Album review: Rutger Hoedemaekers – ‘The Age Of Oddities’: breathtaking, humanistic debut for 130701



YOU MAY not yet have come across Rutger Hoedemaekers, even if you are an aficionado in the soothing waters of modern composition; still less, perhaps, an occasional bather. There’s little whispers of him out there in the world already – a digital-only single from the tail end of last year, “The Invention Of The Moon”, and one, “Not For That Hour, Not For That Place”, from the beginning of this, both of which feature herein; a stunning contribution to 7K’s 20-track compilation from December, Layers: Ambient, entitled ‘Done Our Share Of Reading And We’ve Worked On Our Lace”, which doesn’t.

There are two key words in the paragraph above: stunning; and yet. Because if this particular corner of our vast musical landscape moves you in any way, then be sure that Rutger’s debut album for 130701, The Age Of Oddities will assuredly grab you by the heart.

To introduce him then. Rutger was born in Nijmegen, in the Netherlands and, after 13 years in Berlin, he’s recently relocated to Brussels.

His earliest musical output was bedroom techno and ambient, fashioned in his teenage years, which led to him studying composition at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague.

When he graduated, he had a plan; together with two friends he would found a studio in Berlin. And so it was to be. Some 3,500 square feet of factory was converted into a nine-room sonic salon. Salon used wisely, as it quickly became a community hub for musicians of the calibre of Jóhann Jóhannsson, Hildur Guðnadóttir and Dustin O’Halloran; later, Gunnar Örn Tynes from Múm and Yair Elazar Glotman. He would work closely alongside Jóhann for four years before his untimely death in 2018.

In 2015, Rutger was asked by Jóhann to co-compose the score for the Icelandic crime series Trapped, alongside Hildur Guðnadóttir. It garnered acclaim and an award. This led to further film work alongside Jóhann. He’s since scored a brace of European movies alone.

Life changes, and sometimes it changes all too quickly. Massive losses can act as pivots for change. It’s just over three years ago since Jóhann left us. This spurred Rutger to dust down the album he’d been working on sporadically for years; to finish it. Then he would leave Berlin.

That October, a memorial concert was held for Jóhann in Reykjavik, for inclusion at which Rutger scored one of the earliest pieces, “The Invention Of The Moon”, for string quartet, a single horn and voice. The very next day, he laid down Kira Kira’s vocals at Ólafur Arnalds’ studio. Later still, he recorded the 23-piece Budapest Art Orchestra and other instrumental components. To finish, he re-amped the recordings at the Berlin studio’s large common area through guitar amps alone, into the small hours.

The resulting album is deep, complex, very human, moving, forward-looking and stands very much shoulder to shoulder with those twin greats released by 130701 last year; that is, Yair Elazar Glotman and Mat Erlandsson’s Emanate; and Olivier Alary and Johannes Malfatti’s u,i.

It’s title derives from a quote from Lord Byron’s epic poem, “Don Juan”: “this is the age of oddities let loose”, an obvious pointer to the socio-political and viral whirlwind of our times; it’s also partly a eulogy for dear Jóhann.

Rutger Hoedemaekers, photographed by Chloë Desnoyers

Much like u,i, much of the power of The Age Of Oddities comes from the human voice; the human voice processed, refracted through post-processing prisms, at one or removes from itself but instantly recognisable. In this sense it straddles spheres; is it a vocal line or an instrument? Is it still to be regarded as flesh-generative, or is it something other now? There’s a tension in the engagement with that; but it’s still carries the unmistakeable timbre of our species.

All entirely intentional, of course: Rutger says that these human voice-instruments “became a personal reflection on the initial sense of powerlessness in the wake of global issues that feel too big to fathom by themselves, let alone as a whole, and for which a clear, much-needed voice seemed missing at times.

“The masking of the vocals became a depiction of reality before the revolution to me, the moment the problem exists but hasn’t yet become visible to the larger public.

“The voices exist but aren’t yet heard by all.”

The beginning of the album explores this. “An Explanation For Its Own Sake” opens in an oddly transformed … sonic element; there’s brass-swathed, almost drowned sibilance, part-instrument, part vocal; some modern vocoder process eventually reveals language. A purer, higher female counter-melody twines with the grand autumn of that brass in lament.

