On Biosphere’s broadcasts to the periphery

The further listening series

He knows the Moon, he knows the stars, and he knows the Milky Way

The year was 1991, and pop culture was overheating within a brume of historic flux. British rave culture was bursting into the mainstream, sparking a media and political frenzy that made the US of the Satanic Panic look like a minor skirmish. An electronic dance movement – formed of spare parts from Chicago house music, krautrock, the British synth of New Order and OMD, and the good old fashioned four-on-the-floor rhythms of late disco and hi-NRG – increasingly preoccupied a concerned public, as this music burst from the underground scene into chart domination.

This concern was born most obviously from the music’s ties to drug culture, the weekly raves that took place across a newly post industrial Britain, and a moral panic engendered by the seemingly hypnotic hold this rhythmic, looping, lyricless music had over young people, even going so far as to capture the attention of more than one concerned MP. This would culminate in the so-called second summer of love of 1992, a year that saw tens of thousands flock to the Worcestershire countryside for a week long exercise in near compulsive revelry, leading to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, introduced in 1994 to address perceived anti-social behaviour, but in reality severely curtailing the rights of the British public at the hands of a Conservative party always willing to dispense with its commitment to individual rights in order to shore up its voter base.

Much literature has been offered in service of this moment. Whether born of youthful optimism from the first generation to reach adulthood free of the shadow of impending nuclear warfare. Or post Thatcher euphoria. Or a more sinister desire to simply let go of corporeal and temporal binds. History, culture, the passage of time, all were accelerating at a rate seemingly beyond society’s control, and any efforts to force events into the box of human jurisdiction only made things more diffuse. For many, what looked like the only logical option was to check out. The past and future have no meaning, all that matters is an effervescent now, into which were stretched bass loops, synthetic textural interplay articulated through predictable rhythms, and the infectious electronic miscellany that spoke of a humanity extending into nature, space, time, and the infinity of consciousness.

So hot did this moment of electronic dance music burn that its “post” iterations arguably began sprouting before the flames of the first wave of rave had even calmed to embers. Aphex Twin, Autechre, The Orb, and Future Sound of London all began to wrest the techniques and laboured exercises in synthetic timbral manipulation into more philosophical ruminations, measured, sober, yet no less oblique for the fact.

And into this fraught moment a Scandinavian artist known as Biosphere released a debut album entitled ‘Microgravity’. Hailing from Tromsø in the far north of Norway, this was the brainchild of one Geir Jenssen. A self-confessed fan of early British synth pop pioneers, he sought to drive this decidedly urban form of music in a more arcane, ethereal direction, explicitly drawing influence from the cold climbs of his home within the Artic Circle, the detritus of the last ice age, and from that fraught zone where immediate experience encounters the emptiness of the universe and the vast celestial bodies that populate it. An expression of emotive impermanence at the instant of its encounter with the eternal flux beyond planet Earth.

It doesn’t matter how often some well meaning voice nobly attempts to claim that great art should stand alone from context, resonating beyond its time and place, capturing the hearts of some imagined universal human condition. The brutal truth is that context will always matter. And the context for ‘Microgravity’ matters more than usual. Because people tend to approach early Biosphere from one of two angles. Those expecting pure ambience, a modernised Tangerine Dream, a darker Brian Eno, charting a new course into the stratosphere. Or else they view it as a minimal acid house album, with mind burrowing bass hooks, fluid loops, and energised rhythmic interplay.

The problem with ‘Microgravity’ is that it is a little of both. The euphoria of the early 1990s meets an almost cliched Scandinavian sobriety. Achingly vast spaces of ambience are interwoven with minimalist techno beats, at times almost too subtle, as if standing in defiance of the harder-faster mentality of the dance music that was entering the charts at the time. Biosphere use samples as a stand in for lead instrumentation, offering simple repeated aphorisms lifted from the history of sci-fi TV and cinema. The white heat of European youth dancing their way out of a decades long ideological impasse meets an eerily sombre rebuttal in ‘Microgravity’.

