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How Biosphere’s 'Microgravity' Became an Ambient Techno Classic

The 1991 album was re-released on June 23 after a successful Kickstarter campaign.

by Bobby Power
Jun 24 2015, 1:00pm

Biosphere

On June 23, 2015—twenty-four years after its original release—the Norwegian producer Geir Jenssen re-issued Microgravity, the 1991 debut of his Biosphere project and the template of ambient techno to come. The landmark album was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign, its backers rewarded with seven unreleased tracks recorded between 1990 and 1991. Microgravity, along with its follow-up Patashnik and Biosphere's more ambient work, is just as vital today—if not more so—than even before. Creating sets of massive aural scenery rife with heightened serenity, muffled movements, and distant, disembodied vocal samples, Jenssen helped usher in the new wave of ambient techno producers exploring the intersect of vaporous tones and austerely utilitarian beats. Eventually, his output would define the aural trademark for labels like Rune Grammofon and Touch, with the latter serving as Biosphere's longtime home.

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The impact of Microgravity is perhaps best summed up by Lawrence English, Australian ambient producer and owner of the Room40 label. English describes the album as "one of the vital punctuation points in the contemporary electronic canon," praising its ability to straddle minimal techno and glacial ambient texturality.

"Jenssen represents one of the most subtle, yet powerful artists of his generation," English says. "He traverses sound with a graceful elegance and understated presence which remains so elusive for many others working within this same field. What I love most about this record is the hinted narratives and plots that emerge through the use of his samples, something I think that foreshadows the other profound records he made for Touch some years later. Utterly the work of dreams, hatching in the night's breeze."

Geir Jenssen, who turned 53 last month, is largely known for his ambient work under the alias Biosphere, although he's also worked under a handful of pseudonyms (E-Man, Bleep, and later Cosmic Explorer) throughout the eighties and very early nineties. Jenssen's curiosity with the collision of ambient sounds and techno first came to fruition when hosting the Bleep Culture radio show in Tromsø, Norway in the early 90s. As Jenssen recalls, "I often mixed acid house, new beat, and Detroit techno with ambient records. I really liked the atmosphere of these mixes and decided to make music like that myself."

Photo via Biosphere

Rather than incorporating famous dialogue or audio he'd stashed in some library, Jenssen's sampling method was severely limited by technology. While computers and samplers were slowly becoming more available to home producers, they were restricted to file sizes on the floppy disks like those Jenssen used on his Akai S-950. Jenssen describes the labor-intensive process: "I started by collecting film samples and audio recordings from VHS tape in the late 80s. I didn't have my own recording equipment so I took nearly all of [my samples] from movies that I rented in the local video store."

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These early experiments saw Jenssen consumed by the more upbeat rhythms and frayed squelches of the acid house scene, incorporating various vocal samples similar to the work of Brooklyn house dons Frankie Bones, Tommy Musto, Lenny Dee, Subliminal Aura, and Centerfield Assignment. But it wasn't until Jenssen adopted the Biosphere moniker that his work began to take on a much more alien, sci-fi vibe than his sonic influences.

Microgravity, released in 1991, was the perfect entry point for the producer's new direction, a period Jenssen describes as his "astronomy years." The LP's nine tracks set the template for austere, bucolic techno touted by Gas, Thomas Köner, or Seefeel, and suggest the spacious IDM produced by Aphex Twin, the Orb and Autechre. Outlined with an incredible sense of dynamics, with moments to breathe and get your bearings between fits of amped-up rhythm and blissful weightlessness. But the album's treatment of spoken phrases and deep, celestial ambiance clashed in a time where The KLF, Psychick Warriors Ov Gaia, Hypnobeat and other artists in the field were obsessed with superficial qualities of rhythmic atmospheres, so much so that Jenssen's then home-label SSR passed on the album outright.

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"I was very disappointed when SSR said that they didn´t know how to promote the album," Jenssen explains. After a brief period of sitting in limbo, Microgravity would find a home with Apollo, the recently launched ambient arm of R&S Records. "I gave a copy of the album to my good friend Per Martinsen who had released a few 12-inches on R&S Records under the name Mental Overdrive. He played it for the label owner Renaat Vandepapeliere who then called me and said something like, 'This is exactly the kind of music I've been looking for to release on my new label Apollo."

Photo via Microgravity's Kickstarter

But when Jenssen decided to re-release Microgravity this year, he chose to do on his own label, Biophon. "I feel that my first two Biosphere albums (Microgravity and Patashnik) don't fit to Touch´s profile. R&S and Apollo also wanted to re-release these albums, but in the end I decided to do it myself," Jenssen explains. The ensuing re-issue campaign launched December 15 with a Kickstarter to crowdfund a proper, updated edition remastered by Stefan Betke (AKA Pole) and released as a triple-LP (or double-CD) set complete with an entire bonus album of unreleased material recorded in the same session as Microgravity.

But Kickstarter proved to be a bigger logistical beast than Jenssen expected, and he fumbled through a series of unforeseen challenges, including manually tracking down mailing information and shipping hundreds of records without a team of helpers. Furthermore, there was a question of whether the potential crowd that would fund the project event existed. Jenssen admits, "For a long time it looked like I wouldn't be able to fund the project."

With only five days left in the campaign and roughly 10% of the funding to go, Jenssen reframed the financial gap in terms of ascending the face of a mountain: "If this Kickstarter project can be compared to the North ridge route on Mount Everest, we are now at exactly 8000m, only 850m from the summit. We have to reach the summit in four days. Can we do it without supplementary oxygen?" The metaphor is entirely apt, given Jenssen's avid enthusiasm for mountain climbing and geological studies, a pastime greatly celebrated on 2006's Cho Oyu 8201m – Field Recordings from Tibet, which detailed the producer's 2001 climb up the world's sixth highest peak.

Thankfully, the campaign managed to reach its goal in January of this year, ensuring its longevity for generations to come. Jon Wozencroft, head of Touch, describes Biosphere's elusive permeation and continued relevance by explaining, "Jenssen's music appears all over the place, on TV and film. 'Hyperborea' sampled Twin Peaks, and 15 years later a German production company rifles through the Biosphere catalogue for interludes to David Lynch DVDs. It moves in a circle."

In 2015, Microgravity stands as a testament to a sound and technique in its earliest stages without being committed to nostalgia purgatory or remaining frozen in time, inaccessible to future listeners. This sense of agelessness is the result of forward thinking on Jenssen's part: "I remember my decision back in 1990 to make a timeless album by avoiding the most obvious clichés. Most of it still sounds good to me."

Bobby Power is a freelancer writer based in Denver and Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter.