Food rings some changes with This is not a miracle. Since its formation in 1998, the group has been a moveable feast, metamorphosing into diverse forms, sometimes quite drastically. It started out as a quartet with UK saxophonist Iain Ballamy and three Norwegians – drummer Thomas Strønen, trumpeter Arve Henriksen and bassist Mats Eilertsen – playing both compositions and improvised pieces. Reduced to the duo of Ballamy and Strønen, intermittently joined by guests, Food emphasized free improvisation with increasing emphasis on electronics. Quiet Inlet, Food’s first for ECM, created atmospheres and sustained them, with help from Nils Petter Molvӕr and Austrian guitarist and electronics player Christian Fennesz. Mercurial Balm, again with Molvӕr and Fennesz, and with appearances also from Eivind Aarset and South Indian slide guitarist Prakash Sontakke, drew on improvised material from diverse locations and was more temperamentally eruptive.
This is not a miracle is different again. Thomas Strønen comes to the fore here, and all the pieces are shaped by him. “With Food, it’s democracy all the way, as far as Iain and I are concerned, but with this record I had the time and the will and the idea to do more on my own. I wanted to take the music further and I had an idea of a slightly different sound perspective: still atmospheric but also more direct and composed. So Iain and Christian and I went to Ulf Holand’s studio in Oslo and we played around some sketches I’d written down. Not notes, but ideas I wanted to try out. Structural ideas. Often when we play live we develop a mood over quite a long time. Now, instead of taking time to find out where to go, I wanted to go there directly, with a clear idea. Over three days we explored this way of working and recorded a lot of material. Hours of it.” Strønen says that the involvement of Ulf Holand, who as engineer has worked with David Bowie, Satyricon and Motorpsycho (as well as Molvӕr’s Khmer for ECM) “pulled the music of Food closer to a rock or electronica sense of expression.”
After the session, Strønen radically recast the recorded material: “I took all the files with me and worked on the music in my studio for about five months. I wanted to make something that was close to our best improvised moments live, but expressed as shorter passages. So I cut the music to the bone.”
What’s immediately striking is the tougher attack of these terse, driving pieces. “Only the grooves remained untouched. Everything else was chopped apart and moved around. I’ve cut into Iain’s saxophone playing and the guitar phrases. Sometimes I’ve taken melodic fragments from Iain and Christian and looped them, or taken details from three or four pieces and layered them in one piece, or built melodies by combining phrases. It was a very different process from how we’ve previously worked, with the result that the tracks are more like tunes than improvising pieces.”
This has had the further effect of providing repertoire for live performance. “After we finished the record” – with Manfred Eicher collaborating at the mixing stage – “we had a good creative period of rehearsing, learning how to play this material in concert. Now we’re actually playing the album live. We play the pieces, which are very solid and clear and contrast them with improvising in between. It feels refreshing, like we’ve expanded our range.” This sense of expanded possibilities is amplified by the use of visual elements in current and forthcoming concerts, and Food are collaborating with Norwegian photographer/filmmaker Knut Bry, and UK graphic artist/illustrator/photographer/filmmaker/ musician Dave McKean (whose Feral label, co-founded with Ballamy, gave Food its earliest exposure).
And the title: This is not a miracle? Strønen: ”I’ve put a lot into this recording and it means a lot to me personally and in an artistic way but, still, it’s just an album.” He speaks about creating it in a time when the Norwegian media were full of discussions about how and whether Syrian refugees might be admitted into the country, the debate sharply divided along political party lines. “While our focus was on moving bits of music around, other people had very different problems. It made me think about how it is to grow up in Scandinavia, with the privileges and freedoms we generally take for granted, when so many people on the planet are struggling. The title is connected to this…”