Talk to any seasoned musician for longer than five minutes and you’re likely to find yourself in a conversation about the merits of various makes, models and release years of their instrument of choice. This seems especially true with guitarists, who won’t hesitate to tell you about how their Gibson hollow-body with a touch of tremolo is a recipe for dream-pop perfection, or that nothing beats the classic sound of a Fender Strat in a straight-up rock context. One could make the case that any musician who is worth a damn should know their instrument with this level of intimacy—to be able to distinguish various makes and models based on timbre alone. And if they can’t do it yet, then time and experience will grant them this gift.
It is one thing to be able to hear and understand the difference between various makes and models of an instrument, but it is another to know exactly what instrument might be perfectly suited for a given song. In the context of For Organ and Brass, Ellen Arkbro’s new album on Subtext, Arkbro sought out the perfect organ. As challenging as she expected it to be, she wanted to find an organ that possessed similar qualities to one she’d become accustomed to in a Stockholm church. She eventually found one in Tangermünde, Germany, that was tuned to meantone temperament—allowing her to compose solely in septimal intervals—and whose quality of sound possessed a certain sadness, an aged warmth that expelled from the instrument in what she describes as “perfect stability.”
Arkbro is no stranger to unconventional scales, having been schooled in just intonation (a musical tuning championed by minimalist composers). Here, she takes cues from La Monte Young, Phill Niblock and Catherine Christer Hennix. The album is centred around the 20 minute title track, where Arkbro presents a simple yet mesmerizing cycle of sustained organ tones (performed by Johan Graden) that, over time, don’t appear to amass incrementally but fluctuate slightly in colour. The horn, trombone and tuba that accompany the opening piece do so effortlessly, despite how disparate the brass section and organ might seem on paper. Compositionally, the title piece is reminiscent of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s impeccable Virðulegu Forsetar, in that no matter where the music goes, it eventually returns to a familiar phrase heard early on. It’s an age-old trick, similar to how composers will return to a tonic note, or series of notes, as clue to a given work’s key, providing listeners with a gratifying sense of home.
Though For Organ and Brass’s path shouldn’t surprise anyone versed in the cornucopia of austere music, its subject remains alien. The work’s landscape is a breeding ground of sounds both new and old, familiar and strange. Arkbro’s pursuit of a dated and unusual instrument feels almost like a commentary on conventionality. Her instrument is stuck in the past, out of place in our hyper-maximalist world, but to her ears, it was the only thing that could make this music work. Ultimately, For Organ and Brass feels like a dusted off relic with a fresh coat of paint, its accompanying brass section bridging a necessary gap to a modern time—and oh, how sweetly those lower register organ tones couple with these horns.
The record’s flip side contains the work “Three,” a similarly minded—albeit, significantly shorter—piece for orbiting horn-sourced tonalities. Once one becomes accustomed to the quicker pace, the work is pleasant enough, but to these ears it lacks a level of thought and patience achieved on the title track. Perhaps at 2/3 speed, and with just a touch more variation Arkbro could have really had something here. As it stands, the A side will see a lot more of my record needle. In all, I highly recommend the album. A highlight of the year thus far.