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Biosphere - Shenzhou

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Artist: Biosphere

Album: Shenzhou

Label: Touch

Review date: Jul. 2, 2002

The fundamentally disparate worlds of electronic and classical music have, on occasion, meshed to form truly inspirational music. Brian Eno set the standard with Discreet Music in 1975. The Stars of the Lid made stirring use of strings on last year’s The Tired Sound of…. Bjork has made a living out of the stuff for over a decade. For every success, however, there is a Moby song…literally. The tiny bald hypocrite has “scored” enough wretch-inducing string sections to cast the entire concept into the realm of melodrama, overshadowing many more talented musicians with his contrived crescendos. The formulated assemblage of strings is hardly a rare occurrence in classical music, but artists like Moby cement the misperception that violins exist merely as a tool for emotional manipulation.

Biosphere lies content at the other end of the spectrum. Biosphere, a.k.a. Geir Jenssen, a graduate of the micro-house school of minimalism, is one of the world’s premier ambient composers. His last two albums, Substrata and Cirque on the Touch label, rank among the best of their years thanks to their overwhelming attention to detail and texture. Jenssen’s latest, Shenzhou, at least matches the success of his previous two outings and does so through a sonic quilt of horns, reeds, percussion and, yes, strings.

Jenssen’s compositions on Shenzhou sample sounds from the great 19th century composer Claude Debussy, resulting in a pastoral warmth previously unheard in the Biosphere catalog. Jenssen composes most of his music in the Arctic Circle in his home in Tromso, Norway, a city that sits at 69° latitude, 18° longitude, or roughly the equivalent of Siberia or Alaska, so green fields of sunshine are not immediately available as tangible stimuli. Yet, with Debussy’s lush samples in hand, Jenssen constructs a greenhouse of sound so vivid, you can almost see the steam rising out into the arctic air.

Inside Shenzhou, songs pulse with the urgency and unpredictability of Mother Nature. “Path Leading to the High Grass” almost explodes with tension as Jenssen’s soft backdrop wrestles with Debussy’s staccato flutes. “Ancient Campfire” crackles with an audible vinyl hiss while overlapping clarinets descend steadily into the smoke like moths submitting to the flame. There’s an uneasiness apparent throughout the record and Jenssen tightropes the threshold between ephemeral calm and impending doom with incredible poise, never toppling over into either spectrum. Shenzhou captures the moment when the clouds start to gather, but never gives into thunder and lightning. “Green Reflections,” the last of ten pieces composed via Debussy, is perhaps the most reassuring of the collection, a sunrise of synths and clarinets, but Jenssen immediately changes direction with the eerie underwater piano of “Bose-Einstein Condensation.” The abrupt shift doesn’t ruin “Green Reflections’” beauty as much as it throws the serenity into question. The same can be said for Shenzhou as a whole.

Jenssen has once again created a contemplative masterpiece of texture and detail. Contrasting Debussy’s orchestral genius with his own trademark ambience was a brilliant idea and an innovative, if subtle, use of classical underpinning in electronic music.

By Otis Hart

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