Åke Parmerud (b. 1953) is one of the most successful Swedish composers of electroacoustics, and I believe he is the first one of Swedish descent that I have reviewed in this particular setting. That is rightly so. Ever since I began investing some interest in the elusive art of sound painting, Parmerud has been an obvious name.
When I see the pictures that Parmerud has chosen for his presentation at empreintes DIGITALes and at his homepage, I get this not quite comfortable feeling of a poser; one who enjoys putting on a style, appearing like in an old oil painting of some upper class poet of the 19th century, almost like some pictures you often see of another important composer from Sweden; Sven-David Sandström, who likes appearing in pictures clothed in leather and shady lightings… and I get to think of Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire or Percy Bysshe Shelley! Well, have a look yourself! In the studio picture Parmerud seems to show off his work environment, again… posing. However, then again, why not? Painting with colors of sound is a kind of show indeed, a kind of shadow play, a sort of hide-and-seek, and it really is a slim, trendy form of art — so I don’t mind the posing attitude at all. It can even be refreshing, taking some of the seriousness out of the idiom; a seriousness which I myself, I must admit, ever so often indulge myself in, which you can see from my recent review of Monique Jean’s new CD… What I really want to say is that there is plenty room for all of us, from extremely shy artists like Hanna Hartman in Berlin who hardly wants to let on any biographical notes or photos at all, to the gallant posing knight Åke Parmerud…
A short bio: Åke Parmerud tried his luck at photography in the early 1970s. He went on to studies at SAMUS Teacher Education College until 1975. He also attended studies at The Department of Musicology in Gothenburg, which proved decisive. He got into tampering with synthesizers (the early, crude forms) and the art of reel-to-reel. He crossed the barrier of attitude between Gothenburg and Stockholm (a peculiar cultural difference is still highly present between the West and the East of Sweden…) and approached EMS (The Electronic Music Studio of Stockholm, now The Institute for Electroacoustic Music, and the renowned and always energetic institution Fylkingen, where Parmerud got access to sophisticated equipment. As he developed his skills, he initiated a research project into the development of software for computerized composition. He also went into teaching at the Department of Musicology in Gothenburg. Of course, it was in Gothenburg that he was acquainted with the electronic music pioneer Rune Lindblad, who also taught at the Department of Musicology. Lindblad was a very original person, who never cared about trends and fashions of art, but kept his own thinking intact. He was a great inspirer, especially as a spiritual example. He gave artistic incentives to the younger generations of artists all the way up to his untimely death of arthritis in 1991. Lindblad published, among other things, a book called 20-talet (the Twenties), about music, art, poetry and film in the twenties of Europe. I was lucky enough to get to know Rune Lindblad in his later years, and received most of his oeuvre on tape copies from him. Much of the most interesting stuff he did remains to be released, but this spring of 2003 the Swedish label Elektron issues a beautiful double-CD which is the most representative release of Lindblad material so far. Lindblad was also gifted in the field of visual arts, producing paintings, drawings, woodcuts etcetera. No doubt Lindblad’s presence had a great meaning to Åke Parmerud and other Swedish sound artists on the West Coast, who later proved successful, like Rolf Enström. He was never considered quite housebroken though, so to say, in the more classy halls of electroacoustics of which, ironically, Åke Parmerud later would be one of the most diligent and sophisticated examples. During his younger years Parmerud played rock music and Afro-American music. It was, however, through his prolific production of electroacoustic multi-media works and the sophisticated abstract art of pure electroacoustic composition that he became known far and wide. I have some of his earlier music on vinyls, which shows that he’s been around a while — and he is still just as active and innovative as ever. A sign of his importance may be the fact that he indeed is the most rewarded composer of electroacoustics since his 1978 work Proximities, which won him the 1st Prize at the Bourges Competitions, regrettably before they started releasing the winners on yearly CDs, commencing in 1984, when another important electroacoustician from Sweden — Tommy Zwedberg — was awarded a prize for his Hanging for an old Swedish lyre (stråkharpa) and electronics (A European instrument akin to stråkharpa is the Welsh crwth). Since then, Åke Parmerud has been represented a number of times on these Bourges Competition CDs, like in 1988 with two works; Repulse and Yan, in 1994 with Kren and in 2002 with Närheter. There is an important difference, though, between Parmerud and the other Swedish modern composers of electroacoustics that I’ve mentioned — Zwedberg and Enström -, and that is the more polished, restrained impression that Parmerud’s music conveys, diverging quite a bit from Zwedberg’s and Enström’s more wild, rugged, jagged musics. It’s a matter of taste which of the two tendencies you prefer.
