No genre has experienced a more distinct shift in its cultural purpose than classical music. What was once the sole form of musical expression in Western culture has been largely relegated to specific roles in society. Modern classical certainly hasn’t lost any of its esteem, but in terms of popular consumption, most everything outside the realm of film or television scores are appreciated mostly in academic, bourgeois or kitschy setting. Sure, the average music consumer might occasionally don formal wear for a ballet or performance of repertoire, and they may find the Trans-Siberian Orchestra or 2CELLOS quaint and worthy of a periodic listen. But attempts by current composers and modern classical musicians to penetrate some form of mainstream recognition are almost always futile. I used to work for PARMA Recordings—a full service music production company in New Hampshire primarily focusing on modern classical and jazz—and our consumer-facing content often referenced or made light of the fact that most people are unaware that there’s anyone still making classical music these days.
Even though this setup may not beget a torrent of Spotify and Apple Music streams, modern classical’s lack of mainstream acknowledgment hasn’t deterred brilliant young composers like Úlfur Hansson from expanding the scope of quality the genre has to offer. The NYC-based composer has compiled quite an impressive resume thus far in his burgeoning career—he’s collaborated with Jónsi of Sigur Rós, invented his own homemade instruments and electronics, had works commissioned by the Icelandic Symphonic Orchestra, the Kronos Quartet and l’Orchestre de Radio France, and received the 2013 Young Composer of the Year award from the International Rostrum of Composers. Given these incredible early-career accomplishments, it’s no wonder Úlfur attracted an equally stellar roster of underground music pedigree for his latest album, Arborescence. Úlfur’s vibrant, dynamic compositions are expertly produced by Randall Dunn (SUNN O))), Earth, Marissa Nadler) and brought to life by cellist Gyða Valtýsdóttir (Múm), percussionist Greg Fox (EX EYE, Liturgy), and multi-instrumentalists Skúli Sverrisson (Blonde Redhead, Laurie Anderson), Zeena Parkins (Björk, Jim O’Rourke, Fred Frith, John Zorn), and Shahzad Ismaily.
If this obscenely stacked list of personnel isn’t enough to stoke your interest in Arborescence, then Úlfur’s breathtaking approach to composition will surely knock the life out of you and then bequest you back a new, purer soul. This is abundantly clear as soon as the title track commences the album’s display; swells of evocative strings from Valtýsdóttir strike a perfect balance between the works of illustrious composers of yore and newer, fresher perspectives on string arrangements, namely from the likes of Radiohead and Ulver. It introduces a recurring theme on Arborescence: sophisticated familiarity. It’s a sensation that takes sonic moods native to our common music consumption and repurposes them within an emboldened, emotionally richer musical process. As the track develops and brings Fox into the fold, the album also demonstrates Úlfur’s familiarity with the pulse of numerous other genres, some adjacent and others foreign to classical music. Fox’s pummeling blast beat (or “burst beat,” I suppose) is an element that’s at first jarring but ultimately revelatory in the way it elevates the track as a whole.
Fox’s drumming is far from the last hint of Úlfur’s affinity with the entire body of Ulver’s work. Much of the album feels like a fresh perspective on an overarching synthesis of the band’s eclectic discography, ranging from their Black Metal Trilogy up through Messe I.X-VI.X and ATGCLVLSSCAP. Whether its the haunting, folk-tinged dark ambiance of “Tómið Titrar” or angelic, vocal-led progressive folk of “Fovea” and “Vakandi,” Úlfur manages to weave the most stirring, gorgeous textures that, as stated before, strike a seamless balance between warming nostalgia and awing discovery. And similar to Ulver, mastery of electronics amplifies everything Úlfur aims to accomplish. He accents all of his compositions with unique electronic performances, allowing them to take the limelight with an intriguing electroacoustic display on “Rhinoceros” and an enormous, sublime organ drone with “Weightlessness” that takes cues from the transcendental works of Tim Hecker.
Yet, despite all of this, Arborescence‘s greatest strength may be its concise run time. Many modern classical albums are defined by lengthy displays of musical dexterity, which are rich in minutes and tracks but sometimes lacking in engaging music. At just over half an hour, Arborescence is exactly as long as it needs to be to make the maximum possible impact. Every moment feels necessary and enthralling, and by the time “Vakandi” concludes the album, there’s no feeling of fatigue or craving, except the desire to begin the album once again. The ideas sprung forth across the record makes each of its seven tracks feel integral in their collective endeavor to craft a truly exceptional body of music.
Whenever Arborescence sees its live debut, Úlfur should receive a magnanimous standing ovation. Though quality modern classical is available in abundance for those willing to seek it out, there are few examples that reach this caliber of innovation, fearlessness and sheer compositional quality. Though early in his career, Úlfur already has little left to prove; he’s accomplished more than many established composers and earned respect of prominent musical minds both in and out of the modern classical landscape. A true measure of dedicated genius is pursuing greater and greater goals when so much has already been achieved, and it’ll be a true joy to see where Úlfur’s brilliance takes him from here.
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Arborescence is available now via Figureight Records.