1994’s ‘Patashnik’ would expand on this minimalist, percussive ambient template, repressing the at times playful house rhythms for the sake of more laboured, industrial beats, or the dark undulations of tracks like ‘SETI Project’, which pulses like a shadowy, abyssal underbelly of 90s rave. Further looped synth sequences are manipulated and deployed as textural fauna, with any melodic content presenting as purely incidental. This combination of explicitly futurist, synth led soundscaping accompanied by short, repeated film samples used to tell a loose narrative of an individual lost in the abyss of space is a welcome continuation of the optimistic futurism that permeated early synth music throughout the 1970s, along with its cinematic and literary accompaniments.

Humanity’s expansion into space was taken as a given in the music of Tangerine Dream or Jean Michel Jarre. But in Biosphere this quixotic notion is turned into a kind of desperate yearning. The only exit for a species that has expended its last in trying to find earthly utopia. Not just a realm of infinite possibility for life’s daydreamers, but a fully realised, lived in universe where time, spatial perception, and liminal experience take on warped new forms.

This idea of lifting the infrastructure from a form of music such as dance, that wallows in its bacchanalian intoxication, and resituating it in the cold, sober light of day would take on new, explicit meaning for the soundtrack to ‘Insomnia’, a film released in 1997 and starring Stellan Skarsgård. If the first two Biosphere albums had warped the driving beats of acid house into ghostly, minimalist, automated versions of themselves, free of any shadow of rave-ist peace, love, and joy, the soundtrack to this Nordic noir film certainly continued this project of tonal inversion.

In the film, Skarsgård plays a detective sent to a town in the Arctic Circle to investigate a murder, only to mistakenly shoot his partner in pursuit of the perpetrator on a mist covered hill. Insomnia takes hold as he tries to cover his tracks, flipping the noir aesthetic on its head, as the pervasive daylight of the Arctic summer haunts his every move. Brightness becomes adversarial, just as Biosphere’s sonic accompaniment morphs the usually mundane comfort of daylight into an eerie, unknowable antagonist, taunting our need for darkness and its sweet release of sleep.

‘Substrata’, released later in 1997, would see Biosphere finally stretch its ambient wings, dispensing with any reference to music that compels the body to move. We are instead floating in a miasma of cold, achingly sparse synth textures, populated by gentle pulses of sound that echo with the amusical cries of animals, reverberations given greater clarity in the dense air of colder climbs, the ice and snow snuffing out any ancillary ambient noise. This culminates in the track ‘Krobresia’, which, via its gently swelling strings, light folk flourishes, and threnodic emptiness, in part functions as Biosphere finally coming to terms with the philosophy of ambience as an exercise in stasis, humanity’s confrontation with deep time, changing at a rate of such longevity as to be all but imperceptible across the lifespans of many generations. 

Many would mark ‘Substrata’ as not only the culmination of what this project set out to articulate in the 1990s, but Biosphere’s crowning achievement, and a regular feature on any top ambient list. The potent concoction of cautious futurism, sober escapism, and reverence for the ice cold North certainly finds its apotheosis on this LP. But there is something to be said for the more explicit references to urbanist dance music littering the first two albums, and seen in this context it brings Biosphere in line with a movement of IDM artists attempting to break free of rave clichés and reassess the intoxicatingly optimistic promises of 90s dance music.

2000’s ‘Cirque’ would extend this notion by marrying the restrained dance references of the first two albums with the winter synth of ‘Substrata’, creating an understated yet tense pocket of mood music. The eerie, droning synth pulses, so evocative of the stasis of frozen wilderness, takes on an unsettled naivety when set against light percussive flavouring. Where ‘Microgravity’ foregrounded acid house drumbeats, making them the centrepiece to many of the tracks, ‘Cirque’ supresses this somewhat, as if we are listening to a rave from many miles away, muffled by the decay of time and space.

What makes Biosphere’s evocations to the natural world of the Arctic circle so compelling is its literalness. Dungeon synth, black metal, populist folk, all ultimately settle for an impressionist painting of the natural environments they so bombastically champion. Biosphere by contrast offer an experience akin to directly encountering nature, the animalistic noises that reverberate across these albums, whilst superficially more abstract than many comparable endeavours, are actually far closer to encapsulating the experience of coming into direct contact with the sparse natural landscapes and the scant animal populations that haunt them.

