CD – 56:38
Shenzhou draws more on Eastern and Asian influences. The album is loosely based on excerpts of various Debussy pieces [tracks 1-10]. Many long passages are minimalist and understated, still Jenssen manages to display a rich palette of sonic colours. It might be a cliché notion but perhaps Shenzhou’s understatement is a testament to a maturing performer who’s able to express more with less.
3. Ancient Campfire
4. Heat Leak
5. Houses on the Hill
6. Two Ocean Plateau
7. Thermal Motion
8. Path Leading to the High Grass
9. Fast Atoms Escape
10. Green Reflections
11. Bose-Einstein Condensation
12. Gravity Assist
B I G C H I L L R E C O R D O F T H E W E E K
Biosphere’s latest recording makes for a new twist in a career which could never be described as comfortable and formulaic: ten of the twelve tracks on this disc are based on the orchestral works of the French composer Claude Debussy. This is not the first time that Debussy and electronica have met, Japanese musician and writer Isao Tomita brought forth moog-fest ‘Snowflakes Are Dancing’ in the seventies and acknowledged the same musical inspiration. The long winter in Tromso has resulted in another signal work for Geir Jenssen’s catalogue, one which grows steadily and insistently on the listener until its sonorities and synaesthetics lock you into an immersive soundscape. The music has lost none of its diaphanous drift and is at once evocative of both location and atmosphere. It might be a cliché?, but a sense of place has always been present in the work of Biosphere. Once again, ‘Shenzho” somehow manages to construct a permafrosted arctic landscape yet imbue it with warmth, beauty and soul. Biosphere’s most recent outings on ‘Substrata’, and ‘Cirqu” (a geomorpholigical term for a natural amphitheatre in the ice), used the sounds of cracking sheet-ice and fizzing wood stoves. Jenssen’s approach has always been about sound sculpting and collage; he creates a tonal palette from natural and synthetic sources. Here on ‘Shenzhou’ the crackle comes from a slab of Decca Red Label Classics vinyl as the muted woodwinds, strings and brass from Debussy’s various tone poems circle and twist themselves around Biosphere’s sonic tectonic plates. Debussy’s harmonic improvisation paved the way for the major musical upheavals of the 20th century. Perhaps best recognised for the wonderful sound poem ‘La Mer’, he became known as the Impressionist’s composer. Impressionist painting typically included minute areas of detail which morphed into incredible colourfields when the whole of the canvas was viewed. Similarly, Debussy used the orchestra as a pulsing, living whole, the featured instrumentation adding points of colour in flashes and glints, with the entire work eventually emerging from the synergy between its component parts. This CD shifts and drifts and reveals itself as a thing of great depth and power. Beguilingly simple at first, it manages to insinuate itself into your life and take hold of your circuits. Biosphere has moved ‘ambient music’ to a different place and it’s a wonderful thing to go along with the trip. ‘Shenzhou’ is an important example of two genres of music colliding, colluding and making perfect sense. It is a beautiful and searching work which should be owned by anyone who still wants to meditate and marvel with music. Buy it, get the cans upside your head, close your eyes, relax and float off downstream. AJ
An undoubted latter day ambient maestro Geir Jenssen new Biosphere LP takes him further into masterly ambient territories. Based on the work of Debussy, Shenzou, as with much of Jenssen’s work invites favourable comparisons with both Eno and Tomita. His ability to create tension and dynamism with the most sparse of structures and beatless excursions is superb. Ignore those TV ads, this is the real chill out. (Teletext- Leftfield Column – 31.5.02)
ALBUM OF THE WEEK, 7 Mag (UK):
Since the release of “Patashnik”, on the R&S offshoot Apollo, in 1994, plenty of artists have tried, but none have come close, to making such overwhelming ambient music, as Norway’s Geir Jenssen, alias Biosphere. With “Shenzou” he’s made another classic, pushing the bounderies further, with orchestral like compositions, layering electronic waves, taking the listener to pastures new, as you gently drift on a sea of mixed emotions. With titles such as “Spindrift”, “Heatleak”, “Twooceanplateau” & “Thermalmotion”, this is definitely not the hard sell package tour, of chill out Ibiza comps, “Shenzhou” is much much more than that, it’s the open mindedness & isolation of Biosphere, living inside the Artic Circle. [Dean Thatcher]
The Milk Factory (Norway):
After ten years of recording as Biopshere, Tromso born Geir Jenssen has firmly established himself at the forefront of experimental ambient music. Although his early releases still bore the marks of dance music, his music has now evolved towards more atmospheric structures, where beats are scarce and environmental sounds are essential. Patashnik, his second album, was already shaping what would become the Biosphere sound, but it is not until his third opus, the seminal Substrata, originally released on All Saints Records in 1997 and recently reissued by Touch as a double album, that Jenssen really started exploring the immense possibilities of ambient music the way Brian Eno did in the eighties with his Ambient series. He now comes back after two years of silence with a new album, almost entirely based on orchestral works by French classical composer Claude Debussy. One of the most important French composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Claude Debussy was very often associated with the impressionist movement and symbolist writers, and his non-conformist tonal structures still inspire many musicians. Probably better known for his orchestral works, including Prélude A l’Aprés-midi D’Un Faune and La Mer, Debussy was very influenced by the work of Russian composers such as Borodin or Mussorgsky, and traces of eastern music can be found in a few of his compositions. Geir Jenssen experiments on Shenzhou with similar elements, weaving his distinctive near-beatless soundscapes around recurring patterns throughout, superposing them on Debussy’s own orchestrations. The title track, which opens the album, slowly introduces the multiple elements of this work, reverently contrasting them to establish a perfect balance of impressions. These diverse components are echoed in turn in each track, placing them in different perspectives. Jenssen acts as an impressionist painter himself, applying little touches which, heard individually, do not equal to them heard in context, contributing to producing sonic effects and auditory illusions. If Houses On The Hill or Path Leading To The High Grass confront these warm soundscapes with isolationist percussions, the remaining tracks are entirely devoid of rhythmic structures, Jenssen relying instead on more subtle sound organisations to create movement. With this visionary record, Geir Jenssen proves once more that he is the most talented musician around able to create such beautiful and intense music out of arid sources. By associating himself with the musical genius that was Debussy, not only does he emulate his own work, but also give a whole new dimension to the work of the French composer. [5 Stars]
The Sheffield Telegraph (UK):
Chill-out music might have been last year’s thing but Geir Jenssen from Tromso in Norway takes it on to a totally different level with beautiful, chilled-out ambient beats and textures that give his music a timeless quality. Ten of the tracks are based on fragments from the orchestral works of Claude Debussy. He would surely have approved. Jenssen’s best since the amazing Cirque.
