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skogen despairs had governed me too long

Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long’ is the third disc on Another Timbre by the Swedish-based ensemble Skogen, who have emerged as one of the most compelling groups within contemporary music. Their previous releases - ‘Ist gefallen in den Schnee’ and ‘Rows’ both featured in The Wire’s reviews of the year in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Like ‘Ist gefallen…’, ‘Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long’ is an extended composition by Skogen’s founder, Magnus Granberg. But whereas ‘Ist gefallen…’ took Schubert’s Winterreise as its basis, ‘Despairs…’  derives its harmonic and rhythmic material from a song by the seventeenth century English composer John Dowland.

Javier Santafé interviews Magnus Granberg

JS: If I had to explain your music to a friend here in Spain, how should I describe it? Improv, modern composition, EAI, comprovisation....

MG: Well, I guess you would know your friend and his or her previous knowledge about music better than I would, so in that respect I think you would be better suited than I to explain it! But the highly specialized categories that you mention imply that your friend would be quite well acquainted with various branches of contemporary music, and if so I guess that you could say that the music, among many, many other things, is to a certain extent informed by certain musics within all of these categories. But the original idea was, on the one hand, to create a space where there's room for many different ways of working and existing as a musician and a human being, and on the other hand, to try to integrate these ways of working, to create a music and performance practice which draws no clear distinction between such categories as composition and improvisation.

JS: All three of your discs for Another Timbre were recorded in two sessions on Nov 10 and Nov 12.The music on the three CDs is not very different and easily recognisable as Skogen. Are you creating a "musical style of your own", based on an iteration piano, strings, percussions and electronics subtly played? 

MG: Well, the discs were all recorded in November, that's true, but our first release on Another Timbre (
Ist gefallen in den Schnee) was recorded in November 2010, and the last two were recorded on the same day in November 2012. Our second album on AT is a recording of a piece by Anders Dahl called Rows, whereas the first and third records contain pieces of my own. The instrumentation on all three records is more or less identical, and I guess that instrumentation, timbre, and the general dynamic level and performance practice within the ensemble all definitely contribute to the perception of a certain similarity, even though I don't think that these aspects of the music necessarily set it too much apart from other musics in this field. When it comes to my pieces, I think that other stylistic traits such as tonal and rhythmic modality, as well as certain rules governing the intervallic structures of the chords and the melodic fragments, might be equally important as instrumentation and dynamics when it comes to making the music stylistically concise and easily identifiable.

JS: I generally don’t like music played by large ensembles. I always feel that with “many hands in the kitchen”, there’s no room for everybody’s sounds. But Skogen is an exception. It never sounds like there are so many players. What is your secret?

MG: I guess one reason the music doesn't come across as being cluttered (though I guess for some people it still very well might!) is the simple fact that the density of musical events is comparatively low. I myself am very fond of the idea and practice in, for example, Javanese gamelan music, where some of the musicians, depending on their instrument, may just play one, two or perhaps four strokes during musical cycles which sometimes may last for several minutes. Japanese Gagaku music is another East Asian orchestral tradition which partly works in a similar way, I think. Other reasons may perhaps be found in the instrumentation (which is predominantly made up of decaying sounds) or the way the acoustic material is distributed throughout the tonal spectrum. And, if I may say, the sensible and intelligent musicality of the players, of course!

JS: In the last 20 years, improvised music has created its own path, far away from jazz, and it has been in constant evolution. Where do you see this music in 2020?

MG: Yes, the development of improvised music from, say, the mid 90s onwards was quite expansive. Though I do think that in the last eight to ten years or so we have seen improvised music going through stages of consolidation, and some people might even say stagnation. On the other hand I think that during the last decade we’ve also have seen an increased mixing or breaking up of disciplines within the general field of contemporary music, for example how improvisers have teamed up with composers and interpreters of what one might call the post-Cage or Feldman continuum, or how improvisation has become an important element in certain artistic practices otherwise quite closely related to electro-acoustic composition, musique concrète or text-sound composition. Methods and materials associated with certain disciplines are combined in different ways than before, I think. And I guess these two tendencies, consolidation and classicism on the one hand, and a continuing breaking up, mixing and reassembling of methods and materials from different musical traditions on the other hand, might be something we will still hear a few years from now. And hopefully some surprising new input as well! 

