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In 2020, I was probably at only two concerts – Silent Fires in February, and Pericopes in October – both of which are bands with pianist Alessandro Sgobbio, who graduated at music academies in Parma and Oslo, and that is why many of his projects have been taking place between Norway and Italy. The striking Silent Fires album, Forests, was one of my top Nordic releases 0f 2019, available through the enthusiastic (predominantly) jazz label AMP Music and Records, founded in 2014 and managed solely by Oslo-based jazz drummer Anders Thorén. To this date, AMP has released more than 70 albums, among them such highly recommended favourites of mine as Ayumi Tanaka’s debut trio album, Memento, the original project Modes for all Eternity by WAKO & Oslo Strings, or the highly inspired trio Ground 71 from Northern Italy. Just recently, AMP changed the logo and design approach, and Alessandro is back on the label with the debut album of his project Hitra, Transparence, described as a genre-fluid journey into imaginary, lost and hidden places.


I see that you wrote all the music and are mentioned as producer. So is Hitra rather a project based on your ideas or more like a full-band project of four equals?


Yes, I produced the album and wrote the music, but I think that the best way to describe this project is an open musical encountering of four musicians and their own personal voices. It’s nice for me to see and hear how this polyphonic dialogue could well re-shape the compositions (and the improvisations, of course) with a deeper level of a creativity and meaning. Also, some of them are quite structured, some other are wide open, but overall there is «zen» freedom in the way we can approach, interpret, dismantle or improvise in between our repertoire.


That „zen“ approach of the music is something I feel is very strong on this album. Interestingly, it reminds me of another recent Italian-Norwegian project: Michele Rabbia, Eivind Aarset and Gianluca Petrella released an album called “Lost River”. There’s no piano on that album, though. You mixed the music with Stefano Amerio in Udine, who also recorded and mixed the “Lost River” album. In any case, your album is a beautifully unique one, stylistically, and also quite different from lots of other albums in the contemporary jazz section, on AMP as well as in general. Which references did you have in mind when you developed the music? 


During that period I was mainly working on my own self-perception and development of my musical ideas. The challenging situation of moving every six months (!) to a new city, music academy, apartment and spoken language (Norwegian, Swedish and Danish languages are so similar and yet so very different!), has played an important role in  pushing me towards that direction. That being said, the music on this album has a quite strong connections with my busy daily book-reading activity of that period. I remember that, for many days, I was deliberately stretching my days between silence and reflection, with a book in my hands or a grand piano in front of me, with paper and pencils ready for writing down ideas. But – of course – I was listening to a lot of music during that process, mainly checking out artists who have been developing a clear, energetically strong and personal voice. And it was definitively a wide range of intense listenings – from Arvo Pärt to Robert Glasper, with PJ Morton and J. S Bach in between – and multiple inspirations from specific works from Misha Alperin, Jon Balke, Anouar Brahem, Joni Mitchell, Christian Wallumrød, Kaja Draksler, Kayhan Kalhor and Vijay Iyer, among others.


What was the initial inspiration for the album?


A few years before moving to Oslo, I was reading a book by French writer Georges Perec and I noticed his curious mention to the lost city of Lebtit: such a fascinating story that resonated in my mind for a while. After that, other related references and readings surfaced and made that first inspiration more solid and valuable. The hidden, abandoned, demolished or imaginary places became the leitmotiv of the album, and I feel that the music included in Transparence organically matches this vision.


So how did Hitra as a band start? 


It took me some time to find the «right» musicians, but today I can say that I like a lot this line up! [Drummer] Øyvind Skarbø and I shortly played together a mini trio set (with trumpeter Hilde Marie Holsen) at my master admission at the Norges Musikkhøgskole in early 2016. In 2017, a few months after my arrival in Norway, I met [bassist] Jo Berger Myhre and asked him to be part of this project. We started rehearsing a bit in that first trio format, pretty much improvising, with no composed material at all. We just set up the instruments and started jamming for some hours. When the Norwegian Music Academy offered me a «concert + daily recording session» combo, I felt that could be a good opportunity to work on more composed material. Øyvind, Jo and I agreed on adding a fourth member to the band, and the choice immediately came to [guitarist] Hilmar Jensson, who was teaching at the Academy. I asked him if he would have been interested in joining this project – as you know, he said yes!


When you first told me about this project about a year ago, I was surprised to encounter the island Hitra again. It’s a fairly big Norwegian island, but it’s located in a region that not a lot of people outside Norway know much about. What is your connection with Hitra — or why did you choose that name for the band?


I have never been to Hitra, but I was immediately and enormously inspired by the sound of the word Hitra itself: such an enigmatic perfect word for our metaphoric island of foggy lights, hidden places and sunken cathedrals.


I very much like the concept of the multilingual track titles. How come you have two German titles among them?


Those two titles carry a special weight in the imaginary journey painted in this album. That’s actually due to my admiration for the work of poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The term “Künftiges” (future things) has a quite eschatological message, and “Lebenslauf” suggests a “life path” that can be physical and spiritual at the same time.


We spoke about your ideas for a cover image last autumn, when you were in Berlin to perform your previous album. I remember the title “Transparence” had been there already. The photo on the cover connects pretty smoothly with another AMP album released around the same time, by Pål Nyberg. When and how did you come across Anita Soukizy’s work in the first place? 


We had a first connection more than a year ago, during the promotional tour of my previous album Forests. Anita has a particular predilection for the Scandinavian music scene, so we were already in touch regarding that specific topic. Last February — after some concerts in Oslo, Berlin, Paris and Porto — with Silent Fires we finally landed in Milan for our last tour gig, but on that same day our concert got canceled (and the first official Italian lockdown started). Since the gig was not happening, we took the opportunity to make a long band interview with Anita, and also a mini video shooting. That was the beginning of our collaboration.

The first album cover reference I had in mind for Transparence was a foggy, undefined night cityscape. I asked to a few photographers for options in that direction, including Anita Soukizy (and yourself). What happened is that Anita sent me also an extra selection of more-abstract shots. While I was sharing these options with Anders Thorén, we both agreed that, among all options, there was one image in particular that felt quite accurate in visually delivering Transparence’s liquid atmospheres, so we went for it. I agree with you — its style matches the Pål Nyberg album cover, but it is only a (very good) coincidence.


What’s the idea behind the video teaser for the album?  


The idea of a night cityscape reference came back only after the album artwork was finalized. I was starting to think about an album EPK video, but then I remembered that Anita Soukizy mentioned, during a phone call, the existence of some unreleased night video shots she took in Milan. That footage has been included in the video teaser (where you can hear the opening track, “Lebtit”, played in its entirety), and I am happy I could finally materialize my very first visual intuition for this album.


A talk with Rasha Nahas about her album Desert – which should be a striking candidate for Manafonistas‘ best albums of 2021 lists. Rasha Nahas was born into a Palestinian family in Haifa where she grew up and lived before she moved to Berlin in 2017. In Germany she has been working with various musical and theatre productions and has just released her debut debut album Desert on her label Rmad Records.


One of the many things I find remarkable about your album is that these songs sound like you had been living with them for a while. I can’t exactly tell if I get that impression from the arrangements or from that fine flow in the lyrics. Some of the lyrics have such a wild, or complex, imagery that seems to be a mix of very personal thoughts and feelings and also some sentiments about society and the places you lived in. Lots of songs have a striking energy that sounds elaborate and emotionally lived-through at the same time.They sound like songs that have had some history before they’ve been put on tape.


The songs went through different arrangements. Yes, I lived with them – played them acoustically, only me with classical guitar, then I did them with more electronic elements, and then with different musicians. Little by little I started gathering the band. Me and the violinist [Shaden Nahra] have played together for seven or eight years. There was a very strong connection between me and the musicians, and we definitely explored and lived the songs a lot. It’s not a matter of time, though, rather a matter of commitment and a sense of being involved artistically. I actually wrote a lot of songs for this album, I just didn’t release them, apart from an EP in 2016.


You developed the music partly in your hometown, Haifa, and then you toured with it before you recorded it here in Berlin?


Yes, the music was written during my last few weeks in Haifa and during my first few weeks in Germany. It was really written through my transition. The title track, “Desert”, for example I wrote in my apartment in Haifa the month before I left. “The Clown” and “Ashes” were written in my first apartment here in Berlin. It was really like documenting my travel, documenting that period of my life, asking myself where I want to be – and doing it.


And that was three or four years ago?


Yes, I moved to Germany in the summer of 2017. I simply had a lot of friends here in Berlin. In 2017, we played Glastonbury Festival in England and a few other gigs, and it just made sense that I stayed here. Then I started performing here and applied for an artist visa.


