Weird at My School: Kaleidoscopic

Johannes Worsoe Berg

by DJ El Toro

I grew up surrounded by classical music. My father was a member of the Musical Heritage Society, which delivered new LPs of great masterworks to our door every few weeks. But like most adolescents, I assumed anything endorsed by my parents was square. So I never dug into Dad’s record library. Sure, Beethoven, Bach and Brahams came with impressive pedigrees, but I was otherwise engaged. I had Yaz albums to memorize.

As college approached, I lifted my ban on Dad’s record collection, at least for a single LP. Maybe my brain was aching from so many synthesizers, or perhaps it was simply because I’d never actually heard my father play it, but I became obsessed with his copy of Debussy‘s 1905 impressionist landmark La Mer. In later years, I would learn that Debussy had revolutionized harmonic language with this piece, and received heaps of scorn for his innovations. But at the time, I was simply responding to the music. Unlike most symphonic works I’d been exposed to, the movement within La Mer seemed organic and intuitive, not mathematical. When nobody else was home, I would crank the stereo and dance about the living room. In time, I knew the entire piece, all three movements, in my very bones.

Today, I feel a similar affection for Kaleidoscopic, the sophomore album by Lars Horntveth. The Norwegian composer is perhaps best known as a member of experimental jazz ensemble Jaga Jazzist, but Kaleidoscopic has more in common with La Mer than Sun Ra. Recorded with assistance from 41 players from the Latvian National Orchestra, this is a single, 37-minute instrumental piece — not a series of interconnected vignettes or songs — and is meant to be listened to as such.

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Initially, I balked at Kaleidoscopic. I’ve become so accustomed to digesting music via individual mp3 files, and that protracted running time — longer than a sitcom! — seemed daunting. But after a cursory listen or two, I found myself returning to Horntveth’s work. Ambient keyboards wafting over slow-moving strings… soft, pizzicato passages peppered with upper-register woodwinds… sections with exotic, percussive timbres (“is that a prepared piano?”) that recalled Debussy’s fixation with the Balinese gamelan… Kaleidoscopic may be at odds with the verse-chorus-verse structures my brain has become addicted to, but over time, its ever-unfolding form has managed to engage my frontal lobe in a manner that feels relaxed and unregimented. A welcome respite from pop songs.

Suffice to say, I am smitten. Thanks to Lars Horntveth, my repertoire of works for solo interpretative dance in the living room (which, in addition to La Mer, also includes John Adams’ The Chairman Dances) has been enriched anew. I am learning the twists and turns of Kaleidoscopic via my knees and elbows. I’ve even considered sending a copy of the record to my father. The old man might not have come to appreciate the genius of Yaz yet, but I reckon we can still meet somewhere in the middle.

DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and His column, Weird At My School, appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog.

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