Jenssen would continue to build on these hauntological themes in the 21st Century. The ghosts that humanity leaves in its wake from the cumulative effect of time’s passage. The exponentially growing stockpile of culture that lurks behind the eternal present like a sculking monolith. All would make for a rich archive of source material for the next iteration of Biosphere’s evolution. Subsequent works would draw on Western classical music, technology, folk, foreboding broadcasts, literature, and field recordings to construct a bizarre-ist underbelly of the contemporary moment. If the early albums had grown out of – and existed in uncomfortable defiance of – the hyperactivity of acid house and surrounding dance movements, now it was the very idea of linear musical progression that would be called into question. The spirits of our collective past never leave us. They lay in wait, haunting the edges of our collective imaginations.

2004’s ‘Shenzhou’ would take the idea of music as an act of construction over creation to another level, employing loops from Debussy’s ‘La Mer’ and ‘Jeux’ to craft haunting tonal poems of gently throbbing, textural pulses. The effect is very much in keeping with ‘Cirque’, but here seen from a new angle. The emphasis is different. Biosphere from ‘Substrata’ through to ‘Cirque’ could be loosely described as program music, or music specifically designed with the purpose of representing something beyond the music itself, namely Arctic wilderness, cosmic void, and the intersection of these phenomena as they exist in the mind of the individual that encounters them. ‘Shenzhou’ would break with this thread, and instead explore the manipulation of texture, tone, key, and volume, with any reference to extra-musical elements being purely incidental.

The use of Debussy is interesting here. A post Wagnerian composer who sought to wrest orchestral music away from symphonic narrative arcs and whose signature piano style was defined by a constant state of tonal flux, an unending modulation. Despite being rife with activity and change, this instability is so pervasive in the music of Debussy that it begins to look like a form of stasis. Indeed, from this angle an argument could be made for Debussy and kindred spirit Erik Satie being the first ambient composers. A minimalist, semi-chromatic poetry before the brutalism of Schoenberg took over.

Thus on ‘Shenzhou’ we witness Biosphere directly interacting with one his distant antecedents. Fragments of Debussy’s work are lifted piecemeal from their setting, placed on a rack and stretched beyond recognition, each moment that on the original piece would make up a fraction of a particular measure is here placed in suspended animation. Time itself freezes over as Debussy’s bombastic traverses through multiple key signatures is stopped dead in its tracks and forced to reconcile itself to an extended present.

Geir Jenssen would continue these ghostly excursions for follow up albums, lifting paraphernalia from all manner of source materials and combining it with his own unique approach to tone and textural manipulation. 2004’s ‘Autour de la Lune’ would use sounds from an old radio play of the Jules Vernes work of the same name and combine them into an undulating piece of dynamic incrementalism. The suspended tension that extends across this lengthy work is again akin to the early 20th Century quest for meaning beyond rampant chromaticism that plagued many composers of the time, this time bearing comparison to Charles Ives’s ‘The Unanswered Question’ for all its cavalier attitude to the idea of progression, mutating apparently self-evident musical conventions until they appear utterly non-sensical.

The minimalist philosophy would continue on ‘Dropsonde’. But whereas ‘Autour de le Lune’ pivoted on a tension born of unsettling clashes and a fundamental sense of lack, the follow up provides a surprisingly comforting environment of warm synth tones, laid back rhythms, and deeply cathartic soundscapes. This is Biosphere in an uncharacteristically sentimental mood, offering long time fans a house of solace after a long, cold winter of strained reflection. That being said, ‘Dropsonde’, despite the increase in percussive activity via jazz fusion and brighter tonal scenery, is still a deeply sparse album, boasting a minimalism that casual ambient fans may still find hard to stomach.    

