Oyvind Torvund | The Exotica Album
It may seem initially surprising that a record like ‘The Exotica Album’ is doing the rounds of experimental music websites, not least because it is not, by any conventional measure, the least bit experimental. This caveat aside, however, Oyvind Torvund has constructed a work that rests upon a far finer conceptual line than many of the more obviously challenging works that come through these parts.
The album’s sounds, in a nutshell, like the Radiophonic Workshop have been commissioned to compose a tourist informercial for some nondescript South Sea island. Birds tweet, synths burble, and cheesy wind instruments bleat out naive melodies in a fashion not unlike the oeuvre of the Ghostbox label, though perhaps shorn of any hipster cynicism in favour of something that is, for better or worse, authentically twee. Torvund has managed to create something really quite lovely, less a pastiche than a homage to a very specific point in musical history. Whilst it would be easy to write this off as a fairly straight reframing of the ‘exotica’ genre, Torvund’s inclusion of a more avant garde influence from the likes of Stockhausen, places the album alongside the handful of late sixties b-movie soundtracks whose composers, though ostensibly fawning Hollywood, were likewise influenced by the experimental movement.
Torvund could perhaps be criticised for such a dedicated rehash of an existing sound-world, and yet his clear fondness and understanding of his prey, alongside the historical crossover that it represents, results in an often moving and nuanced album, operating in a distinct conceptual ground. The composer’s understanding is such that he deftly replicates the awkward, almost incongruous nature of those earlier works – here, the soaring melodic refrains and ham-fisted orientalism are so well executed that the album stands out not by being a good pastiche but because, had it been released 50 years ago, it would likely be considered a classic of its style. As you might expect, such dedication runs the risk of being simply too overbearingly twee – tracks such as ‘Rainbow Crystal’ feel so accurate to the exotica genre as to be a little redundant. Whilst well-crafted, it lacks perhaps the compositional interest of its peers, and could almost have been torn straight from the soundtrack of South Pacific, hardly the bastion of experimentalism.
Weirdly, the difference between what works and what doesn’t is so slight, that I found myself jumping back and forth between tracks in the hope of isolating whichever element saved the stronger material from the ever-encroaching and suffocating kitsch. The genius of the album as a whole, is that it sounds so familiar that you imagine it might actually be signed off by the producer of our aforementioned hypothetical infomercial whom, hearing all the right noises, is yet unable to tell how very-slightly bonkers it all is. ‘Cave’ begins normally enough, before being gradually taken over by a sort of irate Kasamai Washington.
‘Rainforest Morning’ bubbles along with overbearing optimistic chords rung upon some sort of ever-hopeful zither, an aesthetic masked by the atonal plucking of a violin. Taking the incongruity one step further, ‘Waking up again’ is just bafflingly epic. Bird tweets dwindle into harsh noise, harsh noise overtaken by a sort of Disney-Zorn, offset by the kind of melody that John Williams would be proud of. This in turn melts into a form of proto-Schubert classical music, punctuated by ‘ethnic’ drums, then 20th century avant-garde… and on… and on… invoking a feeling akin to traveling through the sleeping mind of its composer, ambushed by fragments of their consciousness in a seemingly random – yet highly tonal and strangely coherent fashion.
The Exotica Album is a very odd artefact, managing to be both annoying and beautiful, nuanced and hysterical. Torvund demonstrates a passion for his source material and depth of understanding that, despite all the odds, lifts the work out of the realm of pastiche that it so naturally covets. Not being familiar with the composers prior work, it would be interesting to see how this rigour is applied in another, less particular context, though the Exotica Album is still an extremely rewarding, if occasionally questionable, listen.