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Posts tagged ‘Hakon Stene’

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.