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Rune Grammofon: Mutation and Reevaluation

David McLean By

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Since its inception in 1998, Rune Grammofon has been at the forefront of ground breaking new music, heralding a new unprecedented interest in Scandinavian music. Whereas ECM's focus on the region has largely been based around the folk/traditional music explorations of its most prolific artists, including Jan Garbarek, Arild Andersen, Terje Rypdal and Jon Christensen, and a new wave of "Nordic Cool"/experimental signings such as Mats Eilertsen, Jacob Young, Trygve Seim and Tord Gustavsen, Rune Grammofon has stridently and effectively destroyed any stereotype or genre tag applicable to the region in a catalogue that envelopes pioneering electronic composition, microtonal improvisation, out rock, "death ambience" and beyond.

Rune Grammofon Head Rune Kristoffersen



Specifically, Its approach to jazz to say the least is just as forward-thinking as the disparate music collected in each of its releases, where constant mutation and reevaluation is characterized by the output of label staples Supersilent, Basic Food Group, Humcrush, Huntsville and Ultralyd, to name but a few. But to tie Rune Grammofon's output to any specific sound pool would be doing the label an incredible disservice; its very existence is in opposition to such a premise. This is what makes the above mentioned artists so important to the world of jazz, for it is their ingenuity that is stretching the limitations of what is considered by the genre term.

The task of completing a label overview for one as far-reaching as Rune Grammofon is a daunting one, to say the least. From the spritely, chirpy electronics of Alog and Phonophani, and the mind-warping out rock of Scorch Trio, Motorpsycho and MoHa!, to label staples Spunk, Humcrush and In The Country, once initiated, each Rune Grammofon release becomes just as vital as its back catalogue, and worth of obsession. For a label that produces consistently excellent music which has garnered such International acclaim on its own uncompromising aesthetic, it comes as a shock to learn that Rune is still a one man, DIY operation, run by the hard-working Rune Kristoffersen.

All About Jazz: Could you give us a bit of background on yourself?

Rune Kristoffersen: Born in Oslo in 1957, discovering Jimi Hendrix when 13 got me into music and basically changed my life. Started pop/rock group Fra Lippo Lippi in 1980, recorded two albums for Virgin Records—the second, Light And Shade, being produced by Walter Becker from Steely Dan. Label manager for ECM in Norway between 1995 and 2003. Started Rune Grammofon in late 1997, first releases—Supersilent, 1-3 and Arne Nordheim, Electri, in January, 1998.

AAJ: What were your original reasons for starting the label? Ten years on, have your goals and aims changed?

RK: I had been involved in releasing records since the early '80s, and after a couple of years with ECM I wanted to get back into working with artists from scratch, not only with finished product. I also wanted to make records with good artists that probably would have problems getting records out at other more traditional labels. My goals at the beginning were just to survive from record to record and to make each and every one as excellent as possible. To this day I don´t think we have released a bad one, and this is still my goal. But pushing 100 releases I do think a bit longer than the next release.

AAJ: A difficult question to ask, but what releases would you define as being the most important to the label and for what reasons?

RK: I wouldn´t want to go into this too closely as there are so many various reasons and would take much time to justify it all, but on a general note I would say that both Money Will Ruin Everything editions and the Deathprod box set have been quite important, as well has having worked with Supersilent since the very beginning of the label.

AAJ: How much involvement do you have with the actually recording process of the music?

RK: Not much, and not as often as I would have liked, as few of the records are made in the form of traditional studio sessions. Also, I don´t really have the time. But it does happen, and I have been involved in all three Scorch Trio recordings.

AAJ: How are artists recruited to the label and why have you specifically chosen to release music from exclusively Norwegian artists?

RK: Well, Skyphone are Danish, Archetti/Wiget are Swizz and Fire! are Swedish, so it´s not exclusively Norwegian. But it´s natural to work with local artists, even in these global times it´s more practical to be able to meet people more often. These days new artists are often recommended by other artists or spring directly from artists I´m already working with.

AAJ: Rune Grammofon has brought increased attention to new Norwegian music. Has there been any visible change in the music scene since the labels inception?

