Music For The Eyes
Ketil Bjornstad : Before The Light (November Music. NVR 2019-2)

Certain music is capable of suggesting vivid visual images. Before I'd seen 'Ulysses Gaze', Eleni Karaindrou's soundtrack conjured a range of mental pictures, none of which were connected to the actual film in the end. Louis Sclavis' score for 'Dans La Nuit' was another example.

Now composer, pianist and writer Ketil Bjornstad has created a soundtrack for a film that hasn't been realised. 'Before The Light' , the movie, was to be set in Taipei chronicling the searches and chance meetings of various shadowy characters. Using photos of the territory where the film might have taken place and his own memories of the city he composed a series of pieces for guitars, keyboards, viola, samplers and percussion. Presented in an elegant package, which includes suitably blurred stills of night locations, it is a rich, if rather sombre, piece of work.

As with most film scores, there are themes repeated with variations. The title track for example is first manifest as an outing for the stinging guitar of Eivind Aarset, who sets a tense scene, suggesting nights on lonely foreign streets. The theme reappears later with Bjornstad's thunderous piano alongside the same, yearning guitar. In another version some sparse piano creates space where the haunted melody resonates. A late night breeze creeps around behind it. There is an overwhelming sense of desolation. Whatever these mysterious characters were looking for I bet they never found it.

Similar atmospheres are generated by Bjornstad's piano on 'Alai's Room' where a ghostly viola drifts over the sketched melody, a scent on the night air. The viola is also featured on 'Intimacy', on of the themes which is not repeated. Bjornstad has an ear for simple but sensual tunes that evoke loneliness, searching or evanescent happiness. Nora Taksdal's viola is the perfect voice to explore these atmospheres and emotional soundscapes.

Although the setting for this imaginary film is a Taiwanese city much of the music brought to my mind European locations. It often has a chill quality redolent of fugitives passing menacing architecture on freezing boulevards. 'Taipei Nights No 1', another recurring theme, features Aarset's guitar which is sometimes reminiscent of Terje Rypdal's work. The sounds here are, to my ears, cold and almost exclusively Nordic. Bjornstad and Rypdal have, of course, worked together. Taksdal's viola takes up the theme on the second version and the cold, melancholic tone is again powerfully evident. Unfortunately, the clattering electronic percussion of Kjetil Bjerkestrand is a distraction on these tracks. Why not employ a real kit drummer with subtle hands and feet ? Maybe it was an attempt to inject a busy 'urban' rush into the music. It doesn't work for me. It fits better on other pieces, such as, 'Seeing Things' where the percussion samples suggest heartbeats and urgent breathing. It is equally effective as part of the harsh, fractured imagery of 'Neon'.

The city evoked by Bjornstad's music is a far from comforting place, seemingly drenched in unhappiness at times, and I wonder if the images suggested here would match the intentions of the film maker. Whatever, it is a place which I think is well worth visiting and exploring.

© Paul Donnelly 2002