The whole album really sounds like it could have been live in the studio, although I’m guessing there was a lot of work involved with how the the violin, the cello and the instruments in general blend together.


After I wrote the songs, we arranged the basics with the band, like verse, chorus, the lengths of sections and such. I worked mainly with the bass and the drums to really gain this solid, heavy feeling. The songs are intense there’s something very … like stepping in mud, you know? To me that feels like heavy steps. That was the the main work, to realise this solid rhythm section to build on.

We did work a lot with the cello and the violin lines, some of which I had in my mind – for example “Ashes”, these lines [sings] I must have had forever. I was always singing that when we were rehearsing. Then we were in the studio, and we’d never discussed it before, but I just went like, “try this line“. And it worked. A few songs were done in one take, “The Fall” for example, all of us together, including the vocals. We didn’t dub anything, just mixed it.



What was the co-producer’s role on this project? Where did he come from?


As for the co-producer, I basically needed someone on the technical side. As a band, we had a vision – we had a sound, but with me being lead singer and guitarist, I needed someone to execute this sound in a technical way. Plus, Jonathan is a great musician; he was a classical pianist. I trust him when it comes to giving me feedback, as a person from outside the band. Jonathan also mixed the album. I needed the same engineer to mix it, because the band really had a very specific sound, which I don’t think I could have executed without him.


In “Cat Lady“ I like this this raw atmosphere, with the guitar sounding almost like it was improvised, very much like played on the spot.


For “Cat Lady” we recorded bass, drums and guitar, then added violin and cello. And then I didn’t like the guitar part. So I just played one take of guitar on it. That was basically improvised. It was two chords, this whole song, but it has many variations. We play a lot with the colours. So with the guitar part I am basically reacting to what’s happening around me.


Indeed, you present all sorts of different colours on this album. At first it can be a bit overwhelming – for the listener, having all these different vantage points on your creative personality. All these elements are very fascinating to roam and experience. Every time I put on the CD, it feels like listening to a new album again. Let’s take the Leonard Cohen song: At first one might think, “why does a Leonard Cohen song end up on this album?”, but having listened to the album many times I in a way forgot it once was a Cohen song … until that fabulous chorus comes in and reminds me. Your recording of that song comes across as a very personal take, even though it’s not one that you wrote. Usually I’m a bit hesitant about people covering famous songs – and Cohen’s have been covered and recorded a lot. Singers often perform it in such a way that you can hear they like the song, but their take is not in any way unique. Here, it sounds like it’s your song, like there’s a deep personal connection. That’s why it fits splendidly into the overall concept of your album.


He’s a big inspiration. He’s one of the greatest songwriters that ever lived, at least in English music. His work definitely shaped a certain part of how I write in English and express specific things. I love this song very much. I played it acoustically on classical guitar a lot. During one rehearsal I plugged in my guitar, we were still in the beginning, like half tuning, half jamming … I started playing it, and then the bass gave the first note, then the drums did a bit of cymbals, then we went to the six eighths, and then the cello came in… So I just felt like recording it, because I think it’s a song that speaks about identity, about not recognizing yourself, about transition, about love. It’s also a dialogue with the father that can be also God, so it’s a somewhat religious song – this whole thing about covering the face… It’s very metaphorical but also very specific. It fit the album really well.


It does fit on the very personal side of these songs on the album. There are lots of very personal moments to it, but they’re never as bare as if you’re talking about something private. “Ashes” is a good example. It sounds like a very personal story, and this is where “Lover Lover Lover” fits in. “Ashes”, the longest and one of the most dramatic songs on the album, starts like it’s a quiet one and then it becomes more dramatic. And in the end it calms down again. I had this feeling that it’s probably a love song, but the metaphors you chose are anything but ordinary. They could easily relate to something else than merely a personal situation from a relationship.


“Ashes” is a love song, yes. It started from cigarette ashes. You find an ashtray with a lot of ashes of cigarettes. But it’s also a metaphor for burning, like when you get close to fire and then lose your balance – like a musician on stage is completely surrendering to the music, and burning, and after the concert thinking what is left. That sounds a bit tragic, but it’s also beautiful. And it’s about love, about relationships and balance, learning about the line between you and the other person. “And my ashes remain in the room as you leave” – it’s a beautiful metaphor. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album and one of my dearest things I wrote so far. I’m sharing a lot there.

I love personal music. Take Jeff Buckley, for example, or Joni Mitchell. If you go back in time, there was no ego in love songs – or maybe it was ego in a different way. I feel today love songs are so much about ego, and there’s a lot of thinking about how you’re perceived.


It’s great how these songs are more like open vessels for my – or other listeners’ – associations. And then there are others which are more eccentric. There’s lots of these associative elements which I find really fascinating to be drawn into. Did you work a lot on the lyrics, before you decided this is the final text? How much time do you spend on developing a song?


It’s different with every song. For “The Clown” it took 15 or 20 minutes to write the text. The arrangement took a bit more time, finding out how we’ll do it, rehearsing all the stops and the riffs. “Ashes” I wrote in the morning, then I went on my bike to get something in the city. I remember listening to the recording I had made on my phone, thinking about what I was going to change. Then I came back home, changed it – and that was it.

For me, with text I usually feel like it may not be perfect, and even though I could make everything sound a bit better or fix everything so that it will be more accurate, but I think that I prefer to just keep it as it is, because it’s what it is. I never felt that reservation of things not being good enough to let them out. It’s like taking a photograph and showing it to a friend. It’s a beautiful, very fluid process, and there’s no right and wrong. There is a lot of space to create and to invent.


You started playing music when you were very young and played classical guitar when you were about ten? Why didn’t you become a classical guitarist, or rather, where did you start taking a different turn? When did you decide to go down this path as a songwriter between cultures and countries?


I love classical music. But to play classical guitar is like flying an airplane – if you really want to do it in a way to pursue a career. In a way I find it classical music very impressive and very “royal” – to see people playing such sophisticated music and investing their life into manifesting it in a great way. I guess the music I make is more direct and accessible than classical music. My classical guitar studies were enriching for my experience as a musician, but I had something to say. I wanted to write songs. I wanted to speak to people. I wanted to share verbally. I just feel that I’m a songwriter.

When I was very young, I really grew up on John Lennon. He’s great. My Dad had a collection of Lennon CDs, and I just listened to them like every time I was in the car – every time we were driving somewhere, to visit my grandparents in the village or wherever. So it was like John lLennon from like my early my earliest memory of music. And later on we got Queen and Freddie Mercury, just like such great rock bands.


Lennon and Mercury – that makes sense to me, listening to your album.



About this album cover: What’s the story behind the image? Was it your idea, or where did this artwork come from?


It was a deep dialogue with the graphic designer [Haitham Haddad]. He is an amazing artist. He was a good friend of my sister’s and I’ve known him since high school. When we recorded the album I didn’t know the order of the songs, didn’t know how it’s all gonna be put together. The pieces felt so different from each other. Admittedly that was my plan: I didn’t want to create one genre. I don’t believe in genres anyway, I just want to do art and express feelings, express thoughts, express myself. And I realized it’s a collage. It moves and it takes you with it. Every song is a journey, but the whole thing is also a journey. It’s very personal, but also very theatrical – so the double exposure with the different layers basically represents the album like different personalities. The theatricality is in the distortions and the burned colour. There’s also something very clear in the face, but there’s this moving and shifting thing around it, it’s fluid. The graphic designer did a brilliant job.


How have you changed since the album has been finished? It’s been a while since you recorded it, and judging from all the projects you worked on since then, you seem to be in a very different place now, artistically at least.


Yes, it took time for me to understand what this album means. I started “Desert” in 2018 and I did a crowdfunding campaign. Then after the recording I had an injury in both my hands which stopped me from making music for almost a year. I had inflammation in my hands, and I couldn’t play guitar or carry my groceries, make food or type emails. I was not in a good place. I’m doing okay now, but I needed time to heal, time to to be with myself, prioritize things a bit.

I learned to know my limits. I started touring a lot, and it was the most important thing for me for some time. My music was more important than myself. It was a very romantic relationship to my art. It still is important, but it’s different; it’s healthier, because being ill for many months and not being able to play music taught me a lot about my relationship with music and my relationship with myself. I was forced to prioritize myself, my well-being, my health before everything else. That was the most precious lesson I learned in my life.

My relationship with music can still be the ashes that remain in the room, you know, but it’s a bit more balanced. I found a very beautiful relationship with music that is not as tragic. I just learned to do it in a way that is good and healthy.That’s the main thing that changed.

Making the album felt very intuitive. I’ve been through a lot with it, and it was very important for me to release it, before I release anything else. And it took me time to put it in a frame and say, “okay, this is what it is”, and so it’s such a perfect timing for it to be out now. It’s like opening a new chapter.


The conversation between Rasha Nahas and IJ.Biermann, recorded in Berlin in March 2021, has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Interview with Kateryna Zavoloka, Ukranian sound artist, composer, performer, and visual artist, who is now based in Berlin. Living in Kyiv in 2006, Zavoloka founded the label Kvitnu with her partner Dmytro Fedorenko (aka Kotra) and designed and curated the visual appearance of the label’s releases, while also releasing her own music through the label. Cluster Lizard is a duo project with Dmytro Fedorenko.


I mainly became really aware of Kvitnu and of your visual design work with the release of the Pan Sonic concert album Oksastus – Live In Ukraine. It was released in 2014, but Mika and Ilpo had already ended the Pan Sonic collaboration a few years prior, so for their fans – like myself – it was a great surprise and event to hear some new music from them (and the album had been recorded at the end of their collaborative years). Can you talk a bit about how you approached that album design? An impressive artwork, it’s just as unusual for Pan Sonic as it is mysterious, opening up a really strong atmospheric world, before one actually listens to the music on the album. It’s a peculiar combination of organic, abstract and artificial elements; the image on the front reminds me of a seed of some sort of grain, but also of an egg from the movie Alien. What’s the story behind it?


We invited Pan Sonic to play at the Kvitnu_live event in 2009 in Kyiv, and it was an amazing and very powerful concert. We recorded it properly and asked them if we could release it on Kvitnu, and five years after the concert we made the double LP. The first release was on 20th of February 2014, and it was the last days of the Maidan revolution in Kyiv, Ukraine, during the clashes of protesters with Berkut special forces, police troops, and that day the snipers shot protesters. Those were the most tragic days and a transformational period for Ukraine – and of course for us, and I will remember this day forever. Pan Sonic called the release Oksastus – the Finnish word for process of grafting or cultivating of plants. That is why I decided to use some plants in the design for the artwork, I wanted to make it abstract and organic. I found the slide films of different seeds made by my grandfather Oleg Kozlov, who was a biochemist, scientist and inventor. In the 1960s he made the “scanning microscope” that could make very sharp images of very small objects like insects or seeds. So I used his slides, transformed the images and added textures and special print techniques like UV-lacquering, bronze paint and foil to create a metallic effect. The vinyls me made in white for a contrast, and Dmytro then stamped each LP label with the Pan Sonic logo by hand. Real art work.



Can you talk about the relationship between your visual work as a designer or graphic artist and your work as a musician/composer? Having the mission and the chance to come up with designs for other artists’ musical worlds must be a bit of a challenge sometimes, I guess.


I always asked musicians if they wanted anything particular, and most of the time they answered that they trusted me. While I made artworks, I always listened to their music, kind of sinesthesia. Sometimes musicians would give me some image or photo and I would transform it, and we would add some special effects, like hot foil pressing or the glitter, metallic paint, embossing or silk-print. I’d the say musicians have been happy with my designs for them, as we always would listen carefully. But we never compromised our visions of Kvitnu.


You grew up in in Kyiv when Ukraine was still a Soviet Republic – so you experienced the changes from the 80s through the challenging years after 1991. Where did your path as a visual artist and musician start?


Yes, it was during the Soviet Union, and I hated it. I was a kid when the union collapsed and Ukrainians were very happy to have independence in 1991. It’s true that those were challenging years for us, but it was wonderful; finally, we we allowed to travel abroad, have private property or make business, listen to music in the end! From my childhood I was interested in visual art and music, my father and mother were painters and designers and I went to millions of different art workshops for kids and sang in a children’s choir. Somehow from my childhood I already knew that I would design artworks for other musicians.


Then at some point in time you moved to Vienna and later to Berlin, so in a way you are now in between here and there — also artistically?


Dmytro and I moved to Vienna because we wanted to study at the Academy of Fine Arts. A year after graduation we moved to Berlin. It was the most transformational period for me. I think it is very important for any person to have such an experience, and especially for any artist. Living in other countries shifts your perception of everything, removes clichés and patterns in your head, causes tectonic transformations in your consciousness; you start to question your reality more and more, and therefore make more right choices for yourself. This is so important for creativity when you have a more clear vision, of what you want, and what you would not accept anymore. This period made me more balanced and happier after all these stormy times, and this first year in Berlin was actually shiny fruitful in my art.


Usually it’s rather the other way round: People from stable Western countries like Germany say how transformational it has been for them to live in much more unstable and messy places for a while. In what way have Vienna or Berlin had such a transformative impetus for you?


Maybe it was not very clear: I meant that moving to any other country from your own home country and living there would shift the perception and would offer you different perspectives. We moved to Vienna in 2014 to study and we lived there for five years; and in the middle of 2019 we moved to Berlin – actually, not so long before all the lockdowns. I think when you live in your homeland you have some vision of some sort of spherical happiness in a vacuum about another countries, which is not true for sure. For us, living in Austria was not stable and not comfortable at all, as for immigrants with a non-EU passport it has been extremely tough.

Transformational experiences don’t come from the country itself, but rather from extreme situations, more like a shock therapy that wakes you up, like if you plunge yourself into boiling water and then have to pull yourself out of it. My album Promeni from 2018 is about that.


So what kind of things – in art – do you not want to accept anymore?


In general, I don’t want to accept compromises with myself, I would rather think and meditate a thousand times and ask myself intuitively: does that resonate with me? Does that what I really need? And after that make better and calm decisions.


You had already several years of experience, working as an artist, working with music, sound, visuals, as well as, through the label, with lots of different musicians and artist. What caused both of you to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna?


I wanted to learn more about video and motion graphics, Dmytro had math and economy educations and wanted to study at an art academy, that’s why we applied. Well, it was my second art education, as I also used to study at Kyiv State Institute of Decorative and Applied Art and Design before, where it was more academical and technical, whereas in Vienna it was more conceptual and ideological. For artists, it is important to be free thinkers, and free from any ideology templates installed in the head by educational institutes, and I am very glad that I don’t need to study anymore.


Earlier you worked with vocals on some releases – you even made a whole collaboration album with AGF, who is a well-versed vocal artist, and I also like your remix of Колискова Для Ворога (Lullaby For The Enemy) by Стасік (Stasik).


Стасік is a young Ukrainian singer, songwriter, and a veteran of the Russian-Ukrainian war. She doesn’t have many songs yet, but all of them are like the sharpest knife into the heart, very strong. When Lullaby for the enemy came out, I was so strongly impressed that I immediately wrote to her and suggested making a remix. Then we decided with my partner Dmytro to release these two remixes on Kvitnu as an exclusive EP.


On my new album Ornament I also worked with my voice, but it was kind of hidden, and I didn’t want to draw attention to it, but rather work with the voice like an expressive sound source, untraceable in the sonic fabric.



On the last few albums your music on the one hand seems to have become more reduced, compositionally – but on the other hand, sound-wise, also more high-energy“. I often find a curious combination of smooth, or mellow elements in your music – while it is still very energetic, these more recent releases, too. Did living in Berlin have an influence on the new album?


I don’t think it’s influenced by Berlin, because the music came from the period of the album Syngonia, which was written around 2016. Just before that, I spent several years looking for the sound I needed. I even wanted to stop composing music, I was not satisfied and thought that I was tired. I think it’s a natural evolution, and it’s natural for an artist to have such peaks of negativity and positivity, and it’s really great to find a middle way and balance in creativity.


Right before Syngonia I was going through a difficult period. Syngonia and Promeni were the last two volumes of the series of “Purification by Four Elements: Air, Water, Earth, Fire” and I felt relieved when I finished them. Ornament was written in 2019–2020 and is a stand-alone album with a different concept, where ornament is the coding element for the unique algorithm that modulates an intention, path, state, and a space.


Since you commented on your art or process becoming clearer: The artwork of Ornament is probably your most reduced and minimalist cover – at the same time it also seems to be inspired by some sort of extreme contrast, it’s almost aggressive.


The artwork of Ornament is more minimalist because I wanted to make it like a colourful contrast of extreme states of consciousness, where balance is the key. As it is contrasting sonically.


The album is very contrasting in atmospheres and in sound, it is like travel.


And Prophecy, the 2018 Cluster Lizard album, was the last one you recorded in Vienna? What’s the main idea behind it? I notice the tracks are quite long (as are the track titles, which are quotes from poetry). What kind of prophecy does the album title refer to?


Prophecy is like a message of revelation. The tracks are as long as their poetic titles, we wanted to create narrative atmospheres, sonic trip.


So Kvitnu has been running since 2006 with around 70 releases. So what caused you to start another label, Prostir, in 2018? 


