Biosphere: The Sonic Eerie

Biosphere (Geir Jenssen) is an artist that I have listen to for quite some time now, but it was not until this year that I really got into his full catalogue, following the release of his amazing mini-LP The Petrified Forest. Born in 1962 in the arctic city Tromsø in Norway, Jenssen is most famous as a composer of so-called ‘arctic ambience’ (particularly on his landmark LP Substrata (1997)). Although this is a somewhat restrictive labelling, partly because what is at stake in Jenssen’s music is not just a fascination with the artic, but with a nature and even an outer space full of mysteries and wonder – and also because his impressive sonic vocabulary encompasses much more than merely the ambient. This is particularly evident on his first LP (under the moniker Bleep), which draws heavily upon acid and techno and may be positioned as a somewhat forgotten forerunner to what later would become known as IDM (Intelligent Dance Music). Indeed, the Bleep-album – entitled The North Pole by Submarine (1990) – has a similar sound to early Aphex Twin-releases (particularly the landmark Selected Ambient Works, 85-92, which came out two years later), and Aphex is in fact a major fan of it.

Jenssen did however not release another album as Bleep, but instead debuted as Biosphere in 1991 with Microgravity. While the album still has a steady foundation in techno, the acid parts are gone in favour of the ambient sound that would be elaborated on by Jenssen on many later releases as Biosphere. Indeed, it is quite evident that a major aesthetic shift has taken place between the Bleep-record and Microgravity, since the latter has that distinctively eerie quality to it that to me is the quintessential aspect of Biosphere’s sound. This is partly because of the incorporation of ambient elements, but also because of how Jenssen began to utilize sampled voices (from old films, television, etc.) – which immediately became another crucial component of the Biosphere-aesthetic, and has remained so all the way up to his latest album from earlier this year. The thematic core of Microgravity is space exploration (to which Jenssen has returned numerous times) – and this is articulated in the sound, in the album title, in many track titles (‘Baby Satellite’, ‘Cloudwalker II’, etc.), and in Jenssen’s brilliant use of sampled voices on tracks such as the amazing ‘Tranquilizer’. The latter fuses a basic techno-beat with cosmic synthesizers and repeated uses of sampled voices of a man asking a woman ‘Can we make it back to Earth?’ – to which she responds ‘The risk is great. The decision, of course, is yours.’

The fascination with space travel, techno, and eerie voices is also evident on Jenssen’s second album as Biosphere – the great Patashnik from 1994. The title, allegedly, is a Russian word for an astronaut who failed to return from a space mission because his security cable was destroyed and he floated away into the cosmic unknown. This is a brilliant title for an LP that – like Microgravity – feels like a journey into foreign cosmic dimensions. Once again, the sound consists of a brilliantly eerie fusion of techno and ambient, with more evocative track titles (e.g. ‘Startoucher’, ‘Mir’ (a reference to the space station with the same name), and ‘SETI Project’ (The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence)) and amazing uses of voice samples (such as the lines ‘Can you imagine an extra-terrestrial disc jockey? It’s like listening to radio waves from outer space’.) The album also features the track ‘Novelty Waves’, which became somewhat famous when the clothing company Levi Strauss decided to use it in one of their ads (which marked the first time that they incorporated electronic music in one of their campaigns). All in all, both Microgravity and Patashnik are astonishing albums that hold up much better today than a lot of the IDM that came out around the same time. The combination of inner melancholy and outward visions of the unknown as articulated through Jenssen’s distinctive aesthetic is their main strength.

Jenssen followed up Microgravity with his most famous album, Substrata, on which he ditched the cosmic and techno elements of the previous records in favour of what indeed can be described as arctic ambience (around this time, he also composed the score for Erik Skjoldbjærg’s arctic murder mystery Insomnia, which was remade by Christopher Nolan in 2002). But while the cosmic and techno components are absent from the record, it is still definitely a Biosphere-record insofar as the trademark eeriness still sits at the core of the sound – and the accompanying feeling of an experience of fascination and wonder while standing at the edge of an alien nature gives the record that particular Biosphere-feel. This feeling is again also heightened by voice-samples. Two tracks contain sampled monologues from David Lynch’s and Mark Frost’s amazing TV-show Twin Peaks (from The Giant and Major Garland Briggs respectively), which feels like a natural fit given the similar fascination of Lynch and Frost in the show with the encounter between the human lifeworld and an alien outside beyond everyday cognition and experience.

Jenssen followed Substrata with a series of albums that in my opinion are less engaging compared to the earlier ones, although 2004’s astonishing Autour de la Lune (Around the Moon, based on the Jules Verne-novel with the same title) – released around this time – stands out as one of his most sophisticated and difficult albums. Here he returns to the space-themes of the first two records, but with a much darker and drone-based sound that also is incredibly massive in the lower registers (a sound-system with a solid sub-bass is highly recommended). The 22-minute opener ‘Translation’ sets the stage for one of the most complex and abstract sonic journeys that Jenssen has presented, and which also is highly reminiscent of his fellow Norwegian peer Deathprod’s dark and foggy albums (the two have also collaborated on two great records – 1998’s Nordheim Transformed and 2015’s Stator). Indeed, if listening to Microgravity and Patashnik feels like slowly drifting through the stars, then listening to Autour de la Lune feels more like being sucked into a black hole in which normal space and time is bent out of shape. I do, however, like to think of these three albums as sort of a cosmic trilogy that is among the best work that Jenssen has put out.