RK: Amazingly, it only seems to get better and better. At one time I thought this has to end sometime. But new and great artists seem to be popping up all the time.

AAJ: The label has strong ties to ECM through artists like Arve Henriksen and Nils Økland, and its employment of a distinct design aesthetic. Can you elaborate on your involvement with ECM? Has the label influenced you? Why did the relationship between Rune and ECM come to an end?

RK: I always liked labels that have a strong identity, also on the visual side. ECM is, of course such a label, but I have been more inspired by labels like Impulse, 4AD, Factory and Tzadik. I had to end my relation with ECM when I sometimes had to wait for quite some time until they could fit the releases into their own schedules. My freedom and my independence are my most valuable assets, so I had to move on.

AAJ: You've recently started a subsidiary of the label, The Last Record Company. What was the reason for its creation and how does it differ from the canon of Rune?

RK: I wanted to do something in smaller vinyl quantities and with even more emphasis on the physical aspect almost approaching the art world, with hand-numbered sleeves and booklets. It´s a bit of an experiment, and I have no fixed plans for this yet.

AAJ: What is your view on the current climate of the music industry and how music is now listened to and sold?

RK: This is a big question, and I could talk a lot about this, but my main worry is that music is being devalued. It's been going in a direction where recorded music is sounding worse than ever and people expect to buy it for next to nothing. I´m not against progress and music being more accessible to people is generally a good thing, but something has definitely been lost somewhere along the line. But we´ll see; there are exciting times ahead and a lot of great music is still being made.

AAJ: What does the day-to-day running of the office entail? Has it been difficult to keep your independent roots?

RK: To answer the last question first: Not at all. No days are the same, but any day can include everything: contact with artists, updating the site, writing a press text, packing some mail orders, answering mails about absolutely everything, maybe a meeting or two...

AAJ: What can listeners expect from Rune and The Last Record Company in the future?

RK: No immediate plans for TLRC, new releases for 2010 include Motorpsycho, Elephant, Bushman´s Revenge and newcomers Espen Eriksen Trio.

AAJ: What is your opinion on the current state a Jazz? Some of the main artist on the Labels roster could arguably be categorized as Jazz artists, what is your opinion on this? RK: I don´t pay much attention to the traditional jazz world and 15 years ago none of what I release would be considered jazz, apart from maybe In The Country, Circulasione Totale Orchestra and the forthcoming Espen Eriksen Trio. But I believe the jazz category has been vastly stretched, at least in Europe, and I see that as a good thing. We also see that improvised music, which has traditionally "belonged" to jazz, also can be found in electronic music, contemporary music and rock music and has been a vital part in the mixing of these genres.



Rune Grammofon is totally a label of its time; one that's only restriction is to release mind-blowing and thoroughly challenging music with each release, presented beautifully through Kim Hiorothy's design work. Its marked influence can be found in other key labels presenting new, vibrant offerings from Scandinavia—Smalltown Supersound/Jazz and Bugge Wesseltoft's Jazzland labels contain similar aspirations, but arguably lack the scope of the Rune's unwavering quest for new, uncompromising music. It has also been a key stepping stone in forming the careers of Arve Nils Økland}, Thomas Strønen, resident producer Helge Sten and song siren Susanna Wallumrød, and has gained critical acclaim from a variety of publications including The Wire, Plan-B, numerous music distributors/sellers and, of course, Allaboutjazz.com. A selection of some of the label's best releases, with fitting focus on those of a more jazz-centric variety, follows:

Deathprod

Deathprod

2004



Helge Sten's magnum opus and final statement under the Deathprod moniker, nicknamed the Black Box, is perhaps Rune's most iconic release. The music is as pitch black as the deluxe packaging housing it. Consisting of 3 full length albums and a final CD collecting rarities and unreleased material featuring violinist Ole Henrik-Moe, the full scope of Sten's vision and his evolution as one of the most celebrated artists in the contemporary electronic music field is displayed in its entirety.