Track 1 here is Strings & Shadows (1993) for harp and tape, with Sofia Asunción playing the harp.
Parmerud: “In Strings & Shadows the strings of the harp act like gates that let out a variety of other sounds that flow in a constant stream of transformations. These timbral shadows are complemented with mirroring of the harp, using a variety of synthesized string sounds. There is however also another kind of musical shadow present: a short melodic fragment from Stothart’s film score of Queen Christina (1933) can be heard in a slightly distorted mirror-image of the harp in the middle section of the piece (at 5:10 — 5:18 and 7:18 — 7:26). The poetic vision of the piece is an image of an old dying actress, drawn into a last flowing sequence of dance through the shadows of her past, while death slowly appears as her partner in the last pas de deux.”
Yes, this comes across like butterfly chamber lyricism… dancing, swirling delicacy through glaring reflections off of leaves of grass, dandelion seeds carried across the meadow… a soaring presence of elves and fairies somewhere inside the tingling sensations, inside the summer hypnosis timbres… At first the harp appears naked of any electronic enhancement or guise, and you could be fooled into thinking this is going to be a straight chamber piece. The manipulations, in fact, never twist things seriously out of the grip of consciousness, so the chamber aspect remains throughout, even though, as you could read from Parmerud’s own description, a diligent electroacoustic craftsmanship is applied, of course obvious to the listener, but still very fastidious and discriminating, applying just the right touch to inch events just precisely across the line to enchantedness… but with a strong, concrete memory of the so-called reality retained in the music; sort of like half-dreaming just before going to sleep, the weight of your body resting comfortably in its gravity while thoughts soar on the verge of dreams like humming-birds in front of colorful flowers… an impressionist painting hung in time… and sometimes sudden gusts of wind move through your hair…
Stringquartett (1988) is second. Parmerud: “As one of the instrument combinations that has proven to be a real survivor through music history, the string quartet has fascinated me since a long time. I realized that there was little or nothing that I could do to create anything remotely resembling true originality in the sense of bringing new ideas to the form. However, moving the whole concept to another platform gave me the inspiration needed to unfold some visions of how to treat the formal and aural aspects of this specific string combination. Today Stringquartett, as a tape composition, may be regarded as a bit crude, based, as it is, on a sampling technology, which at the time was state of the art, but today may be viewed as antique. But the structure and energy of the piece still gives it an edge that I like.
For sure Parmerud has no reason to excuse himself for including Stringquartett on this CD. It is a very exciting work, the result of an ingenious and certainly stubborn and probably long work in the studio.
The music is made up of real string sounds by way of sampling and manipulation, distributed in combinations and juxtapositions, rhythmizations and layerings and the whole array of fluent hands on handicraft creativity, resulting in a varied, electronic chamber show-off which is extremely enjoyable, rocking and rolling, thudding and bumping on down the line like a group of swaying, staggering cartoon figures in disarray and a happy, wholesome dismay… You name it, we like it! Parmerud manages to build an overarching atmosphere out of this bits-and-pieces composition, making the details fit very well into the bigger scheme of things, and this is true artistry. Most people would back off from a feat like that. Parmerud delivers a sublime piece of musical art! This is in fact one of Parmerud’s pieces that I enjoy the most. The crudeness that he admits just makes it the more attracting to me, since I sometimes have a hard time with the all too polished. There are stretches inside this jagged music that appear melancholic, reminiscent, reflecting a 19th century of old and its ideals, in loving memory, so to say. Some fragmented feelings from those days still live in this sampling serenity, much to my amazement. There is a soft hand at work inside the sometimes wild shuffling of string quartet slices.
