on life, music etc beyond mainstream




Thomas Strønen is an imaginative drummer, arranger and composer and it’s clear that his artistic intentions are very serious. Even the name of the band is serious: it comes from the first line of the poetic novel, Fugitive Pieces by Ann Michaels. Like the novel, the band too can sometimes be a difficult but rewarding “read.”

With so little European jazz coming to San Francisco (SF Jazz is not going to stage their ECM festival this year), I wasn’t going to miss out on Time is a Blind Guide’s surprising visit to the intimate Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco last night. I really liked their eponymous album a lot. I was hoping they would play some of that material, but alas, (for this listener anyway,) almost the entire show was culled from the new album Lucas. I had listened to Lucus a few times, some of which really spoke to me and some of which was perhaps a tad too loose for my tastes – at times I found myself growing impatient, waiting for something to happen during some of the free sections. But then, that might say more about me than the music.

Seeing these great players live however, was a different story. The band started out with a long, free piece that had character and gravitas-and was quite the opposite of treading musical waters: lots of droning strings, no-pulse drumming and virtuoso bass bowing by Mats Ellertson, who I had seen perform in Tord Gustavsen’s quartet (with Tore Brunborg), as well as admired on Mathias Eick’s last album Ravensburg.

Although I’m not as familiar with the new material, It appears the balance of improvised music in relation to composed music is more equal on this release, making the live performance very compelling, as the group is given a lot more freedom to explore.

The violinist, Håkon Aase, was also familiar to me from his performances on both Mathias Eick’s Midwest as well as Ravensburg (one of my picks for 2018’s best releases). He’s a very eclectic player who obviously has the classical training but sounds very folky at times, using drone strings whilst playing melodies above them. One can also detect a middle eastern interest. He was no slouch in the more avant garde pieces, whether playing ensemble parts or improvising freely. At times he played arpeggios on both violin and hardanger at once. He also doubled occasionally as a hand drummer.

The cellist is not the one on the album and I didn’t catch his name. He was more than up to the task, but didn’t stand out as much as Hakon did. Pianist Ayuma Tanaka played a somewhat austere role in the proceedings to the point of being somewhat underutilized, and was only given one solo spot in which she played exceedingly sparingly – nothing like the stretching out she did on the first album. Also, there were times when the Pleyel upright wasn’t up to the task and was  nearly  drowned out by the rest of the band.

One of the most enticing aspects of this group is that they are all obviously virtuosos, but rarely show off their prodigious chops. I suspect this is an aesthetic choice on the part of Strønen and it pays off  – there was a muted, suspended feeling most of the performance, the music rarely rising above a quiet whisper.

It’s no small thing to play drums with unmiked strings and piano and still allow everything to be heard. Strønen’s performance was a perfect balancing act that few drummers could pull off. Occasionally, he put down the brushes and picked up his sticks to let loose the raw power that he kept contained most of the evening. In those moments, the  band rose to a polite roar and the room filled with the clamor of wild, albeit somewhat restrained freedom.

It was a small room and the group played it well. The audience of around 30 people were very appreciative, and afterwards, many lingered to talk with the musicians who happily signed Lps and cds. An evening of quiet rapture.

This entry was posted on Dienstag, 26. Juni 2018 and is filed under "Blog". You can follow any responses to this entry with RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. Michael Engelbrecht:

    That sounds very close and intimate. I don’t believe in concert photography anymore. It is nearly always samey. But there is one reason I still like such photos at times: when a friend is taking a snapshot. YOU WERE THERE. Great. At the Punkt Festival, Thomas‘ group will perform, too:

    KRISTIANSAND 30 AUGUST–1 SEPTEMBER / PUNKT 2018 PROGRAM (more artists and exact times to be announced):

    THURSDAY 30 AUGUST – Kristiansand Kunsthall from 18:00: Agnes Hvizdalek /Matthew Collings / Anja Lauvdal / Heida Mobeck

    FRIDAY 31 AUGUST – Kick Scene from 19:00: Paal Nilssen-Love /Thomas Strønen’s Time Is a Blind Guide / Now vs Now

    SATURDAY 1 SEPTEMBER – Kick Scene from 16:00: Geir Sundstøl / Erland Dahlen / Building Instrument / Elephant9

  2. Brian Whistler:

    The photo also shows a little of the small space. There’s a tiny bar just to the right of the piano, a couple couches as well. And that’s it! After the show a guy was showing Håkon the best restaurants in town on his iPhone, all with at least one Michelin Star. I asked myself, how can these guys eat in any of these places? I did the math: since the House gets 40%, they couldn’t have been paid much more than about $70 apiece!