The Deathprod sound is as panoramic as it is sonorous, utterly atmosphere swallowing and full of both beauty and dread. It is the sound of dying machines breathing their lasted reverberated breathes; dark, nocturnal emissions evaporating into the fog of twilight ether, stretched to become fully encompassing. "Treetop Drive Part III"' acts almost as a manifesto for the project, the sample that punctuates the brittle organ waves a disturbing radio transmission about the "desensitization of death"—in which school children are invited to view corpses at a mortuary for the purpose of becoming acquainted with the final stage of life. The tone and content of the sample is the perfect characterization of the Deathprod moniker.

By "Morals and Dogma," Sten had perfected his dark alchemy to a fine art with a subtlety and finesse not present on the artist's early raw recordings. "Dead Peoples Things" contains a slowly evolving wave of malevolent strings that sound like murder; unfurling with the subtlety of a dark Lynch-ian nightmare and replete with mournful soprano vocals that in all likely hood are produced by a theremin, waterlogged by Helge's decaying Audio Virus. Along with contemporaries like Thomas Koner and William Basinski, Helge Sten has help spawn an entire genre ofisolationist ambient music. With Deathprod, Sten has managed to sidestep any cliché dark-ambient stylistics and create music with profound weight. Drenched in loss and dolorous atmospherics, the 'Black Box' is a Landmark entry into the labels history.

Supersilent

1-3

1998



Referencing everything from musique concrete to fierce free improvisations and mind-bending noise, Supersilent's triple-disc debut is an exercise in extended intensity and genre deconstruction that remains as challenging today as when it was first released. Using literally every instrument/device within their grasp (an arsenal that can be glimpsed in the accompanying booklet), the four radical musicians lock in and out of spasmodic groves, processed horn screes and electronic annihilation that rarely relents its abrasive attack over its impressive three-plus hour duration. Critics at the time attempted to pigeonhole 1-3 into some sort of definable context; whether it be within the constraints of genre combinations (Rune itself ascribesdeathjazzambientavantrock), or referencing a slew of contrasting musical equivalents, citing namely Miles Davis' electric period, Merzbow and Pan Sonic.

It is a testament to the group's sheer ingenuity that they were able to simultaneously warrant the attributed comparisons and completely undermine them. The signifiers of free jazz—the tumultuous drumming, the abandonment of structure and the attack of fire brand brass/woodwind—are re-imagined on 1-3 by electronics, live sampling and studio experimentation to the point where only the spirit of the music's freedom remains. These new techniques allow the group to explore deeply textural tones and otherworldly sound unavailable to them through acoustic instrumentation, revitalizing interest in a genre that, for many, had become staid and predictable in its delivery.

Rather than a simple pastiche of the group's various influences, Supersilent galvanized a huge scope of experimental and avant-garde music and filtered it to create its own unique musical language—one that still sounds completely its own today. Now nine albums deep into its career, looking back on Supersilent's introduction is a revelatory experience as many of the key ingredients the group would explore on later material is already present here, although the intensity of these first recordings is now mostly reserved for live performance. Rune Grammofon could not have debuted with a bolder statement; one that destroys any preconceptions about how free improvisation—severed from the ties of jazz—can be played and presented by a group that would become its flagship band.



Arne Nordheim

Electric

1998

Coupled with presenting emerging new music from Norway, Rune Grammofon's second aim was the reissuing of lost classical work from some of the country's most pioneering and forward-thinking composers. The label had initially been created to release Supersilent's triple album and Arne Nordheim's Electric—a long unavailable record of revolutionary electro-acoustic composition whose historical importance could finally be fully appreciated. Nordheim Transformed (1998), the accompanying album, cements the composer's contemporary relevance, reinterpreted and reshaped by two of Europe's premier ambient artists—Biosphere and Deathprod.

Transformed is yet another album that encapsulates Rune Grammofon's ethos, one that simultaneously (and remarkably) acknowledges both historical importance and forward-thinking originality. It is a testament to Rune's intelligence to commission a work using source material over 30 years old, that on its own merit still sounds bizarrely fresh, to create a new work that is as far-reaching "as its predecessor as means of undeniable justification for the reissuing of Nordheims work.'"

