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From Swedish folk to Morton Feldman: An interview with Christian Wallumrød

In which way has “Fabula Suite” benefited from your experience with the sextet after ”The Zoo is Far” was released two and a half years ago?
That’s hard to pinpoint, but in fact we’ve been playing and rehearsing on a regular basis and I’ve constantly thought about the material for the new programme. Quite obviously, I’ve taken advantage of my knowledge of the individual players and of the possibilities this group offers with regard to sound, blend and expressiveness. Moreover it was most fascinating to observe how fantastically trumpet player Eivind Lønning (who replaced Arve Henriksen) has integrated himself into the ensemble.

Your compositions seem to allude to most diverse styles: baroque music, traditions from the North and from Asia, contemporary composition of course and many more. Nevertheless all these sounds are amalgamated in your uniquely individual tone. How do you actually compose your music?
I listen to many different things and get very attracted to music from quite heterogeneous backgrounds. Sometimes I even try to imitate a certain effect but of course I know I have to keep my distance, so things tend to take a very different direction. Very often, I start by considering ranges, timbres and playing techniques in a rather cloudy manner and then combine them with small musical cells. They might contain a certain sonority, a constellation of harmony, or a rhythmic pattern. “Quote funèbre” for instance is based on two or three isolated chords from the music of Olivier Messiaen and Morton Feldman. I developped them into small harmonic events which were then commented on by Gjermund Larsen’s improvised lines. “Jumpa” goes back to an improvised cell, however, it has reminded some of its earliest listeners of the music of Jean-Baptiste Lully. My association goes more in the direction of Swedish folk music. The Scarlatti is a rather literal transcription of the first part of the famous b-minor sonata K 87. In any of these cases, my prime concern is to characterize any musical event as clearly and sharply as possible.

To which extent do the rehearsals affect your ideas?
There is no standard procedure. “Solemn mosquitoes”, the initial piece on the CD with its descending chains of trills started as a solo piano improvisation which I had recorded at home and later transcribed for the forces of our ensemble. Very often we try to play something out of a certain idea and, as the notation would be much too complicated, the piece develops into sections of rather irregular lenghts and with thoroughly modified textures. For me as a composer it’s particularly important to find out how these ideas can be elaborated to larger forms.

The titles of the individual pieces can be by turns evocative and cryptic, but very often they seem to evolve out of purely onomatopoetic associations.
I guess ‘associations’ is a key-word here… “Snake” had this look of a snake on the score, while the score for “Knit” gave me the knitting receipt association. The title for “I had a mother who could swim” goes back to our sojourn in Lugano during the recording in June. While bathing in the beautiful lake I started thinking of Nina Simone’s version of the song "Nobody's Fault but Mine" (which was first recorded by blues-gospel guitarist Blind Willie Johnson and famously covered by Led Zeppelin.); you might say it’s some sort of a greeting.

“Fabula Suite” consists of 18 tracks of quite different length. Was it difficult to find an appropriate dramaturgy?
Mandred Eicher and I always work together with the order of the pieces. In this situation parts of the suite were already in a quite fixed order when we came to Lugano – sequences that had worked very well in rehearsal and concert. But the whole opening sequence was put together by Manfred Eicher during the mix, – to quite astounding results, I think. We would never have thought of starting the record with “Solemn Mosquitoes” but this piece proved to be an ideal opener.

How did you experience the venerable Lugano radio studio?
The room is very favorable for communication in an ensemble like ours because you have this clear sound on the podium. One feels very comfortable because the space has got a certain intimacy. In order to find out how a particular blend of instruments could work best, we tried many different sitting positions. It all turned out really nicely; we are very pleased with the sound of this record…

Interview: Anselm Cybinski

Christian Wallumrød, born 1971, grew up in Kongsberg, Norway. His earliest musical experiences included accompanying choirs in the local church. Jazz influences came almost entirely from ECM discs: “The whole ECM field of European and American jazz was a point of departure for my improvising.” He studied at the Trondheim Conservatory where he came into contact with Trygve Seim, Arve Henriksen, Per Oddvar Johansen and others.
Working across ‘jazz’ in many contexts he began to re-evaluate his approach to soloing after hearing the 1960s recordings of Paul Bley. His first ECM recording came in 1996 with “No Birch” a trio recording which also introduced the highly distinctive trumpet sound of Arve Henriksen. By this point the influence of contemporary composers, especially György Kurtág and Bent Sørensen, was also being felt in his writing. Other ECM recordings soon followed, including a guest role with Trygve Seim and the Source in 2000 (“The Source And Different Cikadas”). With the help of Manfred Eicher he assembled a new group with Henriksen, Per Oddvar Johansen and folk fiddler Nils Økland which recorded “Sofienberg Variations” (2001) and “A Year From Easter” (2004). His moste recent releases were “The Zoo is Far” (2007) with this sextet and “Dans les Arbres” (with Xavier Charles, Ivar Grydeland and Ingar Zach) (2008).

