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Posts tagged ‘Christian Wallumrod’

Lush laments in Dalston

Hakon Stene at Cafe OtoIf I had to persuade you to buy one album this year by someone of whom you’ve probably never heard, it would almost certainly be Håkon Stene’s Lush Lament for Lazy Mammal. I wrote about it here in March, and last night Stene brought his four-piece Ensemble to the Cafe Oto.

In addition to the leader on marimbas and guitars, the group comprised Tanja Orning on cello, Heloisa Amaral on piano and organ, and Sigbjørn Apeland on harmonium. They played through the compositions by Laurence Crane, Gavin Bryars and Christian Wallumrød that make up the CD, opening them up to the further possibilities inherent in the act of live performance, even when the performers are reading from a score.

Crane’s gorgeously drifting compositions, such as “Prelude for HS”, and “Blue Blue Blue”, feature dreamlike slow-motion harmonic shifts that, in these tintinnabulating interpretations, made me think of some lost blueprint for the instrumental tracks of the ballads from Pet Sounds. The same composer’s “Bobby J” — which we were told had been inspired by the Tour de France rider Bobby Julich — saw Stene apply his electric guitar to a similar format. The darker colours and hovering surges of Bryars’ “Hi Tremelo” created a mood of subdued ecstasy, while Wallumrød’s two pieces opened up the structures a little, and on one of them, called “Low Genths”, Stene made use of his second marimba, tuned a quarter-tone away from the first. In all, an hour of extremely beautiful and compelling music.

In a modest sort of way, the evening was a showcase for Hubro, the interesting young Norwegian label which released Stene’s album and has a catalogue that also includes recordings by Huntsville, the trio called 1982 (which includes the Hardanger fiddle virtuoso Nils Økland), the piano trio Moskus, Erik Honoré, and others.

An opening set was played by Sigbjørn Apeland, whose Hammond-size single-manual harmonium was placed front and centre of the performance floor so that the audience could watch his hands as he moved between gentle Nordic folk and hymnal elements, at one point tearing and folding pages from what looked like the London Overground timetable and stuffing them between the keys to create middle-register drones on which then he elaborated at the extremes of the instrument’s range. He has a new album, too. It’s called Glossolalia, and if it’s anything like last night’s recital, it will be worth investigating.

Hakon Stene

Hakon Stene 2Normally I wouldn’t be telling you now about an album that’s several weeks away from its release date, but in the case of Hakon Stene’s Lush Laments for Lazy Mammal I can’t wait that long. Since I first put an advance copy on the CD player, it’s been a struggle to listen to anything else. No space — workroom, car, outdoors — seems complete at the moment without its shimmering textures.

Stene is a Norwegian percussionist of considerable experience in all kinds of music.  He was a founder of a group called asimisimasa, performing the work of modern classical composers such as Brian Ferneyhough and Alvin Lucier, and he’s currently a research fellow at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, developing new repertoire for multi-percussion. I went to see him at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last week, performing the Danish composer Simon Steen-Andersen’s Black Box Music with the London Sinfonietta, and I’m sorry to say I didn’t enjoy it at all. But the experience didn’t change my feelings about his album.

Lush Laments for Lazy Mammal — to be released next month on the Oslo-based Hubro label, also the home of Huntsville, one of my favourite bands, and the interesting experimental guitarist Stein Urheim — consists of six compositions by the British composer Laurence Crane and one apiece by Gavin Bryars, Christian Wallumrod and Stene himself. They’re played by Stene on regular and quarter-tone vibraphones, bowed marimba, electric guitar, acoustic guitar with e-bow, electric keyboards and piano, with appearances by Tanja Orning (cello), Hans Christian Kjos Sorensen (cembalom) and Heloisa Amaral and Wallumrod (pianos).

I suppose you’d call this minimalist music, in the sense that there isn’t much going on here in terms of incident and gesture. What the pieces have in common, apart from the overall texture imposed by the keyboards and tuned percussion instruments, is a desire to isolate and exalt the process of modulation. This is a strongly tonal music from which virtually everything has been removed except the simple and repetitive chord changes, which are allowed to occur regularly but free from an explicit pulse, exposing the harmonic shift as the principal trigger mechanism for the emotions, as it is in so many kinds of music.

Here is Stene talking about his decision to play instruments other than the percussion for which he is known: “I am definitely not to be regarded as a guitarist any more (and absolutely not as a pianist!), but all my experience as a contemporary percussionist, where one must constantly adjust oneself to new playing situations and instruments, somehow makes it feasible. I don’t approach these instruments, for example the piano, as an altar, but as a tool for playing these relatively simple pieces. This is the kind of attitude that percussionists often have: instruments are tools one uses in order to produce a particular sound.”