Biosphere’s Gier Jenssen is ‘the daddy’ of Norwegian electronica. But rather than beat you about the head he soothes you into submission with gentle orchestral sounds (‘Shezou’ is based on the works of Claude Debussy), ominous pagan muzak and deceptive simplicity. Like telling ghost stories in a remote and unfamiliar place, it’s somehow scary and comforting. **** [Tom Mugridge]
Modern Dance (UK):
I always look forward to a new album by Geir Jenssen, because he was one of the original pioneers of the ambient scene. This release uses the orchestral work of Claude Debussy as a starting block and combines the sound texture in a most unusual way. There is a tendency to keep upping the volume, as it never really sounds loud enough. When the floor starts shaking in response to the bass notes, it is only then that you realise that your amplifier is dissipating a hell of a lot of watts. Not really music in the normal sense, as a beat, melodies and rhythms are not present, but the overall texture of the sound is stunning. He was born inside the Arctic Circle and his music exhibits an icy feel, yet any warmth generated is indeed extremely subtle. From the slow fade in of the opening bars of the title track to the marvellous finale, you won’t find a much better ambient album to include in your collection. If I were to choose a highlight, the obvious track would be Ancient Campfire, where the crackling of a fire is looped to perform the basis of an exceptionally haunting theme. Sheer brilliance. [brooky]
Touching Extremes (net):
Geir Jenssen’s treatments (in 10 of the 12 tracks of this magnificent CD he works on Debussy’s samples) gave life to a soundscape that’s ethereal and deep at the same time, always transcending to poetic imagination and bringing out auras of highly spiritual values. I can’t find the words for “Shenzhou”‘s gentle beauty; it’s like observing a collection of pure crystals surrounded by a light fog or recollecting childhood memories while watching out of the window at late afternoon. You can’t call this music “ambient” or something else, just listen silently and let your soul speak. I rarely find myself so touched and moved, but – during listening – I just had to turn to my wife and see her wide-open eyes to have a confirmation this is indeed a very special release. [MASSIMO RICCI]
Side Line (Belgium)
A new Biosphere is on the way The Norwegian master of ambient, Geir Jenssen, strives already back with a new full length of Biosphere entitled “Shenzhou”. This new masterpiece has been mainly based on the orchestral works of the French composer Claude Debussy. And this is what our main reviewed Deranged Psyche had to say about it: “The result is already a fascinating and unique voyage through the imaginary fields of our unconscious. The album remains quiet, but an icy and frightening blast runs through the compositions. This is a new essential album released on Touch.”
Pro 7 [Germania]:
Biosphere Shenzou Verffentlichung: 03.06.2002 Nach Formeln und Erwartungshaltungen hat der Norweger Geir Jenssen nie gearbeitet, Biosphere blieb stets sein Projekt fŸr anspruchsvolle Elektronik-Kompositionen. Sein neues Album “Shenzou” bezieht sich auf den Komponisten Claude Debussy, beziehungsweise verwendet dessen Notenwerk als Basis für Biospheres Klangmanipulationen. Dies ist nicht das erste Mal, das neue Electronica auf Debussy trifft, – von Tomitas “Snowflakes Are Dancing” aus den 70ern, bis hin zu Art Of Noises Hommage “The Seduction Of Claude Debussy” haben sich moderne KŸnstler immer wieder inspirieren lassen. Vor einer Dekade fand sich Biosphere zwischen KŸnstlern wie Aphex Twin oder Orbital in den Regalen der Schallplattenfachgeschäfte wieder, schlie§lich verfeinerte man gemeinsam das Revolutionsmodell “Techno”. Jedoch war es ein Kennzeichen der 90er, Str?mungen zu adaptieren und zu assimilieren: die Jeansmarke Levis verpflichtete das StŸck “Novelty Waves” von Biosphere fŸr einen Werbespot, und auf einmal fand sich der gestern noch im Underground gehandelte KŸnstler in den europ?ischen Verkaufscharts wieder. Ein Wendepunkt fŸr Geir Jenssen. Schon die n?chste Ver?ffentlichung “Substrata” verzichtete weitgehend auf Dance-Rhythmen, respektive auf Rhythmik per se. Stattdessen eroberte Biosphere andere Felder. Was Brian Eno einst als “Ambient” auf die musikalische Landkarte brachte, sollte hier eine modernisierte Re-Definition erfahren. Klangr?ume wurden ge?ffnet, von denen man nicht ahnte das sie existieren, Sounds an die Grenzen der H?rschwellen vertieft, und emotionale Landschaften mit minimalen Mitteln gezeichnet, so dass die Vorl?uferalben “Cirque” und “Substrata 2” von Presse wie Musikliebhabern als moderne Klassiker gehandelt werden. “Shenzou” macht trotz aller innewohnenden Individualit?t keine Ausnahme und reiht sich an seine beide Vorg?nger. Statt der fŸr unsere H?rgewohnheiten bekannten Kl?nge zaubert Geir Jenssen neue T?ne aus den Tiefen seiner elektronischen Ger?te, die gleichsam schroff wie wundersch?n sein k?nnen. Zwar verletzt die Komposition nie das ?sthetische H?rempfinden, aber ist doch gerade Meilen von den Produkten des New-Age und der Esoterik entfernt, die mit gleichf?rmigem Sch?nklang gemeinhin nachhaltig langweilen. Auch ist man auf Distanz zu den Ÿblichen folkloristischen Klischees, wenngleich ein gewisser “nordischer” Hauch aus den Lautsprecherboxen zu flie§en scheint. Kurzum, das Album sucht nach intelligenten H?rern, die sich gerne mit Musik intensiv und ausdauernd auseinander setzen, und zweifelsohne wird der versprŸhte Charme des Albums ein solches Publikum einnehmen. Impressionismus, Purismus, Genie und Erneuerung, ein Jahrhundert nach Debussy!
This is Geir Jenssen’s third Biosphere album in as many years for the UK’s two decade strong Touch label. At first glance there appears to be several unrelated elements at play: the title is the name of a Chinese unmanned spacecraft, the track titles reference miscellaneous things, the digipack artwork is seemingly random photos (though typical for Touch) and inside it says that the first ten of the dozen tracks are based on the orchestral works of early 20th Century French impressionist composer Claude Debussy. Playing those ten tracks doesn’t clarify the contradictions, but it does reveal a tightly focused continuum. Here Jenssen’s arctic ambience is quite minimal and possibly darker and deeper than ever before. Low end currents and pink noise vapor trails create melodies and mysteries. Meanwhile, rhythmic bumps and looped strains of what I presume is Debussy orchestra are occasionally weaved in. The final two tracks are indeed different but also complementary to the Debussy inspired suite. Altogether, ‘Shenzou’ is austere and simply another eerily beautiful ambient escape courtesy of Biosphere and Touch. [Mark Weddle]
Boudisque Online (Netherlands):
We schrijven het jaar 2202. De stad Tromso in Noorwegen is getroffen door een natuurramp. Het sneeuwt er continu, alle wegen zijn verdwenen onder een honderden kilometers lange ijsvlakte, de zon is al jaren niet meer door het dikke grijze wolkendek gekomen en alle inwoners hebben huis en haard moeten verlaten. Tenminste, op één na: de heer G. Jenssen. Het lukt hem om te overleven in zijn studio met veel blikvoer en zijn muziekinstrumenten. Met als enige uitzicht de grijs/witte sneeuw, produceert hij zeer donkere soundscapes waar je uiteraard niet echt vrolijk van wordt. Uit zijn collectie klassieke cd’s sampelt hij Claude Debussy en vermengt dit met zijn eigen electronica. Dansen heeft de heer Jenssen ook geen zin meer in, dus beats zijn ver te zoeken. Zo donker en duister heeft muziek zelden geklonken en het is jammer dat dit soort prachtige muziek de studio van deze kluizenaar niet uitkomt. Tot zover de fictie, nu de realiteit: het is 2002. De nieuwe Biosphere is uit, 200 jaar te vroeg gemaakt. Fictie wordt werkelijkheid. Wat een cd…
The Wire (UK):
Geir Jenssen aka Biosphere often appears to need a creative cue, if not a concept, to kickstart an album. One inspiration for the glacial textures of his first set for Touch, Cirque (2000) was the story of the ill-fated Chris McCandless, who hitchhiked to Alaska in April 1992, skimped on is food supply, and was found dead four months later. Last year, Touch also reissue his 1997 quiet classic, Substrata, in a lavishly packaged, remastered and expanded version, which came out of a climbing trip he made in the Himalayas. But, far from the great outdoors, a French composer seeded his latest album, Shenzhou: the first ten tracks, confess the minimal sleevenotes, were inspired by the orchestral works of Claude Debussy. It’s a testament to Jenssen that throughout the set Debussy’s influence is always felt explicitly, even as it never threatens to overwhelm the production as a whole. The classical source material is frozen, sampled and looped, like an audio Polaroid, into short one- or two-bar segments of woodwind, strings and the occasional harp. These central motifs, repeated mesmerically, form the bedrock of a series of lovingly crafted atmospheres and zones, around which Jenssen pumps dense clouds of beatless ambience, ominously rumbling bass notes and endlessly shifting, impressionistic textures. Similar but never the same, the effect, over expanding repetitions, is lie watching the infinite variations of ripples in water.Jenssen still resides in Tromso, 30 miles inside the Arctic circle on the northern coast of Norway. No surprise, then, that critics astutely picked up on the ‘iciness’ of the sound of the albums he made for the R&S offshoot Apollo in the early 90s. On this showing, though, the overall feel is more pastoral and warm, a quality alluded to in track titles like “pathleadingtothehighgrass” and “greenreflections”, and the CD artwork’s photos of leaves, water, skies. Partly due to the disc’s classical sound palette, perhaps, the rustic imagery makes more sense here than on other recent ‘folksy’ electronic releases. If the textures of Shenzhou don’t exactly grab the attention, they do mirror the natural world with unusual subtlety. [Jerome Maunsell]
