[2 December 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
If a certain, lone opinion posted on a popular online retailer is to be used as a yardstick for gauging the reception from the classical/electronic crossover community at large, it looks like Katrine Ring has a thankless job. Not to mention a difficult one. William Orbit rebuilding classical works from the ground-up on Pieces in a Modern Style is one thing, but A Hand for Holmboe: Deconstructions by Katrine Ring is a different matter entirely. Here is a Danish DJ dissecting the chamber concertos of her homeland’s neo-classical specialist Vagn Holmboe, vamping some passages as is, and hammering others into new entity that has little to do with its original source material. It wasn’t until I pulled the liner notes out of the jewelcase that I learned just how much of a pain in the ass this kind of craft can be. For example, Ring assigns the word “pulse” to how most classical music travels. This makes sense, seeing as that any one human heart pumps at a variety of speeds. If you’ve played in an orchestra, you know that the conductor is not a human metronome and no one expects him/her to be one. All of those rubatos, fermatas, and tempo shifts don’t translate to electronic music easily since the rhythmic driving force behind it has more in common with a chugging machine than the human heart. If that weren’t enough to worry about, there’s also dynamic range. Classical music’s dynamic range can run from one end of the spectrum to another within the same movement, and just like ebbing and flowing tempos, this can’t be applied to electronic music without great difficulty. If you want to piss off a fan of classical music, throw on the compression. Make the louds loud, the softs loud, and the mediums loud.
These are just two examples, though. There are lots of other things at work that probably cause Katrine Ring to break into a cold sweat while pasting together the mangled chamber concertos of Vagn Holmboe, but listing them wouldn’t be very practical right now. The main point I would like to get across is that A Hand for Holmboe: Deconstructions by Katrine Ring is not a failed experiment that disgraces Holmboe or humiliates Ring. The source material is too good for the former to happen, and Ring’s keen ear and understanding of modern classical music is too convincing for the latter to happen. Consideration of this album as a failure hinges on whether or not you find such a pairing distasteful in the first place. So if Pieces in a Modern Style was enough to nauseate you, read no further.
I will admit that a classical remix album is a tough thing to get used to, but the alternate reality it creates can be just as mind-bendingly great as the inspiration from which it sprang. A third of the way into the second track, “Skynd dig! (Rabbit Laughter)”, made me think that I was having problems with the CD. Ring really does put a truncated piano arpeggio through fits and starts after rolling it around and around again, complete with clipped notes. In fact, this is the biggest brainworm of all ten tracks. If it weren’t for the sneezing, it could pass for Reich or Glass. The compressed figure in “Skynd dig!” is even more economical and makes for a not-as-odd-as-it-could-be juxtaposition with the string passages that are lifted directly from Holmboe’s first chamber concerto. Other tracks treat the integrity of the originals as something to care for, messing with nothing more than the order. On the other hands, some tracks stampede those originals, like on “Undervejs (Ongoin)”. Some low frequency instrument and a soft percussive beat team up to make for one scary loop, making for a far more industrial sound. The final two tracks take even more liberties. As two different takes on the same theme, “Vagn og Gunnar ryger pibe (Vagn and Gunnar Smoking Pipes)” takes the musique concrète idea to Dome-like levels. The “basic jump style” that wraps up the album is almost Gothic.
And for those who worry that Holmboe’s music will suffer desecration before anybody gets a chance to hear the real thing, there is a bonus disc of all the appropriated works performed by Hannu Koivula and the Danish National Chamber Orchestra. This is one of those bonus discs that’s actually longer than the main album, too. Listening to it after becoming acquainted with Katrine Ring’s interpretations shows how the identities of each disc come out of the works almost completely independently. Listening to Vagn Holmboe’s music is in no way a prerequisite to listening to A Hand for Holmboe: Deconstructions by Katrine Ring. It is possible to enjoy it without it. But it’s impossible to not enjoy a bonus disc of such rich and fulfilling chamber music. As for what Katrine Ring has done, a parachute mind is the only prerequisite.