Monday, August 19, 2019
Maja S.K. Ratkje – Sult (Rune Grammofon, 2019) ****
By Nick Ostrum
Maja S.K. Ratkje is a vocalist, composer, and, more generally, noise artist form Norway. As might be expected, her catalogue of releases and collaborations is deep and varied ranging from collaborations with Paal Nilssen-Love and Lasse Marhaug (the stellar Slugfield and my first introduction to Ratkje) to numerous solo recordings to her most stable and prolific group, Spunk (reviews here and here ). On some level, Spunk, with their fine, spacious textures and Ratkje’s subtle vocal warps and wefts are the best point of comparison for this album.
Nevertheless, Sult is not what I expected from Ratkje. It is, at times, more mellifluous than her other recordings, even if eerily so. At others, it is pulsing and disorienting. Rarely, however, does it approach the expansive and cacophonous soundscapes of her previous work (at least that with which I am familiar).
Sult begins with long, drawn pump organ overtones and continues meandering along that path. The mic is close and one can hear the clicks of the keys, but it seems that is not the point here. What Ratkje plays is emotive and (this took me off guard) even relaxing. The next track continues along similar lines, adding a guitar and soft, beatific vocals. And the following one follows suite, albeit with a more dizzying array of looped and pulsing melodies (yes, Reich seems an influence) and rich, crunchy percussive jangle.
This description, of course, does not do justice to what is actually going on here. Ratkje is an autodidact on the pump organ, and I believe a recent one at that. Although this music was composed for a ballet - “Sult” (Hunger) based on a Knut Hamsun novel - it is largely improvised during performances and on this recording. What makes this album so interesting is not only the window it opens into the ever-curious mind of Ratkje herself, but also the glimpses it gives into the contemporary possibilities of the pump organ beyond the 19th century novels, churches and bourgeois parlors for which it so appropriate. (To qualify that statement, some of the progressions and flourishes on this album, particularly that found in the final track “Kristiania” would have likely blended seamlessly into the Belle Époque.) It also presents a different Ratkje as vocalist, one who can still skitter, scat, and shriek with the best of them even as she exchanges her primal growls and screams for, at times, Björk-like vocal spirals and, at others, operatic descants. This is indeed experimental, but oddly pleasant as well. It is unconventional, but less because Ratkje grinds against the boundaries between music and raw sound than because she embraces melody and sonority. And, I am enamored.