The Knife (in collaboration with Planningtorock & Mt Sims): Tomorrow, In A Year

Three things Tomorrow, In A Year is: The Knife's formal full-length follow-up to 2006's Silent Shout; a collaboration with Planningtorock (English musician and video artist Janine Rostron) and Mt Sims (American musician Matt Sims); a commission by the Danish performance group Hotel Pro Forma who asked Olof and Karin Dreijer (aka The Knife) to compose the music and libretto for Hotel Pro Forma's opera based on evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin and his 1859 text On the Origin of the Species (more precisely, Sims and Karin wrote the libretto). One thing Tomorrow, In A Year isn't: Silent Shout pt. 2. Anyone expecting a retread of that collection will instead confront a radical re-thinking of opera's possibilities and its ability to accommodate the integration of experimental electronic music-making strategies. In place of The Knife's vocalizing, the singing parts for the project are shared by Danish mezzo soprano Kristina Wahlin Momme, Danish actress Laerke Bo Winther, and Swedish pop singer Jonathan Johansson.

The Swedish siblings guide the listener on a ninety-minute tour that moves from the earth's earliest days and ameobic life-forms on through the dinosaur era and onto the human species, that recounts Darwin's challenge to religious convention as well as the joy he experienced with this children and the profound sadness over his ten year-old daughter Annie's death. Much preparatory work was undertaken for the project. In November 2008, Olof Dreijer traveled to Northern Brazil to visit the Amazonas where he participated in a field recording workshop (conducted by Francisco López) that found him exploring the jungle equipped with a hard disc recorder and a microphone. He proceeded to mix the raw material he brought home—sounds of stones, rain, wind, and animals—with electronically generated simulations of amoebas, tectonics, and imaginary birds in order to thread all such materials into the musical fabric of Tomorrow, In A Year.

In an audio-visual project such as this, the listener is at a bit of disadvantage, of course, in one respect, as he/she is left to imagine whatever onstage action might be occurring in tandem with the music. So when the “Intro,” for example, inaugurates the recording, one wonders what precisely is transpiring visually when the soft fireplace crackle and wind sounds appear. That's hardly the only time that happens, and it suggests that maybe the better choice would have been to have Tomorrow, In A Year presented in a DVD format that documents an actual performance of the work. The gradual escalation of blustery noise and abstract sounds carries on into “Epochs” until the operatic singing of Wahlin appears; to the credit of all concerned, there's no attempt to soften the contrasts between the singer's pure technique and the electronic accompaniment, and though the two elements are fundamentally different in character, they make unusual but surprisingly comfortable bedfellows during “Geology,” “Minerals,” and elsewhere.

Some of the material stands out as particularly arresting, no matter the context. “Variation of Birds” at first alternates between swollen throb and scratchy feedback noise before overlaying Johansson's undulating voice as well as Wahlin's wordless emoting. Suggestive of vocal simulations of bird calls, “Letter to Henslow” calls to mind the kind of boundary-pushing vocal experimentation one associates with Meredith Monk. “Schoal Swarm Orchestra” presents a texture-heavy soundscape filled with seething winds, rumble, sheets, and rain, while the recording takes on an especially mournful air when the melismatic cry of Hildur Guðnadóttir's cello appears alongside Wahlin in “Annie's Box.” At first, the minimal techno thump of “Seeds” seems hopelessly anomalous in this until-now resolutely experimental context, until, that is, Johansson's gently soaring vocal emerges and the arrangement's chiming keyboards plunge deeper into a state of clockwork intricacy. Even so, it's the rare moment when the recording's material flirts with electronic dance music rhythms.

Arriving fifty minutes into the opera, “Colouring of Pigeons” is undoubtedly the work's high point, a tour de force that, with the inclusion of Karin's singing, comes closest in spirit to The Knife's style (her song-ending chant “The delight of once again being home” in particular). Asian percussion adds to the clangour of Hjorleifur Jonsson's tribal drumming, Guðnadóttir enhances the dramatic atmosphere with dive-bombing cello lines, and contributions from Wahlin, Johansson, and Winther broaden the vocal terrain. Hearing all of the elements in lockstep makes for a hypnotic and powerful experience that casts some degree of shadow over the work's other parts (the title track, also a dozen minutes in length, towers in likewise manner if a tad ploddingly). The appearance of Karin's singing on “Colouring of Pigeons” whets one's appetite for more but it doesn't come, even though a song such as “The Height of Summer” would be so much more striking were it to feature Karin's voice rather than Winther's. While that is a caveat, it's also arguably unfair: though issued under The Knife name, Tomorrow, In A Year is a release—and without question a striking one—unlike the kind the group would issue as a conventional outing created by the siblings alone.

March 2010