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Hamasyan, Henriksen, Aarset, Bang: Atmosphères

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In our brave new digital world, it is not always possible to tell who is playing what. On the back cover of this two-CD set, the instruments attributed to the quartet are piano (Hamasyan), trumpet (Henriksen), guitar (Aarset) and “live sampling, samples” (Bang). But photos in the liner booklet suggest that Henriksen and Aarset are also manipulating electronics. Hamasyan’s piano is usually clear, but is it Henriksen’s trumpet that sounds like a reed instrument or a human voice? Is it Aarset’s guitar making those drones?

You don’t really need to know. Atmosphères is an 89-minute dreamscape. Clouds of sound evolve and slowly float. What matters is the enveloping whole, not the parts.

The genesis of this project was a duo performance by Hamasyan and Bang at the Punkt festival in Norway in 2013. For the recording, Henriksen and Aarset were added. Of the 15 tracks, 10 (“Traces I – X”) are group improvisations. The remainder are pieces by the Armenian priest and composer Komitas (1869-1935). The press notes aptly describe the Komitas themes as “islands in the flow.” They are stark incantations. When they appear, everything stops for their solemn ceremonies. When the music moves on, it now contains the haunting melodies of Komitas.

There is an allure to this strange, quiet music. The improvised decisions never sound random, but like spontaneous ensemble responses to shifting tides of emotion. The most striking moments come from Henriksen, a free trumpet spirit whose lines (subject to electronic processing) often veer into vivid lyricism (like on “Traces IX”). Hamasyan’s role is to draw bright threads of single notes through these deep sonic textures. They are minimal markings, implications of form. Aarset’s role is sublimated. He is buried in the mix.

When the unfolding turns into fervor, like on “Traces VII,” it is repetitive and frenetic and momentarily breaks the spell. For the listener, the most important requirements of this music are patience and an open mind. For the musicians, selflessness and faith must have been required for a creative undertaking so communal. Atmosphères is an admirable, honest experiment, but would be more viable if it were half as long.

Originally Published