Biosphere - Cirque: The Drama of Discovery
"I work slowly", Geir Jenssen said in 1994, when asked about the three-year gap between his first two releases under the name Biosphere. Visions of six-month-long nights in Northern Norway amongst (whatever the thermal equivalent of visions may be) of hibernating temperatures would seem to explain this quasi-confession. As if taking one's time would be considered dangerously old-fashioned, as if long processes of creation were doomed to turn into artistic suicide.
Quite the opposite.
First clue: the name. In 1990, having learned of the Biosphere 2 Space Station Project, a sealed, gigantic glass dome in the Arizona Desert, then in its early stages, Geir decides to adopt it as his new alias. The sound. The meaning. A sound that describes what the word means. The Biosphere 2 Research Project was meant to test the possibilities of building self-sufficient space colonies, and hosted entire families living in a completely detached environment for years. Geir Jenssen's Biosphere has likewise been steadily creating a self-contained aural universe. Once inside, we will experience the outside world through the spherical window. As if watching a movie where, despite the monumental scale, we still manage to feel we belong in the script.
Second clue: the distance. Geir Jenssen has decided to base himself permanently in his birthplace of Tromso, Norway, 400 miles north of the Arctic circle, having briefly tried out Brussels and Oslo before retreating back in total disinterest from the frenzy of too many cultural offers. What exactly goes on in Tromso? And why, then, does Biosphere resonate so strongly in your walkman at rush hour in some downtown metropolis of the Western World? Because it surgically extracts time out of urgency, because it opens up huge spaces right at the dead centre of your urban claustrophobia. The viewpoint of the astronaut who contemplates Planet Earth from outer space and reflects on the billions of little lives down there. Someone called it 'Arctic Sound'. Maybe.
Third clue: the distance. Geir's musical history has always been one of progressive self-distillation. Of maximising one’s chosen few resources. Bel Canto, Geir's band in the late eighties, had signed up with Crammed Discs in Brussels and, after two albums, looked poised for crossover marketability. This is precisely when Geir decides to leave Bel Canto and start working on his own. The reasons? A growing need to move on. A growing need for growth. Two years, four singles and one album followed under the alias Bleep. First symptoms of Geir's Ambient Techno that, by 1995, had come full circle and become truly mainstream. History revisited: the use of "Novelty Waves" (a track from Patashnik, his second album as Biosphere) on a Levi's advertisement proved to be the last techno straw for Geir. Rather than turning achievement into formula, we see him dropping whatever was left of the hard beats, moving once again into unnamed, undiscovered territories. One could still call them Ambient Territories if not for their deeply emotional undercurrent. Someone said 'Less is more'... Precisely.
Fourth clue: interchange. Geir says that music that excites him never fails to trigger visions in his mind. And I personally dare you to find music which is more visual. Soundtracks, yes, Biosphere has released the score for Insomnia and Man With a Movie Camera, and been elsewhere extensively commissioned. Background music.... not quite. This is synaesthetic music. Sound sculpture, music as photographic collage. Echoes as warning signs. Liquid beats, samples as snapshots, faraway speeches of open-ended meaning. No, not the hungover Balearic beaches. No, not even the deeply catatonic Winter nights of Norway. Something deeper, warmer, so much more human, so much more visceral. Contemplation. Remember that word? Try it.
Fifth clue: the circles. Substrata, Biosphere in 1997, displayed an impossible proximity to perfection and is now an insistent visitor to the lists of 'best ambient album of all time', thus establishing a new canon for contemporary classicism. What distinguishes this new classicism is its humility: its status was never a pre-requisite, but rather an ageing process that reminds one of the finest wines. Substrata's status as the new canon of ambient happened as a consequence of the monumental existentialism it contains - ambient music is no longer simply ignorable or 'interesting'. Cirque followed up in 2000, a dark, saturated recording, quietly descending from wonderment to despair, inspired as it was by the true story of a young North American explorer who lived a brutal dream of ascetism but fatally lost himself in the dense forests of Alaska. Cirque's dramatic tension is magistrally woven amongst the sounds of enclosure, existentialist, dangerous, alone.
Sixth clue: complexity. Geir Jenssen finds himself at a complex and fascinating crossroads right now: the heritage of Ambient Techno resting on his shoulders, the masterpiece of ambient music resting on his shoulders - we can feel the proximity of a new quantum leap into unimaginable territories. And if those territories, yet without a name, are not yet inhabitable, Biosphere will map them out for us, and recount his processes of discovery. The sound palette is now becoming lower, more abstract, more patient, more complex. Geir Jenssen has always proved to be a masterful sculptor of sound, but, most importantly, has always known how to sculpt the silence that surrounds sound. In our world immersed in excess, Biosphere becomes the certainty of a softness that hits harder. Biosphere has always made you pay attention. It now demands you to be active in your listening. Use it as a seed. Do it.
Heitor Alvelos March 2000 / December 2001