Ellen Arkbro’s Noisey Mix Is Mystifying Music for Deep Listening

On the heels of a methodical new album called 'CHORDS,' the Swedish composer shares some of the patient music that inspires her work.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Swedish composer Ellen Arkbro allows little to get in the way of her sounds. Her last two records had exceedingly straightforward titles—2017's For organ and brass and June's CHORDS—that offered little in the way of metaphor or granular description. The effect is clear, you are meant to listen without preconceived notions, to open yourself up to the experience. Her music is rewarding if you approach it that way—it's slow and methodical, paying particular attention to the timbre and intonation of her chosen instruments (often organ, but also others).


Her work becomes more mystifying the more you listen to it. Though the sources of the sounds are often identified in the track titles, like "CHORDS for guitar," its meditative pace has a lulling effect. it can be easy to forget what you're hearing, and lose yourself to the wheezy melodies and shifting textures. CHORDS, per her Bandcamp, was designed to draw attention to the way that sound exists in space, the way that tonality and harmony affect their environment. You can appreciate the pieces on headphones, but this is music that's best absorbed on big speakers—allowing it to take over your home and envelop you. It's not transportive in the way that people often think about ambient pieces, it's more transformative, making familiar spaces feel strange, finding new beauty in your everyday surroundings.

It's a unique approach to music-making, but she's not alone in favoring deep listening. Today, she's sharing a mix of music that she says offers "context" to her compositions. Pulling from artists as varied as the tabla player U-zhaan and the idiosyncratic drone artist Charlemagne Palestine, she highlights artists that have informed and inspired her work. She says she highlights music where "timbre, texture, and tuning" are in the foreground, in an attempt to engage people's ears in deeper ways. It's a perfect mix for when you want to block out the rest of reality and experience something totally new.


Noisey: How are we meant to enjoy the mix? What's the perfect setting?
Ellen Arkbro: When in a thoughtful state. Maybe when you want to distance yourself from the world a little bit and want to be completely alone. I can imagine listening to it on headphones when sitting on a train looking out the window, or through the speakers in your living room while you are making yourself a cup of tea. Or you can put it on in a different room and just sort of sense the sound of it.

Was there any specific concept to the mix?
For a listener who is familiar with my work or is curious of how to understand it, I wanted to build a context for it by including music from the artists/musicians/composers whose work I am deeply inspired and influenced by in different ways. For someone who is not familiar with my work (most of you, I am guessing) the music included in the mixtape can hopefully shed light on different ways of listening and experiencing slow music where timbre, texture, and tuning is in focus and where the music is about nothing other than the sound and the experience of it.

What color is this mix?
I will be contradictory and say that it is a one-colored multicolor, a simple complexity, or rather a complex simplicity somehow containing the nuances of emerald, indigo, and ruby.

Do you have a favorite moment on this mix?
34:48, where the sound of the organ is meeting the sound of the cello and bass clarinet from Catherine Lamb's Muto Infinitas. I love it when two pieces of music reveal a shared world of sound, and a new music appears when they are sounding together—as if you are finding unexpected magic in the world.


Can you talk about the role that music plays in your life as a listener? Is the stuff pulled together on this mix stuff you'd have on around the house as you're making breakfast for instance? Is that a situation where you'd even be playing music to begin with? How much are you taking in external stuff, and how much are you focused on your own work?
This is not music that I would just put on, no. I love listening to music, something that I tend to forget when working a lot with sound because when I am, I am also very appreciative of silence. I guess I have periods of listening to music, and periods of working with sound and they are not really happening simultaneously. When listening to music, I mostly listen to pop music and sometimes I have periods when the only thing I am listening to is Thom Yorke and Radiohead.

Both the music on this mix, and the music you make is slow-moving, and patient-feeling to me. What makes this a mode of music you're comfortable in?
I have always been drawn to slow music, and music that leaves room for the listener to reflect, to experience, and to reflect on experience. I guess I have always been contemplative, sometimes almost getting completely lost in thought, a daydreamer. But what I find most curious about the music in this mixtape is that most of it goes so far as to almost force you to only listen to the sounds, so I guess in a sense this music is a way of not disappearing in thought, and to become completely absorbed in experience.

The Bandcamp description for your recent album CHORDS says that it explores the idea that compositions "occupy space rather than time." Can you explain what that means?
What I find most interesting with the kind of sounds that I work with, and what draws me to work with these sounds, is the spatial texturality of the sounds. When a stable sound is sustained for a longer time, and when the sound is harmonically stable (in the sense that it is completely in tune), the sound locks in the space in a unique way. When you are in the space, listening to these sounds, you can move around inside the sound and explore new textures wherever you are in the space. In this sense you can sort of choreograph your own listening experience and in turn, the composition. This is also an argument for not releasing this music on record, because these are actually sounds that need to be experienced within a space. But of course, there are other aspects of my work that can be appreciated in other ways.

I'm curious about the function that titles play in your work. Both this record and the last feature titles that are straightforward, descriptive, and simple. Could you explain specifically what it means to you to call a record CHORDS ?
The titles work as non-titles, but instead of naming them Untitled which somehow, to me, doesn't communicate that a piece is untitled but rather that a piece is called "Untitled," I wanted to give the pieces titles that would sort of disappear into the work. "CHORDS" is also revealing what the work is about to me. The idea that gave rise to these pieces was an idea around chords and chord progressions.

Oren Ambarchi, Jim O’Rourke, U-zhaan - Hence One
Ellen Arkbro - CHORDS for guitar
Marcus Pal & Isak Edberg - λ
Charlemagne Palestine - Interrvallissphereee (Tuesday)
Ellen Arkbro - CHORDS for organ
Catherine Lamb - Muto Infinitas (for quarter-tone bass flute and double bass, performed by Rebecca Lane and Jon Heilbron)
Catherine Christer Hennix - Equal Temperament Fender Mix
Charles Curtis - Ultra White Violet Light/Sleep, Vol.1, A
Marc Sabat - Jean-Phillipe Rameau (performed by JACK quartet)