against a spare electronic background gives way seamlessly to the trumpet, there’s a moment of hope. Still, with the title “Famine’s Ghost,” it’s hard to take much comfort.
Cartography’s very best moments come when Henriksen plays against firm tempos and extended electronic shimmers. “Migration” swings subtlety with the rhythms of burdened beasts and families on foot. “Sorrow and Its Opposites,” despite the title, brings the program to a lilting close with something other than nihilism. ECM, currently so focused on hybrids, is introducing a number of traditional-and-experimental, acoustic-and-electronic musical blends. While time-travel recordings including Ambrose Fields and John Potter’s mix of renaissance voice and electronics Being Dufay get all the attention, the mood of Henriksen’s synthesis of disparate sounds and primitive devolution seems better matched for the current winter of discontent. Cartogrqphy doesn’t offer respite from anxious times, but offers a guide to its desolate and rocky terrain.—Cabbage Rabbit (apologies to all musicians whose names are missing umlats and other diacritic signs).