Biosphere's assimilation of Nordheim's music contains some of the hallmarks of Geir Jessens' early works. The tones and sine waves of Nordheim's original strings are clipped and fragmented to create abstract techno grooves. But Jessens' classic throb has been stripped down to just a binary undulation, a minimalist reduction that only whispers Jessens' ambient-techno template. The thick warm pads are replaced by crystalline tones that take on a cavernous quality. A darker and more abstract mise-en-scène is present in Biosphere's music, one that would come to dominate the artist's later albums for Touch records.

As if in response, Deathprod's approach to the material is to pull out and unearth the drone aspects of Nordheim's work, maximizing them to envelope the listener in a sea of disintegrating pulses and throbs that moan with melancholy and almost nostalgic tragedy. Originally released as a dual set that is sadly no longer available, Electric/Nordheim Transformed is another essential slice of Rune Grammofo's history. A continuation in Rune's interest in classical music has seen it release solo recordings by Nils Økland (Struam) and Ole-Henrik Moe (Ciaccona / 3 Persephone Perceptions).

Wiget / Archetti

Low Tide Digitals III

2009



Cellist Bo Wiget and guitarist Luigi Archetti began the Low Tide Digital series back in 2001 and were the first non-Norwegians to be recording for the label. A series of essentially micro-tonal improvisations, Archetti and Wiget weave in and out of fragile soundscapes that have gradually become more assertive and harsh, coupled with the politics behind their music becoming more pronounced. As the distance between man and his natural environment has become vaster, man has looked to various technologies to replicate organic forms in which to remind of the world we have left. It is evident in our architecture; where buildings mirror or are intertwined in natural forms. In our home furnishings, with lighting devices replicating all manner of flora and fauna. Even in our music, field recordings in particular, where the unpredictability of nature is locked into a safe, controllable stasis.

Archetti's and Bo Wiget's Low Tide Digital series is a unique experiment in destroying that stasis and especially with III; a wild an unpredictable synthesis of the electro and acoustic, plucked from the ether. Each album has grown more feral, its marriage of these elements less controlled. Every composition on Low Tide Digitals III is a vital voyage into the melding of natural and digital timbres. Vocals are treated to sound like bowed instruments and sine waves are pulled in and out of pitch to create unsettling moans. The duo breathes life into the most digitalized aspects of its music, and rather than sound clinical, it ebbs and flow with a totally organic life force which is enhanced, not replicated, by digital augmentations.

Rumored to be the final installment, the third entrance to the series is by far the pair's wildest, leaving the calming serenity of its previous work and embracing the freedom and danger of improvisation. It is perhaps the apex of the duo's experiments.

Huntsville

Eco, Arches & Eras

2009



A trio of percussionist Ingar Zach, guitarist Iver Grydeland and bassist Tony Kluften, since inception Huntsville's music has been based around the tension of the composed and the improvised, through a unique blend of folk, jazz and contemporary electronics. In comparison with Rune's other improve unit Supersilent—who, with each new record, shoots further into stratosphere—Huntsville's marriage of improvisation and electronica pulls back these elements to a more earthen environment.

Incorporating rootsy folk idioms and a less abrasive approach to computerized sound, this trio bends the digitalized aspects of their music to more naturalistic tones in a similar fashion to the Archetti / Wiget duo, rather than exploit them for their alien potential. This seems to be a reoccurring theme for much of the label's electronic output: a means of using the digital to embrace and re-imagine the natural.

Spanning across three long raga-esque excursions and three miniatures, Eco, Arches & Eras weaves a hypnotic blend through its definable structure of repetition—often hung on Grydeland's Reich-ian string work and Zach's gamelan percussion, acting as a focal point for group's improvisational commentary. The evocative, smoky voice of Sidsel Endresen guests on "Eco" with almost omnipotent air, gracing the instrumental flourishes with a calming breeze and fragile serenity, the sentiment of her lyrics obviously ecological. The album's center point is undoubtedly "Eras," where the trio is joined by six-string maverick Nels Cline and Wilco band mate, percussionist Glenn Kotche—as if to cement its avant-folk leanings—for a near hour-length exploration of the defining aspects of Huntsville's sound.

