The cover photo of “Book of Velocities” was taken by Jon Balke from a moving car. “I like to test-listen to music while driving, and the camera was on the seat beside me. All I had to do was to grab it and shoot wildly, without looking at or through the camera. Next time I adjusted the programming of the camera for better results, and the time after that I understood more of the way light became graphic. And so a series of velocity pictures evolved.”
As in photography, so in music on Balke’s first solo piano recording, a remarkable ‘book’ of 19 short pieces, grouped into four chapters and an epilogue. Music composed and developed, invented and improvised: exploring a whole vocabulary of ideas, techniques, rhythms, textures and sound-colours.
The approach: the pianist sketches an idea at the piano, quite spontaneously, waits a few seconds and develops the idea through a series of takes – and then moves on to a new ‘chapter’. Balke calls it “a process of understanding by doing and not by pre-conceived ideas. The outcome is also a result of the room, hour of the day, the piano, the light and so on.”
Speed is part of the process: “Piano playing is in fact mainly about velocity. There is no more information going through the mechanics when a note is struck, than the sheer force of your finger hitting the ebony and ivory. Velocity produces the sound, then come the chords, melodies, and context.” He asks, rhetorically, “If the keys were hit with a stick instead of your finger, but with the same velocity, would it sound different?“
No overdubs are used on “Book of Velocities” and there is no electronic processing of the sound. The disc is a rigorous investigation of the sound potential of the acoustic piano – in the course of which melodies and themes are allowed to emerge: “The tunes are either based on an abstract graphic idea – a single or double line - or faint traces of compositions from other musical environments.”
If in jazz there are few precedents for these at times aphoristic pieces – the shortest of which is only fifty-six seconds long – they indicate some fresh directions in improvisation, and can be related, tangentially, to developments in contemporary music and piano works of composers from Cage to Kurtág.
“Book of Velocities” was recorded in September 2006 at Radio Studio DRS in Zurich with Manfred Eicher producing, and ECM New Series Tonmeister Markus Heiland as engineer.
Jon Balke was born in 1955 in Hamar, Norway. A professional musician from the age of 18, he worked, early on, with Karin Krog and made his ECM debut in 1974 as a member of Arild Andersen’s group. International collaboration soon followed with musicians including John Surman, Archie Shepp, and Zbigniew Namyslowski. Experimentation was not limited to jazz - and he worked also with musicians from India and Africa.
From 1982 Balke’s compositional work has had a steady development towards increased complexity, both in structure and format. From the early experiments with Oslo 13 to the current work-in-progress for instrumentalists, chamber ensembles and symphony orchestra in 2008.
Balke was a founder-member of the group Masqualero and appears on their ECM debut “Bande A Part”, 1985, and he is composer/arranger/director of the group Oslo 13 (album “Nonsentration”, 1990). He continues to lead the Magnetic North Orchestra (albums: “Further”, 1993; “Kyanos”, 2001; “Diverted Travels”, 2003) and is a member of the percussion-centred collective Batagraf (album: “Statements”, 2004).
Further ECM discs with Jon Balke are in preparation including a recording with the transcultural Siwan project which includes Moroccan singer Amina Alaoui, members of Magnetic North, a group of baroque players under the direction of Bjarte Eike, and American trumpeter Jon Hassell.
Jon Balke is currently working on a new commissioned piece for Amina Alaoui and the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra.
Release of “Book of Velocities” coincides with solo performances by Balke in Sicily in the context of dance performances with Francesco Scavetta. More details of Balke’s activities can be found on his website: