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Maria W. Horn, "Panoptikon"

PanoptikonI tend to enjoy damn near everything that Sweden's XKatedral label releases, but this half-disturbing/half-transcendent tour de force by co-founder Maria W. Horn still managed to completely blindside me. Panoptikon's four-part suite was originally composed for a macabre installation at the "disbanded Vita Duvan (White Dove) panopticon prison in Luleå, Sweden." Being a panopticon, Vita Duvan had an unusual circular design "to create a sense of omniscient surveillance," but that is just the tip of a very grim iceberg, as it was also known for its brutal isolation tactics as well as rampant torture and execution. While the prison mercifully ceased operations in 1979, I suspect I would've needed months of therapy to recover from Horn's installation alone, as it pulsed in synchronization with the prison's lights and the cells contained speakers broadcasting the imagined voices of the doomed prisoners. Thankfully, the decontextualized album is considerably less harrowing than its origin suggests, as its dark choral opening quickly expands into an immersive swirl of heady drones, spacy synths, and timelessly beautiful vocal motifs.


The heart of the album is the opening "Omnia citra mortem," which borrows its name from a legal term that translates as "everything until death." In the context of Vita Duvan, that meant that no one could be sentenced to death for a crime they did not confess to, but they could certainly be tortured until a confession was made. Needless to say, few were inclined to stick around very long, as being beheaded with an axe was vastly preferable to the alternative. According to Horn's research, the crimes that could land one in Vita Duvan could be as minor as "drunkenness" or "vagrancy," but several dozen unfortunate women met their end there because miscarriage and abortion were considered "child murder" at the time.

Horn initially channels that dark history with a deep drone and a haunting choral theme that roughly approximates the solemnity of a Gregorian chant, but that stark foundation gradually warms and becomes more polyphonic as more themes and voices are added. As the vocal melodies intertwine and harmonize with one another, the funereal feel gradually dissipates and the piece begins to evoke something more akin to newly liberated souls floating heavenward. That sublime transformation is reinforced further by the piece's final section, as the voices fade away entirely to leave only a simple, pure, and radiant drone that slowly undulates its way into silence.

The remaining three pieces are a bit less intense (and shorter as well), but they are all similarly mesmerizing in their own ways. "Hæc est regula recti" borrows its title from a book on correcting childhood deformities and initially shares the "choral mass" feel of its predecessor, though the voices are massed in harmonized unison this time around. After a couple of minutes, however, the chorus again vanishes to unveil a gorgeous finale of immersively shimmering drones that flicker and spatially roam as a host of buried and whispering voices creep in. Horn then follows that pair of stunners with the unexpectedly spacy and hallucinatory title piece. "Panoptikon" initially reprises the same underlying drone as the earlier pieces, but soon takes on a bleary, shapeshifting sense of unreality as Horn's synths swoop, plunge, buzz, and smear. On a compositional level, I am very impressed at how Horn managed to seamlessly blur the timeless feel of the earlier pieces into something futuristic-sounding, but the more striking feat is how the piece evokes both a prison riot of ghosts and an ancient church at the heart of a cyberpunk dystopia. The album then ends with one more inspired twist, as the closing "Längtans Vita Duva" is a surprisingly hopeful-sounding traditional choral piece that feels like an old spiritual.

I imagine composing music that could do justice to the sad and cruel story of Vita Duvan and its broken and damned inhabitants was one hell of a daunting task, but Horn was unquestionably the perfect artist for such an endeavor (especially given her healthy appreciation for psychoacoustic phenomena). In particular, I was struck by how deeply the prison's history and the associated conceptual themes shaped both Horn's music and the installation itself. For example, the speaker placement was designed to evoke the sense of voices "striving for community but hindered by the forced isolation of the prison architecture." Moreover, the prison's previous torture and execution practices were replaced by the different horror of three-year stretches of total isolation after 18th century prison reforms and that too was mirrored ("the only indication of the passing of time was found in cycles of daylight amongst the silence, uncertainty, and solitude"). I honestly do not know how this album could have been any better, as there is not a false step or wasted note to be found anywhere and these pieces cumulatively pack quite an emotional impact. To my ears, Panoptikon is easily the strongest and most memorable album of Horn's career, but her larger achievement was turning something so soul-shreddingly dark into such a listenable thing of transcendent beauty. This album is a masterpiece.

Listen here.