Matti Bye: Bethanien
  • Composition
  • Musicianship
  • Production
  • Originality
  • Masterful Display of Emotion

Considered to be one of Sweden’s most important film composers, Matti Bye has scored music for films dating from 1916 to 2013, including silent film classics such as Sjöström’s Phantom Carriage and Stiller’s Gösta Berling Saga, as well as recent movies such as Fredrik Edfelt’s 2013 film, Faro. Bye’s work is drenched in tension and minimalism while thoroughly engaging a lyrical sense that is magically captivating. Fans of psychedelic, krautrock, and prog will likely recognize his collaboration with Kristian Holmgren and Mattias Olsson in the band Walrus ( where they shell out loads of pounding, hypnotic atmosphere. I might also add that Matti deserves the highest of praise on a performance level; I had the opportunity to see his ensemble This Forgotten Land at Club du Nord in San Francisco (following their appearance at the Silent Film Festival), where they delivered one the most dynamically rich and emotional performances I have witnessed.

2013 has certainly been a busy year for Matti Bye, seeing not only the release of multiple films that he scored (Centenarian and Faro), but also the launch of a brand new solo piano record: Bethanien. Although Bethanien isn’t prog, but rather, solo piano with some added bits, Bye’s past work in Walrus made this record of particular interest to me, and I hope it catches your attention as well. The background on the album is fascinating and certainly adds depth to the record. Bethanien takes its name from an old hospital in Kreuzberg, a hospital which historically went through many phases of ill repute, from being known as an infection ridden house of care to an abandoned site overtaken by squatters. In recent years, however, it has become an artist residence, which is where Matti Bye enters the picture with his old grand piano ringing out haunting and soulful tunes that echo down the halls of old Bethanien.

This old historical site turned music studio certainly embodies the feel of Matti’s latest record. The opening moments of “Piano Ship” say quite a lot about the album, and perhaps even the old hospital; the scratchy static of a record player, wind sounds, the creaking of floors, and the entrance of a slow, plodding left hand pattern interspersed by melancholic right hand phrasing on Bye’s old piano certainly create a somber and expressive mood. Setting the stage for what we’ll continue to hear at length are a unique set of overtones that aren’t quite perfect, coupled with a warbly effect that produces an overall presence which is striking, haunting, and downright beautiful. These tendencies are further developed as the record continues on to “Cutting a Sunbeam,” where a careful piano motif, flanked by ambient ringing overtones and a swelling accordion, is augmented by the decrepit singing and gorgeously questionable tuning of a gentle glockenspiel, creating the perfect picture of a nostalgic sunset.  The title track, “Bethanien,” introduces a slow, swaying waltz, that produces a dreamlike sense of intoxication. What really drives this piece, however, is the extreme amount of restraint taken with the right hand phrasing, oftentimes leaving loads of space after a resonant note or harmony, creating a dramatic mood, and sometimes simply wandering around in an aimless, but beautiful, slumber.

As we move to the middle of the record, a particular piece stands out that really takes advantage of the old, decrepit piano sound: “Eikern 1977.” There are some notes on here that are absolutely brutal, embodying all of that strange chorus overtone that is characteristic of an old piano. At the heart of the composition, however, lies a memorable descending melody that receives its share of variations throughout the piece. Its sense of musicality is akin to much of Matti’s film music, and his performance is genius, demonstrating a keen ability to milk out mysterious quirks and aging issues from the piano’s keys at just the right moments in the melody. Progressing deeper into Bethanien we find “Across the Sun,” opening with what sounds like a warbly vibraphonette and harsh, ambient pitches prior to introducing a ghostly waltz, the subject of which becomes a minimalist theme of an ascending and descending pattern, full of simplicity, but striking in emotion. Finally, I would not feel good if I left off the review without a mention of the track “This Forgotten Land,” recalling the name of the ensemble I saw Matti perform with in San Francisco. Certainly one of the more film like pieces here, “This Forgotten Land” kicks it off with a repetitive motif while Mellotron parts gradually grow behind it, planting a beautiful garden where MkII flutes and 3 violins creep up on us little by little as we feel the composition getting wider and wider in a peaceful crescendo which peaks about 2/3 of the way through before slowly dying off.

Although you won’t find any prog on Matt Bye’s latest release, what you will find as you explore the sonic halls of Bethanien is a composer and performer full of soul and heart-wrenching emotion. Matti’s sense of deep expression through powerful melody, emotional phrasing, and masterful use of old sounds is mesmerizing, and holds true to the notion that sometimes less is more, and that there is something profound, if even frighteningly beautiful, in the silence that rings between notes.