"De la Terre ą la Lune", from the earth to the moon, is the title of Geir Jenssen aka Biosphere’s latest assignment - a prestigious Radio France commission that saw its premiere this weekend.
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Widely regarded as one of Norwegian electronic music’s most central artists, Biosphere’s career spans nearly two decades, six albums, lots of remixes, various sound installations, commissions, soundtracks and even the odd Himalayan summit.
From the earth to the moon
Biosphere has been commissioned by Radio France Culture’s Atelier de Crčation Radiophonique and the French Ministry of Culture to write a new work that will see its premiere on July 27. “De la Terre ą la Lune” which is the title this latest Biosphere’s project will be premiered at the Le Festival de Radio France et Montpellier and will also be broadcast live on Radio France Culture. “De la Terre ą la Lune” will also be available in its entirety for downloading at France Culture’s website from July 28 to August 4th. The broadcast is scheduled from 10 30 p.m. to midnight on July 27.
The title of Biosphere’s commissioned work is derived from the classic Jules Verne story “De la Terre ą la Lune” – From the Earth to the Moon. Jenssen has based his new work on sampled vocal excerpts from an early 60s Radio France dramatisation of the Jules Verne story that are in turn coupled with his own compositions.
Says Jenssen on his latest commission: “Radio France Culture contacted me some time ago and proposed a commission that was to be premiered at the Le Festival de Radio France et Montpellier. I was granted access to Radio France’s archives and given permission to use this vast source of audio material. I settled on this early 60s dramatisation of Jules Verne’s “De la Terre ą la Lune” that totally captivated me. The story is quite amazing - Verne wrote it in the nineteenth century; still he managed to describe a manned space flight in such detail one is stunned. In “De la Terre ą la Lune” Verne describes a space mission that sees the astronauts launched from Florida and returning from space to land in the Pacific Ocean – exactly the same procedure that the US space program would follow many, many years later. I have sampled bits and pieces of the dramatisation’s dialogue, coupled it with sounds recorded at the MIR space station and then incorporated it with my own compositions.”
If Jenssen is satisfied with his work, “De la Terre ą la Lune” could very well end up as his next album release. “It would be too bad if this material and all the work that it entails was not to be presented as a record or made available to a wider public in any form” says Jenssen. If all goes well, one can expect a new Biosphere release on his UK label Touch late this year.
Back in the days
The Biosphere story can be traced back to the early eighties when Geir Jenssen first got hold of that crucial imported vinyl that was to prove so influential for his later development. His mail-order post-punk and electronic imports from the UK and US soon led to his first syntheziser and the first exploratory forays into the world of electronic music. He soon hooked up with fellow Tromsų residents Nils Johansen and Anneli Drecker to form the seminal trio Bel Canto. They soon landed a record deal with influential Belgium label Crammed Discs and looked poised for international crossover impact. However, as the trio was gathering momentum, Jenssen decided to leave Bel Canto to pursue his own musical path. Under the Bleep pseudonym he released his first album, North Pole by Submarine (SSR) in 1990.
Jenssen wasn’t completely satisfied with his initial choice of artist name, and upon learning of the Arizona Desert sealed, gigantic glass dome/bio-research Biosphere 2 Space Station Project, Jenssen decided to adopt the space research station’s name. Jenssen’s first album under his Biosphere alias came in 1991 – Microgravity (R&S/Apollo). The album still sounds as fresh as ever, twelve years after its initial release. The trademark Biosphere elements that were to leave a mark on subsequent releases are present on this classic recording: sampled vocal passages with references to space missions, open structures, wide panoramic sonic fields and carefully selected and skilfully altered samples.
Jenssen’s fascination for everything space continued with 1994’s Patashnik (R&S/Apollo). The title is the Russian phrase for those cosmonauts that didn’t return from their missions in space. Patashnik continued much in the same vein as Microgravity, earning Jenssen a steadily growing international audience – a contrast to most of this era’s Norwegian bands and artists that were struggling to cross borders at the time.
Substrata (All Saints Records), released in 1997 is frequently labelled “best ambient album of all time”. This is the Biosphere album that utilises “natural” samples (i.e. sounds collected by Jenssen outside in nature during hikes or when climbing) to the fullest extent. Substrata is organic in form and one can sense a feeling of magnificent grandeur – sheer distance and aloft meditational soundscapes – throughout the recording.
The 2000 album Cirque (Touch) is somewhat darker than its predecessor is. The recording draws inspiration from the tragic tale of Chris McCandless, a young North American explorer who in 1992 set out on a grand journey only to be fatally lost in the dense forests of Alaska, starved to death. Cirque conjures up images of glaciers, bare moraines, boreal evergreen tree lines as well as towering pinnacles and lofty summits. The sombre mood that underlines the album holds promise of uncertainty and an imminent threat - like a gaping crevasse hidden under an unstable snow bridge, a deceiving cornice or a towering serac, threatening to collapse on the exposed explorer.
2002’s Shenzhou (Touch) draws more on Eastern and Asian influences. The album is loosely based on excerpts of various Debussy pieces, though Jensen declines to inform the listener on what material he has interpreted from the elder master. Many long passages are minimalist and understated, still Jenssen manages to display a rich palette of sonic colours. It might be a cliché notion but perhaps Shenzhou’s understatement is a testament to a maturing and ageing performer who’s able to express more with less.
In addition to his acclaimed albums, Biosphere has composed the soundtrack to the aptly titled 1997 movie Insomnia (Origo Sound). The film was shot in Biosphere’s hometown Tromsų, and Jensen manages to underpin the main character’s developing insomnia in a masterly fashion with edgy, monotonous and droning sounds.
Biosphere has also completed various sound installation works such as his Tromsų project Fluxgate which was realised in the winters of 2000/2001. The installation entailed two seven-metre isoscelean spire structures that were firmly planted in the ground outside the Tromsų Cultural House. The wooden structures were equipped with reflective steel sheets which in turn triggered massive soundwaves and samples. The audience was encouraged to throw snowballs at the installations, creating instant joy and elation among the varied crowd over the unexpected and exhilarating sonic results.
Despite being a veritable institution within the electronica field, Biosphere doesn’t devote much time to listen to his contemporaries: “I used to listen to a lot of electronica, but at one point I got a bit tired of it. There seems to be little real innovation these days – I find more inspiration listening to contemporary composers such as the Italian Salvatore Sciarrino who I saw performed at last year’s ULTIMA festival in Oslo.”
Jenssens relationship with nature is a key element in any Biosphere interview or profile. His releases have often been dubbed “Arctic Sound”, much a reference to samples based on sounds collected by Jensen in the nature surrounding his hometown of Tromsų. However, Jenssen feels that this somewhat cliché phrase can lead to pigeon holing: “I want to distance myself a bit from this “Arctic Sound” stuff. I feel that it’s a bit of a cliché and it doesn’t capture or describe what I do well”.
Geir Jenssen is also an active climber and mountaineer whose feats include a successful 2001 summit bid of the Himalayan giant Cho Oyu, which at 8201 meters above sea level is Earth’s sixth highest peak. Not only did he summit the mighty peak, he also did it in impeccably style - sans oxygen. When not in the Himalayas or in the studio Jensen frequently indulges in one of his favourite pastimes – peak bagging some of North-Norway’s numerous and magnificent summits. He is also planning a return to the Himalayas in 2005, and this time the objective is another 8000 meter peak – Tibet’s Shishapangma (altitude: 8027 meters).
Jenssen is also contemplating a future album that is to focus on high-altitude mountaineering and the harsh conditions that abound above 7000 meters: “I’m fascinated by this high-altitude world and I want to make use of some of the recordings that I’ve made during my expeditions. I want to capture the feeling of being way out there…”