It’s hard not use terms like icy, frigid and desolate to describe the output of Geir Jenssen’s Biosphere, when you consider the fact that this master of electro-ambience resides in his birthplace of Tromso, Norway — which rests four hundred miles north of the Arctic circle. While it’s hard to tell whether this sound should be attributed to the annual deprivation of sunlight during the long winter stretches that invade the far north, or simply to Jenssen’s private nature, which is abetted through his great distance from cultural quarters, Biosphere’s sound is full of claustrophobic beauty, of inward contemplation, and a clarity of artistic vision seemingly borne from such a unique environmental milieu. With Shenzhou, Jenssen lays out a conceptual framework upon which his organic compositions grow and thrive — namely the scratchy recordings of orchestral works from Claude Debussy, which share Biosphere’s kinship with the elusive qualities of the natural world. Samples of Debussy’s arrangements form the backbone of ten of the twelve tracks that appear here: somnambulant rhythms slide along amorphous sonic textures that often approximate the imagined sounds of howling winds and cracking glaciers. At times, Debussy’s disembodied string sections are transformed into the bitter lamentations of a spectral choir, fooling the listener into hearing the echoes of a human voice. Most exciting on Shenzhou is the rare incorporation of percussive elements from the original Debussy sources — tracks such as “PathLeadingtotheHighGrass” have a visceral energy that cannot necessarily be assigned to the gliding, shapeless over- and under-tones that comprise much of the other compositions. Of the two tracks unconcerned with Debussy’s work, “Bose-EinsteinCondensation” is the most striking; while it lacks the acute ambient textures that pervade the album, it instead incorporates abrupt piano figures with skittery, cut-up digital effects that immediately recall Oval’s Dok. This sonic template is further explored on the epic album closer “GravityAssist”, which shares qualities with both the recent electro-acoustic works of Robert Hampson’s Main project and Eno’s early ambient material. Jenssen’s aesthetic strategies seem built upon a system of repetition (of Debussy’s original works) that exposes form as form, alerting the listener to the rigidity of Debussy’s arrangements in contrast to the floating atmospherics of the Biosphere sound. This brings about an awareness of Debussy’s orchestrations as artifacts and infuses Jenssen’s ambient structures with a timelessness that can be attributed to the source material’s rich musical legacy. Shenzhou embraces this historical significance and reconstructs Debussy’s classical concerns in a contemporary form that broadens the horizons of modern electronic music. [Mike Baker]
My increasingly voracious twin obsessions of purity and obsolescence lead me this week to two albums that could hardly be more different from one another. One’s a metal album, and I’ll get to that in a few minutes. The other is Biosphere’s Shenzhou, on the not-too-terribly-obscure Touch label out of England, and you’ve really got to listen to it. And I do mean Òlisten.’ Biosphere makes electronic music of a type usually answering to the name ‘ambient,’ but I don’t really know what that means. When Brian Eno invented the genre with his 1978 Music for Airports, he said something about wanting to make Òenvironmental music suited to a wide variety of moods and atmospheres,’ and that the music he had in mind Òmust be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular…it must be as ignorable as it is interesting. Nobody apart from the chin-stroking hordes of Roxy Music fans really paid him much heed (the chin-stroking hordes, naturally, were suitably impressed: and I am not mocking them: I count myself among their numbers), and by 1983 you could find his lovely Editions EG volumes in cutout bins here and there, headed for the Blind Silence that will eventually greet us all. All movements being from their inceptions quite doomed, it came as no surprise to see that Ambient Music (Eno’s capitals, not mine) hadn’t come to much. But then technology became more accessible, and the rules of play changed a little. In the UK, there were some reportedly thrilling experiments in the nightclub-as-social-event. Channels of music distribution experienced an opening-up. (They have since snapped shut again.) Suddenly everybody had a computer, and the KLF made an album called Chill Out, and some dance acts (I have in mind mainly the Psychic Warriors of Gaia, but there were a thousand others) started to make music that was equally suited for dancing or for talking over while it played at low volumes: mood pieces; Mantovani on silicon; background ivory-tinkling from the near future. In the years that followed, a very loosely-knit underground of artists & listeners formed, slowly and anonymously; it was a community where audience & artist tended, by and large, to be the same people; and, save for a brief moment when the press was bending over backwards to announce that electronic music Had Really Arrived (in case you missed it, this coincided with one of Madonna’s producers discovering the classic 808 sound), it managed to keep itself mainly below the radar, where all good things thrive. Which bring us to Biosphere’s Shenzhou, which per the suitably spartan liner notes contains ten tracks Òbased on the orchestral works of Claude Debussy’ (it’s nowhere near as pretentious as it sounds) plus two more, and is packaged in a simply gorgeous three-panel digipak. It is ambient electronic music: no doubt about it. It is practically subliminal. You have to force yourself to listen to it, or else it recedes not only into the background but into the unseen infrastructure that supports the very background itself. It’s a lot of loops and repeating themes; its bass tones are sea-deep bubbles that shy away from inflection like moles avoiding the sun; none of the songs contain any melodic development of any kind (which, interestingly enough, was actually part of Debussy’s gift to music: a loosening of the restraints that held melodies in check). All of them are utterly and equally entrancing. Usually our modus operandi here at Last Plane to Jakarta is to single out a song for close examination and then see what it has to say for itself, but to isolate any one moment from Shenzhou’s twelve glimpses of the Schumann resonance would be to miss the point completely. These songs float like clouds over a listener, changing the temperature and lighting of the room without calling attention to themselves. And I love all this; some of it’s as flatly, quietly riveting as a Takemitsu piece; but for me, it’s pushed right over the top by the knowledge that nobody besides you and me cares, not even a little. ÒYou and me,’ in this case, being the tiny handful of people who’ll ever hear Shenzhou. We may care; I know I do; when I put this record on late at night, it seems like I’ve been waiting all my life for it. But it’s on its way into the shadows, and history will swallow it whole. And this, then, brings us clean across the field of play to Annihilatus’s Blood and War, which is by no means ambient at all (although I do have a theory about metalcore being a trance-oriented music, which I’ll go into more detail about if enough people want to hear about it: let me know), but which is comparable in obscurity to Shenzhou. [John Darnielle]
Echoes On-Line (Germany):
Das Urteil Musiker und ihre geografische Herkunft – ein wichtiger Zusammenhang? Der Trend sagt eindeutig ja. Island als das Kuba der Generation Cordjacke, Sigur R—s als der Buena Vista Social Club einer sich nach Romantik sehnenden Studentenschaft. Im Vergleich dazu: Norwegen. Geir Jenssen lebt dort, wo dich die K?lte regelrecht zerfrisst. Wer wŸrde mit ihm tauschen wollen? FŸr l?nger als zwei, drei Wochen, meine ich – na? Dachte ich’s mir doch. ãShenzhouÒ aber ist ein bemerkenswert originelles Werk, dem man die Abgeschiedenheit des Machers und Denkers dahinter regelrecht anzuh?ren glaubt. Und das gibt in Zeiten des unaufh?rlich klingelnden Mobiltelefons von vornherein Sympathiepunkte. Obwohl sich Jenssen diesmal – man verzeihe mir diese Wortwahl – auf durchaus dŸnnem Eis bewegt: Der Nachfolger von ãSubstrata 2Ò n?mlich ist dem Impressionisten Claude Debussy gewidmet, die Musik von ãShenzhouÒ zum Gro§teil – inklusive Samples – deutlich von den orchestralen Kompositionen des franz?sischen KŸnstlers inspiriert. Anderen h?tte es das Genick gebrochen. Jenssen allerdings besitzt genug Sensibilit?t und Eigenst?ndigkeit, um Kitsch gar nicht erst in Frage kommen zu lassen. Ein beruhigend erdiges GrundgefŸhl, das an die alten Ambient-Blaupausen ˆ la ãMusic for AirportsÒ erinnert, begleitet den H?rer durch zw?lf angenehm unverkrampft arrangierte StŸcke, die man am besten – Klischee hin oder her – nach Mitternacht bei ged?mpftem Licht auf sich wirken lassen sollte. So gelingt dem Projekt Biosphere mit seiner arktischen, aber doch warm umschlie§enden Musik das unaufdringliche Vermitteln von Kl?ngen und Bildern zwischen den unterschiedlichen Ebenen.[Kai Ginkel]
The fundamentally disparate worlds of electronic and classical music have, on occasion, meshed to form truly inspirational music. Brian Eno set the standard with Discreet Music in 1975. The Stars of the Lid made stirring use of strings on last year’s The Tired Sound of…. Bjork has made a living out of the stuff for over a decade. For every success, however, there is a Moby song…literally. The tiny bald hypocrite has “scored” enough wretch-inducing string sections to cast the entire concept into the realm of melodrama, overshadowing many more talented musicians with his contrived crescendos. The formulated assemblage of strings is hardly a rare occurrence in classical music, but artists like Moby cement the misperception that violins exist merely as a tool for emotional manipulation. Biosphere lies content at the other end of the spectrum. Biosphere, a.k.a. Geir Jenssen, a graduate of the micro-house school of minimalism, is one of the world’s premier ambient composers. His last two albums, Substrata and Cirque on the Touch label, rank among the best of their years thanks to their overwhelming attention to detail and texture. Jenssen’s latest, Shenzhou, at least matches the success of his previous two outings and does so through a sonic quilt of horns, reeds, percussion and, yes, strings.
Jenssen’s compositions on Shenzhou samples sounds from the great 19th century composer Claude Debussy, resulting in a pastoral warmth previously unheard in the Biosphere catalog. Jenssen composes most of his music in the Arctic Circle in his home in Tromso, Norway, a city that sits at 69° latitude, 18° longitude, or roughly the equivalent of Siberia or Alaska, so green fields of sunshine are not immediately available as tangible stimuli. Yet, with Debussy’s lush samples in hand, Jenssen constructs a greenhouse of sound so vivid, you can almost see the steam rising out into the arctic air.