Yes, we started Kvitnu in 2006 in Kyiv and made it for 14 years, until 2020. At first, it was only for Ukrainian experimental electronic music, but soon we received so many demos from around the world, so Kvitnu became international. We helped many musicians to release their music, it was truly an honour for us to discover wonderful artists and to help them from the heart. We have decided to close Kvitnu, because it was an art project, like an art movie with a good ending. We already heard several melancholic stories about other labels, and it was extremely important for us to make a positive finale at the highest peak of development. We became friends with our artists, we have a very grateful audience, and the release of Kotra & Zavoloka Silence became the final endless silent loop with the question written on the EP label: What do you hear, how much you hear nothing?“

Prostir me and Dmytro started in 2018 for only our own music and arts with the second release by Cluster Lizard, Prophecy. So it was natural that I wanted to release my solo album Ornament there. We consider Prostir not only as a music label but also as an art space (“prostir” / “простір” means “space” in Ukrainian) for any other art forms and other dimensions we might imagine.


Which direction would you like to see your music moving towards?


Our plan is to release the new Cluster Lizard album, which will sound different from our previous albums. We already composed several tracks. Dmytro has played on his guitar and bass with various effect processors and pedals, so the new album will sound more bright and fresh. And after we finish the album, I want to compose for my solo work – I have some thoughts already.


How is your view on the situation among your friends in Ukraine today? Would you consider moving back sometime, or do you think the political situation is too dire — and you prefer to stay in Berlin?


We moved to Berlin for music. Now, of course, it’s a bit quiet everywhere, but I hope it will change soon. Somehow now I play more often in Ukraine than before and love to travel there. And I am very glad that so many very good events and professional promoters have appeared in recent years; it’s wonderful! As any Ukrainian has a cherry-blossom garden in their heart, whenever I will be bored here, I will move back.



Finally, which music has been the most evocative and inspiring for you in 2020?


For me, 2020 has been precious as the most productive and intense year in my own music and I believe for other artists too. I liked the new albums of my friends – Kotra’s Namir and Ujif_Notfound’s Neumatonic. Amazing new album by Liturgy, Origin of the Alimonies, Simon Posford‘s Flux & Contemplation – Portrait of an Artist in Isolation, and Extrawelt’s Little We Know and many others. Of older music, I opened for myself this year Japanese collective Geinoh Yamashirogumi and the last album by Jack White, Boarding House Reach, and Muslimgauze’s Salaam Alekum, Bastard are great.

I think we are currently in a time of beautiful transitions and transformations in music.

The conversation between Kateryna Zavoloka and IJ.Biermann, was conducted in Berlin, in December 2020.

2020 24 Mai

Sophie Tassignon: Mysteries Unfold

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As you know, I’ve written about several RareNoise album releases over the last couple of years. And it’s actually kind of surprising now to find someone like you on the label, isn’t it? How did your album end up there with RareNoiseRecords?


When I was trying to find a label for this record, I looked at a lot of jazz labels and I thought this is not really a typical jazz record, it’s just not going to fit. I kind of had the feeling it won’t fit anywhere. Then I stumbled across RareNoise by accident. I read about what they go for, and I thought, “This is it! This is the label!“ They go for styles of music that don’t really fit anywhere. And then I was very happy when Giacomo [Bruzzo, head of the label] said he really loves it. He’s great to work with, very reliable, positive, and respectful.


So the album was already finished then.


Yes. That was one year ago. I finished the mix on my birthday last year. That was my deadline. And then I thought, “okay, now I can celebrate!“. I went with my gut feeling on this album for every decision, and I’m very happy about how it turned out.


Their description fits with what you do—although the name RareNoise addresses something else.


Totally. I know. This album is really not representative of “noise“ music, but I quite like the label’s name, although it might be a bit misleading for my music. I see the label name as meaning more ‚rare sound‘ which I feel better describes my album. I was not originally familiar with many of the bands on the label, probably because I’m not somebody who checks out a lot of music in general. I always listen to the same stuff over and over.


Such as?


Johnny Cash. Ligeti—but just this one piece on the piano, Fanfares, it’s just fantastic. David Bowie—Ziggy Stardust is my favourite. Some Fado music … It’s very selective. There’s a lot I can’t hear, because it’s too painful—because it’s so beautiful. I spoke with a friend about it because I wondered, “why am I not listening to all these beautiful albums?“ I can’t. Like Jeff Buckley’s album, his only album: For me, it’s just out of space. It’s so deep, emotionally. Or Joni Mitchell, Blue—can’t hear it anymore. I also love the one with Vince Mendoza’s arrangements. I listen to Chopin’s first concerto regularly. And I really love what Bowie did with Donny McCaslin, the final album, it’s really great. I have it on vinyl, but I don’t put it on very often. It’s also so beautiful.


Bowie did a lot of interesting things with his vocals, too. I’ve been listening to a podcast a lot, by a friend of a friend of mine. He invites lots of people to talk about all Bowie albums—one person at a time to talk about one specific Bowie album. And then he puts out the conversations as podcasts. At times they’re rather long, up to three hours, but it’s immensely inspiring to hear these different perspectives and all sorts of different thoughts and background information on this complex body of work, including how Bowie used vocal performance, how he used all those different characters and approaches in each song. I guess you know that he started out working with theatre and performance, and then he used those elements in his stage productions and his recordings throughout his life. So most of his recordings are in a way very close to acting, even though they’re not always about characters, but he performs each song with a specific character and a specific approach to singing. He always puts on a persona. His singing style is very different on all the different tracks and albums. I am fascinated by the way he was using his voice as a unique instrument.


I just bought myself a record of Russian Orthodox choir music. And I find that so beautiful. I went to Russia many times and I used to go to the orthodox church just to listen to the choirs. And sometimes I incorporate that in my music, especially on this album.


I was thinking of something like that, although I couldn’t specify it. You’ve been here in Berlin for about 12 years and done lots of different projects. So would you say that this album is kind of a culmination of your work over the last 10 or 12 years?


Yeah. Thinking about it, I realized that this is really a mixture of all the influences since I was a child. And it’s, in a way, funny to think, “Oh yeah, I put it all in a box. There it is.“ It feels so good when you do something that’s really personal. I just thought, “I want it like this,“ and that’s what mattered most. Of course I am hoping people are going to like it, but it was not made to please someone else. So for me, it’s the first one that’s really true and honest. I think other albums were hiding a certain part of me.


I think I can sense that it’s the result of a long development over years and also a very personal approach, but on the other hand it’s also very simple. Working with loops and different layers, you can always do a whole lot of things. Was it difficult to achieve this simplicity and not include too many elements?


I had a big rule when I started this project: I just wanted to use the voice, I didn’t want to use any MIDI elements or effects. So when I say “voice and electronics,“ there are a few loops here and there that I have worked on, and they’re embedded, they’re not obvious. Nothing has been changedmaybe one note: There’s a very low D in Descending Time, and I think the sound engineer pitched it, or he did something else that makes it sound one octave down. But that would be the only thing that has been changed. All the low notes I recorded at like four o’clock in the morning after a party or something. I would wake up at four or five in the morning and record those low notes, because then they would come out. That was my basic rule and that was also a big constraint. You say there’s a simplicity, but I think this is the most complicated thing I’ve ever done. It’s full of complexity, but of course I hope that no-one hears it. For example, in Cum Dederit, there are 88 different voices that at some point come in and out. So this is really complex, but I’m glad that it sounds simple to you, because there’s nothing worse than listening to music and thinking, “Oh my God, that sounds hard!“


Okay, if we take the song “Jolene,“ it’s almost pop, it’s basically just the tune. Others, like “La Nuit,“ do sound rather complex.


Yes, it’s true. Don’t Be So Shy With Me is fairly simpleand Witches as well.


They are, but I can hear that there was a long process behind them. I also heard these different layers, although I didn’t exactly hear 88 of them. I always admire people who are so versed with working with these loops, using layers of sounds and then singing and playing on top of them. So this must be something you’ve been doing for many years.


Yes, that’s the thing. I think I bought my loop station in 2006, so it’s been, yeah, 14 years! Back then I started building something up with it. You want to do something interesting, not just repetitive. Then in 2009 I was lucky to work with a Japanese dancer just for one short thing, at a tea ceremony in Prenzlauer Berg in a tiny cafe that doesn’t exist anymore. I was doing tons of sound stuff with this loop station. That evening a woman was there, she was curious about how I was doing that and asked for my phone number. And a year later she said, “I need your voice, I need to work with you on a theater project.“ That was Elzbieta Bednarska. I’ve done six theater pieces with her since. And that work inspired me to research and try out a lot of stuff, because you rehearse a lot when you work in the theatre field. On the first piece we did, there was one actress doing a monologue, and I had to do all the music by myself. So I was constantly looking for different things that work so that the audience wouldn’t get bored with just hearing the voice all the time. Working with Elzbieta has always been very inspiring and so much fun. And a lot of that ended up somewhere in here, on this album; for example, the birds in the beginning of Jolene, they’re mixed very softly, because I’m in this little churchI wanted it to be an Orthodox churchand the sound engineer said the birds are outside. That’s why they’re so quiet. Those were inspired from the theatre piece. And the beginning of Descending Tide, that melodic line, was also part of that first piece that I improvised.