Jenssen’s more recent major releases have all revolved around quite explicit themes. The amazing N-Plants from 2011 is a conceptual album focusing on Japanese nuclear plants, their architecture and their localizations at the edge between man and nature – including their vulnerability to natural threats such as earthquakes and tsunamis (and the album was in fact completed just a few days before the Fukushima-catastrophe). And 2016’s Departed Glories is based on heavily processed samples of old Polish and Ukrainian folk music that Jenssen collected while he was living in Krakow near the Las Wolski forest, where hundreds of Poles were executed by the Germans during World War II and where there is a memorial place for them today. Inspired by the ghostly atmosphere of this location, Jenssen sought to recreate a similar ambiance on the album by warping and bending these old folk records in a way that thematically overlaps with what has been described as ‘hauntological sound’ in the alternative music press (particularly in The Wire magazine in the mid-2000s). Prevalent in the music of artists such as Burial, The Caretaker, and William Basinski (and drawing upon the concept of hauntology by the philosopher Jacques Derrida), the hauntological aesthetic has mainly been associated with the fascination among a number of contemporary musicians with collective longings for the past, unrealized futures of earlier analogue eras (in particular British post-war culture) that keep haunting us in the context of the digital blandness of postmodernism. Thus, central to hauntology in music are phenomena such as lo-fi, crackle, and analogue equipment – that all constitute a kind of collective sonic memory, or absence, which keeps haunting the bland presence of our cultural present. While coming from a different angle, Departed Glories nevertheless does share a lot of this aesthetic – although it falls a bit short compared to the massive explorations into sonic memory by artists such as The Caretaker, and ends up being one of Jenssen’s least interesting takes on the sonic eerie. Much more interesting is The Petrified Forest – the mini-LP released earlier this year on Jenssen’s own Biophon label. Inspired by the 1936 film of the same name (once again in part through a number of brilliant uses of voice samples), the LP also showcases Jenssen’s interest in the edge between man and nature once again (The Petrified Forest is also the name of a national park famous for its large amounts of fossils, and Black Mesa – the location where the film takes place and the title of one of the best tracks on the album – is the name of a remote tableland in the south of the Black Mountains in Arizona). And even though it does not introduce any particularly novel components into Jenssen’s music, it is a (too) short but solid take on the sound that he has spent decades on perfecting.

Central to this sound to me is the notion of the eerie. But what is the eerie? In his book The Weird and the Eerie (2016), Mark Fisher defines the eerie as a mode of strangeness of something unknown that lies beyond everyday cognition and experience. Whereas the eerie, much like the weird, has tended to be conflated with the Freudian concept of the uncanny (unheimlich) – that is, the strangeness of phenomena such as dolls, doubles, automata, and prostheses – this is inadequate for Fisher insofar as it limits the strangeness at work to within the confines of the human lifeworld (i.e. the psychoanalytic obsession with the family). Contrary to this, what defines the strangeness of the phenomena indexed by the weird and the eerie, according to Fisher, is their positioning outside of the familiar world of the human. In other words, they invoke a disturbance to the human lifeworld, rather than within it. In the case of the eerie, we may for instance think of vast natural landscapes (deserts, forests, mountains, etc.) mostly untouched by humans. When traversing such spaces, one often experiences a certain eeriness because of the non-human vastness and strangeness that they invoke – including a sense of wonder and speculation: Is there perhaps something out there? (Outer space is obviously the absolute best example of this eeriness). This feeling is rooted in what for Fisher are essential aspects of the eerie: questions around presence and absence (is there something present where there should be nothing?), agency (what is happening and who is acting?), and speculation (who or what is it?). And while more human spaces certainly also may be steeped in eeriness (e.g. empty old mansions and abandoned villages), I agree with Fisher that it is when the eerie invokes forces or agents alien to the human lifeworld that it is most powerful.

This is consequently the eeriness at work in Biosphere’s sound: the feeling of mystery and wonder when standing at the edge of an alien nature. There is, as we saw earlier, a recurrent theme in his sound that revolves around evoking vast natural and cosmic landscapes beyond the relatively tiny world of the human species. Crucial here is also the fact that there are never any actual references to agents operating in these landscapes – aliens, monsters, or something else – since that would negate the most central component of the eerie, which is the unknown. Because as soon as we figure out if someone – and who – is acting, then we are no longer in the presence of the eerie. Thus, listening to Biosphere is like being transported through these vast unpopulated landscapes while being haunted by a kind of absent presence. Indeed, the way that Jenssen’s sound evokes this strangeness is its main strength. In that regard, the moniker Biosphere is most apt insofar as it refers to the total zone of life on earth – since crucial to the eerie is a confrontation between the inside and the outside: between the familiar lifeworld that we know by heart, and the unfamiliar world beyond that strikes us as strange and alien (and we have already seen how staging this confrontation in various ways is a recurrent theme in Jenssen’s music, in terms of power plants, ghosts, cosmic journeys, etc.).

Perhaps most personal of all these sonic journeys into the unknown is Jenssen’s 2006-album Cho Oyu 8201m: Field Recordings from Tibet, on which he documents an actual expedition that he took part in (he is indeed also a mountaineer) and where he climbed to the top of Cho Oyu (the sixth highest mountain in the world) without extra oxygen (this was in 2001). Other than the thrill of listening to recordings from such an amazing expedition, it is also interesting to hear Jenssen base an album around field recordings, since he – despite his interest in evoking nature and natural phenomena on his albums – otherwise does not seem to work with field recordings (at least not as explicitly) as much as with synthesizers, samples, and drum machines. Yet field recordings are at the heart of this album, and they powerfully evoke the eeriness of ascending a towering mountaintop, further and further away from civilization and into the vast nature beyond.

To access the Biosphere-playlist in the video archive, click here.

Image Copyright Notice: Mitja Podreka