That was what we had at home – an interview with Ivar Grydeland

Ivar Grydeland (Huntsville, Dans les Arbres) is currently releasing his second solo album, “Stop Wait Freeze Eat” on Hubro. The album is the result of work with an artistic PhD project called “Ensemble of Me” at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo. Ivar wanted to make it possible to create ensemble music as a solo performer. In this interview his fellow guitarist, journalist and HUBRO artist Stephan Meidell (Cakewalk) talks with Ivar about the new record, playing the guitar, improvised music and other subjects.
STEPHAN: In an interview you said that you weren’t satisfied with your own playing on the Huntsville album from 2013, «Past Increasing Future Receding». It surprised me that you would agree to release something you weren’t pleased with.
IVAR: Hmm… A band like Huntsville is an extremely collective thing. I probably wouldn’t have agreed to release it if I had thought that it was a total disaster. When I stood there playing, and when I listened to it afterwards, I thought, “Yeah, there’s that stuff again – that’s just what I don’t want. I didn’t manage to avoid that this time, either.” But if the consensus is that this is something that we want to release, then we do it. Maybe I’ll listen to the record in five years and think that it’s fantastic. When you’re together with several other people you can trust the others and their judgement. It’s a good thing not to become too self-absorbed.
STEPHAN: What, specifically, aren’t you satisfied with?
IVAR: When you get into a situation that’s difficult to get out of. That’s something I can think a lot about.
STEPHAN: When in some of the bands you don’t talk about the music– that’s very different to the projects I’m involved in, where we talk a lot about the music, and rehearse specific areas that are difficult. For instance, what you said about being locked in – we try different methods of getting ourselves out of that situation.
IVAR: We don’t practise that way. It’s pretty much the sum of all of us and our different opinions on a lot of things. We’re not encouraged to work much like that. All of us have thought about these things, each in our own way. About breaking away or going in a new direction, but we haven’t talked about it specifically. It’s not so easy, so that’s something I’ve tried to do as a solo project, as a reaction to just that.
STEPHAN: Because that’s what happens on the new solo record, isn’t it?
IVAR: Right, the solo record is an artistic response to the things we do with Huntsville and Dans les Arbres – where I’ve allowed myself to use the music of these bands as an inspiration, and also the things they don’t do, or can’t do, in these bands. It has become an arena for trying out precisely those things.

STPEHAN: In many ways you create your own ensemble to play with in a solo format, too. Do you feel most comfortable in that role?
IVAR: I wonder. I’ve become more of an ensemble player than a solo musician. Right now it doesn’t seem appealing to play on stage with an acoustic guitar. There’s something about working with larger soundscapes and more complex things than I can do with one guitar.
STEPHAN: I listened to some of your discography, among other things the first record you released: “Tony Oxley project 1 – Triangular Screen”. There you seem impulse-driven and solo-oriented. I thought, “I would never hear Ivar play like that today.” What happened?
IVAR: [laughs] No, that wouldn’t happen. At that time I suppose I was preoccupied with momentary improvisation, and I let myself get carried away. And then it’s easy to end up there. I hear that a lot in free jazz, too – it seems to me that you’re just meant to go with your intuition. You usually end up getting carried away, doing that. And it all sounds the same. I was doing that too, and was very inspired by British improv. That was the artistic idiom, the tonal language, and the goal in those days. Ingar, Tonny and I went in that direction for several years, but I think we all got tired of it at the same time. And then things changed very quickly. The second duo record Ingar and I made, just a few years later, was very different. But what happened? Hmm… I think I’ve become more interested in other music – country, pop, rock. I listen to other music that inspires me as much as improv. That colours how I play and how I want the guitar to sound. I think it’s more exciting to work with a combination of all the different sources of inspiration.
STEPHAN: What are you listening to these days?
IVAR: Everything from – well, not “everything from”, because there’s not that much variety, either [laughs]! I actually don’t listen to tremendous amounts of music. In any case it’s not very often that I listen to a record that sounds like anything I’m doing myself. [Ivar takes out his iPhone and searches in the library.] Bon Iver, Buckawhite, Feist, First Aid Kit, Henry Flynt – have you heard of him? He’s very cool! James Blake, John Fahey, PJ Harvey, Gillian Welch.
STEPHAN: There’s not much improv there, is there? Did you listen a lot to purely improv records before?