La Nuit comes from a longer improvisation I did with Simon Vincent, an electro-acoustic composer I’ve worked with for years in the improvisation project Charlotte & Mr. Stone. It was like a composition within a composition, I took that out and slightly changed it when I listened back to it. I always thought this was a cool melody. Cum Dederit comes from a very different place: I had learned it during my years of classical training, but I never really developed the classical singing. Obviously I got something out of that technique, but I don’t really know how it works. The piece has haunted me for about 20 years, especially with its chromatic development.


Was it a deliberate choice to use all those different languages?


No, because starting with this album, I decided that I wanted to have a project similar to what I do in the theater, but do it alone. It was more like a dare, because in some ways I have a bit of a shy personality. Especially on stage, I’m not always that confident. But when I perform in theatre I feel much more confident and people like it a lot. So I planned to make myself one set and to perform it on my birthday six months later or something like that. Then I thought, as it’s going to be my birthday, I’m going to choose all the songs that I want to do just for myselfas my own birthday present. I chose only songs that for some reason really touched me. That explains why the selection is very unique. It was very complex to record this on my own. I had always dreaded that because I’m not so good with software and all that.


So these are all songs you had performed a lot in your shows?


Yes. It was so nice that often after my solo concerts people came up asking for a CD and said, “I want to take that home with me.“ And I replied, “But I don’t have a CD.“ They suggested, “You could simply record what you just did live.“ And I thought, no, it’s not going to be the same. It’s not going to sound like what you hear because you’re in that specific room. You don’t actually hear the little mistakes and the loops that are glitching, the pops, you know. So when I started to work on the album I had to redo 90% of the loops that I had created over time. I had to deconstruct, transcribe and rerecord everything using a different microphone. It took me about a hundred hours per song to recreate what I was doing live.


Wow. It does sound very meticulous. One can hear the long process, but it’s not overpowering. It’s obviously not just like you went in front of a microphone and did some singing.


In 2015 I learned Ableton Live, so I could do a lot of more complex things that I prerecorded and prepared. There are some textures, for example in La Nuit, which I could create with higher notes. I would record one note and then I would copy that note and place it slightly underneath but in a different track. And then that would be looped. So it would sound like one long thing. Or I would just record the same note five times and place them next to each other. So I would have one note and then I would do that with another one and another one. And I would record those notes louder and softer so that I can create this moving texture with these long notes. That was super fun. So then I had that texture, which I could bring in and out whenever I wanted to.


So basically you knew what kind of sound you needed. And then it was a lot of work constructing the different layers.


Exactly. Mysteries Unfold is actually one that I composed a while back, in 2015. I composed it on the piano. I had the chords and the melody, and I took that with me when I went to the International Centre for Composers in Visby (VICC). First I recorded the A section; I wanted some melodic lines that create harmony and sort of develop the melody. And the second part was a total experiment. I just cut some notes short and placed them in a way that it created some sort of rhythm.


When you choose these songs from different origins and in different languages, is the content of the lyrics important to you? The first song, “Gubi Okayannie,“ for example, I guess many people won’t understand anything you sing there, as it’s in Russian. And even more so the song in Latin. And there are other parts on the album where the voice is not even conveying lyrics but turns into something abstract, it’s not just a song anymore. “Jolene“ works almost like a story, whereas others don’t.


Actually, whenever I listened to songs, I never used to pay attention to lyrics. I still don’t really. My ear is not drawn to words but to the harmony and the melody and the sound. For me lyrics don’t really matter. Gubi Okayannie has touched me particularly, because I saw it in a movie and I transcribed it from the video because I wanted to sing it. I love the film, Five Evenings by Nikita Mikhalkov. There’s this guy who takes out his guitar and sings this song, super gently. It’s beautiful. But of course when I took it, I just couldn’t do it in a similar way. I’m not him and it’s so beautiful the way he does it, so why should I try to do it like him?


But that’s true for all the songs. “Jolene“ is a song that many people have heard. When I heard your recording of “Witches“ it sounded very familiar, I had to check where it’s from, but I don’t think I actually ever heard the [Cowboy Junkies] original. Your whole approach is a very personal one. You’re using these songs to turn them into something personal, even though they might be familiar in another context or in a film. A Dolly Parton audience might also be a different audience from those who buy RareNoise records.


Yeah, frankly, I must say I didn’t know Dolly Parton and I didn’t even check out her version until a few years ago. I started singing it in 2009 with a band I had with three other singers and we would write arrangements. And I absolutely loved these lyrics, they were just so amazing. So I decided to sing just the lyrics, because they’re so powerful. And for me, this song was always a slow one, and now I made it even slower than it was before, by doing it a cappella with no time. When I heard the original, I was like, “Wow!“ I didn’t even know she was so famous and that song was so famous. And Witches, too; actually, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the original.


I really like this idea of taking something from either a different culture or another genre, like country music, and turn it into something very different, like Orthodox choir music. That’s what people like Johnny Cash and or, at times, David Bowie have done, too.


Now with Jolene, when I used to sing it, a lot of people said they cried, as it was just one voice singing these lyrics that are so powerful, so sensitive. I love that. But when I recorded it at home, I thought that’s not going to work. Something was missing. It’s an album. It’s not a live performance. You can’t just do what you do on stage and put it on a CD as it is. Then these chords came to me, like Orthodox church kind of chords, I wanted to have this kind of holiness. But then the question was, how much of it? You know, I could write a huge arrangement with more voices and all that, but I still wanted it to be pure. So that’s why the beginning is still with nothing but the birds, and then these chords come in.


One final question: What’s the story behind that painting on the album cover?


The Cover was designed by ROK, an artist living in Budapest. I really loved what he did for previous albums on RareNoise so I was very happy to work with him. I suggested Fernand Khnoppf as he’s one of my favourite artists. He’s Belgian which is a coincidence! So ROK decided to use a photo of me taken by Peter Van Huffel and did an amazing job reworking it joining the idea of Khnoppf’s mysterious painting style to the different layers and deapth of the album.


The conversation between Sophie Tassignon and IJ.Biermann, recorded in Berlin, April 2020, has been edited and condensed for clarity. more… »

Hello Leonie, last year I had seen the SWR documentary about you, which was impressive with its balance between personal, yet not private, insights on the one hand and the more professional and performance-oriented chapters as well as the highly supportive and appreciative interview contributions from your teachers, among others, on the other. After all, it’s not common for a student or beginner to be honoured with such a detailed television portrait. How did this documentary come about?


In 2015 I had a scholarship from the Zukunftsinitiative Rheinland-Pfalz (ZIRP). As part of this scholarship, I played concerts in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz) throughout the year, including at SWRlive! at Funkhaus Mainz. So I drove off with a sprinter full of instruments and was very happy to be allowed to give a concert at this kind of broadcaster. And this concert evening was simply wonderful: And not only due to the fact that they provided people to carry my instruments … ;) On this day I could see for the first time a station like the SWR from within and could experience for one day how work is done in this kind of media house. And I was so fascinated by that very experience that in the summer I did an internship in the editorial department of „Landesart“ and then went on to study „Music Journalism for Broadcasting and Multimedia“ at the Karlsruhe University of Music alongside my drum studies. Naturally, during the internship everyone always saw me as the drummer and not as the journalist, so on the last day I said goodbye with a small office concert. That was my first contact with SWR. And then about a year later I played a concert in Neuwied, where SWR2 editor Sabine Fallenstein became aware of me and offered to produce a CD a little later. And then everything came together: I produced the CD with SWR, and the editor Julia Melan was so excited about „The sound worlds of Leonie Klein“ that she wanted to make a film to accompany the CD production.


© Charlotte Oswald


You appear very natural in your demeanor and your statements – anything but youngstar-like affected. How much do you think about presenting yourself as an artist, as a musician in this competitive and ego-populated professional environment, or about, well, „orchestrating“ the accurate career steps?


I try to think about it as little as possible and just do what I think is the right thing to do. And fortunately, I’m usually so busy that I don’t have time to think about it. The worst thing is when you have to pretend just to be competitive, since you only want to make music.


