As a polytonal, chording instrument, the guitar—whether electric or acoustic—is incisively capable of creating textures and harmonies of all densities and degrees of dissonance or consonance. Two new releases of guitar-based, improvised music from Scandinavia reveal something of the instrument’s versatility in creating rough or refined sonic atmospheres.
Kölen, the third release from the duo of Sweden’s Anders Berg (double bass, electric bass and electronics) and Norwegian guitarist Tellef Øgrim consists of eight tracks inspired by the geology and topography of Scandinavia’s severe, far northern landscape. And it’s possible to hear in these largely hard-edged pieces an aural image of craggy stone thrust up into thin, twilit air. Both instruments’ sounds are altered, often aggressively so, into an overdriven, elementally gritty distortion. This may not be metal, but it certainly is the ore from which metal originates.
Unlike Kölen’s electronics-heavy ambience, Advances and Delays, a CD featuring the Norwegian guitarist Kim Myhr along with Swedish guitarist David Stackenäs, Canadian-born bassist Joe Williamson and Australian percussionist Tony Buck, is an acoustic affair made up of two long improvisations. The first piece is framed by the dense, choric clang and jangle of the two guitars; within the apparently static outer shell of sound the music moves restlessly in shimmering increments. The texture of the second piece initially is as rarefied as the first is thick. Harmonics and stopped strings are plucked and left to linger and decay in their own time; spaciously-placed bass notes hit at a chord progression that gradually is realized in strummed guitar chords. Following a percussion interlude, chromatic patterns on one guitar overlay arpeggios on the other, creating a rich, resonant tapestry of sound.
Houston’s Rothko Chapel—an austere room lit with natural light and dedicated to the display of fourteen of Mark Rothko’s late, subdued color field paintings—is a congenial site for improvised performances by the international trio Mural. The group, made up of Norwegian Kim Myhr on guitar; percussionist Ingar Zach, a Norwegian now living in Spain; and Australian Jim Denley on alto saxophone and flutes, has played there twice before the April 2013 date recorded and issued on this three-CD set. (A previous performance, from March 2010, was recorded and released in 2011 by the Rothko Chapel’s own publishing concern.)
Reflecting the immersive, contemplative atmosphere of the Chapel, Tempo captures the last three-quarters or so of Mural’s over four-hour-long continuous performance. Although each of the three discs can be listened to by itself, the music’s full effect and the group’s deftness at developing sonic textures over long cycles only becomes forcefully apparent when all three are heard in sequence during a single listening.
The release’s title says something essential about the music given not only its expansive duration but the way it sets out a concatenation of sound events coming into and going out of existence in time. Mural’s pacing and arrangement of sound into alternating fields and figures create a sense of musical time imagined as having been precipitated into a narrative sequence with all of its peaks and valleys, its alternations of episodes of activity and rest. Through subtle, largely timbral playing Mural collapses time into a single moment present in a low-frequency sound field extending in all directions; through more urgent, rhythmically driven sections—led by Myhr’s energetic pulse on guitar—the dynamic of time’s passage is made clear.
Throughout it all Myhr, Zach and Denley have an intuitive rapport that doesn’t lapse even over such a long period of playing. Zach’s bells, gongs, drums and pitched percussion are put to good coloristic use over the entire course of the performance; Denley’s sax and flutes can be plaintive, abrasive, abstract or voice-like as the moment requires. Myhr is a strong ensemble player who can, when needed, push the group with chordal ostinatos or an insistent, jangling strum just as easily has he can bind the music during its quieter passages.