The Ritournelle is concept I studied some years ago, created by Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari for A Thousand Plateaus in 1987. Loosely translated in English as “the refrain”, it’s a philosophical concept representing incantation for a claimed spatiality; the sort of song that, despite supposed lightness, calls for the power of the cosmos. I’ll skip over deeper philosophical ditties, and stick with its more relevant association to music and territory:
“When do I do Tralala ? When do I hum? I hum in three various occasions. I hum when I go around my territory…and that I clean up my furniture with a radiophonic background…meaning when I am at home.
I also hum when I am not at home and that I am trying to reach back my home…when the night is falling, anxiety time…I look for my way and I give myself some courage by singing tralala. I go toward home.
And, I hum when I say ‘Farewell, I am leaving and in my heart I will bring…’. That’s popular music ‘Farewell, I am leaving and in my heart I will bring…’ That’s when I leave my place to go somewhere else. In other words, the ritournelle (refrain), for me, is absolutely linked to the problem of territory, and of processes of entrance or exit of the territory…”
–Abécédaire, Gilles Deleuze
Deleuze & Guattari’s Ritournelle always comes to mind whenever I encounter music whose strokes seem to completely embrace an ambiguous status as a naive, repetitive motif — with its subtle power in dissemination according to varying landscapes. Perhaps also the reason I’ve had Otto Totland’s Pinô on continuous, continuous rotation for months, yet taken so long to review it. The album is by far, one of the most meaningful releases I’ve heard to date writing for BS. Totland, aka one half of Norwegian duo Deaf Center (with Erik Skodvin of Svarte Greiner & Miasmah label fame), released this first full-length solo recording earlier this year, though the split 7″ last year had not gone amiss.
It actually wasn’t until March, boarding a plane leaving Oslo and listening again to title track, “Pinô” that I finally felt I had something to say. Standing on the glass walled connector between the plane and flight gate, I realized it moments after a burst of sunlight fell through. Not only did I truly feel the sun on my skin for the first time in weeks, but it was precipitous– the scathing, wretched feeling that accompanied it. It’s something I can only associate with the onset of Norwegian summer, a dry melancholia that sags from the air like little hooks; a clarity of when everything is exposed. It evoked memory of waking up in a big white bed in Oslo, the sunlight surging through the high windows, seeing happy crowds in the park, a unstoppable irrefutable pattern despite all the leavings, loss, goodbyes.
But after that flight, I still couldn’t manage a word. I was back in America, sitting in my the bathtub, whirling my fingers around foam bubbles, forty minutes past, the speakers reverberating notes against the bathroom walls. I sunk back into lukewarm water in a deep somber state, indulging once again in the notes, which had now become familiar.
In the interm, while listening to Pinô I sought out other singular composers, albums like Keith Kenniff’s “Branches”; Ólafur Arnalds’ “…and they have escaped the weight of darkness” as well as “For Now I am Winter”; then Max Richter’s “Memoryhouse”. I think I can now say I feel a strong difference in such composed music and what’s in Pinô. In soundtracks especially, a lot of the feelings orchestrated by musical devices– the use of the strings, bells, and in particular, synchronization, a narrative, a beginning, climax and end– yet something about the way Totland plays, notes on the brink of hesitation, reminiscent of albums like alva noto’s “Insen”. Moments of uncertainty and unplanned-ness propels it forward, and what allows it to flow so beautifully.
In one interview with Totland, he mentions, “I would say Pinô consists of three types of pieces: Composed (steps, pinô, julie). They could be sheet music. I play them similar every time. Improvised (seveen, bluss, âust). I had not played them before. What you hear is the first time. Piano ambient (open, aquet, flomé). For airy breaks between the more melodic pieces.”
The opening track, “Open” is an apt title for the delicacy of its invitation. The stage it sets is one that’s honest. Background sounds are pure– a breath, a shuffle, a piano creak. Yet once you’re secure of your arrival, Track 2, “Steps” takes you onward with a bit more confidence, as is tracks like “Solêr” which carry a more determinate direction. The calming pulse of the left hand rhythm, while the treble clef plays along as a loyal patron with soothing scales reminiscent of baroque era piano music (specifically, reminded me playing Bach’s Preludium C-dur as a child). Arpeggios lingering in perfect harmonic balance, continuously, changing in minute alterations into a steep path whereby the third coda the entire tone has changed. Tracks like “Aquet” are more hopefully of daybreak, like Greig’s “Morgenstimmung”.
I love how every track is like a short study of a single idea or essence. In “Seveen” and “North Way” how a few notes in their simple improvised rising and falling built up intense character.
Track “Ro To” is in many ways like its brother, “Pinô”. The feeling that night has fallen, element of closure and finality, when the song shifts and transposes, the return of a kind of a refrain is new (And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time). But despite all the musical allusions I make, it never goes in circles. Every listen brings forth a new sensation, unlike any other.
Some of my favorite moments on the album are the seagull cry in “Julie” and the sound of the distant cough. In the same interview, he mentions it, “Yes! it’s all done in Nils studio [the same piano is used as Nils Frahm on his album Wintermusik at the latter´s Durton Studios]. And yeah, you can hear Nils in the background (including coughing, haha).”
Such elements keep it very human, close to the natural world — but don’t be deceived, this is hardly as easy as found-sound recording. The execution is flawless. Against a cavity of bright light, of life going-ons, in Pinô each note plucks at a moment in time. It’s a rare type of music that can make you travel so far from the confines of your room.