I can easily relate to that. My studies in film directing were essentially art studies, free of market-oriented courses and lessons. That can be as good as it can be disadvantageous, depending on how you look at it. Did your teachers or mentors prepare you for all the non-artistic stuff you have to fight with when you want to stand your ground as a soloist in the „business“?


I really had to work out most of it myself and simply learn from my own experience. I was on the road a lot during my studies, gave a lot of concerts, was able to make a lot of contacts and very quickly understood that it was not enough to play well as a soloist. Thomas Höfs, my teacher for orchestral percussion at the music college (Hochschule für Musik, HfM) in Karlsruhe, has always made it clear to me that this business is very hard and that as a soloist you can not only rely on your musical skills, but you have to be always ready for anything. Yet to find the right way and then go it, I was on my own.


You’ve mentioned music journalism. Have you, during the years of your percussion music studies, been thinking about a „plan b“? Considering that solo percussion doesn’t exactly convey the glamour image often attributed to soloists on the violin or piano, one cannot avoid the question: What does one do if it proves impossible to „survive“ on what one has studied for years?


I have been working on a „plan b“ since my bachelor’s degree. Since then I have been studying not only percussion but also „music journalism for radio and multimedia“ at the HfM Karlsruhe. I will graduate in this August and I can see myself working in this profession alongside practical music making.


In addition, of course, the selection of pieces or composers offered on your first album are not exactly catchy pop tunes. For drums there is nothing like Für Elise, Moonlight Sonata or Sibelius solo concerts, all of which will always win the audience over, even if they are only played in a mediocre way. First of all: I feel that your career path is highly impressive and deserves respect. In the documentary we can see the passion and commitment you put into this music, a music that is rather odd for most listeners, even those who like „classical“ music or rhythmic music such as groovy jazz or contemporary electronic music. Stockhausen and Lachenmann, for example, are not exactly considered Germany’s most popular composers. Can you recall what it was like for you to discover these composers‘ works? Was it more a fascination with the formal or the technical – or did you immediately get emotionally involved?


Before I entered the music college, I had only a very limited set of instruments at my disposal and the pieces by Stockhausen or Lachenmann were unthinkable for me at that time. But then I arrived at a college which opened all possibilities for me. At that time I had no idea at all about contemporary music and had to find my very own connection to it. For a year, I intensively studied Stockhausen and his work Zyklus. I read a series of books about serial music, about Musique concrète instrumentale and got to learn about the most renowned composers since the 1950s and their music. So it was more the historical/scientific approach that introduced me to this music. Then work began on the instrument: How is this music supposed to sound? As a performer, how much freedom do I have? How do I phrase this music? And that was the beginning of a very long journey, on which I myself had to understand and get to know a kind of music that somehow intrigued me, but at the same time was so difficult to play that it took a lot of discipline and perseverance to follow this route. And I have to add that deliberately I only rarely worked with a teacher because I wanted to discover music independently and not just walk in someone else’s footsteps.



The repertoire featured on your CD comprises almost entirely „big names“ – from the great master Xenakis to Stockhausen, who is often seen as a somewhat crazy megalomaniac, to Lachenmann, whose influence many contemporary composers have described as formative, to Nicolaus Huber and Peter Eötvös, who may not be known to everyone, but who are also highly esteemed among music lovers. Was there a certain narrative arc or a kind of principle of order why you chose these five composers and works – or are they simply „favourite pieces“?


Stockhausen was actually the bedrock for this CD. It was the first contemporary drum solo I have ever practiced. Next up was Lachenmann, who in Intérieur I uses a similar set of instruments, but the music is entirely different. I was fortunate to get to work with Lachenmann in person which is one of the reasons why I have a very special relation to this piece. And Psappha by Xenakis is one of the three milestones of percussion solo literature. These three works have taught me to understand contemporary music and how to perform it. They have been with me for a very long time and they mean a lot to me personally. At the same time these three works in combination are also a part of music history.


Nicolaus A. Huber’s work stands in contrast to Lachenmann: Both studied with Luigi Nono, and I wanted to juxtapose these two composer personalities on the CD. One teacher – two students – two different ideas of music. And then there is Peter Eötvös: his work should prove that, in comparison to the previous pieces, you don’t always need a large set of instruments to keep a percussion soloist busy and bring the instrument to full fruition – at times even a single timpani will do. The CD presents a cross-section of 50 years of percussion solo literature and the individual pieces could not be more different. The CD covers the whole scope of percussion solo literature and it has to be said that all these pieces have never been played by one female performer before. Obviously, they are something like my „favourite pieces“, but that’s partly due to the fact that I myself got to know percussion as a solo instrument in contemporary music from a a perspective of music history.


And what about the new work by Johannes Fischer (born 1981)? Did he write it especially for you, even for this CD – or how did the contact come about?


Johannes Fischer had already been thinking about writing a solo for a prepared vibraphone for a long time and he picked up this idea for the CD and wrote the piece down. Back then I had been looking for a new piece for the CD with a tonal reference (a piece for mallet instruments) and since there was very little time to commission a composer and I knew that Johannes Fischer was composing very accessible music for percussion, I got in touch with him.


Not being a musician myself (but having always on the lookout for new musical discoveries in all genres), I would be very curious to know what kind of music you like to listen to besides the music that is your job.


I am very much at home in classical and contemporary music. If I listen to music consciously in my spare time, it is usually in concert. When I do, I go to concert halls, theatres or contemporary music festivals. Occasionally I listen to other music such as rock, pop or jazz.


So, having finished and released the album, which direction are you heading in? Are you deliberately on the lookout for new styles, new directions – or are you going to delve even further into this direction?


I will continue to explore this direction for now. From a musical point of view it is certainly rewarding and because of the CD my name is immediately being linked to this style of music, a fact I can of course make good use of.


Which other composers‘ works do you perform currently or would you like to perform in the future?


I am currently working on a work by Joachim Krebs, Rhizom II, which is based on Steve Reich’s Minimal Music. Later this year I am going to perform Peter Eötvös‘ work Speaking Drums for percussion and orchestra, which he will conduct himself.


How about going more towards improvisation, towards playing in ensembles, towards jazz perhaps?


I must say, I do enjoy improvising. But I am well aware that improvisation entails a whole new musical world, you need time to get immersed in it, which I am currently short of.


© Andreas Orban


What preconceptions are you confronted with occasionally – or repeatedly – when it comes to your artistic activity?


I am often told „But this is not music you are playing“ or „Can’t you just play something nice?“ or „One can study something like that?“ But I also have to mention that I receive a lot of reactions in concerts and also now with the CD, proving that it is well worth continuing, even if there are people who disagree and don’t really understand what I am doing.


Finally, what does the album title mean to you – is this more than a play on words, simply a result of the works‘ titles?


Of course, on the one hand, it’s a word play made for the titles. On the other hand, I do like the title very much as it highlights that every single piece on the CD has a unique significance and value. Each piece has its unique character and has to be re-discovered through the listening process. Thunder is associated with a loud, noisy event at first, but it is also the quiet moments that follow the rumble. They often exist in such an unspectacular way and we rarely take notice of them. The CD is supposed to show that drums don’t always need to be fast and loud, but that the gentle sounds are just as worth listening to and with their intensity and energy can outshine the loud ones.

Two weeks ago I went to see (and hear) Sigurd Hole’s trio at Berlin Mitte’s jazzclub b-flat. Sigurd had invited me to the concert after we had failed to meet in Oslo, even though our short-term residence (the apartment of friends who spent some time in our flat in Berlin) was only a few streets away from his apartment. I had already been well familiar with his versatile work in various bands – Karl Seglem’s acoustic quartet, five Eple Trio albums, a fascinating free-improv album with Seglem and Jonas Sjøvaag (West Wind Drift), and, most recently, Tord Gustavsen’s new trio album which I like so much more than the earlier trilogy of trio albums, among others. So when he sent me his two new albums which he released this year, I was surely interested in reviewing them. 

I was not prepared, however, for such a unique trio recording: Sigurd recorded Encounters with Jarle Vespestad (whom he got to know through Gustavsen’s trio), who has already inscribed himself into recent Norwegian music with countless idiosyncratic projects and an always mesmerizing personal style of playing drums and percussion, and the younger Håkon Aase (whom Sigurd got to know though his teaching at Oslo’s music academy), whom I had briefly met in Kongsberg this summer, whose own bands (Yūgen, Filosofer) have shown innovative approaches between jazz, improvisation and folk and whose playing in other people’s bands (Mats Eilertsen, Thomas Strønen etc.) has caused Manfred Eicher to speak favorably of him. Which is why I was actually a bit surprised that Encounters was not released as an ECM album. It has all the necessary qualities for it. Anyway, Manfred Eicher probably likes it and I am positive that the next album by this trio will be recorded with him as a producer – and Encounters will have been „discovered“ by more people by then. It’s a truly beautiful and inspired recording, and their two-hour concert was a delight from beginning to end, with all of them playing jazz in sometimes unorthodox and always entertaining ways, while showing their best qualities as a band with unique instrumentation.

