KIM HIORTHOY : Katalog (Smalltown Superbooks)
VARIOUS : Money Will Ruin Everything (Rune Grammofon RCD 2032)
Having only previously come across his work in the shape of those immediately identifiable cd packages he designs for Rune Grammofon I was intrigued to see what else Hiorthoy does. I have to say from the outset that I am not qualified to contribute to any graphic design versus fine art debate, nor would I particularly want to. I look at ‘Katalog’ and its contents as an interested outsider.

This collection of photographs, drawings, collages etc was originally conceived to coincide with Hiorthoy’s photo exhibition, Jeg er nesten alltid redd (I’m Almost Always Afraid) at Fotogalleriet in Oslo last year but now stands alone as an A4 colour photobook. And if you were expecting any of the usual colourful minimalism of his cd covers you may be surprised. The first couple of pages, for instance, consist of paste-ups of pieces of text and since I don’t know the language I simply skipped them.

However, there are several pages of black and white photographs which, for me, form the interesting core of the book. There are images of frozen landscapes full of bleak sky and bare trees, a figure crosses one of them caught in mid-stride, his back to the camera. In another semi derelict buildings occupy the lower part of the photo while that empty sky seems to fill most of it. A snowy road at night flares with the diffused light of a street lamp, hazy and indistinct. There is one in which buildings and trees close in on a cyclist, again with his back to the camera, who is himself half shadow. I was reminded of Atget’s Paris at first but there is a different quality to the light in this and other pictures.

Some photos feature anonymous faces or hands, or at least I assume they’ll be unknown to most people who pick up this book. It doesn’t matter. There are also some pictures which Hiorthoy did not take himself and others which were ‘found’. They feature a young pilot giving the thumbs ­ up from the cockpit of a small plane, a couple in a rowing boat, not quite looking at the camera and a man, looking down, whose face is dissolving in shadow, his expression enigmatic. Another man, in a long dress, stands inscrutable beside torn wallpaper. What was going on in these strange interiors that sometimes look like abstracts from some longer narrative ? You read into such stills what you will, but I found myself fascinated and drawn back to them.

Other images such as a doll lying face down on a floor or skateboards stacked against a wall seem chosen at random from the plethora of images which everyday life throws up. Who’s to say what they may signify. I tended to spend less time on these. But why look for explanations? Some are arresting and others aren’t. It’s that simple, isn’t it ?

If you are a fan of Hiorthoy’s cd covers, and I am, then there will be plenty to pore over in the celebratory hardback Rune Grammofon have put out to mark its first five years and thirty releases. He designed the book and his work features throughout, as you might expect, in the form of a gallery of all the Rune Grammofon cd packages or parts of them. So the book is a celebration of his and the label’s work. It may also be seen as a very large and extravagant cd cover in itself since it houses two cds featuring thirty tracks from all those who have featured on the label in various combinations.

But sticking with the book for a moment, apart from the artwork there is an interview with the label’s founder, Rune Kristoffersen and essays by Rob Young of The Wire and design writer Adrian O’Shaughnessy. These are all very readable and informative in different ways ­ I was particularly interested in finding out more about the man who chose to launch his record label with a three volume package of hardcore electronic improvisation, Supersilent 1 - 3. Anyway, all that and his vision for the future is there in the interview which is conducted by the ubiquitous Hiorthoy.

Leafing through the book is a bit like looking at the scrapbook of a Rune obsessive. There are the covers, pictures of the cds themselves ­ and they are an integral part of the whole design package ­ adverts, fliers and other assorted R.G. memorabilia. There is even a slightly exasperated e-mail from one of the label’s distributors.

So what about the music ? Well, it is indicative of the label’s broad spectrum with key tracks from the catalogue, like Maja Ratkje’s ‘Intro’ from her ‘Voice’ cd. I enjoyed revisiting its Joycean electronica as much as I felt glad to be re-acquainted with the high decibel excitement of Scorch Trio’s’ Taajus’. These two may seem to inhabit different worlds but Ratkje’s voice and Raoul Bjorkenheim’s coruscating guitar are among the most exciting and fascinating sounds to come out of the R.G. roster. Also worth another listen is Arne Nordheim’s gently glistening electronic composition, ‘Hovering’ which is quite a way from the approaches of Ratkje and her co-explorers in the field of noise and electronics, SPUNK. Whereas Nordheim’s work is reminiscent of small bright objects being tapped and struck softly, the SPUNK track, ‘Kamelmusikk’, is full of sinister voicings and dark electronic samples as well as some conventional instruments. But the two are equally worth investigating.

Coming from a different angle, Jono el Grande’s jazzy ‘Tango On The Crest Of Reality’ sounds as though it has absorbed some of Zappa’s compositional techniques and use of instrumental colour. Saxophones and xylophone explore the turns and deviations of melody, employing the precision that the great Mother himself was so fond of. It is by turns sprightly and reflective and promises much from their new cd.

Apart from these previously available tracks there are many exclusive contributions from the somewhat melancholic jazz of Food through the percussive electronics of Supersilent with that strangely hoarse cry of Arve Henriksen’s trumpet. It is a fairly restrained piece and may well tempt a few more wavering souls to plunge in and hear more of what they do. Henriksen also contributes another atmospheric track, akin to some of his solo album. This one ranges from deep, didgeridoo-like drones to airy flute tones. I’m certain the acoustics of wherever it was recorded play a part in creating these diverse and haunting resonances.

I’m sure some people will be expecting something appropriately Nordic and icy and the nearest to that is probably Supersilent’s Helge Sten in his incarnation as Deathprod. His ‘Deerstalker’ has nothing to do with the headgear but is a bleak trawl through some cold but not unattractive landscapes. Also the Hardanger fiddle, harmonium and acoustic bass of Nils Okland’s ‘Hertervig Skisse’ are somewhat redolent of chilly mountains and frozen lakes. It is, however, still an attractive sketch, mixing folk elements and searching improvisations, especially from the fiddle. Personally, I don’t feel that the label’s music conforms to any Nordic, electronic or other stereotypes. In fact much of it has a warmth that is often missing from electronica and related music, as in Alog’s folksy gamelan excursions, for example.

I think that the cd and book represent an individual and distinctive vision which has shaped the output of this label, the covers and the contents throughout the last five years. Kristoffersen seems to have a healthy disregard for the commercial potential of the artists he records, preferring to release what he likes, hoping others will too. It will be interesting and rewarding to follow his idiosyncrasies through the next five years and beyond.

© 2004 Paul Donnelly