“Write Them A Creature” is grave; it has that quite Icelandic microtonal pitch bend and waver in its announcing theme before caressing you upward. Strings move forward with an exhalatory quality in the undertow, a Gorecki-like sad lushness, more unsettling hiss and simmer and just the merest hint again of human vocal quality blurred and buried in the texture; but still lending its blood and warmth. Out back, beneath the slow sway of the strings, edge is lent by a pattering of a more organic percussion, as if bleeding in from the environment, overheard.

There’s an empirical truth in the title of the third track, “There’s No Going Back, For Any Of Us”; there really isn’t. There is only now, and the ever-recurring now meeting the future and how we deal with that. The piece has more of an Eastern flavour, the opening passage could happily do service on Laughing Stock, with its haunting pastoralism. There’s a gamelan feel to the clockwork-percussive motif; the strings are verdant, and swirl and mesh with pulses of subterranean bass adding depth and weight.

“C.A.L.M.” has the stately weight and grandeur of a very different musical tradition. It sounds new, yet wholly familiar; like a melody that was just waiting to be written, or that you might only hear half-waking on a late-night car journey. Herein the voice plays as sequencer; chattering (very much in both senses), staccato, almost a breakbeat, cutting across the grand brass-led swell of the central motif, which has a very imposing, Rimsky-Korsakov core.

We’ve embedded “The Invention Of The Moon”, the single from November gone, for you below. It begins in a female voice, processed to the point of fracture and linguistic incomprehensibility, but not to such a point as you can’t immediately identify with the soul and bare-naked emotional consciousness of her soft song: pitched as it is somewhere between seeming lament and lullaby, fragile, real, yet also surreal.

Our unnamed chanteuse is the rhythmic and melodic constant about which slowly, ever so slowly, Rutger allows the full majesty of the 23-piece Budapest Art Orchestra to swirl and swell, whirling an ever-more complex harmonic response around that initial lone, lost voice. Stunning.

“Ring Out The Darkness” announces itself as a soft interplay of gentle piano, like a clear chalk stream, and processed voices part-soothing, part-AI – like some Bladerunner chanteuse. It begins to build, with a little ‘tronica rotating through in a shimmer before strings warm proceedings, although that piano holds strong and propels forward as a chiming waterfall at the centre.

“Not For That Hour, Not For That Place” once more has a certain Jónsi-like eerie, vocal styling: wavering, otherly, conveying essential if wordless humanity with the metronome of chimes rising above a slow, intricate wash courtesy that 23-piece orchestra. The voice is still detectable later in the iridescent heat of the track at its height, and it takes the solo spotlight once more at the end before an arresting end in a backwash of tone and breath.

Within “We Will Clamber Through The Clouds And Exist” a female siren falls into grand melodic conspiracy with the assembled instruments in slow lament. There’s a grand sadness at the heart of this track, a sadness that is sharp and almost exhilarating; against which the piano and orchestral vivacity of “Goodbye, Donald” brings some calmer light, once the vocal chords transduced to a percussive nuance.

The album takes its departure in “Think Us Better Than We Are”, a moving essay in the dynamics of space and swirling electronica touches, the additional spicing of post-production in a track which is all about the circadian swell of strings, with just a little ice on their edges, within which a piano picks out an introspective prettiness.

It’s a complex and moving record, The Age Of Oddities. It sits within an emerging strand of modern composition that seeks not only to explore degrees of consanguinity with electronics, electronica, and post-processing, but also the introduction of the voice into that; not in an operatic or even choral way, but as a texture, an instrument in its own right, and also as a small-P political abstracted expression; an inclusiveness, a connection. Especially in a protracted period of broken and restricted human interplay.

I also think, and I hope this isn’t too much of a reach, that this record, which Rutger says is partly in tribute to Jóhann, serves also as a eulogy in this musical concept: do we hear Jóhann’s voice fade back into the eternal of the music, that eternal melodic flow, therein to abide with us, forever? I think we might.

Stirring, seeking, wide-spectrum emotional, it’s a stunning record and a debut that should put contemporaries on notice to shuffle up. Rutger has taken his bow.

Rutger Hoedemaeker’s The Age Of Oddities will be released by 130701 digitally and on vinyl on March 5th and is available to pre-order now over at the FatCat webstore.

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