Elvesang, Sigurd’s other 2018 album is a more introspective album for bass solo, and even though it may not as immediately emotional, it is a very personal project, recorded in his home region, the rural municipality of Rendalen (Rena valley) somewhere between Oslo and Trondheim, „surrounded by farmland“, as he writes in his liner notes. This music seems to have grown out of this rural Norwegian place, you can even hear the weather and some birds. 



I was curious to hear more about the background of this music:


  • What is your connection to Japanese culture? I notice there are references on both these albums.

Well, it all started – triggered during my travels/tours in Japan – as a fascination with the Japanese culture and the history of Japan, especially focused around the role Zen Buddhism has played in both the Japanese society as a whole and in different kinds of Japanese art. This fascination has also lead to a keen interest in Zen Buddhism in particular, resulting in the reading of many books, experimenting with Zen meditation and visiting numerous temples in Japan. I find Zen temples a great source of quiet inspiration. I have walked down this road not to become a hardcore Zen Buddhist, but because I find in Zen ways of dealing with different aspects of life that I believe can be of great benefit both on an individual and collective level in a modern, western society. Not a groundbreaking discovery in itself as Zen has been adapted into the western world for a long time and has grown to become quite popular, however it has been an important discovery for myself.

Zen’s relationship with nature, and the key insight that human beings are a completely dependent on and an inseparable part of nature and all life on earth, and therefore should act accordingly in treating all our surroundings with the utmost care and love, is in my opinion the most important wisdom derived from Zen that we should strive to make part of our own lives. Looking around me, I sometimes feel like modern man, in general, has lost track of this sensation of unity with nature. Instead of being a part of nature, we strive to control and manipulate nature just to serve our own needs, without taking into consideration nature’s vulnerability. I believe it is of the utmost importance to renew our relationship with nature, as a humble, caring and inseparable part of a greater whole. Only then, with this starting point, I believe can we find the inspiration and motivation needed to change our way of life into a truly sustainable relationship with our surroundings.


  • So how did this become an influence on your music-making?


The aspect of meditation has always, I believe, been an important part of my approach to music – both in practicing, playing solo and in playing with bands. Working more often than not with rather soft dynamics in minimalistic movements, long shapes and static situations in music, one may say that my general approach to music has an introvert quality. However, I do also enjoy the more playful aspects in music. I see no conflict between the two, quite the contrary, I see opportunity for developing meaningful dialogues between the meditative and the playful – within an aesthetic whole.

In Shakuhachi flute music, Honkyoku (traditionally used in the Fuke sect of Zen Buddhism in the practice of suizen – blowing meditation), I found many elements in the way of shaping sounds, phrasing, the use of quarter tones, and also in the aspects of time and silence, similar to what I was already doing in my solo work (this discovery happened maybe some four or five years ago). My airy and almost flutelike approach to arco playing has similarities to the sound of the Shakuhachi, making it a very natural approach in many ways. I also found inspiration in some of the written musical material for the Shakuhachi that I have tried to translate the double bass. 

Another thing I find inspiring in Zen, is the approach to the now – the immediate way of responding to ones surroundings being completely in the now. For me, this is something very akin to being an improvising musician – always listening to ones surroundings with the utmost care, ready to respond to whatever happens. All in all, I find great resonance in Zen for what I want to express in my music on a deeper level. I hope to invite my audience into an almost meditative state of listening, giving a feeling of tranquility and inner peace – and at times also a feeling of restlessness and curiosity that might aspire to evolve a closer and more caring relationship with nature.


    • What was the original starting point for the solo album? Where did the set of solo compositions start — and when was the point in time when you noticed it needed to be a solo album?


Ever since starting with Eple Trio in 2003, and later also in particular in my collaborations with Karl Seglem, I searched for ways of expressing myself on the double bass that had a relationship somehow with Norwegian traditional music. After a while, in every concert with Seglem, I was given a spot to play completely solo based on this musical approach. This became an important playground for me to experiment with the double bass as a solo instrument, trying out different approaches both on the practice room and then on stage – the best way of learning through getting an immediate response on communicating the music to an audience. Apart from the pure instrument-specific aspects, the aspect of time and timing was a very important thing in this process, feeling how long the different parts and movements should be in the whole of a solo composition / improvisation. The idea to make a solo album was maybe lurking in the back of my head, and in 2012 I believe, Misha Alperin (r.i.p.) heard me play solo at an award ceremony in Oslo. Afterwards, he told me that I should make a solo double bass album. It was very inspiring to hear someone like him say this, and it made be believe that I really could do this. However, it took still four years before I got the actual recording done – in July 2016. I learned a lot from the recording process, both in distilling and preparing the material on beforehand, the recording itself, and then the selection of parts and making the order of the album – it felt very satisfying to get to explore and concretize my ideas on an album.


    • I have heard quite a few solo bass albums (Barre Phillips, Nils Davidsen, Joel Grip, Adam Pultz Melbye, Håkon Thelin…), and in a way they sometimes tend to be somewhat austere as by nature the bass is not the instrument most people would go out and buy a solo album of… So did you actually feel the need to develop an overall vision or idea for this album before you recorded it, to give yours a specific, unique approach, to address your personal vision to an audience — or did you go the other way, i.e. just follow your intuition without thinking about an audience during recording and writing?


The creative and great work of Stefano Scodanibbio, and also Håkon Thelin, have in recent years become important sources of inspiration for me in learning playing techniques I did not know before. In some of their material I might also find ideas that I “steal” and use as a starting point for making something else.

I never think of an audience when I compose or practice. However, this is not entirely true. Because I am listening myself, right? So in a way there is an audience present at all time. You need learn how to become a good listener to your own music when you are making it, to make decisions, what is good, what is bad, what to keep, what to throw away, and so on… but I never think “this will probably sound good to the kind of audience I want to reach with my music”. For me, thinking like that completely destroys the creative process. If I love what I make, there is also a chance that others might also like it. Which is of course very important to me. That being said, I believe that unconsciously, as a result of previous experiences performing music for an audience, the audience might play a minor role in the decisions I make in composing even though I am not aware of it.

The overall idea for Elvesang, for a long time, was simply to make an album where I explored the different playing techniques I used in my solo playing, giving each composition its own character based on the playing techniques. This way I could learn about my own playing, decide what is and what is not a clear enough musical idea to be something. So, it basically came from an idea to explore and distill the ideas in my own playing. Then, while preparing the different ideas in the days leading up to the recording, walking along a river on the way to my borrowed study in Rendalen, came the idea to make a piece called Elvesang (Riversong). To imitate, in an abstract manner, the sound of a river as the basis of an improvisation. This then became the bearing artistic idea behind all the pieces (apart from the opening track, Prelude, by far the most composed piece on the album): making small, abstract musical pictures of my own experience or sensation of different situations and different objects in nature.

After Michael told me, already last summer, about Björn Meyer’s then forthcoming solo album on ECM, I wanted to take the chance to look into the Swede’s previous work. Of course I already had the ECM releases of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, which he was part of, and having followed Anouar Brahem’s complete body of work on the label, I was also aware of his participation in Brahem’s band (which I have seen in concert here in Berlin a few years ago).

But then I became aware of the recording with Samuel Rohrer and Klaus Gesing, and that made me very curious, as all three of them have been on a string of very good or even excellent ECM albums, so hearing about their trio album Amiira felt a bit like finding out about a lost ECM recording. So I wrote to the label, arjunamusic, only to find out that it is Samuel Rohrer’s imprint — and the Swiss drummer is also living here in Berlin. Besides his participation in Colin Vallon’s trio (on their ECM debut as well as their equally recommendable pre-ECM album Ailleurs on the Hat Hut label), he played on Susanne Abbuehl’s April, in Wolfert Brederode’s quartet on Currents and Post Scriptum, and I bought the self-titled debut album by another trio of Samuel’s called Ambiq a few years ago. He was very welcoming and sent me a few of his label’s more recent releases, and since I came to like them a lot, I wanted to talk to him about his work a bit.



So, Samuel, the only arjunamusic release I had before you sent me a few others was the first Ambiq album (and I also bought the cool remixes by Villalobos and Tobias.), which comes with a really unusual combination of sounds and instruments. You played a mix of electronic and conventional percussive instruments, Claudio Puntin can be heard on clarinet and and electronics, and Max Loderbauer only played a Buchla 200e modular synthesizer.