Starting off with bristling electronics, hypnotic tabla percussion is soon brought to the fore as menacing guitars snake around Zach's eastern groove. The composition soon arcs in intensity, but without the need for complexities or solo flights. Cline and Grydeland's exchanges, rather than duel, complement each other and add to an already charged foundation, laying atop banjo arpeggios and high end guitar dissonance. The rhythms are propulsive, with each instrument, percussive and melodic, creating a propulsive sea of sound. "Eras" closes its sensory journey with bowed percussion and string and more gentle eastern tabla hits.

Eco, Arches & Eras shows a group totally in tune with each other, creating forward-thinking music that isn't reliant on attack or extreme experimentalism; instead, an ability to sustain long pieces of improvisation through hypnotic rhythms and emphatic interplay. What's more impressive is that this still stays intact when outsiders enter the fore, speaking volumes on the strength of Huntsville's musical vision. A highly rewarding sonic journey that pushes boundaries without sacrificing listenability.

Nils Økland

Bris

2005



For a label pushing forward the boundaries of contemporary, mostly electri- based music, the appearance of Nils Økland—a player of the native Norwegian Hardanger fiddle—in Rune's catalogue of music, from an outsider's glance, can seem somewhat perplexing. Nevertheless, closer inspection on the workings of Økland's music reveals why he is, indeed, a perfect addition to an already impressive roster of artists. A violinist whose style is steeped in the tradition of his homeland's folk music, Økland's musical quest is not just based on renewing interest in old Norwegian folk songs, but rather reinventing them. It is his distinct reinterpretation of the themes of his heritage, drawing upon both classical modes and combining them with the freedom of jazz improvisation that gives credence to critical acclaim he has been awarded.

There is an elemental flow to Okland's music, like fjord water pouring over weather-worn rocks—never tied down to rigid structures. Instead, the modes and wintry vernacular that characterize Norwegian folk are stretched and pulled apart to create something which eventually only evokes the music.

Bris, the artist's second album for the label, deserves special mention. Not only is it his first group based recording—featuring harmonium, double-bass and a brace of percussionists, but also his first full record of all-original material. Throughout, the Hardanger is used masterfully; the instrument's sympathetic strings coruscating in and out of beautiful drones and rich harmonic rings on solo pieces like "Grålys" and "Bønn." On "Slør," ghostly harmonium swells rich around the mournful filigree trills of the Hardanger with percussive colorations adding a hushed vitality to Økland's swinging, grainy textured lines.

"But it's not all gloom; the lulling melody on "Blond Blå" is both bittersweet and triumphant and calls to mind old folk Bygdedans (Norwegian dances), albeit in a fairly removed way; the violinist's notes dancing in and out of unison with his group. Recorded in an old Norwegian church, the ambience and natural reverb of the building make the music resounding liturgical. Rather than an academic exploration of heritage music, as might be expected from a musician so learned— Økland was once musical director of Norway's Ole Bull Academy—the music on Bris and in Økland's whole oeuvre never ceases to be deeply spiritual and seraphic in its beauty—often indescribably so.

Susanna and the Magical Orchestra

Melody Mountain

2006

If Rune Grammofon were ever to take a stab at turning out a record containing actual songs, of course it would have to do so in contravening manner. With lounge version of "Crazy, Crazy Nights," rather than simple covers of classic songs by the likes of AC/DC, Joy Division, Scott Walker and the aforementioned Kiss, cohorts Susanna Wallumrød and Morton Qvenild (pianist of In The Country) transform their source material to create music so far removed that only the emotional sentiment is left behind, if that.

"Love Will Tear Us Apart" is the best example of this, where the chiming, jagged chords and anthemic synthesizers of the original are replaced with a slow Fender Rhodes crawl and subtle electronics. The lilting melody and reverb drenched space create the perfect canvas for Wallumrød's astounding voice; a vocal that is both fragile and confidently reassured, sultry and angelic, containing the same exotic accent of certain other famous Scandinavian song sirens. It is a song that rightly justifies the international attention the duo garnered in response to the song, even used in the popular U.S. drama, Grey's Anatomy.

