Deep Time: The Shifting Force Fields Of Ellen Arkbro’s CHORDS

While walking along the riverbank, listening to CHORDS by Ellen Arkbro, Aaron Skates finds his sense of time and place subtly transformed

Near where I live there is a circular path around a riverbank that I walk almost every day, sometimes more than once. I’ve walked it so many times that it has stopped being remarkable – I don’t look at anything, my attention is elsewhere. Maybe this is the reason that I take it.

The other day, Stockholm-based composer Ellen Arkbro’s CHORDS accompanied me: a half-hour, glacial study for organ and guitar where minute tonal shifts rise to the surface. First track ‘CHORDS for Organ’ – a confluence of traditional organ and synthetically fine-tuned tones – stacks frequencies upon frequencies. These tones come together to deliver both the organ’s airy timbres and sounds that are reminiscent of aliasing: the result of stretching a sample beyond its tether, leaving sonic artefacts in its wake.

As I was walking I heard the piece, during one of its more sparse moments, oscillate intensely. I felt dizzy, disorientated: I paused. It became clear that my walking itself had caused the shift: the subtle changes as my headphones moved on my head, or as my head moved in them, my feet connecting to the ground, making waves. Now looking around, unmoving, I had an overwhelming experience of calm that is difficult to put into words – a small moment of stillness and emptying out while listening.

My presupposition that a piece of music is a static thing, that it isn’t infinitely malleable based on listening environment, even on a minute scale, was unravelling itself.

This experience reminded me of what Timothy Morton, the ecological writer, says about viewing Untitled 2011: a painting by Yukultji Napangati. The painting consists of hand-drawn lines that phase around each other, that appear to bulge in places and recess in others – like the stacks of undulating tones in ‘CHORDS for Organ’. The experience of being in the painting’s “force field” makes Morton aware that his “sense of being ‘in’ a time and of inhabiting a ‘place’ depends on forms of regularity”: on seeing the world in a specific way that can become unstuck when the artwork presents an alternative.

“That’s why you can’t see global warming,” he continues: we are trapped on a plane of experience that won’t allow us to access the enormous timescales or shifts in thought necessary to tackle the problem. Art helps us get there. Say what you like about this leap between aesthetics and ecology – I know it’s easy to dismiss – but I felt it while listening to CHORDS. Looking around, the landscape I was in became clear to me for the first time in a long time.

This isn’t just a projection of my own beliefs onto the music, or, if it is, the piece invites it. Arkbro has stated that “there should be room for the listener” to hear the gaps that she inserts into the music, or the “lacking” that it contains: for her, these are “spaces of the imagination”. Although, to be fair, I know my thoughts are only one interpretation: Arkbro is not an artist that wants to arrive with a certain way of listening already in the heads of her audience.

In a recent interview she stated that it is “important for me to be aware of what is said or not said about the concert, or about me, before a performance.” Giving her works their prosaic titles is another way of controlling this lack. This music is a container, ready to be filled or completed by the listener. That the electronic and classical scene in Stockholm is a collaborative and inclusive one seems related to this listening concept.

It’s an exciting time for organ music right now. Last weekend, Cory Arcangel and Hampus Lindwall curated a night of collaboration between artists and pipe organ in St Mary’s Church, Walthamstow, as part of Art Night 2019. The event featured Pierre Bismuth, Kara-Lis Coverdale, Tom Crawford, Haley Fohr aka Circuit des Yeux, Hanne Lippard, Haroon Mirza, Charlemagne Palestine and Ellen Arkbro. Although the organ is by no means a specifically Christian instrument, a feeling of reinterpretation within the church must surely be affected by the space’s original use. Arkbro herself was raised as a Baptist.

Art Night was no one-off resurgence in church-organ experimentation. There is a consistent amount of activity in the UK alone. A documentary depicting Kit Downes and Tom Challenger’s organ tour of Suffolk during the writing of their Vyamanikal project shows Downes discussing the organ’s availability for intimacy as well as grandeur. He makes the organ breathe and whisper, exposing the tonal characters that might be buried under the surface of its regular use. Similarly, Claire M. Singer’s residency and curation of the organ reframed series at Union Chapel opens up the church’s organ for experimental works.

Singer’s own 2016 record, Solas, with its astonishing closing track ‘The Molendinar’, manages to gesture towards the sense of scale that playing contemporary music on centuries old instruments can create. There is a feeling of trans-historical or deep time to many of these projects: the kind of timescales that we have to think around in order to begin to grasp our current ecological crisis. What it is like to touch these keys where so many fingers have been placed and replaced? Likewise, Arcangel and Lindwall remind us that “people have gathered to worship” at St. Mary’s Church, Walthamstow “for nearly a thousand years.” These time scales have a long lineage in minimalist organ music: every few years people gather at St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt to hear the note change on the 639-year-long version of John Cage’s As Slow as Possible.

If these pieces look backwards to some of the history of sacred music they also bring that context into the present. In a recent interview, Kara-Lis Coverdale described the pipe organ as “the first synthesiser”. This anachronism is revealing for CHORDS: it is impossible to separate the synthetic from the organic here. As Morton says of Napangati, the artwork approaches you all at once: there is no sense that the listener has to put the strands together or assemble them. In the same way, ‘CHORDS for Guitar’, with its focus on sonic decay, creates an uncertainty in its convergence of the electric instrument and Karplus-Strong Synthesis. Is this repeated tone I am hearing the result of a single note delayed and reflecting back, or is it the result of two tones cancelling each other out at different frequencies? As someone who has no knowledge of the physics of music, I am surprised that the track seems to be asking me these questions, even if they aren’t necessarily the right ones to be asking.

A recurring idea surrounding Arkbro’s previous release on Subtext, 2017’s For Organ and Brass is that it makes any ambient noise in the room sound as if underwater – an idea that I can’t help applying to my ecological frame of listening. CHORDS also appears to reconfigure the sonic world around the listener and reveals new points of attention even in its most subtle areas: at points I find myself asking if some of the sounds that I am hearing are even really there or if my brain is just filling in the gaps. Each time I listen through an alternative medium, different textures emerge.

I am always enamoured by YouTube comments and the way that you can find new ways of expressing what you have been mulling over in them. The following comment from one François Filipek under For Organ and Brass seems particularly beautiful. I’ll leave you with it, as it articulates a truth about CHORDS too:

“Can’t wake up when it end. Stuck in my sofa, it takes my mind.”

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