Renaissance (1994) is the next work. Parmerud: “Having lived and worked with electronic instruments over a period of twenty years, my attention was lately drawn to the tendency of retrospect interest in old analog synthesizers. These instruments represent to me not only a different quality of sound, but also a different mode of composing. Digital systems have a greater flexibility in terms of time and spectral control on a point-to-point basis. Analog systems, on the other hand, offer a way to create complex structures with a direct, physical control, coupled with a unique, raw quality of sound lacking in digital instruments. I have felt an urge to work with old instruments for some time, and the invitation from GRM (Paris) to make a piece gave me the opportunity to explore a renaissance of the analog in the digital domain. The piece is based on sounds from a Serge modular synthesizer and some additional sounds from renaissance instruments like drums, lute, krumhorns and viola da gamba.”
Here comes Parmerud with his own statement about the polished versus the unpolished, thus more alive, sound that is so obvious when you compare newer works with older ones. However, when the composer is aware of this all too tight cleanliness, he has measures at hand, which will add some crudeness, some life. Parmerud knows this very well, and though it seems to me as if he enjoys the soaring exactitude of new tools, he doesn’t fool himself when it comes to artistic results.
With a silent, slowly breathing pulse of a rolling drum, the piece begins, the character of the music edging over into soft, fluttering and accelerating brown and gray sounds, sometimes on the verge of violet. The events and goings-on in the work are many, shifting almost faster than you can hear, or at least keep account of — but the intense feeling of motion in the spatiality of the sound world is almost tangible, elastically exhaling and inhaling shapes of sounds, contours of fleeing figures down the years of Shakespeare… Layers are stretched out on top of each other, or perhaps better envisioned as tainted glass windows slid in behind each other in a kaleidoscope of color and light; here: sound! The layers of tainted glass of sound keep shifting their positions, and new, unexpected discoveries of perception move up your auditory nerves, setting magnificent stage casts alight inside the halls of your imagination, grotesque shapes falling across the walls, like the wild shadows of shipyard workers welding.
Retur (1992-93) for saxophone quartet and tape holds position 4 on Åke Parmerud’s CD. The Stockholm Saxophone Quartet appears with Parmerud’s tape.
Parmerud: “The melodic and harmonic structure of Retur (Return) is based on some transcribed phrases from s saxophone solo by the legendary American musician Charlie Parker. As one composition in a series of pieces concerned with my relation to music historical artifacts — Alias (1990) and Renaissance (1994) are two other examples from the same series — Retur is a kind of musical letter, written on the paper of time and actually addressed to the sender of the original creation (Parker)
Indeed, the beginning has you stroll through the outer halls of some jazz shrine — perhaps Nalen in Stockholm, where Charlie Parker indeed did play — as you hear the sounds of an intense session echo, the volume increasing as you approach the performance space. At last your right up the stage, and the music is transformed into the dreamy recollections of Åke Parmerud, as he takes the ingredients of be-bop and lures the jazzman on a inwardly spiraling sojourn that Mr. Parker would hardly have dreamed of. Throughout the electronic treatments Parmerud retains some kind of jazz soul, and the saxophone is readily recognizable most of the time. I think anyone would think more of jazz than of electroacoustics when hearing this, proving the diligence with which Parmerud takes care of the artifacts he chose for his composition. A comparison might be made with Jean Schwarz’s electroacoustics, since he has a great affinity for jazz and jazz instruments. Maybe Schwarz is more heavily electroacoustic in his views, but there are works by him wherein the instruments of jazz take much of the command in their own right too. Obviously, Parmerud holds the object of attention — Charlie Parker — in high artistic esteem.
