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Thomas Strønen: Sense of Time

Enrico Bettinello By

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Time Is a Blind Guide, the ensemble led by Norwegian drummer and composer Thomas Stronen, has just released its sophomore record Lucus (ECM), three years after its eponymous debut album. With Ayumi Tanaka on piano, Hakon Aase on violin, Lucy Railton on cello and Ole Morten Vågan on double bass, Strønen has built a chamber-like ensemble that enables him to explore the details of his soundscape while keeping the music as open as possible.

The mood is quiet and spacious throughout the album, but even in the most lyrical moments, Strønen leaves enough space for a certain uneasiness, made possible by the improvisational skills of his band mates.

Those who are familiar with Strønen's music, know very well that his music strives to avoid the "Nordic Sound" clichés. Granted, projects like Food, at least in some of their albums, have a typical Scandinavian melodic mood, but both his solo performances and bands like the Humcrush duo showcase a penchant for adventurous sounds that goes above and beyond the comfort zone.

All About Jazz: I would like to start from your latest album, Lucus. How did you approach it?

Thomas Strønen: Like on our debut record Time Is a Blind Guide, I knew which musicians to compose for. When I compose I often think about the musicians that will play my music, as I want the music to feel natural for them. At times I can be challenging, I know, but int the end I want them to feel connected with the material. Also, I had been in the Swiss auditorium where we would record, so I knew the acoustic conditions we would be in. I wanted to record music that would fit with the room instead of having to fight a rather large ambience.

Most importantly, we have been playing together a lot since 2013, so we all know each other pretty well. Even though Ayumi was relatively new, she had already played with the ensemble several times. Compared to the first album, the ensemble often breaks into duo-trio-quartet chamber settings and the music includes more opportunities for improvisation. We are now a collective unit with an identifiable voice and so I did not need to write as thoroughly as I had to do for our first recording. when we were all coming to this project from different backgrounds and without as much shared history as we have today.

AAJ: How did this affect your writing?

TS: I decided to bring more open compositions to the table, leaving the musicians free to interpret the music however they feel. This requires them to have more initiative, but it allows the composition to be interpreted in different ways. I feel it gives the compositions a longer life as they musicians can play it very differently from day to day. A couple of pieces were written well in advance of the recording, but most of the material was composed within a short timeframe because before going to studio I had a couple of other commissions to finalize, which put me under heavy pressure to not waste time. And when you have to deliver, the ideas often materialize...

AAJ: The line-up of the Time Is A Blind Guide collective has changed during the years. Can you trace a brief history of this group and its characteristics?

TS: The music has continuously changed and also the personnel, from the very beginning. On the first concert I had three percussionists, as I wanted a percussion group within the ensemble, as well as a piano trio and a string trio. I toured with only one or two percussionists, but ended up using the other players to play percussion instead. Somehow, I like it better when non-drummers play drums. They all have a good sense of time and rhythm, but lacking the technique they play more openly, with no references to the common drum-language. I like that a lot.

In the first few years I also focused a lot on polyphonic grooves and odd time signatures and the music was leaning more towards jazz. At the moment, I like it being very open, airy and textural. Right now, I see it more as a chamber ensemble played by musicians with improvisational skills.

AAJ: What did pianist Ayumi Tanaka bring to the music of the collective?

TS: She has a background as a classical organ player but also brings a contemporary music angle as well as an ability to both take initiative and leave a lot of space. She can both challenge and please the music and she is a great communicator, colourist and improviser.

AAJ: An important role in this project is played by the string section. What's your relationship with string instruments?

TS: I started writing for strings after having released my solo record Pohlitz in 2006. I was a bit tired of my own sounds and also by the fact that everyone was aiming to play solo. Without thinking too much, I started writing a lot of music for string quartet which lead to many interesting projects both as a composer and drummer.

I like the sound of strings and I feel that it gives the space my music often requires. I also love being surrounded by strings and being able to colour the outcome with my playing. Being a drummer can be challenging in strings setting, and I like to play quietly yet still rich and energetic. Everyone can play loud, but the challenge is to hold the volume down and still play dynamically within the limits the music imposes.

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