The Shield and the Dropsonde

Press text for Biosphere’s CD Dropsonde, 2005. Sleeve design by Jon Wozencroft.

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It was a hot, sweaty night, late night in late Summer, 1996. I had quit smoking a couple of weeks earlier and was visibly struggling with the nicotine withdrawal, having a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep… Just before 2 am, as I lay on the couch zapping through the TV channels in anticipation of Morpheus, I catch sight of a German channel shoving trance videos throughout the night. Something had me pause and stare at a mysterious video of what seemed like a gigantic satellite dish pointed at the sky in defiance. No special effects in sight, but the soundtrack draws you in, vaguely melancholic, somewhat austere, clearly in contrast with the frantic non-stop trance parade on offer that night. The track I’ve just heard is called “The Shield”, I then learn, and the artist is one Biosphere. What a perfect name to describe with absolute precision the vastness of the sound I’d just heard. That night, I came to understand, nicotine withdrawal had not been to blame for my over-excitement. It was unknown to me then, but a long and faithful relationship had just begun.

The secret of Biosphere’s longevity is its unpredictable nature, and this is also the reason for my continued interest in, and reverence of, its work. Simply put, Biosphere has always thrived on contrasts. It loves to sit uncomfortably in-between genres and labels, it never fits neatly into any box we might want to place it for too long. Biosphere is a crossroads of quotations, a hybrid of digested genres and casual impressions, a meeting of inspiration and introspection.

Hugely celebrated in the techno scene, Geir Jenssen’s music travels far beyond the dance landscape and its associated contexts. Whispered among those in the know as the finest wine in the avant-garde crop, his output is far too sensual to abide by current agendas of sonic dissonance and austerity. Hailed by many as the true carriers of the ambient torch, Geir’s creations are nevertheless far too engaging to serve as aural wallpaper, thus failing to fulfill Eno’s original predicament of music that could be equally ignorable and interesting: they are just too interesting to be ignored. Among this maze of possible genres, the only true constant in Biosphere’s path over the last decade and a half has been a quiet sense of adventure and discovery, each album intriguing and unpredictable, each release consisting of anything but what we expected it to be. And yet every one of them so unmistakably Biosphere.

After all, there is such a thing as a Biosphere sound, a personal imprint Geir Jenssen cannot help but apply to his creations – a sound that is intense without being aggressive, vast though not epic, evocative but not nostalgic. A sound that is cinematic yet isn’t a mere soundtrack. And when it is a soundtrack (see the score produced for Erik Skjoldbjærg’s 1997 “Insomnia”, possibly the finest example of a Biosphere film score), it is a film in itself: textured, synaesthetic and quasi-narrative. Biosphere has that rare quality: it triggers our imagination while enhancing our perception of any given surroundings, it adds depth and expression to whichever environment it is played against. This is not iPod or reality TV, it is a creative resource, an inspiration, an invitation to be active in our listening.

This active quality was developed to perfection on the essential Substrata (1997), and has since remained constant throughout the dramatic Cirque (2000), the scholarly Shenzhou (2002) and the solemn Autour De La Lune (2004). The new Dropsonde is, again, born out of the unexpected. Taking its name from a weather-reading device that relays information as it falls from the skies, Biosphere’s Dropsonde is equally volatile and unpredictable. Following the exercises in austerity and solitude of the previous release, Biosphere returns confident, exuberant, full of drive and contrast.

One reason for this latest inflexion comes directly from Dropsonde’s creative process. 2004-2005 has been a season of long travels for Biosphere, having taken Geir Jenssen to Australia, New Zealand, China, Italy, Germany, Canada… the new album carries this sense of travel and transience, having been largely composed and recorded in various hotel rooms around the world. In the author’s words, “I don´t know how many sunsets and campfires I´ve seen this summer, but they have all inspired me during the work.” Indeed, the work feels inspired: if previous releases hinted at the possibility of fixating Biosphere under the “Arctic Sound” moniker, Dropsonde shatters the Arctic mythologies of quietude and solitude once and for all – it whispers maturity and optimism. This time there is no discernible narrative like in previous efforts… what we get is a celebration made of brief statements, the joy of moving forward, diversity. The linear narratives of Cirque or Autour De La Lune are here replaced by a vertical compression of references, a constant contrast and coexistence of languages.

Musically speaking, the new album adds conspicuous elements to the Biosphere sound: the presence of sampled drum loops from jazz records may at first seem like an extraneous presence, but soon reveals itself as a particularly clever choice of sound texture. They make the album groove, not in the techno colours of yore but in warmer shades, adding humour and scope to the overall sound, hinting at the current cultural obsession with sampling its own past but producing something far more exciting than the vast majority of the results we are faced with on a daily basis. One is dared to listen to tracks such as “In Triple Time” or “Birds Fly By Flapping Their Wings” and not feel Biosphere moving forward. Dropsonde also displays a renewed interest in the individual quality of sounds, a desire to interweave them onto a coherent whole without losing sight of each singular element: a sort of attention to detail while never losing sight of the whole, vast landscape. “Daphnis 26” is a great example of a track that develops this double scope: on the surface, not much seems to be happening and Biosphere seems to be interested in painting a still image or capturing a particular mood. Then we gradually come to realize the amount of detailed activity taking place, and this realization opens up a whole new way of listening. It is this kind of active listening that Biosphere never fails to propose us.

It has been fascinating to witness Biosphere slowly incorporate and unfold throughout the years, broadening its vocabulary since its early days in 1990 (then known as “Bleep”), becoming progressively more acute and sophisticated but never losing its edge. The real treat, though, is to witness how Biosphere gradually begins transcending the musical territory (or even its visual territory, in that Geir’s music constantly brings images to the mind). It pays attention to what music needs to be, in a cultural sense, here and now.

In difficult days marked by a permanent sense of overabundance and sensory overload, marred by a constant demand for escapism and pre-packaged relaxation, Biosphere remains a certainty: we always know its music will be relevant. Regardless of how dizzying the surrounding soundscapes may become, Biosphere remains the standard of excellence that current creatives must measure themselves against. And by the way, it took me a couple more attempts, but I did quit for good.

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