Vol. 42 Issue 3 Reviews
Kari Väkevä: Diptych

Compact disc, 2017, KV2 CD-003, available from KV2 Computer Music, Finland; www.vakeva.org.

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

CD CoverDiptych is an album featuring electroacoustic, computer-generated music by the self-taught Finnish composer Kari Väkevä. Väkevä works primarily with fixed media using synthesis software written in C++, as well as programs written by the composer himself. Before solely focusing on his compositions, Väkevä worked for many years in the information technology industry, which included work designing and building robots. The sense of the alien and automation carry through into the music on this recording.

According to the liner notes, Diptych is a single work divided into two parts entitled Moondog and Sundog. Moondog is further divided into five movements, while Sundog contains three. Diptych, 80 minutes long, was originally conceived for an octophonic system that was a soundtrack for an installation, in which the music was looped nonstop. Each section or movement can also be performed separately. According to Väkevä, the piece is too long for standard concert presentations, so the purpose of this recording is to present the entire piece in a single format. Diptych was composed between 2012 and 2015 but not released on the present recording until 2017. Between 2015 and 2016 it was performed in various configurations at festivals.

Diptych was conceived in three phases: synthesis of the foreground material, employment of filtering and processing, and mixing. The large-scale formal plan for the composition involves a transposed series of slowed-down tremoli that revolve around the circle of fifths, within an accelerating tempo scheme. The transpositions involve just fifths, so, interestingly, after circling around, the composer arrives at a different pitch class from where he started. In general, Diptych, engages with pure texture and a few harmonic accouterments, without imparting any sense of melody or rhythm.

The first movement of Moondog opens with deep, bell-like sounds with resonant trails. The composer does little to hide the fact that the sounds used are clearly artificial, and computer generated. One also immediately notices the work’s attention to space and spatialization, and the fact that the composer does not shy away from various forms of distortion or sonic overload. Some of the early work of Brian Eno comes to mind as a comparison, but Väkevä’s use of dynamic changes, spatialization, and distortion places it in a different context. About 4:30 a barely noticeable layer begins to be heard in the background. This initiates a structural procedure – using dynamic layers to articulate material strata – which the composer employs throughout this piece. Each stratum also seems to evolve at a different rate of speed. At 17:22, this first movement is also the longest of the eight.

Conversely, at about two and a half minutes in length, track two is one of the shorter movements on Diptych. Along with track four, these two vignettes were conceived as soft interludes, or palette cleansers, to separate the longer movements. Väkevä creates a composite sound environment with many separate parts, via various filtering and resonance techniques, and inharmonic artifacts from frequency modulation. In this respect, tracks two and four are not unlike the other tracks on this album with respect to sounds and processing techniques and a sense of timelessness. However, here we encounter these attributes in miniature form.

Track three brings us back to the longer length format. We hear deep, resonant, low frequency drones offset with a slowly descending, loud cicada sound. There is also the sound of what might be described as giant rubber bands being plucked in various degrees of tautness. Here one is reminded of the once popular use of the Karplus-Strong algorithm. Track three’s materials evolve at a leisurely rate through what might be described as an amorphous approach to time. Väkevä deftly combines comb filtering with various types of amplitude modulation, and a consistent use of inharmonic partials. Compositionally, pitch and noise materials co-exist in equal measure. At times, there’s an anachronistic sense to the artificiality of the sounds heard. For example, some of the sound complexes seem to decay too abruptly, giving one the impression that a computer, rather than acoustics was used to generate this material. Interestingly, at the end of this track, we hear a long fade out blatantly interrupted by loud, raw waveforms. They disturb any kind of tidy ‘exit’ strategy.

Track five, the last Moondog movement, begins differently from the other tracks, with a series of repeated pitches over a backdrop that sounds like the composer used reversal and comb filtering techniques. Long sustained tones trail off as they dovetail with other layers. This movement features a highly static texture interrupted by occasional flurries of activity, and what I might describe as slowed down music box sounds. This movement also points to one of the weaknesses of this album – the frequent use of flat, non-dynamic materials that remain static for long periods of time. In a way, Diptych can be heard as a theme and variations structure in which the variations resemble each other as much as they resemble the theme itself. On the other hand, as an 80-minute soundtrack to an installation piece, the high degree of sameness would impart a strong sense of unity and consistency. But without the installation environment, the piece, as a whole, sounds as if it is referring to something it lacks.
As stated previously, tracks six, seven, and eight contain the three movements of Sundog, part two of Diptych. Track six clocks in at around eight minutes, thus, providing a timespan directly between the primary movements of Diptych and the shorter interludes. Like the other tracks, Sundog is chock-full of slowly undulating, sonic peaks and valleys. If I were to supply a visual accompaniment, it would contain hand bells, giant rubber bands, and planetary travel. Toward the end of movement seven we hear an accumulation of layers, sonically blurred with a Doppler effect technique that provides a sense of climactic urgency.

Track eight, the final movement, presents the same sounds and processing techniques as before but with more animation, and within thicker textures. The sounds seem to coalesce via anthropomorphic sonic ‘descriptions’. It is not difficult to imagine aquatic creatures, birds, or land mammals propagating in a virtual space. Hearing the first movement of Moondog after the last movement of Sundog certain things become clear, including the transition from a full, thick texture to a sparse, thin one. Diptych can be heard as a journey that loops back to its beginning after an epic, 80-minute time span. But the beginning seems different than when first encountered – a testament to the potent, sonic landmarks heard along the way.
Fixed media pieces work well on recordings but still beg the question as to whether they can create convincing live contexts. Väkevä provides an answer to this question by employing his fixed media pieces in sound installations. Tellingly, Sundog and Moondog refers to metaphors such as lightness and darkness, yet the work is in no way programmatic. Overall, Diptych is characterized by pristine sounds, sonic invention, a sense of spaciousness, and an alien soundscape, suggesting extraterrestrial visuals and space travel. Diptych also requires an unusual degree of patience on the part of the listener. In a world ruled by trivial sound bites this is not necessarily a bad thing.