by Martin Longley –
Norway’s sPacemoNkey duo have jazz-derived improvisation at their heart, but have an equal love for electronica, rock, industrial noise and imaginary movie soundscaping. They employ the techniques of jazz-abstraction, but the end result is often as much in sympathy with the sonic practices of those other musical forms. Pianist Morten Qvenild is primarily known for his work as part of the In The Country trio, whilst drummer Gard Nilssen has made his mark as a member of Bushman’s Revenge, both bands to be found on the ever-wonderful Rune Grammofon Label.
sPacemoNkey will be playing at Moers on the Saturday. Last year’s album on the Hubro label, The Karman Line, probes areas that range from sensitive susurration up to demolishing outbreaks of controlled, crumbling rumbles. The feel of a piece can change suddenly, opening up a new cask of conditions, establishing a fresh mood. All of this springs from a complete spontaneity.
I interviewed Nilssen, fresh out of the Norwegian mountains, asking how he first met Qvenild. “I’m a little bit younger than Morten,” he says. “I first met him when I was 18 years old. I was applying for the music academy in Oslo.” That was a brief meeting in 2002, where they played a few Miles Davis tunes together. “I’ve been a fan ever since: we always discussed playing together, and then we met in 2011, for a Voss Jazz commission piece, in Mathias Eick’s band. We talked a lot of music, and decided to play together. We planned to have a bass player in the beginning, but he couldn’t make it, so we started having a jam as a duo. ”
It was around this time that the sPacemoNkey concept was born. The decision to favour improvisation was mutual and virtually instantaneous. “That’s what we hear,” Nilssen says, emphatically. “We’re really fond of that. We’re playing more and more, developing our own sound. We share the same thoughts about improvised music. Instead of the free improv ‘genre’ , the jazz thing, we don’t care that much about that, because over the years it has been so strict. I really feel that I can play whatever I want to play, with Morten, and I think it goes the same way back. He’s not expecting me to do anything, to play a certain groove, or have a certain way of playing. I just feel totally free.”
Nilssen believes that their approach is even freer than free, avoiding some of the alleged conventions and habits of that particular mode. “We did a short tour in Norway, just some small venues. We got some funding, and went in a studio in Oslo. They’d just got a new grand piano, and they wanted us to check it out. We were there for three days.”
The presence of electronics is crucial to the duo’s sound, even though it’s the acoustic instruments that lie at the centre of the pieces. The electronic input is important in the sculpting of a surrounding presence, echoing, underlining, emphasising and processing the fundamental acoustic base. Qvenild often inhabits the piano interior, sampling and shaping resonant sound electronically, whilst Nilssen also uses a sampler, effects boxes and carefully-placed contact microphones. “We did some producing, after the recording session. Most of it is recorded live, but we added some electronics, bells and vibraphone, and some bass, here and there, but not that much. We took the material that we recorded and did some editing. If you hear it live, you can hear some of the ‘frames’ from the record.”
This means that particles of pre-improvised themes and structures might make a reappearance in a transformed state, as part of the duo’s continuing exploration. “I think it’s 70% improvised and 30% ideas from The Karman Line. We always start freely. It’s always a risk to end up with no connection at all! No communication. So we can go into some secure places, if we’re lost. Or if we want to. That suits me well. For me, free improvisation is a method of playing, instead of a genre.”
The Moers set is likely to be shorter than one of their accustomed club gigs, so all of the ingredients will be condensed into a stronger potion. sPacemoNkey will begin work on another album in August. “Morten has just built himself a great studio in his garden: it’s called Green Room. You can play improvised music in the studio, then sit back and listen to it, and perhaps process it, and you can get a step further with the music. Then we take it to the stage, and the music develops in a new direction.”