IVAR: Yeah, I did. Everything from classic British improv to American free jazz and some Japanese things. I became curious about that pretty quickly when I discovered that things were happening there, too.
STEPHAN: Are you at all familiar with what other people in your field are doing?
IVAR: I wish I could answer that with a yes, because I think that would be a much more likeable trait, but I’m not really well informed. I pay attention to some of them – the ones I know well and like – and I do listen to some music. But not within the same area. I’d simply much rather listen to a pop band and find inspiration there than listen to someone who is working in the same area.
STEPHAN: How consciously have you tried to create your own world of sound?
IVAR: I have intentionally tried to find something to justify my working with more or less the same things as other people do. Especially when you’re playing the world’s most popular instrument, you know. And using a computer – things can sound fairly similar. One approach is to try to find a way to do things that spark my own curiosity, and are maybe a little different than the most usual things.
STEPHAN: Why did you choose the guitar as a starting point?
IVAR: That was what we had at home. I wish I had chosen something else.
STEPHAN: What would that have been?
IVAR: Drums.
STEPHAN:Why does everyone say that? Is it because people want freedom from melodic and harmonic responsibility?
IVAR: I think there are more possibilities sound-wise. Back to what we said earlier. I was very preoccupied with sound. For example, how people like Ingar [Zach], [Tony] Oxley and Raymond Strid worked, people who have a rich palette. The orchestra, whose influence I feel in what I play now, too. The ensemble approach – I believe that I think orchestrally.
STEPHAN: But you also play good old-fashioned guitar. There must be something about it you like.
IVAR: Of course, I like the guitar. And that’s actually something I started with in the past five or six years: appreciating more conventional guitar playing. I don’t know why it’s less complicated now. It’s easier to relate to in a way that I think is good. Finding a way to play more sort of country-like stuff, and trying to get it to fit into the other world. I think it makes a good contrast.
STEPHAN: Why do improv and country fit together? I myself can’t manage to pinpoint why they suit each other so well.
IVAR: I don’t know. It has something to do with the slightly banal aspect that becomes more sophisticated through the instrumentation, with some quarter tones and a little squeak here and there – they suit each other somehow. In any case, the way we flirt with Americana in Huntsville – songs aren’t necessarily composed that way, but there can be a rhythmic drive that creates a little more contrast to the rest of it.
STEPHAN: How did you record your new solo album?
IVAR:We had a few different points of departure. Some of it – but not too much – is a live recording, in other words “proper improvisation”. I based this on a stereo setup that I’ve worked with, where what I play here and now goes through one amplifier while another amplifier reproduces the same signal with a fairly long delay of around 10 to 12 seconds. That’s such a long time that it becomes something other than an echo, and then I can work with rhythmic things, but at such a great distance that the tempo swings a little up and down. In addition to this consistently right-left setup I’ve arranged a way that I can manipulate the signals in each of the amps. I can freeze the current signal, and then slice up the echo with another pedal. This is another way of stopping time. I’ve recorded some additional tracks to enhance certain tendencies in the music. This is one part of the record – what sounds most like a guitar.
STEPHAN: And the other part?
IVAR: The first song was recorded a little differently. The big gong-like sounds are very short samples of acoustic guitar that I improvised with a Max patch [Ed. note: code segment in a computer program for sound manipulation]. I would record something, and then play it back with this Max patch. I did that for a number of sequences for over a year – took a little away, added a little, worked a whole round with only the equaliser, for example. I have worked with composing it into a form.
STEPHAN: So you’ve created a software instrument comprising guitar samples that you play and compose with?
IVAR: That’s right, and drum and 12-string guitar tracks were also laid down. It’s been a long process. I very much like the alternation between intuitive playing and being able to take a step back and reassess it. I work in the same way that I imagine a visual artist works with a canvas: taking a step back to look at it before reworking it.
STEPHAN: What would you say the biggest difference is between this record and your previous one?
IVAR: On the previous record I actually worked in much the same way. I’m not a composer in the traditional sense. I improvise things, and treat them as objects that I can alter, and that’s the starting point for my compositions. I’m not an armchair composer.
STEPHAN: But the last record took a much longer time, didn’t it?