Inside Shenzhou, songs pulse with the urgency and unpredictability of Mother Nature. “Path Leading to the High Grass” almost explodes with tension as Jenssen’s soft backdrop wrestles with Debussy’s staccato flutes. “Ancient Campfire” crackles with an audible vinyl hiss while overlapping clarinets descend steadily into the smoke like moths submitting to the flame. There’s an uneasiness apparent throughout the record and Jenssen tightropes the threshold between ephemeral calm and impending doom with incredible poise, never toppling over into either spectrum. Shenzhou captures the moment when the clouds start to gather, but never gives into thunder and lightning. “Green Reflections,” the last of ten pieces composed via Debussy, is perhaps the most reassuring of the collection, a sunrise of synths and clarinets, but Jenssen immediately changes direction with the eerie underwater piano of “Bose-Einstein Condensation.” The abrupt shift doesn’t ruin “Green Reflections’” beauty as much as it throws the serenity into question. The same can be said for Shenzhou as a whole.
Jenssen has once again created a contemplative masterpiece of texture and detail. Contrasting Debussy’s orchestral genius with his own trademark ambience was a brilliant idea and an innovative, if subtle, use of classical underpinning in electronic music. [Otis Hart]
A new album by Biosphere means a very particular event in the world of ambient! With “Shenzhou”, Geir Jenssen goes on with the exploration of the limits of atmospheric music in a way that has already differentiates him (sic) from the beginning with all other artists in this genre! Ten tracks of this album are based on the orchestral works of Claude debussy. Well, I’m not really familiar with th work of the french composer, but I can’t really recognise any reference to classical music… except the way the tracks have been conceived in the mind of the author! You can hear different parts running through the s piece while all pieces together creates (sic) a unity! Behind the kind of soundscapes certainly lies an imaginary vision that has been possibly inspired by the oeuvre of Debussy. This work sounds rather cold and a bit anguishing (sic), like the immense fields of the high North covered with snow during a cold winter. This imaginary picture has been transposed into a sound-picture full of varied sound manipulations. I’ve always loved the way G. Jenssen mix his sound (sic), like it permanently remains in the background. There’s no single bombastic burst! Everything remains under control and precisely this background feeling creates the splendour of Biosphere and the new album. This is the kind of record you have to discover and enjoy as a long during (sic) single piece. Biosphere remains for sure one of the absolute and uncontestable leading forces of what we’ve called ambient! (DP: 7/8)
Transmissions from another time and another place. That would be the shortest description of Biosphere’s music. Geir Jenssen’s sonic explorations lead him this time to Claude Debussy’s orchestral works in the first ten pieces. It seems to me, he even uses orchestral sounds lifted from old records. Jenssen’s music is rather simple: multi-layered static sounds (loops, samples, synths) above which he adds a small rhythmic sound sources. He lets his sources go loose and everything spins for a while. Slowly he twists a few knobs, changing the colouring of the music a little bit and the moves on to the next piece. It’s minimal music indeed, so simple and yet so beautifully done. With great care these elements are placed next to each other and they interfere with each other and slowly beautiful tapestries of sound enroll before your eyes. ‘Shenzhou’ is a beautiful follow up to ‘Cirque’, however we should carefully ask Geir: “what’s next?”. It’s likely possible he could craft another ten or so of these works, but were will it move in terms of development. (FdW)
Matiere Brut (France):
Originaire de Tromsø, Geir Jenssen sculpte patiemment depuis une quinzaine d’année la matière sonore. Après ses débuts avec le groupe Bel Canto, son tournant plus techno sous le nom de Bleep, il fonde finalement Biosphere en 1991 et, tel un aventurier solitaire, se lance à la recherche de l’arctic sound avec l’album Microgravity (Apollo / R&S – 1992). En quelques années, il se forge un style propre, voire un nouveau courant musical, influençant de nombreux nouveaux venus dans la scène musicale électronique. Peu à peu sa musique explore des territoires plus abstraits et radicaux, sa palette de sons se veut plus minimale, plus complexe et atteint sa maturité à partir de l’album Substrata (Origo sound – 1997, puis Touch – 2001). Son dernier album en date, Shenzhou, nous plonge dans une relecture de travaux de Debussy. A partir de quelques samples du maître, il crée un environnement sonore délicat et enivrant. Les basses omni-présentes font vibrer l’auditeur(trice) de tout son être, le (la) noyant dans un espace intemporel. Dans ce maelström tourbillonant, apparaissent, évoluent et s’évanouissent, quelques sons subtils et labiles, aussi fragiles qu’une fine couche de glace prête à céder sous le poids de l’auditeur(trice), pour l’emporter toujours plus loin dans l’éther. [Yann Hascoet]
Bad Alchemy (Germany):
der khle Klanglandschaftswizard aus dem norwegischen Troms, hat hier auf zehn der zwlf Tracks den orchestralen Impressionismus Claude Debussys remixt und recyclet. Er lsst, durch Vinylknistern gleichzeitig verstrkt und antiillusionistisch gebrochen, Klangpartikel und kurze Motivfragmente vermutlich aus ‘La Mer’, ‘Nocturnes’ oder ‘Prlude l’aprs-midi d’un faune’ noch minimalistischer und statischer flirren und flimmern und erzeugt ein nahezu arkadisches Chill-out-Ambiente, aus dem trumerische Blue-Afternoon-Stimmungen emanieren, die der Touch-sthetiker Wozencroft mit blau getnten Fotos von Himmel, Wasser und gemasertem Holz kongenial mittrgt.
Since 1995 and my first exposure to Biosphere I have been a deep listener and have not once ever dismissed one of Geir Jenssen’s releases. Last one on the table was the two CD remaster of Substrata with the soundtrack to “Man with a Movie Camera” to accompany. When Substrata was released I flagged it as the greatest ambient album ever recorded… to this day that still holds true. That being said, I approached my first listening of Shenzhou with nothing shy of the highest expectations.
