About the album
THE FOREST AND THE WORDS
Mørkgånga is a narrow gorge somewhere in the Ringerike area in eastern Norway. I have never set foot there, but it is exactly the kind of place that Jon Øivind finds and cherishes when on his interminable hikes through the eastern Norwegian scrub, forest and fields. For as long as I have known him, and it is closing in on a quarter of a century now, he has kind of existed in parallel dimensions — composer and forest hiker, city-slicker and nature romantic, drinking buddy and ski devotee. Somewhere lurking in between these dichotomies you’ll find Jon Øivind, sometimes here, soon enough there. Anyone who has had the pleasure of being eaten alive by mosquitos somewhere up in Solemskogen while listening to an in-depth analysis of obscure post-punk knows exactly what I'm referring to.
But can this be heard? The moment you give a work a title which is more specific than, say, “symphony” or “sonata”, then the listener has inevitably been nourished with some kind of guidelines. It is no coincidence that the title Mørkgånga is taken from the forests around Oslo. Jon Øivind does this repeatedly — Gimilen, Skamrek and the incomparably titled Bury my heart at Katnosa are all examples. The forest is his stimulus, providing a framework around his existence, and if the listener can't directly hear it — if indeed that’s possible — then they would suspect the composer of having felt it, at least subconsciously.
I myself hear the forest and the gorges in Mørkgånga, partly because I know that Jon Øivind is like a Tolkien-esque ent, and partly because the title, in all its eeriness, evokes a sudden drop in temperature, evil spirits and darkness in broad daylight. Added to that there is the resonance of association — the orchestration has something undefinably elemental about it that brings to mind one of the other ents of Nordic music, namely Jean Sibelius. And also, it is a microtonal forest we are dealing with here, with sounds so saturated that the listeners literally feel like they are inside the tree, inside the stone. This is quite the departure from Jon Øivind's works from 15 and 25 years back, when his compositions were more likely to contain topical commentary, diary entries, jokes or pop-culture references. This makes the element of surprise all the stronger when in the middle of the piece (18:30), he dishes out something that invokes Baba O’Riley filtered through a microtonal haze. He’s clearly not lost his facetious side, but is he really being tongue in cheek here?
And then there is the forest. It’s everywhere, though it’s not alone. Surrounding it and within it there is language, descriptive or self-constitutive. Mørkgånga is not just a place, it's also a word. For those who read Nordic languages, you’ll find it quite graphic, but it carries a sonorous weight in itself, regardless of its meaning. This is not far removed from “marmæle”, a Nordic word that has long since disappeared from common use. What is marmæle other than a word that sounds archaic and half-forgotten like Mørkgånga does?
The marmæle comes from Norse folklore and is a half-man and half-fish sea creature — a kind of half-pint male mermaid if you will. Legend has it, that if you catch the marmæle on a hook you have to ensure it’s kept warm and released back into the sea before the day is up. If you do so, the marmæle can later prove to be helpful. If not, it may come back to take his revenge. The marmæle, after all, knows all about hidden things, and reveals them accordingly. It can point towards fertile fishing spots and what weather to expect. It talks in riddles, and often in rhymes. It laughs at people's foolishness and ignorance, since it knows the secrets of the sea and what to us mere mortals is beyond reach. Though we should generally be wary of listening to music too programmatically and literally, it is difficult to not hear the cello as the marmæle, a little creature giggling at a joke only he can understand. The sea is huge, wet and wild, and undoubtedly the orchestra in this case (and yes, you may think and listen that concretely if you allow yourself to). Nevertheless, the sea poses not even the slightest threat to the marmæle. So the work is not your archetypal instrumental concerto in the sense that the individual stands in contrast to the collective. Rather, it works as a symphonic poem with an extensive solo part in the tradition of, say, Berlioz' Harold en Italie, where the soloist comments on and illuminates the work's structure and content. The marmæle plays the role of a guide to its element.
Remember too that marmæle is a word. Jon Øivind has lived within words for a long time now, and one of his favourite exercises is to deconstruct their meaning. Place names are broken down into their constituent parts and become like microscopic short stories. Outrageous anagrams are given credence. Language is deconstructed, reconstructed and allowed a healthy dose of absurdity. The words are sounds and building blocks which manage to captivate, both as symbols and just as they come. The fascination with the meaning of words and their meaninglessness has often manifested itself in work titles — a case in point being his oboe quintet called “Bælþræk”, which I’m sure he chose just so we cover note writers will embark on an endless hunt into the darkest recesses of our keyboards. What these words have in common is their inherent musicality and their almost bewitching appeal, which is further invoked by the music they provide inspiration for. Marmæle and Mørkgånga, as well as titles such as Jønjiljo and Mjær, are words filled with mystery and sonorous anticipation. This kind of gridlock of peculiarly Norwegian vowels — or in the case of Bælþræk, old Anglo-Saxon — would indicate a composer who does not want to make it easy on himself. These linguistic choices point further to the musical ones: quarter tones and intertwined vocals, what is in between, and what can go both ways. You could say that the music moves on the watershed.
The forest and the words. And yet there are many other factors that could be mentioned here — the city, the cat, David Bowie, the Trøndelag way of being — but I’ll stick to the relatively straightforward words above this text, as they are two of the many possible points of orientation for this composer's work. Jon Øivind is a linguist on a forest walkabout, a collector of strange words and strange places, a romantic ironist who is deeply sincere in all his ambiguity. His music may have become more serious than it used to be, but that is also because his tonal language has become more consolidated and his style more patient. I still don't think this gravitas would have been possible without his long relationship with, and sharp ear for the absurd, the silly and the kooky. It is actually quite possible to have fun, even for a microtonal composer from Inderøy.
— Bendik Bjørnstad Foss