I can’t say I was completely surprised when I first heard the news in late 2008 that Swedish electronic musicians The Knife were going to score an opera in collaboration with Mt. Sims and Planningtorock based on “the world seen through the eyes of Charles Darwin”. The brother/sister duo of Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olaf Andersson had already penned a successful soundtrack for the poorly received Swedish drama Hannah med H in 2003, so a step up to the stage seemed not entirely unlikely. Choosing to do an opera, however, is no easy task and without the aid of visual stimuli it makes for an incredibly difficult task to translate the energy of performance art onto an audio-only CD.
By releasing the wonderfully constructed (and most accessible) track “Colouring of Pigeons”, expectations were extraordinarily high for the two-disk album, leaving Pitchfork to posture on their Best New Music review that “is there a possibility that ‘Colouring of Pigeons’ is not even the best song on [the album]?” No doubt the buzz surrounding the track was enormous, however, both the record label and the producers of the opera had to know there was a likely chance it would come crashing down once the difficult-to-swallow work became available — a calculated risk that, when factoring in the fickleness and ADD attention span of music bloggers, proved to be unsuccessful.
Maybe it’s a reflection on the state of music critics of this modern age, but Tomorrow, In a Year is unjustly getting a bad rap by amateur writers who most likely never took the time to read the informative one-page concept behind the opera before passing judgement, yet alone do any serious research into the topic of Charles Darwin and his theories. No doubt, judged solely on a casual non-headphone listen, the soundtrack is equal parts disturbing, discordant, and difficult to comprehend; however, when inspecting further, even superficially, gems of understanding sparkle in unexpected places.
Take the construction of opera itself as explained by the Hotel Pro Forma production team:
The first part of the performance is exploratory. It concentrates on observing the underlying sequences and relationships between image, narrative, movement and music used in the performance. The second part is a synthesis of the material. A completed image and totality emerge, before the performance again mutates and passes into new forms, as happens over time with all things.
This concept of evolution in threes carries over to the singers themselves, as the opera only makes use of mezzo soprano singer Kristina Wahlin, actress Laerke Winther, and Swedish pop sensation Jonathan Johansson (with Karen Dreijer participating only on “Colouring of Pigeons”) representing the transition from classical to modern vocalists. Keeping this idea of evolution in mind, a lot of information is gleaned from the tracks themselves.
The first impression of the album is the appropriately entitled “Intro” which is unique in its weirdness as well as its lack of instrumentation. Something akin to what life must have been like in the primordial soup, only little flecks of sharp electronic bloops & bleeps appear sporadically with a rumbling thunderstorm hovering in the background whose symbolism is rather obvious. The next track “Epochs” continues this “something is brewing” idea by seamlessly transitioning from “Intro” while giving the since of lengthy elapsed time with its inclusion of spaceship warp-speed noises. The first track marked with any singing (this time by the mezzo soprano Wahlin), its entrance is timed with undulating electronic bass, serving to represent the heartbeat of early life.
Now that life seems to have begun, the next grouping of songs, “Geology” up to and including parts of “Variation of Birds”, incorporates relatively uncomplicated earthy sounds (albeit electronically generated) mimicking the low-level transformations occurring at the dawn of life. Sparse instrumentation and competing dual pitch shifts in “Geology” seems very representative of the slow-moving cyclical nature of Earth itself while “Upheaved” and “Ebb Tide Explorer”‘s strong use of whole notes on perpetual fermatas with sprinklings of activity hear and there address the metamorphosis of life more clearly. I’m quite aware that some might say I am reading too much into these tracks, however I wouldn’t put it past The Knife and Hotel Pro Forma to extensively use allegories in forming this modern day opera.
No doubt the most easy on the ears section is the third. Marked by more complex and polished pieces such as “Annie’s Box”, “Colouring of Pigeons”, and “Seeds” it seems like evolution has caught up to the present day. “Seeds” is interesting in that it is the only track which I thought could be found outside the realm of this concept album. With electronic thuds and augmented mallet instruments providing the locomotion and pop singer Jonathan Johansson giving the vocals, this track could easily have wound up on a regular electro-pop album, finding it’s way onto dance floors all across Europe (normalcy seems to equate to uniqueness with Tomorrow, In a Year). My favorite track, however, isn’t the popular “Pigeons” but rather the second helping of “Annie’s Box” with vocals provided by The Knife rather than opera singer Wahlin in the production version. With no special effects to modulate with, Karen Dreijer’s natural voice is bleak making it a perfect compliment to Hildur Guðnadóttir sorrowful cello playing in this alternative take — truly beautiful stuff.
After listening through the album for the second time, I couldn’t help but compare it to the current works of former pop icon turn experimentalist Scott Walker. It seems with more listens, something new and exciting crops up and rays of meaning slowly show themselves. Although at superficial level it’s a composition about Darwin, I can’t help but feel how the questions of more significant importance, like “who were are” and “how we came to be”, are lying there just under the surface waiting to be addressed. And just like Walker, I’d imagine that this piece will be initially branded as a failure and shunned by the majority of “music lovers” only to be rediscovered years later and hailed as decades ahead of its time.
The Knife // Colouring of Pigeons
The Knife // Annie’s Box (w/ The Knife vocals)