Johan Tronestam: Towards the Stars

by coldwarnightlife

Looking up at celestial bodies from the ground, Man has always been struck by their mystery and complexity. He has imagined patterns among the stars, as projections of his terrestrial surroundings, and patiently tracked their movements through the night sky. In music, their influence extends from primitive folk songs and classical concepts of harmonic spheres to cosmic space-rock. As technology has developed, so has the range of possible interpretations expanded: Holst’s astrological musings on the influence of the planets are now matched by tonal renderings of the signals received by radio telescopes.

On the islands of Åland, in the Baltic Sea, a cloudless night reveals the stars in their full intensity. The light from cities obscures the heavens, but the inhabitants of this rocky archipelago are far from the halogen beacons of urban centers. For composer and musician Johan Tronestam, the sense of openness and distance afforded by Åland extends in two directions: horizontally, across the sea; and vertically, towards the stars. From his home studio, he describes the feelings produced by his environment through electronic pulses, pads and leads generated using an array of hardware and software synthesizers. His music is fluid, harmonious and complex, taking listeners on a journey across the expanse through diverse waveforms.

Influenced by the early synth masters, such as Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream, as well as the progressive rock of Pink Floyd and Yes, Tronestam draws sounds from his synths that sweep like plasma fields projecting from the Sun or shift like the barely perceptible light of fading suns. The effect is neither entirely naturalistic nor abstract, but his music conveys the feeling of moving through four dimensions in proximity to almost nothing else.

The Island, released in 2008, was Tronestam’s first release. Inspired by his move to Åland from Sweden two years previously, it is an ambient tour of his environment and emotional responses to it. Tronestam says that his intention was to bring the listener closer to the subject of the music. The album opens with The Sea, reflecting the barrier that separates the island from the mainland but is also the simplest medium for reaching it. In contrast to Strindberg’s paintings of the sea as a violent partner to the stormy sky, Tronestam sets it as alluring and pacific; a feeling that is returned to for The Moon and the Sea. The pace picks up with A Walk in the Sand and Roots of Secrets, before a classical church organ enters the frame, which is in turn displaced by an arpeggiator as the album fades out. In those last moments, The Island concentrates Tronestam’s core themes by combining fascination for the ancient and the futuristic, the mystical and the methodical, in one setting.

Tronestam’s sophomore album was Planet X, released in 2010. It was inspired by the possibility of contact with extraterrestrial life, and the album neatly pulls the template set by The Island in a more cosmic direction. The opening track, Contact, fizzes with energy and would not be out of place in a modern dance performance. They Have Been Here Earlier follows in the footsteps of Vangelis’ soundtrack for Blade Runner and the dancier moments of Jarre’s Oxygene. The closing track, Closer to Knowledge, makes use of harsher sounds, which bounce between channels like electricity passing through the hemispheres of the brain. The stand-out track, however, is The Star Arpeggiator, which uses filters to modulate a simple pattern as the backbone of the song, while layers of pads and leads provide dynamism.

Far Away, released in July 2012, takes as its starting point the writings of Arthur C. Clarke; particularly 2001 and 2010. As Tronestam notes on his Bandcamp page, he is attracted by “the idea of how the extraterrestrial super-intelligence is traveling at the speed of thought; being able to move around and admire the endless universe fireworks.”

The album begins with A Wider Perspective, which layers crystalline tones, an old-school rhythm track and simmering arpeggiators into a song evocative of the 1970s French and German schools. In Discovering the Unknown Space, the feeling is successfully developed of wonder at new sights; tension building through patterns signalling momentum, which give way to woodwind-like leads and a celestial choir. Nebula has echoes of early Kraftwerk and Jarre, without ever aping them. For those without an undisturbed view of the stars outside their windows, the album is best listened to in its entirety, on quality headphones with the lights turned off.

Stories from the Dawn was released in 2012. The inspiration behind this CD and online release is the experience of primitive man, learning to live in Northern Europe. Here, the sense of distance arises from the movement into frontier lands, the challenges of communications and transportation, and the sparse Nordic population. Life in the Forest Wakes conveys the power of life amongst the pines. Knowledge of the Dawn evokes the rising of the Sun; its energy flowing from the horizon and stimulating life. Lake Vostok, named for the subglacial lake in Antarctica, is a sonic panorama for an icy and snow-blown landscape. The human dimension becomes more prominent in the course of the album, with Order in Chaos (The Warrior) adopting a rhythm that might reflect the fashioning of tools before evolving into choral sounds.

The most recent album, released in 2013, is Roots and Legends from the North. Like Stories from the Dawn, it also focuses on early Nordic history, imagining the harsh environment and early man’s mystical response to it. Traces of a Forgotten Time has pads that sweep like the flow of wind through trees, arousing primal feelings of peace and danger. Closer to the Ancient Truth and Nordic Legends both incorporate processed vocals that call to mind Jarre’s Zoolook.

Tronestam’s interest in music began at an early age. He resisted the promptings of his parents to study the violin, preferring the organ. As synthesizers became reasonably sized and priced, making the move from studios to basements, he started to experiment with early analogue equipment. A Siel Opera 6 was his first synth, followed by a Korg Trident. The addition of a Korg sequencer, with an included drum section, gave him the possibility to make complete tracks, while playing as the keyboardist in a rock group helped to learn song structure. Today, his studio includes a Roland JX8P, Roland XP80, Roland D50, Roland Gaia, Korg Kronos and Alesis equipment.

On the software side, Tronestam uses applications like the Omnisphere virtual synth from Spectrasonics and the Arturia collection. A Steinberg HALion 4 software sampler takes the place of previous hardware tools. Recording and mixing is all done in his studio, but mastering for CD production is done by an engineer in Helsinki.

Tronestam’s influences are proudly displayed and quoted to good effect, but his use of sounds associated with space travel and the future to imagine the past is unique. His songs reflect a deep connection with the land he inhabits and its history, but also the feeling of travelling in places that Man has not yet visited. Neither prehistory nor deep space can be entirely understood from our own perspectives; but, as Tronestam shows, the connections that can be made through art can be compelling.

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