Richard Poulin 7-June-2009 Orion Symphonies

Henriëtte Kat, synthesizers.

Superficially, this album looks at first sight like a New Age creature. But I like that album AND I don’t like the whole New Age pseudo-spiritual, pseudo-ecological and pseudo-scientific swamp. So there must be something there. Ready ?

When I listened to the first few min of Orion Symphony’s music, I had this instinctive reaction of treating this album as yet another new age-ish album of music for relaxation, mantra repeating or crystal gazing. A much too lush cover with a photograph of the Orion constellation and the legend on top that reads ‘The energy of cosmic music’. Hmmmmm ..... that was too much for me . That cover screamed: ‘MUSIC FOR RELAXATION: HEAL YOUR CHAKRAS WITH ALPHA WAVES OF INTERGALACTIC ORIGIN’. And the liner notes specify that there are 10 sec of silence between each track. I see.... I was afraid this was an attempt of the New Age spirit to haunt my living room, and I was frankly reluctant to pursue any further. I’m glad I did.

‘Orion Symphony’ is the sophomore effort of a Dutch artist who started being known as a musician rather late in her career. After dropping out of music studies at the University of Amsterdam and moving to Paris , she earned a living as a teacher and ‘selling luxury items’ from her atelier. It’s only after coming back to Amsterdam and developing a passion for philosophy – she read Plato and Kepler passionately - that she felt the muses awakening inside. She had kept studying musical theory by self-teaching, and was thus able to compose music for large orchestras, the type of music that probably resonated the best to her inner visions and passion. As she explains on her personal website (, she learned how to translate the orchestration she was envisioning for her music to synthesizers.

Of course, such attempts at using synthesizers as small orchestras are nothing new under the sun. Nor is the style of compositions that she writes and plays electronically. Germany has been the fertilizer for much of the foundations to that musical approach (and to its excesses too). Tangerine Dream (and Edgar Froese in particular), Ash Ra Tempel and Popol Vuh paved the way to melody-based electronic symphonies (as opposed to ambient, minimalist and drone-based music developed by Terry Riley, Steve Roach, Robert Rich and countless others), a genre that would expand into the ‘80s and early ‘90s thanks to the New Age movement, of course, but also of musicians influenced by the latter philosophy to various extents, such as Brian Eno, Harold Budd, Jean Michel Jarre, Cluster, etc. The ECM and the Windhall Hill labels carried a considerable portion of the openly New Age music on their corporate shoulders and gave it musical respectability.

As mentioned above, Henriëtte Kat’s music is melody-oriented electronic music in direct line with Edgar Froese’s approach, but with a more classical approach. Her orchestration closely follows that of a medium- sized orchestra. One can clearly hear the musical instruments it aims at duplicating. Synthesized guitar and strings sounds are frequently present and very nicely and tastefully reproduced, in a such a way that you almost forget completely about the fact that it is electronic gimmickry. All we know is that absolutely everything is played on synthesizers, from A to Z, although it would have been nice to have some technical information on the synthesizer type and on the various electronic gadgets that fool us so effectively (the latter being said as a good thing, mind you ....). The beautiful, rich and melancholic ‘If You Must Go’ even features some accordion musette, perhaps a nostalgic reminiscence from Kat’s years in Paris , contrasting with harsher electric guitar sounds (again sounding very much like the original). Apparently simple synthesizer programming that manages to conjure up visions of beauty, or sadness, or melancholy, or peace of mind, and that succeeds in telling the stories that the titles summarize is quite remarkable. If anybody is still in doubt as to whether synthesizers can cover a palette of emotions as wide as more organic instruments should take the time to listen to this record with an open mind.

‘Orion Symphony’ is a collection of electronic hymns to the infinite beauty of the universe: that is, an album of ‘cosmic music’ (as Henriëtte Kat self describes it herself on the cover). As a common denominator, these hymns are based on a slow cadenza that nicely reproduces the slow breathing of someone meditating or doing yoga. But that solemn pace is never boring, and it never elicits a reaction of impatience in the listener. This is because the purpose of such a slow rhythm is to leave enough space between notes and bars for the listener to dream, to see the visions that this superb music means to create. The peace of mind, the lightness that one feels while listening to the music here can be felt very strongly. I played that album many times, and I could have played some Meshuggah or Upsilon Acrux full blast before putting ‘Orion Symphony’ on, the effect of that music is immediate and never out of place.

Several elements set this album apart from other ‘cosmic’ instrumental New Age music. Unlike Kitaro - who incidentally has released an album entitled ‘Straight' a Way to Orion’- or even worse, Deuter, Kat’s meditative compositions do not sound pretty on purpose. Unlike that category of New Age music that is specifically composed for relaxation or meditation, Kat’s creations stand on their own as short stories with cosmic dimensions. For instance, tracks like ‘If You Must Go’ or ‘Seashell Song’ depict personal memories and nature or landscapes, respectively, rather than aiming at helping meditation. The irresistibly soothing sensation that one has at listening to these stories is what gives them that ‘cosmic’ character. Kat’s music on these tracks expresses sincere emotions and to me, reaches what I would call true spirituality, instead of that run-of-the-mill New Age marshmallow Muzak that betrays simulacra of true spiritual experiences. On the other hand, a track such as ‘Messages From Orion’ is obviously and primarily ‘cosmic’ by the subject matter. Of course, the fact that all songs on this album exude peace of mind and transcendental beauty is not a coincidence, and Henriëtte Kat ends up helping us to escape from this world’s chaos, noise and other negative feelings because she is a true believer in the power of certain musical rhythms, of certain sound combinations. She indeed states the fact that she has an interest for the mathematical basis of how to combine in a more or less orderly fashion notes and timbres in such a way that they convey certain feelings and emotions.

Kat’s music is consistently elegiac in spirit and weaves melodies on keyboard instruments while adding synthesized instrument sounds (guitar, percussion, reeds) to simulate a full orchestra. Nevertheless, it often deviates from standard melodious sonorities by adding good measures of dissonance to add contrast and convey changes in spirit and atmosphere. For instance, ‘Seashell Song’ (easily the most beautiful song on the album, and one which has a memorable, gorgeous melody – a masterpiece) introduces sounds of nature (seagull calls, waves crashing, etc.) and dissonant scales that add depth and new dimensions after the first impression of serenity and peace in the midst of the beautiful sceneries on the seashore. Here, the dissonances and the use of modal scales add a feeling of sadness and melancholy to the soothing effect provided by the splendidly melodious lines.

In summary, ‘Orion Symphony’ is a convincing example of electronic music that can reach the listener’s emotions and replace a full orchestra. I am reminded of Ludovico Einaudi’s style of keyboard-based New Age music in the use of simple but effective melodies that never veer toward cheesiness thanks to the resourceful imagination of the composer. Another reference on the more progressive side of things might be Karda Estra, an ensemble that creates ‘soundtracks for the mind’ with a dark, gothic atmosphere with exquisite melodies. Although music like Henriëtte Kat’s and Karda Estra’s aims at creating atmospheres or mental images with an accent on strongly evocative melodies, it does not rank as ‘ambient’ music. Unlike ambient music, which uses drones, loops and other minimalist tricks to hypnotize the listener, the ‘cosmic’ music of Henriëtte Kat, just like Einaudi’s or Karda Estra’s, keeps the listener constantly alert through the use of several movements. This is music that flows, ascends, descends, and takes turns, much like small concertos. Which Kat’s orchestral sections written for synthesizers pretty much end up being.

Beautiful and unpretentious.

Links for further information