Sometimes it's cool to read about the construction and thoughts surrounding a piece, or that a rare, unique, unusual instrument was involved in the realization of a musical work. However, the peek-behind-the-curtain you find in artist program notes can serve as a footnote on a standalone-amazing result or serve as a crutch for incomplete or otherwise lackluster output; at worst, it's an excuse of "you just don't get it" when the case is often that the artist was so enthralled with the concept that the point is lost in translation. What I'm critiquing is without metric other than personal taste, but I base it on broad experience with charlatans and geniuses, the naďve, geniuses who become charlatans for cash, vice versa, and my own personal attempts to fool people early in my career.
Each of Norwegian cellist Maja Bugge's pieces, per her own words, is directed by the location of a performance. That is, she follows "...a dialogue between the cello and a site, a text, an image, a movement, a space." No Exit was captured in Britain's longest and deepest canal tunnel (Standedge Tunnel) during the 2017 Marsden Jazz Festival. Discus provides further elucidation of how the music was shaped by the history and acoustics of the site, the carving of century-old stones, boats that have travelled through the tunnel, and so on.
Again, denying the legitimacy of an artist's inspiration and interpretation thereof is a ridiculous argument. Who am I to judge another person's opinion about what they feel? But listening to No Exit is a let-down after knowing the aforementioned brouhaha (perhaps the recordings of John Butcher plus Akio Suzuki plus cave ambiance spoiled me). Instead of some type of organic melding, here are moments of jaunty sailor song quotes and the idiosyncratic rhythms that go with them (think any pirate movie that involves a bar scene, which I believe is an accurate slice of pirate life), water dripping on stones vaguely heard in the background, occasional straight patterned tapping on the cello body, a relatively aggressive passage of string strikes and snaps, a few spacious pauses with fey pizzicato bits (imitating spiders on the walls?)
It isn't until the title track finale that the music gains a little weight. Bugge flexes and demonstrates a bit more potential of the cello with growls and less pitch-focused gestures. However, the bulk of No Exit swims in a sweetness and lyrical fantasy that isn't anything particularly impassioned.
Maybe I had to be there. Maybe this work is an astute description of local historical happenings to which I'm not privy. Maybe I'm being a petulant, stubborn pain in the ass, but the music here feels more interloping than esteemed collaboration.
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