Of all the stars of contemporary electronica, none is more typecast than Biosphere's Geir Jenssen—the phrase "arctic ambience" haunts his every move. To an extent this is inevitable. Working in his native Tromso, in the Norwegian Arctic, Jenssen has frequently used the sounds and imagery of the far North, particularly on his albums Substrata and Polar Sequences.
On Shenzhou, however, Jenssen has moved away from the Arctic theme. Shenzhou's first ten tracks are based on Debussy's "La Mer", and the prevalent atmosphere is oceanic, rather than icy. Both Debussy and Jenssen are musicians of place and environment, Jenssen being associated with the Norwegian Arctic, Alaska or the void of space. Debussy is associated above all with the sea, a space more fickle and complex than any terrain and that much harder to capture.
By capturing Debussy's tone-pictures of the sea using technology, Jenssen has produced a more oceanic (shifting and dreamlike) work than Debussy's original "La Mer". Yet Jenssen is so strongly associated with "arctic ambience" that Shenzhou is still characterized as such in the media and in shops. So it's important to be clear both that anyone expecting an arctic feel from this work has been misled, but also that Shenzhou reveals a genuine and productive development of the Biosphere sound.
That said, many of the usual Biosphere descriptors—"epic", "grandiose", "beautiful", etc.—still apply, but the context has been altered significantly. Jenssen has moved away from the use of synthesized sounds and environmental recordings to the reprocessing of classical sources. He has always followed his own path, but this release moves him closer to one of the key electronic trends of recent years. Reinhard Voigt's Gas releases on Mille Plateaux and Ekkehard Ehlers' releases on Mille Plateaux and Staubgold have established a productive model for the electronic processing of orchestral, contemporary classical and jazz samples and the tendency appears to be growing.
While it's hard for a non-specialist to identify precisely which phrases have been used, comparing (and playing simultaneously) Shenzhou with an old vinyl copy of "La Mer" produces interesting contrasts. The recognizable fragments audible on Shenzhou are elongated, pitch-shifted loops of very short snatches of the original. Like Ehlers, Voigt or anyone who's used a sampler, Jenssen reminds us that old records never die.
A pervasive orchestral haze is especially audible on the first two tracks, "Shenzhou" and "Spindrift". Underlying the oceanic orchestral swell is a shifting layer of bass that is both beatific and in constant danger of overwhelming the fragile samples. Although both the underlay and the samples are constantly shifting, the ratio between them seems to stay the same, demonstrating a very subtle and skillful deployment of sound.
The same shifting atmosphere pervades "Two Ocean Plateau", a literally oceanic piece with a sea-like swell. What stops the track coalescing into mere background music and actually makes it all the sweeter is a sinister but ethereal undertow of drones. This uneasy, feverish shifting between dream and nightmare recalls Jenssen's darker 1997 soundtrack to the atmospheric Norwegian thriller Insomnia. The shifting atmosphere derives as much from the range of micro-textures and sounds in the track as from the original orchestration; different details surface on each listening. "Ancient Campfire" has a more overtly romantic atmosphere. The lush orchestral sounds are again offset, in this case by a persistent vinyl crackle (presumably from a sampled Debussy LP or possibly a Debussy sound processed ad infinitum).
"Thermal Motion" sounds closest both to the icy textures of previous Biosphere work and the string sampling productions of Ekkehard Ehlers. Subtle tape-reverse loop effects shimmer alongside even more delicate sound strands, crystalline elements in a slowly melting ice floe. Again, the track lies on the cusp of beauty and fear, with unease to the fore, but the ethereal always present. The last Debussy track, "Fast Atom Escape" returns to the dream-like moods associated with Debussy and is similar to Ehlers' deeply romantic track Tief (2000).
The closing extra tracks, "Bose Einstein Condensation" and "Gravity Assist", don't blend particularly well with the Debussy pieces, reducing the conceptual unity of the project. They seem like works-in-progress perhaps included to appease those wanting a more traditional sound and could probably have been placed elsewhere more successfully.
More serious is the danger of na‘vete or over-romanticization, always present for an ambient producer. However, Jenssen's music is epic because it transcends the limitations of the genre by walking a constant tightrope between beauty and unease, never letting either element prevail. In a sense, the use of classical material is perhaps superfluous. Jenssen doesn't need anyone else's material to produce epic, romantic music, but his intervention on Debussy feels like a very personal gesture—a labor of love and perhaps a clue to a source for his music. The result is among Jenssen's best.