Punkt Festival 2010

John Kelman By

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September 3 Puntk Seminar: Sidsel Endresen

One of the world's most innovative singers, Sidsel Endresen has, over the past three decades, honed a distinctive improvisational approach based on the creation of tiny vocal cells—orthodox and unorthodox techniques that range from odd linguistics to reverse-sounding utterances, stuttering gutturals and, at the core of it all, a profoundly beautiful approach to melodism. Ultimately becoming a seamless part of her musical DNA (the way extended techniques do for other instrumentalists), Endresen combines these cells in a weird and wonderful approach that, in addition to placing her voice upfront as is its conventional role, also allows her to act as a textural, accompanying backdrop.

Watching Endresen—or listening to her work on albums such as One (Sofa, 2006) or, even better, in a group context on Live Remixes Vol. 1 (Jazzland, 2008)—it's hard to imagine just how she conceived her inimitable improvisational approach, but in a repeat and expansion of her 2009 Punkt Seminar, the singer not only shed some light on how she does what she does, but used her audience to show them, by encouraging participatation in some directed free improvisation.

Over the course of 50 minutes, Endresen gradually introduced concepts of melody, time and dynamics, pushing her audience, most importantly, to listen to what was going on around them, and learn to respond...sometimes with silence, as Endresen emphasized the fact that, in improvisation, the act of not singing is as intentional and active a choice as singing itself.

Of course, Endersen's discourse about how she came to her very personal style was just as enlightening. Not a fan of scat singing—though with no shortage of appreciation for those who do/did it, such as Ella Fitzgerald—Endresen's early days in the pop/jazz world could have been enough—and would have been, for most singers. But Endresen was dissatisfied, and relatively early in her career, chose a path that challenged what the human voice could do, and what its roll was. Not content to be a frontline instrument, Endresen began to explore ways to allow the voice to become a background texture; to resolve the linear connection of singing, find new means of expression and dramaturgy using purely musical parameters, imbue influences from a variety of cultures without actually imitating them, and find a way to reconcile intuition with intellect.

It was an enlightening seminar, where Endresen led by example but managed, by encouraging audience participation, to not only articulate how she has developed her unique (and still evolving) vocal approach, but captured and imparted some of the true essence of improvisation, dispelling some of the fear and uncertainty often experienced by newcomers to its basic tenets.

September 3 Puntk Seminar: Supersilent

If Endresen prepared her audience with some of the basic concepts of improvisation, the following seminar by Norwegian noise improvising group Supersilent built upon them, bringing the idea of creative collective spontaneity into sharp focus—first, through a short performance; and then, through an informal question and answer period, where its three members—Arve Henriksen, Ståle Storløkken and Helge Sten—talked both with the audience and, playfully, amongst themselves, to shed some light on how they do what they do.

From left: Ståle Storløkken, Arve Henriksen, Helge Sten

Since first bursting onto the scene with the groundbreaking 1-3 (Rune Grammofon, 2007)—an uncompromising three-disc set that set all the basic parameters for the group in motion—Supersilent has become one of the world's most unfettered improvising groups. Nothing is forbidden; everything is allowed. The group can move from extremes of volume, density and dissonance to softer passages of profound beauty and tempered space over the course of a long, unfolding period of time...or in a nanosecond. Conventions of melody, harmony and rhythm are available but not definitive or unshakable parameters. Initially a quartet with Jarle Vespestad, but reduced to a trio a couple years back, when the drummer decided to focus more exclusively on other projects, even the group's instrumentation is fluid. Initially a trumpeter, Henriksen, whose Cartography (ECM, 2008) was one of the year's best, has evolved a singing voice ranging from falsetto purity to near-throat singing gutturals, and a drumming style that substitutes sound for rudiments. Sten first came to light with Motorpsycho, but has since become an in-demand producer and audio manipulator. And Storløkken, a charter member of guitarist Terje Rypdal's Skywards Trio who has, more recently, garnered attention for his remarkable keyboard power trio, Elephant9, is a master of keyboard manipulation, an outstanding composer/arranger, and a fearless sonic explorer.

