Anja Garbarek – Balloon Mood (1996)

My last few days and nights have been so completely overtaken by work that I couldn’t find the time to write yesterday, but that’s not such a bad thing, considering I got to immerse myself in Jarret’s music some more, and I had a little more time to re-accustom myself to Anja Garbarek’s music before writing about it. Hers is not necessarily friendly music, but it is smart, challenging and very intense, in a theatrical way, especially on this, her second album, and the first sung in English.

My mental archive is a bit scrambled at the moment, but I get the feeling “Balloon Mood” was something of an oddity for ’96. With the exception of Portishead and Massive Attack, maybe, I don’t think anyone was exploring this type of music, wedged between theater, jazz, movie soundtrack, pop and electronica. While Portishead has always had a sort of sorrow permeating the music and Massive Attack has always had a very personal, sincere quality, Anja seemed to be taking a certain cue from Bjork, infusing her approach with a theatrical element which incites a certain distance between the listener and the artist, is if she were performing on a stage, even on the album. And not only that, but I also feel there’s a distance between her and the music itself, as if the album had been born from a very intellectual stand-point, as if she was aware of where it was going from the very start, never letting herself be swept up in the maelstrom of improvisation and excitement. From this perspective, the album unfolds like an abstract, four-dimensional object, unnatural, cold and only visible when in motion, like a tesseract. There’s definitely room for the human element in there, but it’s constantly surrounded by the sharp edges of the hypercube, spinning around it again and again, smooth, neutral and mesmerizing.

This is the challenge, this is the reason why I fell in love with her music from the very start – the task of visualizing, decrypting and understanding this music which teases the mind while somehow tugging on the heartstrings was more than enough for me to really make an effort and immerse myself in this sonic space. Which part of me does she really speak to? Why am I so desperately curious every time I hear this album, so driven to somehow perceive deeper, to slice it apart with my mind while allowing it to influence my emotional state? There’s such anxious poetry in there, such a broken, fearful and yet perfectly controlled perspective on the world being hinted at that I couldn’t help but try and glimpse more and more of it. Paranoid, alienated, haunted and yet able to… engineer such precise, pristine music – the voice on the album became a character in my mind. A rather surreal woman, tall and thin, walking through an urban tundra, incomprehensible and fascinating, almost unseen.

What fascinated me most was the huge gap between her approach and her father’s. Jan Garbarek is one of the greatest jazz saxophone players of all time, having brought a northern, mournful, spacious and deeply personal, poetic sound to the instrument. His sax sounds like the Aurora Borealis. Having heard his music, I was very curious what Anja would sound like, but I must admit, for some reason I had expected to detect a kinship or at least an influence. Hardly. Yes, there’s a similar ghostly chill in both their styles, but Anja’s sound is much darker, much more dangerous and destabilizing, especially as that disturbed darkness is constantly fighting for control with a childlike innocence and vulnerability. Listening to her music, the image which toys with my mind is that of a world drawn in chalk, bright and colorful, on the tarmac of a highway, in the middle of an unbelievable chain accident. The eerie silence, the unspeakable contrast between the smashed cars, dead and wounded bodies staining the asphalt and the unexplainable, odd child’s drawing, this image shows up every time I play Balloon Mood. And I love it! This kind of imagery is exactly what I look for in music, in general. Not necessarily as twisted, mind you, but this poignant, this convincing, this vital!

I leave you to her mercies. I’m not sure she has any, but I wish you luck!

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