Andrew Ryce calls up the revered Norwegian ambient artist to discuss his distinctive new album.
This led to one of the Norwegian artist's most distinctive albums yet. He sought out the oldest Polish and Ukrainian folk recordings he could find, trying to get a vague idea of what Branislawa would have heard in her time. Instead of sampling the material, Jenssen fed it through the Argeïphontes Lyre, a bizarre software application also favoured by Terre Thaemlitz (basically, no one knows how it works). Jenssen used the application to turn the old folk recordings into haunting sheets of sound, full of spectral vocals and mournful melodies. It's like listening to the moans of the ghosts who haunt the Wolski forest, music that instils calm, horror and awe. His usual snippets of speech are replaced by implacable coos and eerie drones.
Departed Glories marks the latest evolution of an artist who's spent four decades in flux. Jenssen started out in a dream-pop band called Bel Canto in the late '80s. Then he made techno, first as Bleep, and then as Biosphere, launching his best-known alias with Microgravity, an underrated achievement of the early techno era. With 1994's Patashnik, something changed: the beats became more vaporous and the samples became spacier. It foreshadowed the transformation into full-on ambient that would take place on 1997's Substrata, one of the best ambient records of all time. Since then, Jenssen, who resides in a village in Norway's scenic and remote North, has scored major motion pictures, created art installations and released plenty more excellent records—most of which he's gradually reissuing himself, with all kinds of bonus material, as part of an ongoing campaign.
Jenssen stands out in the experimental and ambient world for his rich musical background. His expertise spans from instruments to hardware and obscure software, and he changes his studio setup from album to album, meaning there's no single Biosphere sound or aesthetic. The Argeïphontes Lyre, for example, was only used sparingly in the past, and he won't be using it for his next album. Instead, Jenssen's signature lies in the sombre sweep of his music. His songs evoke the endless expanse of the Arctic, emotive and dramatic. Satellites, dropsondes and nuclear power plants have been among the themes on Jenssen's conceptual albums, revealing a preoccupation with technology and how it interacts with the natural world.
Talking over the phone from his studio, Jenssen told me about the process of making Departed Glories and his time in Kraków. He spoke in gruff, often clipped tones, with the surety of someone who knows their craft like the back of their hand.
You were inspired to make the new album while you were staying in Kraków. What were you doing there?
I was living there for two years, just making music.
How did you end up living there?
I had a girlfriend there, a Polish girlfriend.
What was it like living in Kraków?
I liked it, I mean, especially in the summer. It was extremely polluted in the winter because they use these coal power plants, so the air is full of smoke particles. Sometimes you would get these warnings that you shouldn't even be outdoors because the air was too bad. I didn't like that so much.
Did you think the music that you were making while you were there was different because the environment was so different?
Mmm, I'm not sure. I made the N-Plants album there. That was about the nuclear power plants in Japan, so yeah you can kind of say that I was occupied by power plants. Maybe it would be better if Poland had nuclear power plants… at least the air is clean! As long as you don't have any leakages, of course.
Tell me about the Wolski forest.
I was running in the forest almost every day, discovering it. There were hundreds of small paths that you could follow there, everywhere. It was interesting to run, because there were so many choices.
How did you find out about its history?
I didn't find as much information as I would have liked to, because most of it is in Polish. Google Translate is not so precise. But I could see some of the areas where the Germans had executed the Polish people, we saw these memorials here and there. I was inspired by them to find some old Polish, Ukrainian folk music and see what I could do with that. I was searching the internet, and I went to some record stores and book stores in Kraków, trying to search for the oldest possible recordings I could find. I think I found something that goes back the '30s and '40s.
What did they sound like?
Well, actually, I was more into this program where I can upload a track, this kind of merging thing—it's like a blender almost. You can change the music completely. What I want to do is to make some new music based on these recordings, and it should not be recognisable. You know you shouldn't hear that and say, "Ah, this is taken from this record."
What's the software?
For this project I was using this software made by Akira Rabelais. I think he's a professor in California. He created an app called Argeïphontes Lyre, a super abstract program. For example, you don't have any buttons called "frequency" or "LFO." It's more strange titles, like, "See how eagerly the lobster and the turtle all advance." You just have to try it out and see what happens.
I've been using the program for over two years and I found a few settings where I can, for example, upload a track with some old Ukrainian women singing. What comes out is something completely different—there was one track that sounded like Elizabeth Fraser from Cocteau Twins. You always get these surprises; you never know what comes out. So I just picked the best parts of it and re-sampled that, and made the tracks from these short snippets.
Did you have any idea how the software worked? Or was it more just experimentation?
It's impossible to understand how the software works, because the buttons are completely abstract. I just had to try a lot until I found something, ways to develop sounds. I've presented this software to some other people but they just give up because it's impossible to understand it.
Then what do you like about it?
What I like about it is you never know what comes out. As I said, a 90-year-old woman ends up like Cocteau Twins, so I like that surprise. You wait a few minutes while it's rendering or changing the sound, and then you play the sample. I mean, maybe 90% of the time it's not very interesting, but some of them were really nice.
Did you do anything to the samples after, or did you just leave them as the technology spat them out?
If you load a seven-minute track, then you get a seven-minute new sound. But I only take maybe five or six seconds here and there that I like. The other part is probably not that interesting, so I took only the parts that I like and sampled it again. Then I loaded it into my sampler and started playing with it.
The album sounds sad and mournful, especially compared to your past work. Was that intentional?
That it should be sad?
Erm, no. I didn't plan that, I don't know why it became like that. It's kind of introverted music, maybe.
Why do you say introverted?