Together, the trio works with no boundaries, able to create infinite sound worlds from the smallest kernel of an idea; its most recent release, 9 (Rune Grammofon, 2009), is the result of three intrepid improvisers and nothing more than three Hammond organs. For its seminar, the trio worked with a more expansive instrumental palette, performing two vastly different improvisations. The lengthy first piece demonstrated how, even in the realm of free improvisation, it's possible to think in terms of song, structure and bigger picture. Nothing is preconceived, yet when the first piece ultimately came to an end nearly 25 minutes after it began, it referred back to the spare lyricism of its opening minutes, despite traveling through some undeniable extreme territory. Henriksen effortlessly shifted from drums to trumpet to voice to pocket trumpet, while Sten combined low-end synth tones with ambient guitar soundscapes and Storløkken layered melodies—sometimes oblique, sometimes almost singable—amidst angular textures coming from feeding his Fender Rhodes through an array of effects. A shorter second piece began more definitively, with Storløkken's rhythm-centric keyboards and Henriksen's thundering drums, but ended much more rapidly; evidence of the group's ability to follow each other and collectively intuit when to move on and when to stop.

With seminar moderator Tony Valberg kicking off the Q&A period, it soon became clear that Henriksen was the most comfortable spokesperson for the group; a more playful (mischievous, even) contrast to the relatively introspective Sten and Storløkken. Still, the two verbally reticent players contributed to the discussion; they may not have spoken often, but when they did, there was significant meaning. Henriksen spoke, at length, about the trio's attention to sound, and how things changed when he, Storløkken and Vespestad—members of an earlier group in the 1990s called Veslefrekk—when they began to work with Sten (a.k.a. Deathprod), who he also referred to as the "brains of the group." A fair statement, when considering that, in any given year, Supersilent might record tens of hours of improvisations, to be sifted through and shaped into a single 50-60 minute release by Sten, who also acts as Supersilent's producer.

Sten also explained that, while Supersilent might edit the beginning or ending of a piece to create more appropriate entry/exit points, what you hear is what went to tape. Surprisingly, given Sten's predilection for sonic manipulation, there's almost no post- production editing or sonic manipulation. All of which makes Supersilent's remarkable body of work, that will expand significantly this year with the release of no less than three albums—10 (Rune Grammofon, 2010), recorded before the 9 sessions and the group's first recordings as a trio but, another first, made at Oslo's legendary Rainbow studio and featuring Storløkken on acoustic piano; 11 (Rune Grammofon, 2010), a vinyl-only release of additional material from the particularly fruitful sessions for 8 (Rune Grammofon, 2007); and 12, from another trio sessions that took place at Athletic Sound following the Henie Onstad Art Centre sessions that resulted in 9—all the more extraordinary. That this now-trio of musicians can work so effortlessly with sound and concept in real time—creating music that may be all- improvised, but inevitably possesses true shape, true form—makes it stand out amongst the groups that rely on post-production to bring these characteristics to their music.

From left: Ståle Storløkken, Arve Henriksen, Helge Sten

With certain things visible during the group's performance—a nod here, a smile, there— the question of preconception also came into play at the seminar, and it was confirmed that, while Supersilent uses visual cues to make split-second decisions about direction, none of it is discussed in advance. Henriksen's nod to Storløkken at the start of the second improv was nothing more than an indication to "go!," while Storløkken's nod in Henriksen's direction, towards the end of the first improv, was nothing more than an acknowledgment, "this is good, let's keep going." That Supersilent has never rehearsed, per se, doesn't mean that its individual players don't rehearse for their work with Supersilent. That Henriksen, Storløkken and Sten are busy in a variety of other projects only means that their extracurricular work—and tireless work at home, exploring the possibilities of their various instruments and the acquisition of new ones—results in a constant expansion of Supersilent's already infinite potential. It seems hard to grasp that something infinite can continue to evolve; but like a universe that continues to expand after the Big Bang, Supersilent's 1-3 was its Big Bang, and the trio's subsequent work has proven no limits to what it can do.



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