  3. Michael Engelbrecht:

    I don‘t like the vibes in restaurants with one star or more.

    Tonite L‘Estanquet will be the place of choice, in Lit-En-Mixe at the Biscaya, France.

  4. Brian Whistler:

    Not my cup of tea either – plus I can’t afford it.

    We have put favorites on SF, but none have a star.

    Except for Burmese Superstar, which is a great little place (no actual Michelin tho).

  5. Michael Engelbrecht:

    Copy that :)

    Mais: L‘Estanquet! Très bon repas. Quantité et qualité irréprochable. Plats bien aboutis, une cuisine familiale. Un prix normal. C’est un lieu sans prétention une cuisine excellente et un personnel accueillant et agréable. Nous avons passé un très bon moment.

    Back to English: if it is not all old shoes for you, Brian, you should give this or next month‘s time travel companion a try: Michael Pollan‘s book HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND. No kidding, this book is a gas, possibly a life-changer, a book that makes you rethink at least some aspects of life.

  6. Brian Whistler:

    Hey Micha,

    I’ve read a couple interviews pertaining to this book. I don’t think of psychedelics as a form of legit therapy to be old shoes! It’s on my summer reading list.

  7. ijb:

    Brian, many musicians in Norway have access to lots of state funding for most aspects of the artistic process – recordings, travels, commissions, albums releases, some even just for working (I know a few of them). These state funds can be used to pay for everything, and for their concerts etc they [edit: not all of them, but many] can include a fee in their calculations the amount of which might be surprising to you (it has surprised me to hear those figures several times). Those fees may be huge in comparison to any other country’s art or music funds, especially when they’ve been as established for years as many of the people we’ve been talking about here on this website.
    Håkon Aase and Ayumi Tanaka are among the younger people [so I don’t assume they’re recipients of „big“ funds], but quiet often it doesn’t take long for artists active in the Norwegian art and music scene for some years to get access to the funds.

    Remember: There are less than 5 million people in this country (approx. the size of Poland and/or Germany), and people in the music and arts scenes often know each other and there is frequently intense collaboration in various projects. There has been lots of „oil money“ in state funds, and Norway has enduringly stayed outside the European Union [they had two national polls about that], so they have wisely kept their wealth to themselves.

    If you’ve ever been to Norway, you may have been highly impressed by the huge amount of tunnels (a quarter mile under the ocean ground, 16 miles through mountains etc) and bridges…
    During these past years I got to know quite a few musicians in rather experimental genres enjoying travels to Japan and other countries with state fund money and relatively small audiences over there… (I don’t know any people in Germany or the US who could get such amounts of state support.)

  8. Brian Whistler:

    I had heard artists in Norway were state funded but had no idea to what extent. Wow, so maybe they could afford to eat at the fanciest places in town. I wish this were the case here, but nowadays it’s even hard for artists to get NEA grants like before. Most artists are struggling just to keep afloat.

  9. ijb:

    A well-known German producer we all know and admire once told me he was not aware of the Norwegian state financially supporting album recording sessions (at Rainbow Studio etc), even when he had been paying for the sessions from his (own) (German) company’s budget.
    So when got to know that some of „his“ musicians had actually received support from Norway for the recording and had him pay for the whole recordings and release, he was not amused…

  10. Michael Engelbrecht:

    These comments move sideways in interesting directions.

    @ Brian: after reading this book, I have no doubts the re-evaluation of psychedelic drugs can lead to a new perspective for using them wisely in psychotherapy. In fact it has already happened many, many times. So, nice to have a decent talk on old shoes in the future. The books of Ayelet Waldman and this one from Michael Pollan on the subject of LSD, microdosing LSD etc. are, let‘s say, TOP TEN of my all time favourite non-fiction books. I finally got an invitation to a shamanistic journey in Peru. The older you are, the more important is this card from, haha, Eno‘s OBLIQUE STRATEGIES:


    Well, this new movement goes way beyond psychotherapy.

  11. T.S.:

    Just to clearify a few misunderstandings;
    The only reason we played The Red Poppy, with a door-deal, was because we had a day off and wanted to play rather than just stay at some hotel. We lost out big time and can certainly not afford fancy restaurants. Nor are we hugely supported, but play at venues that pay decent fees. The state does support some activity, luckily enough, but not close to the extend suggested. We’ve also had a right-wing government the last six years and this has made a significantly negative impact on culture among other things.

