Since the formation of Icebreaker in 1989 critics have searched hard for a label to attach to the band and its music. Icebreaker's frenetic energy, visceral but undanceable rhythms, searing virtuosity, confrontational, blasting volume and dynamic stage presence have all contributed to a musical image which cuts across established categories.
De Snelheid (which means 'velocity') sets out, Louis Andriessen says, to explore how the idea of speed can be conveyed in musical terms. The relentless ticking of woodblocks throughout the work provides an accelerating pulse against which to measure the essentially unchanging speed of the musical material. Icebreaker's problem was how to render the three large orchestral groups of the original with only fourteen musicians (although in this recording two extra percussionists have been added): in this respect amplification is crucial in recreating the immediacy and impact of Andriessen's orchestral sound. Of the three groups it is the third (here alto flute, cello, bass guitar, keyboard and percussion) that eventually holds sway. Although providing the long-drawn-out melody at the beginning, it seems most of the time rather the underdog: its importance really lies beneath the surface, being, as Andriessen describes it, 'the lungs which power the work's breath.'
Much of Michael Gordon's Yo Shakespeare uses three independent lines, each with their own quite different meter. The resulting rhythmic texture begs the question of where the 'real' pulse is to be found: it appears to flicker between the instrumental groups depending on where one focuses attention. In performance this creates the amusing situation of the musicians bopping in time with the music as they read it from the page but apparently out of time with the music itself. The result is a new kind of rhythmic exuberance close to rock music; a way of composing that comes from popular music but is not about it. Regarding the title Gordon explains: 'I have a friend from high school who can't really get into my sort of music. When he calls me he greets me on the phone with, 'Yo Shakespeare.' I think he tags on the Shakespeare reference because Shakespeare is simply the only cultural figure that he is aware of at all. I think this maybe says something about American culture in general.'
By contrast, The Archangel Trip and Slow Movement take us into the realms of texture and harmony, pointing up underplayed strengths in Icebreaker's approach. The gently modal feel and the rhythmic regularity of Gavin Bryars's work offers something authentically in his own voice, rather than something that attempts to meet Icebreaker even half way: the piece stands, the composer says, rather like a gentle ballad in the middle of a jazz concert, something that sets Icebreaker's other things in sharper relief. The title is a pun inspired by a film about two Russian icebreakers that ply the seas north of the former Soviet Union, cutting through the ice. Their home port is the northwestern town of Archangel, on the Dvina River. The two vessels cross from the Asian side to the European side in a rather fruitless way, meeting once in a while in an uncharted area. Bryars thought of the piece analogously as a musical journey: changes of texture stem less from the rather frozen instrumental colours than from harmonic change, which has the effect of providing punctuation rather than genuine direction.
David Lang remarks that one of the qualities that attracts him most in Icebreaker's playing is its 'edgy concentration.' His piece Slow Movement stems from a wish to invent another sort of music for them to apply that edge to. He describes the piece as a musical object, dirty, messy, ominous: a giant invention, rather unsettling in the way it slowly draws the listener in. Lang admits it was rather ironic he should have produced a piece like Slow Movement in response to the invitation to write for Icebreaker. But as he says, what kind of music do you give to your friends? Sometimes you give them what they want; sometimes you give them what they didn't know they wanted until you gave it. Icebreaker as a whole thrive on being given pieces that they didn't know they wanted, music that stretches their musicianship and their instrumental skills even further. In the space of only five years they have established themselves as a permanent fixture on the international circuit, dedicated to encouraging new repertory and collaborating with composers on the realisation of new projects.