IVAR: Right, but now I’ve found a form, and with the first record I was uncertain whether it was even necessary to release a record at all. A lot of the material was recorded with a Tenori-on synth, a very, very strange but cool sequencer made by Yamaha. It could create cool rhythmical patterns that I could simply push a little bit. The soundscape became very dense, and a little like “easy listening” music. I liked it for a while, but then I thought, “I can’t release this”. So a year went by before I listened to it, and then I discovered that I wanted to release it, but then I changed my mind again. That’s why it took such a long time. This time I was more decisive, because I really wanted to release a record as part of my project as a research fellow. There was a little more time pressure this time around, and that’s often a good thing.
STEPHAN: There was quite a large amount of production work and follow-up work on the album. Is it important to you that things are generated at the moment in a concert format?
IVAR: No, not really. It has its advantages, in any case if it involves more than one person. The more people who are on stage, the better it is that it happens then and there. But when I work solo – and that has been especially important in this research project – I try to work with a good deal of pre-recorded things. I like the energy that’s generated by knowing about some of the areas I can or will move within. But at the same time I relate to what is created then and there.
STEPHAN: You, I and many others use a lot of live looping and sampling. My greatest challenge is that this often leads to a very predictable formal development. Lately I’ve almost a little demonstratively used a cassette player with pre-recorded rhythms that I turn on. Then not all the jazz freaks are satisfied – that’s cheating, isn’t it? But who should be able to define what’s acceptable? Isn’t it entirely up to you?
IVAR: I think that a lot of the old-fashioned dogmas in the improv community are obsolete. I understand where they’re coming from, but this is 2015 and it is possible to do things a little differently without diminishing the music. That’s exactly what I find problematic.
STEPHAN: What should we call your music, and much of the music released by Hubro? It often falls between all the stools. It’s sometimes called “improvised music”, but that doesn’t really work either, does it?
IVAR: I don’t think that the description “improvised” is adequate. Often that seems like an evasive way of answering: “I can’t really say anything about the music because it’s improvised, you know. Anything can happen.” But that’s not true – that anything can happen. My music is oriented towards sound, and it’s slow – often with a predilection for something almost metrical, but actually not completely. Almost prettily melodic, but not entirely. There is something slightly misplaced. Always some sort of failure, in a way. Like a chair that’s a little crooked, or a flower pot that’s a tiny bit off-kilter. In any case, that’s something I try to accomplish on stage or in the studio.
STEPHAN: When I listen to Dans les Arbres it brings to mind some pieces written by Cornelius Cardew. Among others, “Edges”, where each musician is supposed to relate to his own sign and change whenever he wants. Part of the point is that you’re not supposed to listen to each other, but follow your own thing very stringently. Is that something you’ve thought about?
IVAR: We rarely talk about the music, in any case not beforehand. And not in Huntsville, either. I think we make some game rules that maybe function in the same way – we work a little according to the same model, without having discussed it beforehand. It arises through playing. Acknowledging that something has worked well has been such a shared experience that nobody does anything radically different because everyone realises that it wouldn’t fit in. It’s a mutual perception of what the band is and what we can allow ourselves to do. And it has emerged without our having talked about it.
STEPHAN: How do you manage to create a common understanding of form when you work so individually?
IVAR: It’s very interesting. What I do is very informed by what the others are doing at the other end of the room. But I don’t let myself be controlled very much by that. What is salient is being individuals and at the same time collectively oriented. For me it changes somewhat in time. I can alternate between being preoccupied with what I’m doing and what the others are doing. I can realise that I’ve taken a strict approach, and so I do something or other and we see what happens.
STEPHAN: Finally, for me it sounds like an incredible luxury to be able to conduct a research project like this. Being paid a full-time salary for finding yourself. Analysing your own band, and having records, live recordings and rehearsals as part of the project. How do you see it?
IVAR: It’s been very frustrating too, maybe mostly at the beginning. I thought it was difficult to know what I should do that was true to what I actually wanted to play. I also think that there can be a lot of pretentious words and opinions within the area of artistic research. The challenge has been to do something I think is meaningful without making it more attractive than it actually is. Doing it on artistic premises, while at the same time ensuring that it complies with the criteria it’s based on. Because it’s a very different basis than the one that is usual in the freelance world. For me it has been very productive. I wanted to quit on day two [laughs] but I found a form and a way of working with the music that I have really benefited from.
Ivar Grydeland: Stop Wait Freeze Eat CD/LP/DL