Norwegian pianist and composer Christian Wallumrød has been experimenting with various sonorities and musical colors since his first trio recording for ECM, No Birch in 1998. That group contained the roots of this one with trumpeter Arve Henricksen and percussionist/drummer Per Oddvar Johansen. Saxophonist Trygve Seim made the group a quartet for 2005's A Year from Easter. The pieces juxtaposed improvisation against tightly constructed themes and melodies, using the interval as the chief vehicle for moving, ever slowly, from one place to another. On The Zoo Is Far, Wallumrød has dropped the saxophone entirely, but created a sextet by adding three string players who include Giovanna Pessi on Baroque harp (an instrument that is constructed differently from the contemporary classical instrument and has a deeper lower register), violinist Gjermund Larsen, and cellist Tanja Orning. The music here is in some ways radically different. Most of these 24 pieces are short and draw from some Baroque sources, most keenly Henry Purcell's "Fantasias," the long psalmist tradition in Norwegian sacred music, and even Pakistani music. Where improvisation is present, it is within tightly scripted parameters. The reason is that Wallumrød is interested more in textures, shapes, and tonality. Oftentimes it is difficult for the listener to pick out individual instruments. The melodies come out of sonority, as well as the use of intervals to gradually shift through one theme into another apart from basic lyric structures.
Indeed, most of these pieces are even grouped in alternating patterns to give the work a patchwork quilt feel, though no one work jars uncomfortably against another. Whether it is in the series of "Fragments," "Psalms," or the "Backwards Henry" (Purcell, of course) works, the sense of space and silence is the same, blending the individual pieces rather than simply juxtaposing them. During The Zoo Is Far's 70-minute duration, there are tracks that do stand out, such as the elegiac "Music for One Cat," where the lower registers of the harp, piano, and cello are blended almost symbiotically with the bass drum. Dissonance has its place here, but it carries no edges, such as on "Fragment No. 6," where the restrained tensions (the piano is in pianissimo for much of it) and the violin rise up from that silence to strike back at something in that chord pattern. One of the more delightful selections here is "Archdance with Trumpet," in which Henricksen plays his instrument nearly like some kind of flute; its sound is full of air and darkness, as Wallumrød plays repetitive -- nearly minimalist in structure -- patterns of single and double notes that bleed into and through one another, creating four chords from the echo of three. The hint of a glockenspiel is heard near the top of the mix. But it, too, is mysterious and ethereal. In contrast, the sketchy "Fragment No. 1" is outside the middle registers and rises from lower to middle on harp, violin, and piano. Henricksen plays these notes as well, but they are not immediately distinguishable. The final cut, "Allemande Es," seeks to combine virtually everything here in a very slow-moving, nearly murky piece. The sense of Baroque pomp asserts itself in the backdrop and in processional form, where the sharply juxtaposed tonalities of the "Fragments" are used in the spaces. Still more, the sense of the sacred that comes from the "Psalms" permeate the work, offering an anchored place for the music to unfold from and move back toward.
The Zoo Is Far is far from being an academic recording, though the music is studied. To listen to The Zoo Is Far in the abstract is almost like hearing Stephane Mallarme's poetry; it contains those elements of lines that carry over, stopping just shy of collision with others, or of those disappearing into another so that the poem reads as a whole instead of as a series of lines -- the musicality is in the language itself. It is nearly impossible to take in the entire recording at one sitting; it distracts you from whatever you are doing instead and draws you inside its sometimes eerie, sometimes utterly moving flow. Manfred Eicher's production, with its reliance on space, silence, and merely the hint of reverb, assures a snug and warm fit with the ECM aesthetic -- but more than this, Wallumrød is composing from an entirely different place than most. His attention to sonority and quiet, and the disappearance of sounds (even as they form melodies and lyric shapes) is not that far removed from the preoccupation of the late Morton Feldman with the disintegration of form, though his approach to it is entirely different. Wallumrød isn't trying to do away with form, but is looking to break it down enough to create something else, something clearly not definable from its parts. The Zoo Is Far is a major step for Wallumrød compositionally, and a major boon to anyone willing to encounter it on its own entirely strange but immediately accessible terms.