Curiosity isn't a very striking characteristic. Artists constantly do things they don't know much about, just to see what will happen. But when Olof Dreijer, one-half of The Knife, says something like "I found Hotel Pro Forma interesting because I didn't understand what they were doing," it's almost impossible not to be intrigued by the potential results.
Pro Forma is the Danish performance group that commissioned The Knife to create the music and libretto to Tomorrow, In a Year, an opera about Charles Darwin. And it's the project that Dreijer has been stewing over for a while now, in between visits to the Amazon for field recording workshops and composing dance floor-centric work under the name Oni Ayhun. It so confounded him, this idea of opera, that he invited Planningtorock and Mt. Sims to collaborate, no doubt hopeful that the duo would bring their talents to bear on the project.
They do. And so does Karin Dreijer Andersson. Tomorrow, though, is very much opera as done by the quartet, rather than the quartet doing opera. There are long stretches of deeply experimental music reminiscent of inspirations like Meredith Monk and Karlheinz Stockhausen. There are also moments of singing that recall the work of equally-as-important reference points Klaus Nomi and Diamanda Galas. It seems a silly thing to say, but Tomorrow, In a Year is meant to be performed. Your mind fills in the blanks of what happens on stage as the uneasy shards of sound that permeate "School Swarm Orchestra" rise and fall, yet—considering Pro Forma's taste in music—it's likely less imaginative than what they've come up with for the opera itself.
Nonetheless, the recording here is full of singular moments that don't need context to support them. The track first released to the public, "Colouring of Pigeons" is the undoubted highlight, most closely recalling actual opera with epic cello bowing of Hildur Guðnadóttir matching the impassioned singing of mezzo soprano Kristina Wahlin. "Seeds," meanwhile, finds the middle ground between The Knife and opera, its quick tempo and bell-laden backing seemingly a repurposed Silent Shout sketch that was too rhythmically strait-laced to work for the album. Not so for "The Height of Summer," which plods with the same ritual energy of Shout's best moments.
Mentions of this vocal-heavy back half to the album, however, elide the fact that the roughly 50 minutes preceding it are some of the strangest music that The Knife, Mt. Sims and Planningtorock have yet put to tape. "Letter to Henslow" consists of the sort of music you'd expect to be made by artists that depict themselves in press pictures as illustrated birds. Some of the feedback-heavy tracks like "Variation of Birds" resemble the beat-less portions of Olof's work as Oni Ayhun. Most of all, though, Tomorrow, In a Year recalls the work of four inquisitive souls, working out how to translate their artistic vision into opera. That it isn't always a success is to be expected. That it sometimes does is a treat. Let's hope that these four stay curious.
Tracklist: The Knife in collaboration with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock - Tomorrow, In a YearCD1:
06. Ebb Tide Explorer
07. Variation of Birds
08. Letter to Henslow
09. School Swarm Orchestra
01. Annie’s Box
03. Colouring of Pigeons
05. Tomorrow in a Year
06. The Height of Summer
Bonus: Annie's Box (alt. vocal)
Other Rabid Records reviews