JS: The last track on “Rows”, which is one of the last tracks recorded by the group, is quite different to the rest of your music. Sparse strings over “white noise”, no piano... in my opinion a beautiful way to end the CD. Could that be a new path for Skogen in the future?

MG: Well, that piece is of course Anders Dahl's piece, and a very beautiful one indeed. I think there is a little section on our new record which shares a similar instrumentation as the one you mention. But yes, that is actually one of many possibilities that could be interesting to explore further!

JS: Would you consider recording a solo piano CD? Or an all acoustic “small group”, without electronics?

MG: I've never thought about recording a CD of solo piano music, actually! But it would be an interesting challenge, I think. I'll definitely take it into consideration! But I do have plans to record a couple of pieces for a somewhat smaller, all acoustic setting later on this year. I'm very much looking forward to it!

JS: Which music or musicians do you listen to at home?

MG: I listen to quite a lot of music at home actually, and I tend to go through periods where I listen quite intensely to specific musics. Earlier this year for example, I was listening a lot to recordings by Indian rudra veena players such as Asad Ali Khan and Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and his son, Bahauddin Dagar. I also recently had a period where I listened intensely to Sun Ra's early recordings, things from the mid to late fifties. And last month I've actually listened to a lot of piano music: Bach's keyboard music performed by Rosalyn Tureck, Tim Parkinson's piano music performed by Philip Thomas, and a very beautiful recording of Aldo Clementi's music for one or two pianos performed by Mats Persson and Kristine Scholz. Captivating, inspiring and truly wonderful music!

at71   Skogen - Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long

Magnus Granberg   piano, clarinet, composition         Angharad Davies   violin

Leo Svensson Sander   cello                                     Anna Lindal   violin           

John Eriksson   marimba, vibraphone                         Ko Ishikawa   sho

Toshimaru Nakamura   no-input mixing board           Erik Carlsson   percussion

Petter Wästberg   contact microphones, objects        Henrik Olsson   bowls and glasses

TT: 56:45           Recorded in Stockholm, November 2012

Youtube extract


“Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long is the third release on Another Timbre by the group Skogen, an electro-acoustic ensemble formed by Swedish musician and composer Magnus Granberg. Over the course of these releases, Granberg and ensemble have documented a collective approach to utilizing compositional structures for open-form ensemble playing. Their first release was an extended reading of “Ist gefallen in den Schnee,” a piece by the leader derived from Schubert’s song cycle “Die Winterreise” as well as an unidentified jazz song. The composition utilized these sources to provide pools of pitch, rhythmic, timbral, and melodic material along with a temporal framework for employing the material over the course of the reading. For their second release, Rows, Granberg invited composer Anders Dahl to provide a series of short compositions based on twelve-tone theory, with room for interpolation of attack or the replacement of notes with un-pitched sound or noise.

For their latest release, Granberg again provided an extended form, this time drawing on English Renaissance composer John Dowland’s song “If my complaints could passions move”. A careful listen reveals how the foundational elements of Dowland’s piece provides a subtext of mood and flow for the musicians to inhabit. (Skogen is the Swedish word for forest and Granberg has talked about the idea that his music would be “like an environment, perhaps a forest in which inhabitants with different characteristics could move freely in accordance with the environment and their own and each other’s properties and abilities.”) Integral to the success of the music is the choice of musicians and instrumentation of the ensemble freely mixing traditional Western instrumentation with the leader on piano and clarinet, Angharad Davies and Anna Lindal (violin), Leo Svensson Sander (cello), John Eriksson (marimba, vibraphone), Erik Carlsson (percussion); non-traditional pitched instruments with Ko Ishikawa (sho) and Henrik Olsson (bowls and glasses); and electronics with Toshimaru Nakamura (no-input mixing board) and Petter Wästberg (contact microphones, objects).