What I’m told here is that the first 10 tracks are based on the orchestral works of Claude Debussy, who I now have to investigate thoroughly. The 11th is Biosphere through and through. Now is where being a writer and being a listener clash. I’m listening to “Path Leading to High Grass”, my favorite track, right now while sitting in front of my computer. Not only am I here with a light on, at night, with a fan blowing 90 degree air into a 95 degree room, but in front of a computer attempting to feel these songs and accurately pass these feeling on to you. The responsibilities of the writer dull the privileges of the listener and the reader who doesn’t experience first hand, suffers most.
If I had my pick of the perfect listening place for this album, it would be drifting on a raft down the Hudson River through the halls of New York late at night. The mountains to my aft, the red city glow perma-sunset of Manhattan on the horizon. No need for a anything to reproduce the recording, rather just let it billow from star to star and let me catch the echoes I need. That seems to be exactly how this music was captured anyway.
As introduced before, Geir’s recordings hide at the deep end of the volume knob and the lower end of the sound field. This is not loud music by any stretch, at the same time is insulted as back ground music. The gap Shenzhou fills lays between the plateaus of complete silence and those moments when you can hear music that isn’t there. A soft bassy hum rolls around with airy textures driving by, slowly a string or piano key speeds up from behind, pulls over the airy texture and writes it a ticket.
All over this record is perfect mixtures of the Biosphere ambiance and Substrata like tones we’re all locked into bed with, but the new introduction to the family is the influence of Debussy. The front seat of each song carries quite beautiful classical elements and share breath with every tone and texture underneath.
Writing this is obviously a slight premature as it still requires deep study from me. Biosphere is the last artist I’d cheapen with only a few thousand listens, so I’m still sentenced to a long quite time with this album. Bottom line though, not being exposed to Biosphere’s sounds, atmospheres and sonic images is true crime for any one with a pair of ears, knowing Geir’s work and not following up with time spent on Shenzhou is that much worse. [Kyle Godbey]
Luna Kafe (USA):
Assembled from looping scratches of his old red-label Claude Debussy records, Geir Jenssen, in isolation up in Tromsø, Norway, has also spent considerable time swimming with his own heartbeat dans La Mer frigide. The warm crackling analogs of that vinyl have surely wrapped themselves around his small white shape here, the oboes and strings curling in as well, as loose sheets of paper might in feeding the diminutive interior campfire that must somehow fend off the ever-burgeoning deep blue chill of the waters surrounding. How he keeps the spaciously strewn embers glowing even as they plunge so deep into the Arctic Ocean is amazing in and of itself, warming the waters as it sinks further and further into iced, unknown depths of the dark, pressurized body. Small bubbles of oxygen stately stream toward the surface in tiny release. Jenssen’s flares burn hazy, heavenly paths through the darkness, fallout from the spaced, frozen stars as above, so the unfathomable below. The bass resonates, smoldering like a phosphorescent jellyfish between the woodwind timbers of sunken ships so black and stark near the ocean floor, with thin slivers of fish circling through their barnacled bones. Beacons get lost, grateful for the deep sleep approaching. Submerged lights, fibrillations of both wave and swimming particles, are emitted from the deepest, most chillingly remote blackness. This glows the entire trajectory down, illuming the furthest boundaries of the listening body’s extremities, providing a guiding light even in the most frigid of isolation tanks.
Un petit tube et puis s’en va. On dit souvent qu’il n’y a pas de deuxième carrière pour les groupes dont la carrière a été lancée par une pub Levi’s. Biosphere a failli confirmer la règle. Lancé par le jean à poche à capote, on découvrait en 1998 Geir Jensen le norvégien, l’ex Bel Canto devenu techno. Son Novelty waves endiablé lançait la vaguelette “arctic sound”, mélange de rythmes squelettiques rendus cassants par le gel et d’illustrations sonores faites de vent, d’eau, de vide. Cassé -ou lassé- par la réussite, Biosphere a abandonné les pistes de danses et les rythmes qui l’avait rendu célèbre. Il est remonté toujours plus haut pour faire de ses disques autant de carnets de croquis du grand Nord. Epurée, sa musique parle désormais du soleil qui ne se couche jamais et des glaciers qui fondent. C’est un monde élémentaire sans réelle aspérité où se croisent basses sourdes, rythmes mangés par l’espace et la distance, lucioles synthétiques qui donnent réalité à ses paysages et rares samples illustratifs. Ayant avec des disques comme Substrata ou Cirque vaincu tous les pôles, il lui restait l’avenir et le passé à découvrir. Il s’en charge avec son nouvel album Shenzou. Composé presque uniquement à partir des œuvres orchestrales de Claude Debussy, Biosphere arrange une infinité de samples tirés de ces disques. Il empile couche après couche, introduit échos et contrefaçons, fait un disque ambiant d’une puissance rarement égalée. Loin d’être neutres, on lit dans ces entrelacs de cordes et lointaines lignes de clarinettes l’espoir et l’attente, parfois même la menace. Il faut entendre les cordes de violoncelle battre la mesure dans Pathleading, ou se répandre sur un lit de basses surhumaines dans Thermalmotion. Et puis deux titres avant la fin, tout s’arrête. Debussy est parti et on est laissé seul avec des bouts de techno tournants tous seuls dans le vide -on remonte lentement à la surface. Reprenant à son compte cette idée de symphonie dans le rock chère à certains musiciens des années 1970, Geir Jenssen en offre l’équivalent au monde de la techno en 2002, le ridicule en moins, réussissant le tour de force d’instrumentaliser un grand compositeur, en le mettant au service d’une esthétique inhabituelle par sa force et sa nature. [Jean-Bernard André]
“Shenzhou”, aside from being the name of the Chinese manned-spaceflight vehicles, means “magic vessel”, and I can’t imagine a more apt description for Geir Jenssen’s latest excursion into ambient deep listening. After following an Aphexian trajectory with his releases on Apollo, the ambient sublabel of Belgium’s R&S Records, Jenssen veered from the padded sci-fi-inspired techno of Microgravity and Patashnik with 1997’s Substrata, a genre-defining exploration of drifting soundscapes. Substrata remains for many the album that perfectly expresses the serenity and intensity of Arctic wildernesses, a landscape Jenssen knows intimately, having spent much of his life in the Norwegian Arctic Circle. In 2000, Jenssen nearly eclipsed the success of Substrata with Cirque, a frequently frosty submerging of excerpted conversations and found environmental sounds that rivals Wolfgang Voigt’s Gas project in its rumbling, gauzy beauty. Jenssen again relies on found sound as source material for Shenzhou, but this time, the found sound is old vinyl recordings of the orchestral works of French Impressionist composer and ambient precursor, Claude Debussy. Jenssen lifts fragments of these scratched records in a similar manner as he did for Cirque’s “Black Lamb Grey Falcon” and “Iberia Eterea”.
