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Stian Westerhus: The Existential Dimension of Music

By Published: July 5, 2012
AAJ: Are there conscious criteria at work or it is all rather an intuitive process?

SW: There are no conscious criteria. I can identify the moment when I feel that something is right, but I can't explain it. It just sounds right and I know that I will have to work on it, take the idea and see where I end up. In a way, I surprise myself sometimes and try to challenge myself. There are tracks on Pitch Black Star Spangled where I was really wondering if I could release them; I was listening to them wondering if I really sounded like that. And afterwards, you realize that it was there all the time, only you didn't dare to go in that direction and open that door. It feels really like you are diving into a black hole, not knowing what you are searching for. But in the moment, you find something; it automatically leads you on without any filters. It is almost like improvising in a live situation but a lot slower, much more like composing. Like now, I am working on a new album and the same thing is happening again. I think that people are going to slaughter me for this album but I can't go any other way.

AAJ: What makes the identity of an album? Is there a leading thread?

SW: No such thing. But if you go for the substance and follow your intuition, it will take you there and provide the cohesion. I really try not to think at all, I just follow my intuition. Music is a very physical thing for me, you know, I need to feel it in my body to know that it is right.

AAJ: "Sing with Me, Somehow" suggests a melodic line fluctuating into the abstract. Are you always chasing the melody, or just playing with the sounds that belong to the same harmonic context, exploring their potential?

SW: I don't think melody is anything unless you put it in context. It is like a word, you have to put it into context to enhance its meaning. Even in the most abstract context, I know where the melody is; it is always there. But it doesn't really matter. Sometimes I step back and I look at a composition from the outside to make sure that it has all it needs, but I always try to analyze as little as possible, and rather try to identify with the music instead—to become it.

AAJ: Were you surprised when you saw that your music was making an impact on people and other musicians?

SW: It is a huge privilege for me to get to play with people I admire most and sometimes I have to stop for a while in order to realize how much fun I am really having by doing it. Yes, sometimes I am surprised about the audience who are themselves surprised to find out that they enjoy my music. On the other hand, I don't think I am popular enough to be surprised about people liking me. It is great to get the feedback, too. I've been talking to a lot of people who were listening to my music in a non-musical environment, like an art show for example, and they told me that they have been completely blown away by its honesty and directness.

AAJ: That sounds like the piece you played with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra
Trondheim Jazz Orchestra
; it has a very strong existential dimension.

SW: That's great to hear, because when I wrote that music I felt the same way. That's why I am saying that I need to be physically involved, otherwise it is just noise or entertainment, but not a performance.

AAJ: You don't plan what you will play in your solo shows. What are the factors of influence there? Are they immediate in nature, like the mood you are in or the audience?

Stian Westerhus—Pitch Black Star SpangledSW: Like all musicians, before I go on stage I first have to enter the musical space mentally. I actually start my performance backstage. It is not like you are starting up an engine. In the first two minutes I sort of intuitively adapt myself to the sound and the room, and from there on it is a whiteout. There is no other factor. Of course, if I am tired it takes extra effort because then I listen to myself and I know that I can do better. If I don't feel that energy it is hard, but most of the time it is just letting go.

AAJ: Your solo performances have a very strong synesthetic quality; they represent a visual soundscape in the truest sense of the word. Do you visualize your music?

SW: When I work in the studio I visualize the different elements and the different contexts and ideas of my music, but not in a cinematic way. It is more about shapes and how things have their own energy and stand in relationship to each other. It is the point of incidence that is interesting, because there you can see how things start influencing each other. I can visualize that quite well but rather in a theoretical manner.

AAJ: You are involved in many parallel projects, like the one with Nils Petter Molvaer, Sidsel Endresen and Puma. What defines each of these synergies?

SW: The musical heritage and the way of thinking and approaching music is what we have in common here. That is a very important factor. Both Nils Petter and Sidsel—or the group Puma—are, of course, very good with their instruments, but they are also actively involved with the conceptual aspect of music. Even if we come from very different musical backgrounds, that is the real point of fusion.

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