Equally important is the shared sensibility of the participants, all of whom are committed to a stately collective restraint. In an interview on the Another Timbre site, Granberg explains it like this: “The density of musical events is comparatively low. I myself am very fond of the idea and practice in, for example, Javanese gamelan music, where some of the musicians, depending on their instrument, may just play one, two or perhaps four strokes during musical cycles which sometimes may last for several minutes. Japanese Gagaku music is another East Asian orchestral tradition which partly works in a similar way, I think. Other reasons may perhaps be found in the instrumentation (which is predominantly made up of decaying sounds) or the way the acoustic material is distributed throughout the tonal spectrum.”

The piece starts out with spare prepared piano notes and ultra-subtle gradations of plucked strings and reedy sho, slowly introducing ringing percussion and shadowy glitched grit of electronics. What is so striking here is the way the ensemble is willing to sit on things, never rushing. The piece proceeds on the accrual and dissipation of detail rather than structural notions of arc of densities or dynamics. Notes are sounded and percussion instruments are struck with attention to attack and decay not only of the sounds themselves, but the way they interact with the ensemble.

Yet there is nothing constrained about the music. Listen to how, 10-minutes in, a section of dynamic activity breaks out, spurred on by sputtering electronics. The same thing occurs about 40 minutes in as a swell of low rumbling electronics rises out of the mix, welling in to collective density in the last section, with string ostinatos playing off of contrapuntal piano and percussion as sho and electronics weave clouds of coloration. But rather than get pulled off into a collective fray, the ensemble absorbs the activity into the overarching flow of the piece, utilizing it to segue in to new balances of texture and timbre while maintaining the methodical pace. Melodic fragments are used in much the same way, as some voices coalesce around an emerging thread while others move in asynchronous paths. This strategy is used throughout to nudge the focus and planes of interaction, maximizing the range of the instrumentation of the ensemble in ever-shifting notions of sonic fields. Another Timbre label-head Simon Reynell has shown a continued commitment to Granberg and Skogen and one looks forward to hearing how this project will develop.”

Michael Rosenstein, Point of Departure

“On their third release for Another Timbre, Skogen – The Forest or Woods in Swedish – present an extended composition by founder Magnus Granberg. Like their first release Ist Gefallen in den Schnee, which drew on material from Schubert’s Winterreise, it has a classical basis – a song by 17th century English composer John Dowland. Audibly, the connections are distant, except in the mood of darkness and melancholy, not to say despair and depression, they share with their models. That distance partly results from the openness of the compositional process – players are apparently handed ‘pools’ of material, with suggestions of how to treat it.

The one continuous track of 57 minutes shows a restraint within timbral richness that’s reminiscent of another remarkable ensemble, Dans Les Arbres – though their forces and improvisational method are very different. Skogen’s soundworld is spare and minimal, yet its measured progress creates a feeling of slowly evolving rhythm – a numinous intensity heightened by often violent outbursts of percussion and white noise. Instead of the familiar arch-shape, the form ebbs and flows, with a rising intensity and activity in the later part of the piece.

There’s a distinctive mix of Western, East Asian and electronic resources. A kind of baseline electronic field is set up by Toshimaru Nakamura on no-input mixing board and Petter Wästberg on contact microphones and objects. This seems to draw in the acoustic sounds of ubiquitous Ko Ishikawa on sho, and Henrik Olsson on bows and glasses, and in a way familiar from modern composers such as Nono and Xenakis, makes them sound somehow electronic too.

Granberg’s stated aim is to create a music and performance practice which draws no clear distinction between composition and improvisation. In this, as he says, he’s following developments since the 1990’s. But in contrast with the spontaneity and excitement of improvisation, there’s a sense of inevitability and organic unity that belongs to the most compelling composition. It creates a singular atmosphere of drama and mystery, with an ethos that’s totally involving.”

Andy Hamilton, The Wire

“With their previous two Another Timbre releases, Ist Gefallen In Den Schnee (2012) and Rows (2013), Magnus Granberg's large international ensemble Skogen established themselves as purveyors of exquisitely-played spacious music, that transcends the composition-improvisation border and makes beguilingly beautiful listening. On the 2012 album, a nine-member version of the group played a one-hour-plus rendition of Granberg's title piece. On Rows, an eight-member version—substituting Ko Ishikawa on sho for Leo Svensson Sander on cello and John Eriksson on vibraphone—played nine shorter pieces composed by Anders Dahl.

For Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long, which was studio-recorded in Stockholm in November 2012, at the same session as Rows, the group swells to a ten-piece—retaining Ishikawa while seeing the return of Sander and Eriksson. Once again they play an extended Granberg composition, the fifty-six minute title piece. As with "Ist Gefallen In Den Schnee," Granberg cites the influence of a classical piece on his composition—this time, a song by 17th century English composer John Dowland. While that is certainly the source of the title "Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long," beyond that listeners need not dwell on the connection; the music here is more likely to cause them to seek out other Skogen recordings than some Dowland songs...

As before, Skogen displays the characteristics that have brought it acclaim: despite the size of the ensemble, its members do not get in each other's way and its music never sounds over-busy or cluttered; the instrumentation achieves a good balance between conventional chamber instruments and others, acoustic and electronic, affording them equal value and allowing them to complement each other; every sound made by every player is clearly audible, thanks also to the clarity of the recording.

If its title suggests that this composition could be melancholy or depressing, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it has an over-riding sense of peace and tranquility that is relaxing and uplifting in equal measure. Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long completes an impressive hat-trick for Skogen on Another Timbre.”

John Eyles, All About Jazz

”The great composer John Cage was an amateur mycologist, which is the formal term for someone who studies mushrooms. Cage was reluctant to draw a connection between his two passions, famously stating ''I am not interested in the relationships between sounds and mushrooms any more than I am in those between sounds and other sounds." Nonetheless, Cage's mushroom quest involved spending time in forests, where he undoubtedly lent his tremendous ears to the subtle doings of the natural world. In the same spirit, the group Skogen (which means ''the forest'' in Swedish) takes inspiration from the music that emerges from nature. And surely Cage has inspired Skogen's majestic long-form pieces, which explore the intersection between composition and improvisation, and warmly blend all manner of sounds and other sounds.

In Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long, the Sweden-based ensemble has created a gorgeous, 56-minute atmospheric field. The piece was composed by Skogen's founder, Magnus Granberg, who derived the harmonic and rhythmic foundations from 17th-century English composer John Dowland's song ''If My Complaints Could Passions Move.'' From this compositional jumping-off point, the group unfolds a gracefully meandering improvisation. It's a quiet space, but it is not silent: the piece is full of sounds that arise and disappear within the unobtrusive, hypnotic environment. Expansive single notes and pure chimes predominate, with discreet background evolutions that include tiny pools of dissonance, prisms of electronic shards, and sensitive drones. These shifting sounds are exquisitely paced, creating a harmonious progression that's both generous and patient.

And just as a forest welcomes all noises within it, this music mingles beautifully with the sounds of everyday life. If one plays the CD on a sunny spring day, the song gratefully accepts lawnmowers, children's laughter, and barking dogs. Likewise, during stormy weather, the music has space for raindrop patter, thunder rumbles, and the coo of a mourning dove. That's how wide-open this work is: the piece stands alone, and it is most definitely ''finished,'' but it is also receptive to changes and additions from the environment it is played in, which is a truly remarkable achievement.

As for the title, the piece does feel like the prolonged sensation of waking up after a long and perhaps despairing sleep. The music offers a host of subtle sensations, a slow thoughtful journey that shines a light and speaks of hope. This is a graceful, peaceful, meditative mindscape: it is life-affirming and, in the quietest way possible, wildly exciting. Perhaps this is what it sounds like to hunt for mushrooms in a hushed and ancient forest, with ears that are wide-open and free.”

Florence Wetzel, Squid’s Ear

“Med Despairs had governed me too long kommer Magnus Granbergs Skogen med sin tredje skiva på det välrenommerade brittiska bolaget Another Timbre. Liksom ensemblens inspelning av Anders Dahls Rows (också släppt på Another Timbre) är Despairs inspelad i Stockholm i november 2012. Despairs framfördes även live på Sound of Stockholm i samma månad och i min recension i Svenska Dagbladet skrev jag ”det är ett mycket vackert stycke musik i det långa formatet, framfört med fingertoppskänsla av ensemblen.”

