How could the unpredictable forces of nature create better music than people?
Geir Jenssen was born in Tromsø, a Norwegian town well within the Arctic Circle, and there’s no doubt a life among the Northern lights gives much of his work as Biosphere its spark. 1997’s Substrata and 2000’s Cirque are among the best evocations of the romance and desolation of those regions I’ve heard on record, and The Senja Recordings acts as a sort of behind-the-scenes. These are recordings made on Senja, an island not far from Tromsø, but don’t put them on expecting to slip into a polar reverie; this time he’s not here to evoke but simply to document.
To his credit, these assorted field recordings and synth ruminations are sequenced quite well into a 66-minute album. Some of the sounds are astonishing, not least the opening track, a recording of ice being thrown onto a newly frozen lake—taken from under, with a hydrophone. “Berg,” an unrelated commission, merges beautifully with “Kyle,” which gives us none other than a vuvuzela echoing off a vast canyon wall populated with the sounds of crows. The liner notes are a treat, and it speaks to Jenssen’s talent as both a documentarian of sound and a producer of albums that the sound of his finger tapping against a hydroelectric pipe, recorded from deep inside, makes for a delightful way to deepen the album towards the middle (that’d be “Lysbotn.”)
The field recordings, though, are a lot more interesting than the stuff Jenssen layers on top of them. “Berg” is spectacular, as is “Hå,” both being driven by a curious low electric-piano sound I’ve heard before on the Melvins’ “Shevil.” But too many of these tracks are undercooked synth noodlings, like “Strandby” and “Fjølhøgget.” I don’t know how much of a Dr. Dre fan Jenssen is, but it’s hard to hear the latter wiggle up and down and not think of that ubiquitous G-funk synth sound, the famous funky worm. Images came to mind of “Grand Theft Walrus,” the arcade game in the Simpsons movie where a gangsta walrus shoots a happy-go-lucky dancing penguin dead.
Jenssen has made more effective albums in this vein before. Last year’s The Hilvarenbeek Recordings stands among his best. Made with field recordings from a Dutch farm at which he took an artistic residency, the record combines the sounds of the local wildlife with filtered synth-ghosts that suggest clouds placidly drifting over an idyllic countryside on a quiet, hot day. And Cho Oyu 8201m: Field Recordings from Tibet chronicles his trip up the Himalayan mountain through sound, with barely any music, ending with an eerily quiet field recording titled “Summit.”
I wonder if an album that didn’t involve any music at all would’ve been better. When I was a kid, I remember seeing a set of wind chimes at a shop with a disclaimer reading “DO NOT TOUCH: THE WIND PLAYS IT BEST.” At that age, that blew my mind. How could the unpredictable forces of nature create better music than people? The Senja Recordings gives us one answer.