I think it is a really fascinating album, as it is terribly hard to categorize, among other things. The music is somewhere between improvised techno and noisy jazz music. Groove [German magazine for electronic music] called it „metaphysical jazz“ in the vein of Don Cherry or Elvin Jones. They also wrote the music „translates our times’ menacing urban signs into sound“ and the „gloomy and mosaic-like“ album wants to „move the soul“.

Would you agree with these descriptions? Where does Ambiq’s music originate from?


Oh thank you. And I don’t remember if I have ever read all this … It’s always interesting to see how this music is put into words, which was created with so little intention, except with the wish to let it happen.

Since all the tracks are totally free improvised, like all the concerts we play, we don’t lose a lot of words about our music or what we are going to play. There never were many. (Only now we start to think about leading the music in a specific direction for the next album.) This means the music really brings the immediate feelings, tastes, actions and reactions of the three of us together. It must be a very personal music of three individuals then. We all have quite different backgrounds, but we all look for the same thing in music, which is to combine sounds, textures, melodies and rhythms in a way we could not have thought of in the first place. We trust in each others musicality and taste, also to keep a strong idea even if we don’t find any consensus. Very often that is where the music happens. It’s not only about agreeing all the time to create something harmonic. If you stick to an idea and stay open at the same time, great things can happen.

I personally always look for the balance between textures, melodies, rhythms, silence… To create something rich, I think, it always contains all the ingredients. Only the weighting moves from one element to another, so they constantly balance each other out. In the end, everything – all the rhythms, melodies or harmonies – are all frequencies and we just decide how to form the sound and its silence. And if it really happens, we don’t even decide about this anymore.


Last February, when I worked, as every year, in the „Panorama“ section of the Berlin Film Festival, we presented Romuald Karmakar’s great film Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht (If I think of Germany at Night), in which Ricardo Villalobos is one of the five protagonists. In the film we get to see a short section of a concert with a quartet, which I found enormously fascinating, and it took me quite a while to find out that this was actually Ambiq + Villalobos. Any plans to record or release an album with this band?


There is some material ready to be released, which was recorded live, as well as an unedited studio session waiting to be reopened. Right now it just doesn’t feel like it’s the time for it. Let’s see what comes next. If we play more in the future, we might even record more material … Sometimes things need time …



I do like the description of Ambiq’s music in Groove, because it could actually describe very different kinds of music as well.

Considering how you just described your work process, though, it’s kind of funny to see what it evokes in our minds, in us listeners. I have of course read what you wrote about the general idea of your label, arjunamusic, and that is strongly related to what you just said:


It is based on the wish to achieve as much artistic independence as possible, which comes out of the essential realization that happiness is not coming in the first place from outer success, rather the urge and to have the freedom to create, is the essential basis to make anything happen and to unfold a strong personal statement. This led to and still is the motivation to create a platform for unique and personal music, which includes a stylistically broad artistic performance.


That is actually very appealing to me as a filmmaker, as well as to me as a lover of arts and music. So let me get to your most recent solo album, Range of Regularity, which is a veritable solo recording: You played a variety of mostly percussive instruments (including a prepared piano, which I think counts as percussive, too), in connection with a few synths. Listening to your earlier album Noreia (from 2012, with Claudio Puntin, Peter Herbert and Skúli Sverrison) moved me a lot when I listened to it driving though dry and slightly surreal desert landscapes in the USA last September. But Range of Regularity I did not really make friends with yet. I do appreciate its „minimal“ approach and the reduced spectrum of sounds, sure. But since you wrote about the uncompromising approach to creating, could you maybe give me a few hints on the process you went through in making this album, which might help me get a better understanding of your thought process? In what regard was Range of Regularity an album you felt you had to make?


The most important for me is to move on and find constantly new inspiration. To be free while I play music, but also in the sense of possibilities. Freedom in the sense of crossing borders and confronting yourself with new situations – and not so much on the outside, but, in terms of music, more through the sounds you hear and how you can create or combine them. While working more in the electronic music scene I met a lot of interesting producers. At the same time I started to work with some of them, and my sonic world and understanding was constantly growing (or let’s say this just opened new doors to many new possibilities).

More and more I started to combine electronic and acoustic sounds in a live situation, and I recorded myself in my studio.

It felt like the most natural step for me to make that move and produce a first album by myself. With my sonic world, with my roots as a jazz musician, but within the context of electronic music and with using its rules and frames. I knew it had to be a mix of different worlds. With knowing that of course the jazz scene would not really understand this, it felt like breaking out of something, finding new challenges and setting new ways and sails for me in the future as a producer and sound designer. In the beginning it felt maybe like two separate worlds, but slowly they start to merge into each other and are becoming one – like the label idea, with its acoustic and electronic releases. Basically, I try to follow my intuition, and my curiosity keeps me going forward and finding new ways to express myself.


I’d be curious to hear other people’s opinions on the album. The one track I probably like best is the final one, Uncertain Grace. I find it very moving. I did, however, not find the album covered in a lot of music magazines, though indeed it could fit into a variety of genres, from electronic to experimental, even jazz and also into comprehensive magazines like Musikexpress.


The difficulty is to find a promo agency who covers the whole range, from acoustic, jazz oriented releases, feuilletons and art magazines to electronic and club music. There were quite a few reviews, interviews and radio broadcasts, but mostly in the electronic music field. In the end, what counts most for me is the reaction of musicians and producers I honor for their work.



How do you deal with people’s reactions in general, when it comes to an album like Range of Regularity, which you produce on your very own? Do you ask people for advice during the process? And can you easily deal with your music being out there, and you, in a way, don’t get as much back from it, as opposed to, for instance, in a project like the collaborations with Ambiq, Villalobos or the latest album, Brightbird?


Not only as a musician but also as a label I continue to research on how to balance out a space between the acoustic music scene – where I come from – and the electronic world. This certainly needs time and is definitely a very interesting place to be. As a solo artist I never had a lot of exposure – so far: Making this step plus defining my work in new territories is a challenge and inspiring at the same time.

With the label I have also built a circle of people around me with whom I work for the productions. Of course I am curious about their opinions and I always welcome other people’s ideas. But very often, in the end it’s a question of taste, which is built on quality. Particularly when you try to find your own voice, you can’t create a result that is for everybody. I view all the projects more as one big working field, and it is important to finish one idea to go on and start with new ones. And it is about finding the balance between working on my own and sharing ideas and collaborate with others. Both ways seem to work for me.

Is the remixes series a way of getting in contact with others with your soloistic work?


The remixes are basically a way to promote an album during a longer timeframe. I try to bring it a step further with finding producers who are interested in remixing music which is out of their usual territory and not so obvious to remix in the first place. To overlap improvised music with more club oriented work is slowly becoming a characteristic of the label.


Finally, about Brightbird – another really moving album, with pianist João Paulo Esteves da Silva, who brings a beautiful, slight fado and folk influence into the flow of the music, and double bass player Mário Franco; the album to me has a fascinatingly simple but also „dancing“ atmosphere. It was recorded at La Buissone, which is one of Manfred Eicher’s preferred studios, located in the French Provence, so I assume it is very inspiring. The cover design is by The Designers Republic, an unusual choice, since they’re primarily known for their influential Warp Records designs. The album is able to speak for itself, so I don’t really have a question about it. But it would be great if this music would be appreciated more widely.


I agree, also an album like Brightbird should get much more attention. To put a new label out there is one thing, but to establish it to give the music a wider audience is a big task. Unfortunately it is a fact that mostly the same (major) labels get the attention. It requires more research from listeners, magazines and reviewers to give smaller labels a spot. That’s why I like to think in bigger shapes and in longterm projects. In our fast and superficial time it’s very healthy to work on things that are built on constant growth and for the act of creating. If there is no solid ground, outer success appears as very short-lived thing. And solid things need time.


Where is your work and your label going to next? What can we look forward to from arjunamusic in 2018?


Max Loderbauer is about to finish two remixes of Brightbird tracks; they will be released sometime later this year. A trio recording with Jan Bang, Eivind Aarset and myself is in the making. Also new projects with Nils Petter Molvær and for example the young trumpet player Hilde Marie Holsen, are on the way, as well as preparations for some productions of working bands like AMBIQ and amiira. Together with a friend, who does most of the mastering of the productions, we are planning to release a series of analog-recorded, hand-made individually crafted vinyls, which might include some old releases as well as new projects. More details about this will follow soon.

Thank you very much for this extensive conversation. I am highly curious to hear these new collaborations. I met Hilde a while ago in Oslo, her work is very unorthodox and fascinating; and I noticed she posted a photo of your recording session online not long ago.

Here are two more links: A video for a track of his recent solo work (Body of Ignorance) and a 2017 podcast mixing live and unreleased material with releases of Samuel Rohrer’s various projects, here on XLR8R.

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