Caught by the River

The Height of the Reeds

Ian Preece | 3rd October 2018

‘The Height Of The Reeds’ started life as a comission for Hull City of Culture celebrations in 2017. Composed by Arve Henriksen, Eivind Aarset, Jan Bang and Jez riley French, the work celebrates the longstanding seafaring relationship between Hull and Scandinavia. Ian Preece reviews.

I can’t be sure but I think it was back in the early days of 93 Feet East. I was standing at the rear near the bar, chatting to my mate Julian, when we became dimly aware that the house lights were dipping. The next thing, there’s a spotlight on us – or rather, the spotlight’s on the guy playing the muted trumpet standing next to us. It’s Arve Henriksen, and he’s set up a microphone at the back of the room. He’s also handing out combs wrapped in tracing paper, gesturing for us to join in with a bit of improvisation. Everyone in the room is suddenly craning their necks backwards in our direction. For someone with a near pathological fear of audience participation – why would anyone in their right mind sit near the front at a comedy gig? – I still wince when I occasionally think of Henriksen’s shrug of ‘suit yourself’ as I sheepishly declined my paper comb. My memory is Julian blew a few impressive bars. I like to think I’ve compensated over the years for that hopeless failure of nerve by keeping up with the Norwegian trumpeter’s albums of hushed and mournful horn, glacial beauty, chilled ambience and gentle electronics and field recordings. There was the stripped-back Japanese asceticism of Sakuteiki (‘a treatise on garden making’, 2001); the percussive splashes of Chiaroscuro (2004); the rougher edges and slightly harsher, grainier electronic sheen and lugubrious bow of the glorious Strjon (2007); the bright, startling beauty of the first side of Places of Worship (2013); and the infectious jazzy strings and Nordic folksong of The Nature of Connections from the following year. I’ve got to catch up with Chron, Cosmic Connections, last year’s Towards Language and this year’s Composograph – all released by Henriksen’s usual home, Rune Grammofon – as well as the multiple collaborative works on labels like ECM, Losen and All Ice Records.

The Height of the Reeds feels slightly more of a melodramatic departure – but I mean that in a good way: a filmscore interlude bubbles up through the ecclesiastical sparseness of opener ‘Come April’; ‘Pink Cherry Trees’ is even more affecting: the swell of strings and mournful choral line bringing to mind flashes of motoring and drinking beer on sunny afternoons in Europe, Chet Baker’s quiet style, lives lived and lost, life’s fleeting moments. If that all sounds a little too Hollywood, and geographically wide of the mark, the tentative opening of ‘Reefs and Roots’ – creaking wires of the Humber bridge straining in the wind; muffled cloudbursts of mechanical bridge noise, the traffic or ‘the river below’ – begins to swell with some gentle guitar before orchestral flourishes and heavy strings signify something more ominous – a distant storm breaking over the North Sea, perhaps.

Hull, it seems, is not just Everything but the Girl, The Housemartins, The Red Guitars and wayward pioneering soundtrack composer/electronic auteur Basil Kirchin. The Height of Reeds was originally commissioned as part of Hull’s City of Culture calendar of events in 2017, to celebrate old seafaring links with Scandinavia and the rest of Europe (the end of nineteenth-century commercial whaling, heavy bombing by the Luftwaffe and the 1970s cod wars all played their part in decimating the once-proud northern sea port). According to the Yorkshire Post all tickets sold out within 48 hours for last year’s planned walk across the Humber Bridge listening to The Height of the Reeds on headphones – but the good news is, thanks to Norway’s fine Rune Grammofon label, anyone with an iPod can now walk over the bridge immersed in Henriksen’s soulful trumpet, Eivind Aarset’s guitar and electronics and the rumbling intermittent beauty of Jan Bang’s and Jez riley French’s field recordings and haunting vocal samples.

It’s a rich but delicate stew – Hull sound artist riley French’s sometimes near-industrial field recordings; the Opera North orchestra’s woody bassoon or oboe smouldering at the opening of ‘The Swans Bend Their Necks Backwards to See God’ (for instance); the choral samples and guitar and electronic filigrees of Eivind Aarset – all given space to breathe, with Henriksen’s trumpet smeared lightly across the whole record.

‘Is There a Limit for the Internal?’ reminds me a bit of Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble’s Officium on ECM from 1994, updated for the 21st century – a sort of digital-voice recorder glitch touching the edges of the soprano – or even the pregnant pauses and strumming of Gastr del Sol.

I love ‘Waders’ – again it’s a bit like a sped-up Microstoria track from the nineties: ambient wuffle blowing through the background behind looped electronic figures and Henriksen’s smoky horn – the sort of song I could listen to for ever.

‘Height of the Reeds in the Wetlands’ is gorgeous too, some billowing woodwind from Opera North’s orchestra suffused through the opening, lending bottom end to a mournful, magisterial beauty last found somewhere like Johann Johannsson’s The Miners’ Hymns, before choral samples, a ringing bell and some hazy static are gently woven in. I can only imagine it must be intensely moving walking across a wind-buffeted Humber Bridge listening to this on headphones – the vast, choppy expanse of the water below; the boom of the tide and creaking of the bridge; all those trawler journeys heading out to sea; the lost wake of the Humber ferry – another thing for the bucket list, for sure. If the quieter, contemplative spaces of Nils Frahm, Don Cherry, Otto A. Totland, Nuno Canavarro or even Ian William Craig and C. Diab have graced your turntable, The Height of the Reeds is for you.


The Height of the Reeds is out now and available here.