    Thanks for an insightful review.
    All the best,

  12. ijb:

    I do apologize if my remarks may have suggested I knew anything specific about the financial backgrounds of either this group of musicians or its members.
    I was only referring to musicians and visual artists in Norway I got to know personally during the last 8 to 10 years. And I may have to add that I also know people in Norway whose situation is not as privileged as suggested above and they are not in a position to consider buying an apartment in Oslo or a house or traveling to Japan or South America.

    I do love to come to Norway and I know lots of great people there. (However, I have also met people who are apparently unaware of the privileged and rich art funding system they can enjoy living in, compared to many artists and musicians I know even in Germany (which is not a poor country either) and other countries.)
    But to be clear: None if this should imply I knew specific details of Thomas’s situation as a musician or as a ECM recording artist. I know a lot of his releases though, and I do enjoy many of his recordings very much.

  13. Michael Engelbrecht:

    As great as the review is, the dialogues in the comments live up to it.

    So, not to be misunderstood from my side, I have to add something in regards to the Michael Pollan book:

    As an eclectic psychotherapist I have never worked with psychedelics. And for good reasons. I do have no experience with most of them, and would never use them without being an expert in handling them, and without basic scientific research. But after reading the book I realized what a huge potential a wise use of these substances (with careful management of set and setting) can offer. In the Peruvian jungle I will (hopefully) go on a journey with awayasca (there are better spellings, I think), and, well, I was really surprised by the degree of disinformation that has closed the doors for LSD and relatives for such a long time.

    This era has now come to an end. I have never been a drug guy, with the tiny exception of a certain sympathy for hypnotic sedativa. Leonard Cohen had a longer story with them. (See the film BIRD ON A WIRE, and you will know what I mean). They are really addictive.

    LSD is a very different book, and it should be handled with care, smartness, a lot of background knowledge, and experienced people as travel guides. The recent books of MP and Ayelet Waldman are basics: after reading one of then, or both, you can make decent decisions. The reputation and sincerity of the writers is beyond doubt.

    The WHITE ALBUM of The Beatles: quite a bunch of songs were written under the influence of LSD. And what can I say looking back: THEY DID A GREAT JOB:) Hopefully the double album will be published in its surround version at the end of 2018. What a joy that would be! But, it also works in glorious mono, so never mind!

  14. Lajla:

    Wie können Künstler autonom bleiben und welche Bedeutung hätte ein bedingungsloses Grundeinkommen für sie? Darüber müssen wir nachdenken.

  15. Michael Engelbrecht:

    A musical sidestep.

    In 2015 FOOD‘S „This Is Not A Miracle“ was one of the MANA records of that year. I then wrote:

    „Once founded by saxophone player Iain Bellamy, and following quite an amount of incarnations and stylistic changes, „Food“ never did a wrong move, never stopped to surprise, never put out anything but, good, very good, or excellent albums. In recent years, Iain Bellamy’s knack for sophistication and sparseness has been the perfect match for Thomas Stronen’s hitting on things, and his way of, well, sophistication and sparseness. Soulmates are always welcome.

    Austrian guitar and sound manipulator Christian Fennesz takes care of unexpected ambiences and noisy undercurrents; he’s a hunter of discreet wilderness proving the rewards of letting all power fall. Normally starting with nothing more than a vibe, an impulse, „Food“ decided a new modus operandi and made use of „real themes“ – banning away the beloved raw skeletons. But why making it simple when complication is so much fun?

    After recording a heavy load of material, Thomas Stronen was left alone with it for months, mixing, doubling, cutting, layering, chaneling, canceling. The basics were radically reshaped without letting go some of the key elements and original ideas.

    „This Is Not A Miracle“ (ECM Records) may not be a miracle, but it is an adventurous perpetuum mobile of shifting moods and awesome polarities. Call it electronic, call it organic!
    Stronen and Bellamy know about showdowns, too: the last four tracks are brutally ascetic and perfectly executed: it’s the magician’s trick of „Food“ to be able to even make the tiniest details unforgettable, at least endlessly enjoyable. This time they added (en passant) some grand gestures that hit you right in the face. No one could have expected that!“

    TIME IS A BLIND GUIDE is a totally different book of sounds, but equally fascinating.

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