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Steve Tibbetts: “Northern Song” and the Sounds of Silence

Rob Caldwell By

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It's a chilly, overcast afternoon in Oslo, Norway in late October 1981. This close to the Arctic Circle, the days are already rapidly shortening with winter's approach, the sun beginning to disappear over the horizon by mid-afternoon. In a darkened studio, guitarist Steve Tibbetts, percussionist Marc Anderson, producer and ECM Records head Manfred Eicher, along with engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug have been sequestered for two days of a three day recording session. The team is intently laying down tracks for Northern Song, which will be Tibbetts' first album for the label.

With the first four songs completed on the previous day, they are now deep into what will be the side-long "Nine Doors / Breathing Space." Tibbetts plucks ghostly guitar notes while Anderson underlays a foundation of harmonic percussion. Unbeknownst to the foursome, however, things had taken a downward turn.

Via phone from his home in Minnesota, Tibbetts takes a break from helping his kids with their homework to explain what happened. "We were getting pretty tired. Halfway through, Marc's congas went flat, which meant that a whole bunch of loops [pre-recorded sounds] that I had—drones of sitars, orchestral sections, monks—sort of an omelet that I had wanted to use like a Rothko [abstract artist] backdrop to the congas and my playing didn't work. We would have had tri-tones and flatted ninths all over the place. It just didn't work and I was really upset about that. But we didn't have time to re-do it and it was my fault—I didn't notice that the congas went flat. "

In a separate conversation, Marc Anderson elaborates, "Kind of a signature of what we did together was to use drums a lot like melodic instruments, to create melodic motifs, particularly with conga drums. And then be able to put things around them because they were specifically pitched. All of a sudden these loops, which were cool and really did fill the thing out weren't usable."

Tibbetts wanted to redo the recording, a decision not favored by Eicher, whose working style was based on capturing the moment. This was in direct contrast to what Tibbetts was used to from his previous self-produced albums, when he often spent weeks or more at a time on one track. "Manfred was adamant," Tibbetts recalls, "He said, 'I think it would be too much to have all the loops come in.' I felt, 'Well, you think that because you're tired too.' However, that was the way it was done and I wasn't happy about that. We listened to it, and in fact, the more I disliked the record, the more Manfred seemed to like it. He got excited enough about it to call [saxophonist and ECM recording artist] Jan Garbarek and his wife to come over and listen to the final play. When it was over, I went to pack up my gear and Jan came up and said 'I think it's a good record,' and I said it just drove me crazy and I can't stand working this way. He said, 'Yes, yes, I don't think it would be a good record unless you felt that way.'"

Anderson had a different perspective. "Making Northern Song, for me, was fun. It was torturous for him, but fun for me." He ruefully jokes, "It's not the only time in our long history together that something I've done hasn't worked out well for him!"

So upset was Tibbetts at the time that he told the Twin Cities Reader, "Downbeat was correct in giving [previous album] Yr five stars, but this album is just good, it's not great. If people go crazy for it just because of the ECM label, that'll make me sick." ("I was somewhat petulant...young and annoyed" he says now in regard to that article). In the end, Tibbetts didn't harbor any long-standing ill feelings toward ECM. He's recorded all of his subsequent releases for the label, and in fact, one of the highlights of recording Northern Song was the chance to work with Eicher. "[Looking back,] it inspires a great deal of nostalgia," he says. "We worked all day long. We'd go out and have lunch, we'd have goat cheese on hard rolls and talk. I was a huge fan of ECM and I couldn't wait to have our coffee breaks or our lunch breaks and talk to him about Bill Connors and Garbarek and Keith Jarrett, and Eberhard Weber and all these icons—John Abercrombie, Collin Walcott. You know, the amazing conversations we had. And he enjoyed the fact that I knew the catalog. At that point there were only a hundred and something records out, but I knew them all."

Anderson concurs, "I loved being at Talent Studios and with Manfred Eicher and Jan Erik Kongshaug. I had no idea how I deserved to be there so the whole thing just seemed like a crazy dream to me."

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