Norwegians crossing boundaries
A broad-minded musical education, regular rural retreats, and a huge range of influences from Misha Alperin to Abba – these are what make Norwegian band In the Country so, well, Norwegian, according to pianist Morten Qvenild
HOW MANY Norwegian musicians can you name? Not many, you might think. But you’d be surprised. From A-ha through Röyksopp to Jan Garbarek and Leif Ove Andsnes, Norway has produced a steady stream of strong musical personalities across a wide range of genres. Dig beneath that snowy northern surface and you’ll unearth everything from the eerie brass-based electronica of Nils Petter Molvaer to the ice symphonies (played on instruments carved from ice) of Terje Isungset or the trumpet-plus-voice embroideries of Arve Henriksen.
If these musicians have one thing in common it’s their startling lack of regard for musical boundaries, and another couple of names to add to the list of Oslo-based originals are Susanna and In the Country, who share a double-bill at the National Concert Hall this Thursday.
It will, as pianist Morten Qvenild explains, be a case of two trios for the price of one. First up will be his group, In the Country, whose most recent album, Losing Stones, Collecting Bones, has been garnering high praise from critics and fans alike. After the interval, Susanna Wallumrod will apply her breathtakingly beautiful voice to songs from her new covers album, Flower of Evil– and if you’ve never heard Susanna sing Phil Lynott’s Jailbreak,Prince’s Dance Onor Abba’s Lay All Your Love On Me, and you think you know pretty well how these songs should sound, let’s just say you’re in for one heck of a surprise.
Qvenild joined forces with his fellow In the Country men, Roger Arntzen and Pål Hausken, when they were students at the Norwegian Academy of Music in 2001.
“I think the reason we play so well together has to do with the kind of music we want to play,” he says. “We really don’t want to play jazz music, but we’re still a jazz outfit – piano, bass and drums. We use a lot of other influences from pop and rock music, and also from classical music. It’s about three guys wanting to do something else rather than playing the normal, traditional stuff.”
Listen carefully, however, and you’ll find that they can deliver something akin to the traditional “trio” sound as well. The album moves effortlessly from slinky jazzy numbers, such as Hello Walt, to the deceptively simple piano piece, Medicine Waltz.Do they consciously maintain a balance between the two?
“Of course, it can be a problem,” agrees Qvenild in his cautious, sinuously accented English. “Because we working the jazz scene, you know? So maybe if people don’t know what kind of music we play, and they expect to come and hear a set of old standards, they might be a bit shocked. But if they know what kind of musicians we are, and what we have done before, then it’s not very difficult either for the audience or for us to balance it, because it’s just about music.”
AS TO WHAT kind of musicians they are, the title of the band contains a strong hint that their modus operandi has little to do with the dizzy concerns of musical celebrity and a great deal to do with solitude and closeness to nature.
“All of us in the band have different places that we like to go for fishing, walking and trekking trips,” Qvenild says. “It’s really important for all of us to have this. It’s actually a very good thing to have in a very busy life. The musician’s life is very noisy sometimes.”
Qvenild maintains that the natural world is an intrinsic part of his personal and musical identity. His “special” place is, he says, a cabin which is not only miles from anywhere, but an hour’s hard trek from the nearest gravel road.
“It was built by my grandfather in 1938, just before the war,” he says. “I’ve been there every summer since I was born. You can actually stay for weeks without seeing other people.” Such idyllic isolation can, mind you, bring unexpected professional problems. “I actually wrote one piece there,” he admits, with the air of someone ’fessing up to a mid-range misdemeanour. “But that was like a nightmare, because then I had to go and remember this piece for two weeks. I didn’t have any, like, sheet paper or recording equipment. I just wrote the song in my head, and it was good, and I didn’t want to lose it. I don’t go there to work. I go there to do something else.”
What that “something else” is, is difficult to articulate. In some way, though, it’s spelled out in the music. In the Country’s debut album, This Was the Pace of My Heartbeat, contains a brace of Qvenild originals alongside songs by Ryan Adams and Handel. The eclectisim, Qvenild insists, is part of the deal. In answer to a question about his musical influences he points out – with meticulous politeness – that there are too many to name.
“But maybe,” he adds, “the biggest influence is more like people that I work with – and also some of my teachers from school.”
Among the latter are the extraordinary Ukrainian pianist and ECM recording artist Misha Alperin, whose influence on Qvenild seems to have been more philosophical than, technically speaking, musical.
“When you talk to someone about music,” he says, “it’s a more lasting thing than if you just listen to something and you like it very much – for a time – and then you go on to the next thing.”
For Irish music-lovers, the very notion of studying jazz is something of a novelty, if not a philosophical contradiction. Not so in Norway.
“I went to the academy to study jazz, but it’s a very wide school, style-wise,” Qvenild says. “So I also studied classical music. I actually did very much what I wanted to.”
This freedom, he insists, is what gives Norwegian contemporary music its idiosyncratic character. “In the 1970s,” he says, “a lot of Norwegian musicians just made their own way, and made a new approach to jazz. Jon Christensen played with Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek also. These guys really redefined something about being a musician from Norway – and I think it’s still important, because people here are not just studying jazz, they’re kind of studying themselves and what they want to do with their music.
“What I see in Sweden and Denmark is that they’re far more traditional in their education than here. You go through the American songbook before you can do something on your own. But I don’t believe in that. I believe in doing things in parallel that you like to do. It’s not like you have to learn to play like someone else before you can play like yourself.”
IF THE FREE-RANGE approach has contributed to Norway’s distinctive musical sound, so too have pioneering musicians from other parts of Scandinavia. This month, Qvenild is due to record his third In the Country album in the Atlantis Studio in Stockholm – once, famously, home to the most famous Scandinavian musicians of all time.
“Abba made their first five albums there, and all the big hit singles,” says Qvenild with obvious relish. “It’s a fantastic studio. I’m actually a huge fan of Abba and I’m getting more and more emotional about this music as I grow older.”
As he explains how this emotional attachment to the music of Abba means that he doesn’t dare to go and see the movie, Mamma Mia!,I’m beginning to wonder if Morten is – how should I put it? – taking the Michael. This is, after all, the man who included the line “everyone is going to die” in an otherwise upbeat, life-affirming lyric, and the man who has pulled from his musical hat a jazz number entitled Kung Fu Boys. In this instance, however, Qvenild seems to be absolutely serious.
“For me, music is packed with emotions,” he says. “So I hope that it can be something like this for other people as well. I think that’s what this is all about. We need to use our own lives and our own personalities to make our kind of music, and not reproduce something else. It’s a search after something that feels honest.”