An album of ten songs that read more like vignettes, a certain douleur exquise permeates much of the album, cloaking these songs in, paradoxically, uplifting melancholy. Even the slow motion beginning of "A Long Way to the Top" is dimmed in a melodic half-light, with its dark harpsichord only slightly giving away the classic major melody riffage of the AC/DC classic in the chorus. For all of experimental music's rewards, sometimes the safety net of a good old song is a necessary respite. Susanna and the Magical Orchestra delivers that in spades, and with real, genuine soul, in a way far removed from the mainstream and big business exploitation of the popular song format. Wallumrød has since branched off with two solo albums for the label, exploring a similar sound pool—again with a focus on reinterpretation of classic, often difficult songs. Flower of Evil (2009) is notable for its recruitment of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, particularly on the beautiful rendition of Badfinger's "Without You."

Arve Henriksen

Chiaroscuro

2004



Although Arve Henriksen had debuted for the label with the orient-inspired Sakuteiki (2001), it wasn't until Chiaroscuro that the trumpeter undoubtedly came into his own with his unique solo voice. A combination of the breathy, wooden texture of the Japanese shakuhachi flute and a spiritual continuation of the Fourth world music of Jon Hassell, Henriksen has been able to forge his own instantly recognizable approach to his chosen brass, often literally singing in and out of the instrument, which has catapulted him to being one of the most in demand players from Norway.

Working in and out of the jazz context, Henriksen's playing can be found in groups as diverse as Christian Wallumrød's early ensemble albums, label mate Nils Økland's work, accordionist Frode Haltli's Passing Images (ECM, 2007) and folk singer Sinnika Langeland's ECM debut, Starflowers (ECM, 2007), not to mention to more pop-centric work with David Sylvian's Nine Horses project and English siren Imogen Heap.

It is clear, on first listen of Chiaroscuro, why this young trumpeter is deserving of this attention. With the help of Punkt live sampler Jang Bang and percussionist Audun Kleive, the trio creates a wondrously thick blend of highly emphatic ambient and world music. "Opening Image" typifies much of Chiaroscuro's sound, with thick swells of sumptuously cinematic strings rising and falling like tidal waves as Henriksen rides the crest of Bang's samples with his near operatic soprano vocal. The results are near ecstasy on the ears. "Holography" shows a more propulsive side to the trio's sound, with foggy trumpet lines re-sampled and reshaped—uncoiling like thick smoke around Kleive's ethno-centric grooves which punctuate the mist of the samples like sharp icicles.

There is a vitality and sincerity to Henriksen's music that makes clear that the creation of music is more than just a passing interest; instead, it's as integral a part to his being as drawing breath. This is clearly evident in Henriksen's approach to the trumpeter, where every breath, sputter and snatched piece of vocal is accentuated through the bell of the horn, creating highly distinct textures of luxurious sound rather than dazzle with technical ability. It's is amazing how emotionally affecting and huge this trio can sound with the most minimal of tools on every single track; a collection of ten tunes that collectively creates its own rich, entrancing world.



Various Artists

Money Will Ruin Everything

2003



Compilations are often the best introduction to a label with the scope of Rune Grammofon. But rather than a simple collection of tracks offering insight to the most prolific artists in its roster, the aptly titled Money Will Ruin Everything, in typical Rune fashion, goes the extra mile to present itself. The compilation's two CDs, rather than simply offer tracks for artists on the label, contains much music never released by Rune. Jaga Jazzist, André Hardang Borgen, Martin Hornveth and Andreas Meland have yet to grace a Rune release, but are featured on Money Will Ruin Everything to expose not only to the music produced by the label, but to a wider collective of likeminded Norwegian artists, promoting the indigenous music scene which has always been an interest key to identity of Rune Grammofon.

Also included is an accompanying 96-page book that contains the complete oeuvre of Kim Hiorthoy's design work, essays by The Wire editor Rob Young and graphic design critic/essayist Adrian Shaughnessy, and an in-depth interview with Rune Kristoffersen chaired by the in-house designer. The inclusion of this booklet adds critical weight to all aspects of the labels operations, but also makes for a fascinating read. This is all presented beautifully, of course, in a lush, coffee table book format.

Photo Credit Page 1: Mimsy Møller Featured Story: Luca Kleve-Ruud

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