Tenacious, but taciturn
Only days before Ivar Grydeland is to defend his thesis at the Norwegian Academy of Music – the result of four years of work and intense contemplation of his own improvisation activity – he takes the time to meet me for a coffee and some conversation in the cafeteria. The school cafeteria has a nice atmosphere for conversation, at least until the lunch rush starts. Grydeland does not look very affected by his upcoming defence, but won’t hide the fact that completing such a large project can be nerve-racking. I promise him not to spend too much of his valuable time in this interview.
What do you think about when you think about improvisation?
Grydeland has been a research fellow since 2011 and has been working on a project that finally ended up with the somewhat mysterious title Ensemble & Ensemble of Me – What I think about when I think about improvisation. I cannot resist starting my interview with the same question: – What do you think about when you think about improvisation?
– Ha-ha. The quick answer would be that I think about quite a lot, and that it depends on the situation. My aim has been to find some concepts for how music is created in two specific ensembles that I have been researching, says Grydeland.
The point of departure for his improvisation research has been the ensembles Dans les Arbres and Huntsville. He has built a framework of concepts for these ensembles' improvisation processes and made an encyclopaedia of it, available online. In addition to the encyclopaedia, he has made several artistic products like concerts and recordings with Huntsville and solo.
– The concepts should show how improvisation looks from my perspective, my experience of how music is created and which criteria are used in our music. I am not trying to give any objective answers, in such a case someone else than me should give the answers, he humbly adds.
Contemplations reflecting the music
In other words, the encyclopaedia, completed in November 2015, is an attempt at showing exactly what Ivar, and not necessarily anyone else, thinks about when he thinks about improvisation. A rather personal project, in addition to the professional relevance the project may have for others with an interest in music and improvisation.
– I could continue with this project forever; even if the documentation of the process is over for now, the contemplation continues. I already have more words and concepts that would enrich the encyclopaedia, he tells me.
Similarly to Grydelands personal appearance, and also the music he makes as a solo artist and with Huntsville or Dans led Arbres, the encyclopaedia emerges as a place for quiet thought, a place where one has to spend some time looking around before one understands the connections, and one has to take the time to taste every separate word.
– I want the thoughts in the encyclopaedia to reflect different sides to the music, like how it exists in layers, with elements that intertwine and connect, at the same time as it is the audience who have to make their own connections, Grydeland explains.
Grydeland and his fellow musicians in Huntsville and Dans les Arbres do not improvise music in the sometimes pubertal manner of free jazz with sudden eruptions and intense phrases. They rather make music that is conceptual, often quiet and apparently thoroughly thought through, and that evolves patiently, gradually and controlled. Still they make room for spontaneity and freedom.
Stylistically speaking, the music has a definite referential quality, like Huntsville’s hints at country music or American folk; the big picture is quite eclectic. Can they even describe which tradition they are a part of? Even if several of the musicians have jazz educations, and they obviously have jazz influences, there is not much in the music that resembles jazz. With these contrasts in mind, it is easy to sympathize with Grydelands wish to investigate what is actually happening when he improvises with these ensembles.
A jazz upbringing
The lunch rush is moving in on the cafeteria at the Academy. Ivar asks if we should retire to the lounge area away from the chattering crowd. Once there, I ask him about his past, how did he end up dedicating his professional life to this particular music?
Early on it did not seem very likely that the young Ivar would grow up to be a musician.
– There was not that much music in my childhood. Our family piano was given away before I developed an interest in music, so I used to play my mother’s old Salvation Army guitar, says Ivar. He grew up in Kongsberg, a town with a prominent jazz festival, so he was influenced by other things than his home environment.
– I had a great music teacher that backed me up, I think he had an impact on my musical development. I also used to go to the jazz festival and the local jazz club. Some obscure act from New York would often be on. I remember standing outside on the street listening through the doors while I was still too young to get in. The walls were thin then, so the sound out there wasn’t too bad! he laughs. – These things definitely influenced my musical perspective.
Fighting the guitar
In 1996 Grydeland was accepted as a student at the Norwegian Academy of Music, where he was to study improvised music and jazz. For a guitarist there is quite a bit of prestige involved when one is accepted, however Ivar was not entirely comfortable with the typical jazz-guitar tradition. He had noticed this already in upper secondary school.
– I used to practice a lot, and usually typical things like jazz classics from The Real Book, or scales, or playing brilliantly, fast, clean and in pitch, he tells me. – I went on like that all through school and used to listen to Pat Metheny and other modern jazz guitarists. But I never really liked it, and I did not have anyone to play with who were into the same things, so I never felt quite in my element. Anyway, there are so many people doing that thing who are really good, so sitting alone fiddling with the guitar by my self was not very motivating, he laughs.
His agonies culminated in what he names a musical crisis after he was accepted to the Academy. The crisis made way for some creative reasoning:
– I totally stopped playing music the summer before I started at the Academy. The same summer I heard the guitarist and singer Nils-Olav Johansen play at the jazz festival in my home town. When I had a chat with him after the concert I realized that he played in a different tuning, and I thought, “Aha! I want to do that too!” Ivar tells me.
So he started tuning his guitar in fourths, with the upper strings tuned to C and F. He kept playing this way for many years.
– The symmetry in this tuning gives the guitar a less “guitary” sound, the usual chords had to be changed to fit the tuning. This really appealed to me back then, he says. – I was really stubborn and refused to return to standard tuning, because I did not want to sound like that anymore. Being my teacher probably wasn’t easy.
Grydeland does not strike me as being very obstinate, with his calm and well-mannered appearance. Still an image of a tenacious, but taciturn man emerges, a man that quietly goes his own way without being influenced to much by others.
In opposition to categories
Later he returned to standard guitar tuning. However, this story shows how Ivar Grydeland opposes what is typical and what is expected, and how this opposition has made way for a willingness to explore and to create. This has led him to new genres of music, like English improvisation musicians Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley, with their minimalist, rapid structures. This opposition also led him to his fellow musicians in Dans les Arbres and Huntsville, Christian Wallumrød, Xavier Charles, Tonny Kluften and Ingar Zach.
Even though we now have a clearer picture of where Grydelands inspiration has its origin, he is still reluctant to answer when I try to categorize his music.
– I can’t relate to the concept “free improvisation”, he states with emphasis. – A lot of our music is improvised, and some of the music is about freedom, but what most people think of when they hear that concept is something entirely different from our music, he continues.
A carousel of concepts
This brings us back to the paradox and the carousel of concepts and ideas about music, improvisation and everything in between. If we want to learn more, we just have to open the encyclopaedia and start to explore all the 53 concepts it entails. We are invited to start looking wherever we please and to get lost in the criss-crossing lines of meaning.
– The concepts are often contradictory and a travel through them may bring you back to where you started. This is how my thoughts often wander, and I guess how a lot of people think, he explains.
The road on
After he completes his project, he will still be at the Academy in a teaching position. He will also continue his work with Dans les Arbres and Huntsville. Perhaps with more energy and surplus than before?
– I have a whole different basis for my teaching now than before, and I have also noticed that my musicianship has improved. My supervisors, Henrik Hellstenius, Ivar Frounberg and Eivind Buene have been great, and my years as a research fellow have been of great value to me, he concludes checking his watch. So I send him back to prepare for his thesis defence, and try to work up the courage for another go at the encyclopaedia.