There are two things about this other than the music – utterly beautiful and terrifying at the same time, like the pangs of ideas must have been for Darwin, as it is – itself that really impress me here.
1 They appear to have left all the music in. Something irritating is when large chunks of ‘incidental’ music are cut out of scores and soundtracks. It’s not necessary – this isn’t the radio.
2 The Knife were commissioned to do this… which makes it more like a traditional opera in my head as opposed to a money-spinning/ego-massaging ‘rock opera’ (the bane of our life, stemming from The Who and Queen musicals).
Otherwise the only way I think I can really do this justice is in a blow-by-blow account of each track:
Techy-bleeps somewhere similar to the opening of We Share Our Mother’s Health suggest a rustling in the wings, which builds into the sound of heavy trees blowing in the wind or perhaps a storm at sea. A fire or rain and then a snare. We are made aware that this is not an album as such, but really a performative accompaniment – but further than this it really serves to draw you into the piece. The Knife Orchestra are tuning up.
Overdriven ambience sets an air of foreboding and after several minutes an actual opera singer opens with:
“…An intersection of the plain
by the bank of some great stream
the animal carcasses and skeletons would be, entombed…”
A bizarre set of elements. The only thing I can think to bear resemblance to this is Scott Walker’s utterly horrifying ‘The Drift’, one of the most fascinating and awe-inspiring pieces of work I’ve ever listened to.
The pieces appear to be written in a similar disjointed-poem manner to Bjork’s ‘Drawing Restraint 9’ soundtrack. Again, this really is an opera, one that uses electronic instruments.
Epochs segues into Geology, which continues the foreboding and the theme of the first, near climaxing with a Goldfrapp/Kraftwerk-esque synth trill. Personally I take these first two tracks to be about Darwins initial thought cloud, though I need to see the opera to let myself be more baffled by it.
A really interesting use of the vocalists – something like discordant string stabs. If you have opera singers, you may as well use them.
Very Scott Walker. Static noise builds and then Kristina Wahlin lets loose a violent spatter of technical terms.
Ebb Tide Explorer
A long way into Sound Art country, though clearly taking direction from the area they explored in The Captain. A man searches deranged… repeating “Examine… Examine”… Calls to mind the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote “A man’s mind once stretched by an idea never returns to its original proportions.”
Variation of Birds
Somewhere between Noise and Dubstep synths – ripping down, over and over – the man from Ebb Tide gains confidence, backed by a choir of divine inspiration courtesy of Mt Sims and Planningtorock. Awe-inspiring.
Letter to Henslow
The sound of humans copying birds down, interesting and humorous on one level – penguins or turtles in the Galapogos. Wonderfully Dada.
Schoal Swarm Orchestra
Here are some sounds from the Amazon, arranged for your listening pleasure.
Anne was Darwin’s second daughter, who died at the age of 10. Of Darwin’s 10 children, two others died in infancy. Tragic and ironic, Darwin feared that they may all have been victims of genetic weaknesses due to inbreeding as his wife was also his cousin. A lilting lyrical elegy on the horror of young death and parental love reinforced by an unbelievably beautiful cello line. Terrifying and touching. At this point it is evident that these are epic humanist themes. We are alone and the system is much, much bigger than us.
This may be the wake of a realisation or the recovery from a depression. A nauseous ocean creaking a boat around you.
The Colouring of Pigeons
Amazing! This is just about the most fun I’ve had listening to something for a long time. I have turned the speakers to face me from different angles and it’s blasting as loud as possible. The intro can not (and should not) be described. There are secrets and there are surprises. The mismatched arpeggios are timeless, they will remain alien and mysterious forever. By the time I hear the line… “a few southern vegetable forms on the mountains of Borneo…” my eyes are shut and I’m lying back into it – rich in textured catharsis… I’ll stop there. The pinnacle of the album certainly. Oh my! What you can do with a cello with a pick up and a guitar amp!
Techno resurfaces, though I’ll not say in what form and how fully. It’s incredbily satisfying. In the context of the rest of the work, it is the satisfaction of an enormous idea slotting together to form something enormous, a system – evolution – which then allows everyone involved to seemingly… rock out?
Tomorrow in a Year
Most of this track makes me think of dinosaurs – the scene in Fantasia – Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The Knife claim to have not listened to opera, nor really know what it entails – but from this, it is clear they at least know what the bits are relevant and worthwhile. This flows into another triumphant chorus. Wonderful!
The Height of Summer
This somehow sounds like Heartbeats and is much more pop than opera. It appears to discuss Darwin imagining himself not existing, “How is Charles? I haven’t heard from him in a long long time…” a wonderfully humorous but disturbing mantra… but the line “a thousand years seem to pass so quickly” is equally pertinent. Seems to reference the rift with the church that Darwin’s work stirred up or maybe it’s just my desire to mix that in with it – considering Darwinisim has come to represent a rational affront to the church. On the whole, The Knife have really kept religion out of the whole thing, save for in the ‘frame of mind…’ mantra of Ebb Tide… A beautiful way to close the piece, reinforced by the repetition of Annie’s Box – which again calls to mind the fragility of life. Absolutely stunning.
Ultimately the Knife, Mt Sims and Planningtorock have really excelled themselves and their brief. They have seen the true magnitude of their subject matter and revealed it in an utterly human form. Human in its fragility, possibility to inspire wonder and to be terrifying. This is entirely thoughtful. In one way they have thought very hard about it and made something magnificent. In another way, there is an enormous amount of literal empathy, through which you can feel the tragedies of Darwin’s life and, ultimately, the necessity of mortality itself. Intelligent, inspiring music. The most important thing that The Knife have done to date. I really cannot recommend it highly enough.