‘N-Plants’, released in 2011, and ‘L’incoronazione di Poppea’ released in 2012, would bring the Biosphere template even further in line with what ambient music probably looks like in the popular imagination, i.e. a fundamentally comforting and reassuring form of music crafted specifically to give us license to pause and reflect. And in this regard Biosphere again appear more adept than most, offering lilting, quietly optimistic sound palettes. This continues Jenssen’s passion for lifting materiel from cultural ghosts, in the case of the latter from Monteverdi’s opera of the same name, in the case of the former the eldritch tranquillity that cloaks the lurking terrors behind our exploitation of nuclear energy.

This hauntological theme would culminate on 2016’s ‘Departed Glories’, which finally dispensed with overt references to humanity lost in voids of ice, metal, or space. The album is crafted entirely from manipulated voices lifted from old recordings of Polish and Ukrainian folk songs, here warped into spectral ambience as cathartic as it unnerving. Jenssen toys with the idea of locational memory, as he drew on the history of the Las Wolski Forest near Krakow – both recently under Nazi occupation and further back into the climbs of deep history – as an area where many atrocities were carried out, but also as a place of refuge for those fleeing persecution. The piercing image on the cover art – taken from a 100 year old photo of a Russian peasant – perfectly encapsulates the uncanny kaleidoscope that creeks open over the course of this album.

Despite 2021’s ‘Angel’s Flight’ being based around Beethoven’s 14th String Quartet, anything following ‘Departed Glories’ would only ever look like a climb down, this despite the by now patented weird and eerie mix that makes up the signature sound of contemporary Biosphere. Most recently in 2022 Biosphere have finally dispensed with this process of musical composting, growing new material from the decay of the old, and has instead opted to bring things almost full circle on the aptly titled ‘Shortwave Memories’. Composed entirely on synthesisers from the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the album feels like a Tangerine Dream-esque re-interpretation of the early days of this project. A complex, layered, syncopated work of gradualist minimalism. Where techno and ambient are decorated by only the lightest flourish of melodic ornamentation to break up the churning sparsity of bass and percussion.

Having spent the decade from 2011 to 2021 posing as an artisan and master restorer of lost collective memories, this return to what, in the ambient field, counts for good old fashioned craftmanship is almost too fitting. It’s a work that feels completely out of time. In one sense achingly contemporary thanks to current retroist movements such as synthwave whilst simultaneously outdoing 90% of these revivalist genres for sophistication and nuance.

But in another sense, this album could easily have followed ‘Microgravity’ in the early 1990s and felt entirely in keeping with the Biosphere of that era. Whether the Jenssen of thirty years ago would have been technically capable of the subtle rhythmic exchanges and patiently built harmonies that sprawl across ‘Shortwave Memories’ like miles of underground cables is a question only he may be able to answer. What’s not in question is that this is a truly monolithic album of minimal electronica, hinting at familiar ice ridden and industrial themes of previous works whilst undergoing a weighty project of construction, like witnessing the blueprints of a vast, futurist industrial cityscape take shape before us, delicate yet monolithic, broad in scope and meticulous in its detailing.

Much like the spirits that lurk at the borders of Biosphere’s music, these albums float at the edge of the populist imagination like the supressed memories of discarded musics, awaiting their summons back the zeitgeist. Born of a time when the progression of post war popular music had perhaps overheated to the point of self-destruction, Biosphere kept to the borders of this cultural push and pull and has remained their ever since. But a peripheral existence does not imply a passive one. Whether it is the minimal ambient house of the early 1990s, the pure ambient that followed, or the patient constructions from found art material, Biosphere has always skulked at the edges of collective imagination, posing as a half formed question mark that haunts common certainties and given truths about music.

The poetry of occupying the conceptual periphery as well as a literal one in the Artic Circle is not lost on the discourse surrounding Biosphere. This icy, semi-celestial, semi-arctic howl of ambiguous sonic abstractions has much to teach genres with more bombastic ends in mind. But perhaps it should also be treated as a lament from an environment and natural wilderness that will most likely soon be lost to time as well. Another ghostly visage condemned to haunt our growing stockpile of half remembered historical threads and lost heritages.

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