Boomkat Product Review:
Ellen Arkbro observes the space in-between on 'Sounds While Waiting', setting up sustained chords on multiple organs in an old Swedish church and revealing subtle, mysterious harmonics. It's her most dense, celestial and satisfying set to date - essential listening for fans of Éliane Radigue, La Monte Young, Catherine Christer Hennix or Sarah Davachi.
There's an old Scandinavian folk tale that goes something like, "if you want to turn a head or two, take thee to Stockholm and compose just intoned drone music with a church organ." But while everyone and their hund appears to be trying their luck right now, Arkbro has been quietly setting the standard for years. She had exactly the right start, studying with arch minimalists La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela before she began to develop her own distinct harmonic language. And on her last two proper solo albums, 2017's 'For Organ and Brass' and 2019's 'Chords' she laid down a robust template, investigating the power of various instruments and spaces, using divine minimalism as a tool to awaken the senses. 'Sounds While Waiting' is her most focused suite yet, a masterclass in organ-based drone music that arrives at a time when the landscape has become overgrown. Plenty of well-studied composers are attempting to hydrate the form with various innovative techniques, but few manage to achieve the clarity Arkbro does, or approach her sonic sensitivity.
She describes this suite of recordings as "traces of something I have come to love to do in large resonant spaces," describing how she would produce sustained tones on instruments situated far from each other to create "large fields of continuous change." With this methodology, she prompts us to listen zealously for microscopic harmonic variations, something that's been a huge part of her earlier recordings but appears even more vividly here. 'Changes' is the album's most dynamic piece and a fitting opener, jolting from lowercase organ hums to dense, puissant blasts. Arkbro situates us in the space where she recorded the material, a "centuries-old" church in Unnaryd where she had the freedom to tweak and re-tune the organ pipes to fit her vision. We immediately get the sense that the sound is rooted in familiar, intimidating church music - those hardened gusts of sound can't help but send a shiver down the spine - but Arkbro's repetition shepherds us towards the serene, prompting us to reconsider our cultural assimilation.
'Sculpture I' is more generous, almost 15 minutes of languidly fluctuating tonality that immediately emphasises Arkbro's meticulous process. It isn't music to casually let ripple in the background, it requires immersion and concentration - the kind of music that you need to give yourself to completely if you want to reap the rewards. Shifts are so gradual they're almost imperceptible, but they are inarguably occurring, like shadows of the past wafting through an ancient sanctuary. The movement is more identifiable on 'Leaving Dreaming' and the brief, fluttering 'Untitled Rain'. The former lifts clouded chords form a lethargic dirge, a memory of church music that embeds itself deep in the mind's eye, while the latter adds drizzly percussion that mimics precipitation on a vaulted roof, stained glass windows or a large wooden door. It's buttery, textured music that's been composed and engineered by an artist whose every action is deliberate.
There's nowhere to hide when the music is so stark and exposed, and Arkbro doesn't try to obscure her sounds with fussy process, she lets us absorb the tones and reverberations at their own pace and in their own time. It's hardly surprising that she's part of Catherine Christer Hennix's esteemed Kamigaku ensemble - we can't think of a better artist to compare this work to.