The ten tracks (out of the dozen on the album) that follow this model all begin as a barely audible hum, like a small electrical transformer, out of which the dust-dappled loops of Debussy’s woodwind, brass, and strings emerge, condense, and fade out into pink noise rustles. Unlike Steve Reich’s phase pieces or Brian Eno’s Discreet Music, though, Jenssen doesn’t set his loops against each other to produce juxtapositions and piquant dissonance; he uses them to describe imagined terrain, at first glance monotonously flat and barren, but on concentration, replete with minute detailing. The overall effect of these pieces is a sense of immensity. The orchestral loops sound distant, abandoned in a vast wilderness, and strenuously battling against Arctic winds. Jenssen sets the listener down in this wilderness as an aloof observer, a witness to the music’s futile struggles against entropic forces.
The two tracks not derived from Debussy share the same hypnotic aesthetic. The brief interlude “Bose-Einstein Condension” is a loop of piano chords lolloping in search of coherence, while “Gravity Assist” is a longer voyage into woofer-quaking low-frequency manipulation, bell-like drones, and contrails of subdued noise. I can’t help but feel that these tracks fit awkwardly and break up the conceptual flow of the album. This, however, is a minor quibble given the power of this music. Shenzhou is unquestionably a magic vessel, but one that reveals its enchantment only to those who pay close attention. [Paul Cooper]
Taking his cues from the world’s coldest, most remote regions, Geir Jenssen (AKA Biosphere) has recorded some of the loveliest atmospheric music of our time, bringing the listener on icy explorations, both tranquil and foreboding, of windswept sonic tundras. On 2000’s Cirque, Jenssen’s aural journeys were more literal than usual, with each song inspired by a different isolated locale.
For his latest album, Shenzhou, Biosphere turns away from geographic inspiration to delve into the music of composer Claude Debussy. Ten of the twelve tracks directly incorporate samples of Debussy’s “impressionist” classical music, with Biosphere’s warm drones and environmental swooshes surrounding the orchestrated loops. A rich vinyl hiss permeates the entire album, creating the impression that Jenssen is simply listening to his Debussy records on an old turntable and improvising around them-and perhaps he is, but the whole thing sounds so thoroughly integrated that it’d be hard to believe it.
The album, like all great ambient, flows by easily in the background if you’re not paying attention, but closer inspection reveals a depth and complexity that the surface barely suggests. Portions of Debussy are chopped up and looped in tiny fragments, creating a rhythmic undercurrent that flows beneath the entire record. Often the loop is so tiny that the distinct string parts of the composer’s pieces are squashed and blended into a blurry mush that is easily woven into the fabric of Biosphere’s music.
Jenssen’s non-sampled contributions to the album consist mainly of deep, subterranean bass tones and the distant whirr and crackle of electronics. On standouts like “Thermal Motion,” the main instrument is the Debussy music-cut and spliced into a fluid stream that sounds more like an icy river than that the heat source evoked by its title. The album’s best moment, “Ancient Campfire,” is more true to its name, with subtle cymbal clicks and crackling vinyl creating an aural image of a night spent in the woods huddled around a dying fire.
Like most of the album, this track combines conflicting emotions to elicit subtle shadings of mood. The dread-inducing hum of these tracks is nearly countered by the lulling melodic sense. On “Path Leading to the High Grass,” one of the few songs to incorporate percussive sounds, a muted bass drum pounds out a measured, ominous rhythm as fractured samples and insectile shaking flits across the surface of the track; it’s one of the most active moments on the disc, creating a claustrophobic warmth out of chaos.
The subtle intertwining of Debussy’s scores throughout this record provides a thematic and aural continuity between the individual tracks, helping the whole thing flow together nicely. Shenzhou is another fine offering from Biosphere; its delicate subtleties and sweeping beauty weave through your mind as elegantly as its disparate parts weave through each other. [Ed Howard]