The Ultimate Post-Election Hi-Rez Roto-Rooter: Maja S.K. Ratkje’s And sing. . .

Did the election leave you on the edge, and wishing to scream? If so, and the need for catharsis remains, I have for you the scream to end all screams: And sing. . ., 2L’s multi-format recording of two works by the astounding composer/artist Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje. Showcasing Ratkje’s unforgettable vocal effects—to call them “haunting” is to vastly understate her ability to rattle you to the core—the recording includes accompaniment by the Oslo-based contemporary music ensemble, Cikada, and the 30-year old Oslo Sinfonietta.

Fulfilling 2L’s unspoken promise, “No Format Left Behind,” the native DXD (352.8/24) hi-rez recording is available as either a 2-disc, optional multi-channel hybrid SACD/Pure Audio Blu-ray package that includes 9.1 Auro-3D and Dolby Atmos options, or in stereo or multi-channel download formats ranging from 320kbps MP3 (why bother?) and 44.1k/16 up to stereo DSD256, 352kHz FLAC, and stereo MQA.

Easy listening And sing. . . is not, but essential listening it is. For far too long we have allowed ourselves to wallow in music that portrays suffering and agony in the sweetest of terms. Many of us, in fact, intentionally invest in sweet-sounding, warm amplifiers and cabling in order to experience our world through the aural equivalent of rose-colored glasses. (I once sold an otherwise astounding Krell amplifier because it made everything, including Shostakovich’s music of suffering and rebellion, sound unnaturally sweet.) For those whose listening tastes range no farther that Nat King Cole and early Mozart, And sing. . . likely will not a good day make.

Ratkje strips away all semblance of sweetness. After listening to the entire, superbly recorded SACD late in the evening, I found it so disturbing that I spent a deeply fitful night imagining what it feels like to be tortured to death, or locked in a gas chamber and discovering gas coming through the supposed shower heads. I even had flashbacks of those horrible images of emaciated corpses being plowed into graves after the Allies liberated Nazi concentration camps, and found the bodies of the dead that war criminals and people who were “just obeying orders” had left to rot. Yet I still urge you to hear this recording. No one in recent memory, save for the amazing, still performing Diamanda Galas and some of the great heavy metal/punk exponents, has dared to enter the darkest fields of human existence and render from them music so equally compelling, fascinating and unflinchingly tortuous.

The first of the two compositions on the 46-minute recording, And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep, was commissioned in 2012 by the Cikada Ensemble. Deriving its title from Shakespeare, it features untreated, pre-recorded vocal sounds that were inspired by electronic music. As Ratkje begins to scream like a siren, I imagined the advance of a threatening, lumbering beast or a monster rising from the midst. Slimy, ghostly organisms appeared before my eyes as Cikada’s sensationally recorded percussive effects left me equally amazed and repelled. As everything got going at once, to the point that I couldn’t easily tell which bizarre sounds were produced by voice, and which by instrument, I felt as though I was being whirled around in a particle accelerator and then hurled into void. By the time the music faded out, I was beyond words.

Ratkje’s initially performed Concerto for Voice with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra in Paris before reworking it in the form heard here, as Concerto for Voice (moods IIIb) for sinfonietta-sized orchestra. The piece begins with a growing tumult, as slow rumbling paves the way for Ratkje sounding like chalk screeching on a blackboard (or worse). The dynamic swings are huge, as the music’s quasi-mystical sounds veer between agony and ecstasy. Screams and utter chaos ensue before the virtual cataclysm cedes to softer sounds.

As a vocal tour de force, you’ll have to go to recordings of Galas or Joan La Barbara performing Berio to find anything nearly as astounding. At times, Ratkje sounds as if in the death throe agony . . . until she begins whistling or making clicking sounds or snorting like an exotic bird or pet pig, and a typewriter begins clicking away in the distance. The instrumental forces are equally hell-bent for leather, leaving little standing in their wake.

The recording, which was made with the performing forces arranged in a circle around a special microphone array, may take you the closest you’ve ever been to the surround experience via two-channel. My just-installed Synergistic Research Tranquility Base UEFs, which sit under Pass Labs XA200.8 monoblocks, along with the company’s Grounding Block and other enhancements from Bybee, Stein, and Grand Prix, sure helped convey engineer Morten Lindberg’s astonishing three-dimensional layering and image weight. 2L’s engineering is perfect for what Ratkje does.

By the time the concerto ended quietly, I was in a state of disbelief. Thank God I had already walked the dogs, because I was in no shape to do so after listening. Unless the heaviest dose of reality you can possibly bear must come via Reader’s Digest or an Oprah special, do whatever you can to hear this recording on a good system.

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