It’s hard to find a language in which to write about this music. In its meditative tone and the beauty of his textures, it reminds me strongly of my favourite pieces by Morton Feldman, “Rothko Chapel” and “For Samuel Beckett”. It’s also reminiscent of some of the Necks’ work. And some of it (like Crane’s “Blue Blue Blue” — here’s a snatch of it) reminds me of what happens when the Beach Boys’ more experimental records are stripped right down to the basic rhythm track. So it might be best just to leave you with a couple more examples. Here’s Crane’s “Prelude for HS”, the first track from the album, with Stene on vibraphone, Orning on cello and Wallumrod on piano. And here’s Stene’s gorgeously ecstatic version of Crane’s “Riis”, on which he plays everything. You’ll get the idea pretty quickly. To me, this is a wonderfully pure distillation of what music can do.

* The photograph of Stene is from his website: http://www.hakonstene.net.

A night of two halves

Christian Wallumrod 2Two great pianist-composers were at work within 400 yards of each other in Dalston last night. It was a tough call, so I compromised. The first half of the evening was spent at the Vortex in the company of the Christian Wallumrod Ensemble. The rest was devoted to a set by the Keith Tippett Octet at the Cafe Oto. Wallumrod was playing compositions from Outstairs, his latest ECM album, while Tippett was performing a recently commissioned suite, The Nine Dances of Patrick O’Gonogon. I was worried that by trying to catch both, I’d miss the best of either. But these were two such exalted experiences that by the end of the night I could only think what a extraordinary feeling it must be to create such music in your head and on paper and then have it brought to life by gifted and dedicated musicians.

Wallumrod’s six-piece band — with Eivind Lonning on trumpet, Espen Reinertsen on tenor, Gjermund Larsen on violin, viola and Hardanger fiddle, Tove Torngren on cello and Per Oddvar Johansen on drums — made a much greater impression on me in person than on record. Or perhaps it would be more sensible to say that they sent me back to Outstairs with a better understanding of what it is they’re doing. But I do think that in this case the live performance provides a vital extra dimension.

This is understated, reflective music, making great use of its Norwegian heritage (many of the themes sound as though they are inspired by folk songs), but the quiet power of the music’s physicality came as a surprise: when you actually witness Wallumrod gently pumping his portable harmonium, or Larsen playing soft-grained double-stops on the Hardanger fiddle, or Reinertsen discreetly using a  slap-tongue technique to turn his saxophone into an extra percussion instrument, or Lonning brushing the mouthpiece across his lips as he exhales to produce shushing sounds and bringing out a four-rotary-valve piccolo trumpet to add a new texture, it helps to bring it to life. A long track from the album, called “Bunadsbangla”, featured Johansen using his hands and a slack-tuned bass drum to produce a kind of Scandinavian Bo Diddley rhythm behind a beautifully structured and voiced horns-and-strings line; I think I speak for everyone in the room when I say that we’d have been happy for that one to have gone on all night.

A quick dash down from Gillett Square to Ashwin Street meant that I missed only the first couple of minutes of Tippett’s octet set; the band was already in full roiling Mingusian mode. This was the third performance of the work, written for Keith’s terrific new London-based band, mostly consisting of recent graduates: trombonists Kieran McLeod and Rob Harvey, saxophonists Sam Mayne and James Gardiner-Bateman, bassist Tom McCredie and the veteran drummer Peter Fairclough, with Ruben Fowler depping for Fulvio Sigurta on trumpet and flugelhorn. For me, the format of an octet often seems to locate the perfect middle ground between the flexibility of a smaller horns-and-rhythm combo and the mass and strength of a conventional big band. Tippett, who is writing and playing with a greater range and eloquence than at any time in his 45-year career, knows how best to exploit its potential to the full.

The nine movements were full of contrast, varying in mood from raucous shout-ups to a tiny, exquisite piano coda, enfolding a hymn-like horn chorale framing short unaccompanied piano improvisations, a kind of jig, and something that roared along at 80 bars per minute (that’s 320 of your “beats”, children), a tempo at which it is hard enough to think, never mind improvise coherently. I particularly loved Sam Mayne’s show-stopping alto, a flugel solo on which Fowler reminded me of the late, great Shake Keane, McLeod’s agile, thoughtful trombone, and the impressive maturity of McCredie, who coped nimbly with the demanding score but was always playing with his heart open. A sense of passion characterised the whole band as they negotiated a composition in which Tippett’s defining streak of lyricism never flagged, even when the music’s operating temperature was at its height.

They’ll be back in Dalston to play the piece again on April 11, this time at the Vortex. Keith is still waiting to hear whether the producers of the BBC’s Jazz on 3 are interested in broadcasting the piece. When he asked them, the response was that they wanted him to send a tape. After four decades in which his consistently distinguished work has brought him acclaim around the world, from Italy and France to Russia and India and South Africa, the gatekeepers of Britain’s jazz principal broadcasting outlet seem to be expecting him to audition. If he felt insulted by such a response, it would be hardly surprising or unjustified.

Last night, anyway, Wallumrod and Tippett — who share a gift for bringing the lessons learnt from jazz to bear on their respective native cultures — received the sort of response they deserve: sustained ovations from attentive listeners who know great music when they hear it, and are properly grateful for the experience.

* The photograph of the Christian Wallumrod Ensemble was taken by Christopher Tribble at Kings Place on their visit to London last year.