När jag nu hör stycket igen – i en studioinspelning av Janne Hansson i Atlantis studio – har jag ingen anledning att ändra mig. Med utgångspunkt i harmoniken och rytmiken i ett stycke av John Dowland (1563-1626) skapar tiomannabandet ett subtilt mästerverk. Melankolin kan ibland förlama, här är den istället en förutsättning för kreativiteten. Att det faktiskt är tio personer i ensemblen är svårt att greppa. Ingen sticker ut, samtidigt visar alla prov på stor känslighet.

Vad det är man egentligen hör förvirrar många gånger. Är det överhuvudtaget komponerad eller improviserad musik? En försiktighet tycks genomsyra framförandet av stycket, samtidigt är varje klang så ytterst självklar och medveten. Man tycker sig höra melodiska mönster, men man kan inte vara helt säker. Kanske är bara materialet bekant, utan att man faktiskt hört det tidigare. Kanske är det just denna osäkerhet som bär fram stycket i hela dess 57 minuter. För trots att det befinner sig inom ett relativt begränsat stämningsområde tappar det aldrig i koncentration. Ensemblen lyckas tvärtom vända koncentrationen inåt mot varje klang så att varje moment blir berättigat.

I en intervju med Magnus Granberg på Another Timbres hemsida talar han om hur den improviserade musiken under de senaste åren genomgått en form av konsolidering sedan språnget på 1990-talet. Han öppnar också för att en del anser att den istället har stagnerat. Å andra sidan har den nutida komponerade musiken – post-Cage, post-Feldman – öppnat upp sig för det improviserade elementet. Pratar man i allmänna termer är jag själv av åsikten att man många gånger kan prata om stagnation. Dock inte i det specifika fallet Skogen. Om än musiken på deras tre skivor har ett liknande stämningsläge, hittar man i detaljerna olika uttryck. Snarare gräver de sig djupare ner i ett uttryck som väldigt få – såväl i Sverige som annorstädes – behärskar. Att på det här sättet våga stanna upp och inte rusa vidare är beundransvärt. Och det är långt kvar tills frukten blir övermogen och faller ner till backen.”

Magnus Nygren, Sound of Music

“Troisième disque de l'ensemble Skogen sur le label another timbre, Despairs had governed me too long est une longue composition de près d'une heure de Magnus Granberg, comme sur le premier opus. Les musiciens sont à peu près identiques : Magnus Granberg au piano et à la clarinette, Leo Svensson Sander au violoncelle, John Eriksson au marimba et vibraphone, Toshimaru Nakamura à la table de mixage, Petter Wästberg aux micro contacts et objets, Angharad Davies et Anna Lindal au violon, Ko Ishikawa au sho, Erik Carlsson aux percussions, et Henrik Olsson aux bols et verres.

J'ai déjà chroniqué les deux précédents albums de Skogen, que vous pouvez lire ici et ici. Je renvoie sur ces liens car j'ai déja pas mal parlé de leurs précédents opus, et la musique de cet ensemble n'a pas tellement changé. Skogen continue de travailler - et réussit très bien - sur l'interaction entre composition et improvisation. D'ailleurs, à la première écoute de ce disque, je ne me rappelais plus que l'ensemble partait de partitions, je pensais que c'était un ensemble d'improvisateurs, et je me disais justement que ça sonnait vraiment comme quelque chose de superbement écrit. C'est en voyant que c'était écrit que je me suis dit ensuite que ça sonnait quand même comme de l'improvisation. Bref, Skogen parvient très à brouiller les frontières disciplinaires, et il le fait en laissant beaucoup d'espace la personnalité de chacun des membres.

Et cet espace laissé aux différents langages est l'autre point fort de cet ensemble. Certains jouent sur les techniques étendues, d'autres sur la mélodie, d'autres sur l'électronique et le bruit, mais tout le monde fait attention à l'autre et laisse de l'espace aux différents langages. Et c'est une autre manière de brouiller les frontières entre les instruments, les machines, les sons musicaux et bruitistes, etc. Tout est sur le même plan avec Skogen : les différentes pratiques, les différents langages, les différentes disciplines, frontières, barrières, esthétiques, etc. Tout est au même plan et au service d'une musique romantique, aérée, poétique, profonde et légère. Skogen n'a pas changé de direction, mais c'est pas grave, tant mieux même, car celle qu'ils suivent est déjà très personnelle et c'est encore et toujours une réussite. Conseillé, comme les autres.”

Julien Héraud, Improv-Sphere

“Italo Calvinos karaktärisering av melankolin som en sorg som har blivit lätt är den perfekta beskrivningen av Magnus Granbergs nya stycke för tiomannaensemblen Skogen.

Titeln Despairs had governed me too long kommer från en av John Dowlands sånger, komponerad kring 1600. Den melankoli som ligger till grund för Dowlands uttryck blir just en fjäderlätt närvaro när den vandrar genom de strama och försiktiga klangerna.

Stycket är närmare en timma långt, men det försjunkna och antydande gör tidsrörelsen sekundär. Känsligheten för de enskilda ögonblicken är exceptionell.”

Magnus Haglund, Göteborgsposten

“Termin „modern classical” od zawsze wydawał mi się wysoce nieprecyzyjny lub, by użyć drastycznych środków wyrazu, całkowicie mętny, redundantny w obecnym kształcie. Wrzucanie do jednego worka atonalnych dreszczowców Alfreda Schnittke i naiwnych, leniwych impresji Olafura Arnaldsa, wydaje się zbrodnią w biały dzień nie ze względu na bufonadę, snobizm czy inne niskie instynkty, lecz ze względu na przepaść stylistyczną, jaka dzieli obu wspomnianych kompozytorów. Zostawmy na boku przygody muzyki klasycznej w XX i XXI wieku. Istnieje spore grono artystów, których wpisuje się w nurt „współczesnej klasyki”, ponieważ ich muzyka niejako nawiązuje, na zasadzie mimikry czy naśladownictwa, do stylu kompozytorów akademickich. Znaki szczególne? Luźna forma, spora długość utworu, jego otwarta i różnorodna konstrukcja, fakt „skomponowania” i poważny, często melancholijny lub nieodgadniony nastrój, często też użycie elektroakustyki w celach komplikacji. Wszystko i nic, a więc „modern classical”. Skogen, szwedzki zespół dowodzony przez Magnusa Granberga, na pierwszy rzut oka sprawnie wpisuje się w ten opis, ale w tym momencie warto na chwilę zapomnieć o negatywnym wydźwięku powyższych kilku zdań. Pięćdziesięciosześciominutowy utwór „Despairs Had…” zawdzięcza swój kształt składnikom harmonicznym i rytmicznym, zaczerpniętym z siedemnastowiecznej pieśni Johna Dowlanda. Struktura kompozycji płynie wartko; oszczędność w użyciu instrumentów (a mamy tu fortepian, instrumenty smyczkowe, szklanki, półmiski, cymbały, wibrafon czy syntezator) imponuje. To bodaj decyzje muzyków, by w pewnych momentach milczeć, w innych dołożyć swą barwę do całości, przekładają się na angażujące doświadczenie. Muzycy nie pchają się na pierwszy plan, zamiast tego podejmują określoną funkcję w ramach większego organizmu. Pojawiają się nagle, niczym, hehe, nikłe promienie słońca, prześwitujące przez korony drzew. Również na to mam słówko: Japończycy nazywają to zjawisko komorebi.

W rozpisanej wyżej opozycji Skogen mieści się bliżej faktycznej muzyki poważnej XXI wieku, mimo że ciężar gatunkowy „Despairs Had…” wcale nie jest poważny; najnowszej płyty Szwedów słucha się niczym dobrze zaplanowanej, cierpliwie postępującej improwizacji.”

Michał Pudło, Screenagers

CD copies sold out. For downloads (flac or mp3-320) email <info(at)anothertimbre(dot)com>