Per Oddvar Johansen (b. 1968) is a highly acclaimed and established musician on the Norwegian music scene, well known for his work with a.o. Trygve Seim, The Source, Solveig Slettahjell, Close Erase and Christian Wallumrød Ensemble. He plays the drums on well over 50 CD releases; five of these received a ‘Spellemannspris’ (the Norwegian Grammy), and numerous others have been nominated for various prices.

Gjermund Larsen (b. 1981) was the first student ever to obtain a performance diploma in folk music at the Academy of Music in Oslo in 2008. His musical point of departure is the traditional folk music from his home area (Verdal, Innherad). For his debut album ’Ankomst’ he received the Spellemannsprisen (the Norwegian Grammy). He has also won the ’Landskappleiken’ twice. His current works includes bands like Gjermund Larsen Trio, Majorstuen, Frigg and Christian Wallumrød Ensemble. As a soloist he has performed with Trondheim Symphony Orchestra, The Norwegian Broadcasting Orch., Trondheimssolistene and The Norwegian Soloist Choir.

Tanja Orning (b. 1967) is a cellist focussing on contemporary music. After studies in Oslo, in London with Willian Pleeth and at Indiana University with János Starker as a Fulbright Research Fellow, she held the position as a co-principal cellist in the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra from 1994 to 2000. Ornings current projects: Asimisimasa, Cellotronics (solo), Christian Wallumrød Ensemble, Dr.Ox. with Natasha Barrett, Ensemble Polygon and The Sound of Movement with dancer Ellen Johannesen. She plays regularly with the Oslo Sinfonietta and Ensemble Ernst. Former projects: Kyberia, Ametri String Quartet, rock band Wunderkammer and the Performance Group Mobile Home. She has commissioned and premiered approx. 60 chamber music- and solo works by Norwegian composers. In 2005 she released her solo-CD Cellotronics. Currently Orning is undertaking research in contemporary performance practice through studying and performing works by Lachenmann, Xenakis and Ferneyhough at the Norwegian Academy of Music.

Eivind Lønning (b. 1983) grew up playing classical trumpet, while his education contains a jazz bachelor from the Trondheim Conservatory and a master degree in improvised music from the Academy of Music in Oslo. Lønning is experienced in both jazz and classical music, and has developed a very personal sound with unusual melodic qualities. His work with the duo Streifenjunko (with sax player Espen Reinertsen) has led him to develop extended playing techniques for the trumpet, and he has performed with a lot of exciting Norwegian and foreign musicians over the last few years. As part of Trondheim Jazz Orchestra he has performed with Joshua Redman and Chick Corea, and he has also performed comissions by Eirik Hegdal, Per Zanussi, Kim Myhr and Erlend Skomsvoll.

Giovanna Pessi was born in Basel and began playing the harp at age 7. At the age of 13, she began to play on an instrument by Erard, built in 1800. The experience with this historical harp, its light touch, and unique sound, motivated her to focus her studies towards early music and historical instruments. From 1993 to 1995, Ms. Pessi studied the 18th century pedal harp with Edward Witsenburg in Den Haag. Beginning in 1994, she also studied with Heidrun Rosenzweig at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. In 1998, she won the Basler Hans Huber Stiftung prize and, in 2000, she received the diploma for historical harp of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. From 2000 to 2002, Giovanna Pessi studied with lutenist Rolf Lislevand in Trossingen, Germany. Her preoccupation with lute literature from Dowland to Bach allowed her to develop her own musical language. She has participated in master classes given by Mara Galassi and Andrew Lawrence King. As a soloist and accompanist Giovanna Pessi performed with groups and conductors such as Ricercar Consort, Christian Wallumrød Ensemble, Ensemble Kapsberger, Concentus Musicus, Les Flamboyants, La Fenice, Konrad Junghänel, Philippe Pierlot, Rolf Lislevand, Harry Bicket, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Marc Minkowski.