Just as life was formed on Earth, music was born as an unordered swarm of sounds and rhythms. Starting out very primitive and simple, its development has been complex, long and difficult. As humansʼ cultural needs evolved, so too did music. Through abstract thinking, music took on new meanings and functions; it didnʼt stay just as a medium for worshipping and prayers, it became a source of salvation in itself. The peak of its vertical complexity came with the widespread adoption of polyphony in the Renaissance era. Since then, musicians have evolved contrapunctus-led, multilayered compositions into something simpler but still sophisticated. For many, the effort to achieve complexity with a minimalism that ensure clarity and diversity is today’s subconscious modus operandi, and just like evolution, its results still push the boundaries of creativity.
The origins of Tomorrow, In A Year lie with Hotel Pro Forma, a Danish performance group who wanted to celebrate the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, inventor of the theory of evolution, with an opera unlike any other. Swedish duo The Knife were their first choice as collaborators, a pair whose analytical approach to music could fairly be likened to the way in which Darwin slowly and scrutinisingly worked on his theory. The tractable nature of Karin and Olof Dreijer’s music, which ranges from ’90s Europop to minimal techno and avant-garde electronica, has long hinted that they might one day shift their attention to something even more challenging and odd. And Tomorrow, In A Year is certainly both of those things.
Studying the formal conventions of opera (on the example of Aïda) was the first step in the duo’s creative process, followed by Olofʼs trip to the Amazon where he set about capturing field recordings of the rainforests and soaking up the sounds of pure, unadulterated nature. Studying Darwinʼs famous treatise On The Origin Of Species, alongside his scientific books and personal correspondence, lightened Olof’s way of thinking, a sea change that would highly influence the operaʼs libretto. Later down the line, the process became a shared collaboration with English multi-instrumentalist Planningtorock and another experimental musician, Mt. Sims, catalysing a wider diversity and destructing the almost claustrophobic sister-brother approach.
Tomorrow, In A Year catches three layers of evolution: natural, musical and personal. ‘Intro’ announces itself through beeps and soft atonal sounds, opening up a window into the beginnings of our world, a murky existence populated by unicellular creatures. These sounds develop into harsher buzzes and noises with a disharmony that emphasises thunderous chaos, accompanied by the fragmental staccato vocal of mezzo soprano Kristina Wahlin Momme. As she sings about eruptions, earthquakes and floods, her voice shifts from dramatic uneasiness to an almost hysterical shouting that can’t fail to bring out the goosebumps. Despite a book-like flow and lack of onomatopoeic rhymes, the lyrics never seem stale; paired with the unpredictable, non-linear electronic arrangements, the effect can be mind-blowing.
The arrival of tender-voiced Jonathan Johansson in the repetitive ‘Ebb Tide Explorer’ signifies a natural transition in the already-animal topic of Tomorrow, In A Yearʼs first movment. Already well known for inventive rhythms and unusual percussion, The Knife take these facets to a whole new level in the aggressive and offensive drone-beat of ‘Variation Of Birds’. Its noisy rhythmic loop plays almost unbearably, and with the addition of messy, ecstatic vocals, approaches an impeccable equilibrium that borders alarmingly on self-destruction.
While the first disc is devoted to the formation of the planet and living species with avant-garde droning arrangements and shouted unmelodic vocals, the second one is more varied and easy on the ear. First track ‘Annieʼs Box’ finds Mommeʼs melancholic storytelling supported by the gloomy cello of Hildur Guðnadóttir as the plot moves into the ages when humans are believed to be sensitive and thoughtful beings. Showing very concisely the impressive diversity of Tomorrow, In A Year as a whole, the song stretches from droning disharmony to a teary magnificence, beautifully capturing the era of Romanticism, dominated by deep feelings and wide imaginations, with a heart-rending parting glimpse into the tragic death of Darwinʼs ten year old daughter.
Such splendour is matched again by the eleven-minute epic ‘Colouring Of Pigeons’, which starts out with with anthemic rhythm lead by guesting percussionist Hjorleifur Jonsson and wordless staccato dialogue between Momme and Johansson. Backed by the cello of Hildur Guðnadóttir, the first four minutes are just a preparation for the album’s only appearance of Karin Dreijerʼs expressive stream-of-consciousness singing. The narrative’s ability to combine evolutionary themes with the flow of Darwinʼs life can be heard in the similarly exciting title track, where rhythms and sounds coagulate into a thick mass that works as a hymnic epitaph to the modern age.
Just as natural development caused in Darwin a great curiosity that resulted in stalwartly observing current behaviour and the state of the world to predict how it might change in future, The Knife, too, look back through the epochs with the same patience as they paint contemporary electro-pop. The same patience is also required of the listener, but it’s not all hard work. The simplest and most approachable piece on Tomorrow, In A Year is saved almost for last with ‘The Height Of Summer’; much more typical of The Knifeʼs dark pop, it is sung by actress Lærke Winther with abstract, metaphorical lyrics leading to the final rhetorical question: “How is Charles? / I havenʼt heard from him for a long long time.” With its beats and percussion reminding of ‘Heartbeats’, the final song – an abstraction of ‘Annieʼs Box’ with an alternative vocal – moves the listener into a completely different mood, as if to announce that, while the electronic present is all around us, nature is still the place we come from and ultimately return to.
Itʼs also a memento that, for all its grand performances, Tomorrow, In A Year is clearly not an opera. Many classical elements are present but the synthetic looping approach, actions replaced by abstract images and feelings, and addition of non-operatic vocals make this album more of an avant-garde, high-art musical. Nevertheless, The Knife’s inventive forms of expression, sense of catchy rhythms, and gift for choosing the right collaborators make Tomorrow, In A Year a rewarding trip through human and musical history that, like all the most startling works, strikes a highly-evolved balance between complexity and simplicity.
[Rabid/Brille; March 8, 2010]