I doubt that I will play this music live. I feel it's more like you should listen to it alone, maybe in headphones, or on a good hi-fi system. It's really hard to play it live because you have to be really concentrated.
What's your live setup like?
I take my computer and a few synthesisers, a rhythm machine and a keyboard. I play some of these parts, while some other parts are sequenced. You can say that I'm improvising a little bit when I play live. The live versions are often a bit different compared to the studio recordings.
Do you use more rhythms when you're playing live than on your albums?
It depends, because I play in different places. If I get an invitation to play in a church, then there's no point to play with rhythms because there's too much reverb. I have to see where I'm playing before I decide what tracks I should play.
You're often called one of the most important producers in ambient music. Do you identify with the term "ambient?" Because a lot of your music does have rhythm in it.
Yeah I understand what you mean. I mean, "ambient," I think Brian Eno described it as music you shouldn't listen to—it should be more like wallpaper, background music. That's not my goal when I make music. I want people to listen to it actively. So it's more like a painting on the wall instead of wallpaper.
Recently you went through a lot of your older work, rereleased it, repackaged it. But I read an interview with you, maybe five or six years ago, where you said you were embarrassed by your older work, you didn't want to listen to it anymore. Did your feelings change?
No, it's because people are asking for it. People want to have their records on vinyl, so I decided to go through my archive, remaster the old albums and also release a bonus album together with the original record, just to give people something nice. I still can't listen to the old music. When I finish with a record I almost never listen to it because I'm kind of finished with it, and I'm immediately thinking of the next project. I don't listen to it, but I understand that people would like to have it, of course.
What was it like spending time going through your archives? Did you discover stuff that you forgot about?
Yeah. That happened. Then I could take some things out: "This is really good, except for that part." So the good thing is that I still have the old sequencer files, and the AKAI sampler that I used on the first album. I can still play these old tracks and even make changes because I have all the sounds and files.
Most of your recent albums have a concept or story to go with them. Do you think that's important when it comes to instrumental ambient music—to have a concept or idea to think about while you're listening to it?
Yeah, I mean, it helps. Probably also for the listener. It helps me when I make an album, it's good to have some kind of idea. Because I don't like to just compile lots of tracks and just release it without having an idea of an album.
The Departed Glories album cover comes from an experimental photographer from Russia, right? How does that tie in with the theme of the album?
Because when I started with this project, around the same time, I saw these photos, especially the photo on the cover. I really liked it because it fit perfectly to this forest idea that I had. This woman from the '20s—and you see her in colour—it's like a ghost. And I could feel that forest that I was running in probably has ghosts, so it was a perfect image for me. And when I mixed these tracks I was also looking at these photos to see if the music would fit
You've made this kind of droney, mostly beatless music for years—how do you keep it fresh?
When I make a new album, I always try to make it completely different to the previous album. I cannot do the same thing. I cannot repeat myself. So I get some new instruments, or try new ways of working. I think I've succeeded in that. If you listen to all the ten to 15 albums I've made, they are quite different from album to album.
You're back in Tromsø now right?
No I live by the coast on an island, a couple of hours from Tromsø, so it's more the countryside, a small fishing village.
What's it called?
It's... difficult to explain... but the island is called Senja.
Why do you chose to live so far away from a city? Tromsø is very remote, but that's even more remote.
I think it's great to live in the countryside. It's very easy to concentrate on the music, you are not disturbed by too many people. It's a good place to work.
But is it hard to be a working musician, living so far away from everything else?
Yeah, it's hard when it comes to travelling and live concerts. Because, say, I want to play in the UK. It takes me three or four days just for one concert. So I'm really tired from travelling. I'm thinking about travelling less in the future and working more in the studio.
How do you make a living if you're not travelling as much? Obviously it isn't easy to sell music anymore.
Yeah I was also thinking that I have to play live to make money, but actually my records are selling quite well! What I make from live concerts is not that important anymore.
What is living on the island like?
It's great, living in the countryside, lots of space. Weather affects you—I mean the road can be closed quite often in winter because of avalanches, or power cuts. But I kind of like it because it's more challenging than living safely in a city.
It's dark all the time in winter, right?
We have these two months where it's dark. We have maybe a few hours where it's maybe a little light, but the sun is still below the horizon.
How does that affect you?
I'm so used to it. I've been doing it for 50 years! No problem.
Is there something about the way the Norwegian countryside looks or feels that appeals to you?
I like it, but it's not like I'm trying to describe the landscape in my music. But no, it's great, fantastic skiing here in the winter, and it's great for bicycling and running in the mountains.
Are you an outdoorsy kind of person?
Yeah I am, I spend maybe half the day outdoors, I've become addicted to it.
And the other half in the studio?
Yeah, and then half the day in the studio.
Are you the kind of person who's always making music, every day?
I try to spend at least maybe three or four hours in the studio where I work, very concentrated, and that works quite well.
If you're going in every day, what are you working on? Is it side projects as well, commercial projects?
No, I kind of stopped doing as many commissioned works and not so many live concerts, because the problem I've had until now—because I've been playing one gig, almost every month, sometimes more—is that it's always kind of disturbing. Because I know that next Friday I have to go to the airport, pack my stuff and prepare the live set, and I would really like to have a period without that stress where I can just—let's say if I have a few new keyboards then I would really like to learn them deeply. It's good if I don't have any deadlines so I can concentrate 100% on learning these instruments. If I have a live concert then I don't have time to do that.
Are you working on a new album now?
Yeah. It will be more electronic. I have lots of analogue synthesisers in the studio, hardware. I'm sick of plugins and looking at a screen, using a mouse. It's so much more fun to have this real instrument. It's less digital, more analogue. Inspired by things in the early '80s.