Les flûtes en feu (Flutes on Fire) sits at track 5. Parmerud: “Les flûtes en feu (Flutes on Fire) is based on the concept of the composer as an alchemist. With the use of computers and modern studio facilities, the composer of acousmatic music or sonic art, is able to treat the acoustic material as if it was a substance with a constantly redefineable morphology. In the piece the basic sonic substance is some simple sounds of flutes. There is also another element recurring throughout the composition: a short metallic sound, reminiscent of the sledge hitting the anvil that signals the presence of a force that is about to change the shape of things. Finally, in the end of the piece, the sound of fire, representing the catalyzing process of the four elements present as the basis of all alchemy, briefly enters the sonic stage to confirm the process that has been taking place.”
Silently the atmosphere spreads like incense, slowly through the ambient space, until a presence is determined by some metallic object — be it virtual or real — being struck. The motion of sounds increase in whirls and gallant gestures of shiny progressions, like ghosts wandering the outskirts of the mind, the jagged shapes of ominous half-dreams surrounding the horseback ride in Schubert’s Erlkönig… (…der Vater mit seinem Kind…) Eventually a sound reminiscent of a coin spinning on a kitchen table (but not speeding up before the end), pitched down and beautified, violent in a restrained way, compresses the air like the passing of an express train through a tunnel, lights flickering by as you swallow and swallow to even out the pressure (anyone who has approached Stockholm on the rail from the south knows what I’m talking about!) Sometimes I feel I hear echoes of rhythms of voices, outlines of morphemes taken so far off that you can only smell the scent of a vanishing meaning… An intense activity is going on up front, while more extended sweeps fan out on the horizon of events… At one instance an elephant trunk of a slow-down is breaking one lineage of sound to a halt in a downward trajectory, but the sound world around keeps on keeping on, later in quite silent, erotic preoccupations, violet feelings on silk and satin; old dreams of Erik XIV soaring through the Halls of Morpheus and the outer courtyard of Amnesia… With three minutes to go tiny specks of sounds trickle like grains of dust on aluminum foil, as transparent layers of alarm sounds screech through orbiting vessels. Owl howls resound through moonlit spruce forests under the Milky Way. In the intensity of some unaccounted for presence — a hiker treading the realms of insects in the night? — sounds flee in all directions from a gravitational center on the path of the intruder, and the last whimper of a sound disappears under an uprooted tree…
The last piece is Repulse (1990). Parmerud: “Repulse (Repulsion) was composed with the material that became outcast in the process of creating Isola, a mixed work for chamber orchestra and tape commissioned by the Asko Ensemble from the Netherlands. Repulse can be regarded as the first piece in which I explored multiple layering of textural processes. Up to five simultaneous layers of sound from time to time create a dense sound image, although transparent at all times due to techniques such as spatial simulation, frequency displacement and clear texture identity.
Repulse was released in the 1980s on one of the first major Swedish CD releases of electroacoustic music, the double CD Electroacoustic Music in Sweden, Phono Suecia PS CD 41; up till this day one of the best compilations of electroacoustics ever to surface.
This immediately hits home with an industrial, heavy rhythm that draws on rock n’ roll as well as noise, but it soon evolves into more austere, knitwitbit gestures of audio, turning in on itself like musical arthritis, tearing at itself in a clockwork of deconstruction, which eventually lands in a world beyond accounted-for perceptions, where pain is followed by beauty, stillness and a morpheus floating, around which glossy flakes of audio fall like remnants of flown-into high-rises of latter day Babylon… I even get a feeling of grainy remnants of Finnish or Polis harpsichords (Jukka Tiensuu or Elisabeth Chojnacka); a shredded experience of gleaming gleanings into proud antecedentia! Ah, Parmerud paints a mouthful of toothache, and the pain out of the oral cavity comes at you like a dragon’s breath… and you hide in the fern; that fresh forest fragrance surrounded by that root canal affliction, slowly spiraling your sense of self like a galaxy majestically through the void of space…