Ivar Grydeland – A Work In Progress

“How can we know the dancer from the dance?” asked Irish poet W.B. Yeats. It’s a resonant line that raises more than one question. Can a dance be separated from the dancer’s embodiment of it? What can we grasp of a dancer’s identity from the experience of watching the dance? Those questions might easily be applied to issues raised by improvised music. Take the case of guitarist Ivar Grydeland.

26.03 / 2014

In March 2000, Grydeland played at Konigsberg Jazzfestival, in a trio with bassist Tonny Kluften and drummer Tony Oxley. A 15-minute excerpt from that performance became the opening track on Triangular Screen, the first release on the Sofa label, set up by Grydeland himself and percussionist Ingar Zach. Grydeland’s handling of the electric guitar on this recording is intensely physical. He swells sound from the instrument’s body; he squeezes tones from the fretboard that group in dense clusters or disperse in disjointed flurries; he juggles variations of density and timbre for dramatic effect and unexpected flashes of colour. He even mashes the strings into a messy textural splodge.

This is music that is inseparable from its action. Although it might be described as abstract because of its departures from traditional musical shapes and forms, extending to its deliberate avoidance of rhythmic regularity and melodic continuity, it is in practice an embodied music, the opposite of abstraction. The improvisation existed as much in the physical movements and the collective momentum of Grydeland, Kluften and Oxley as in its actual sound.

In his book Improvisation: its nature and practice in music (1980) guitarist Derek Bailey noted that “the emergence of free improvisation as a cohesive movement in the early sixties” took much of its impetus from “the collapse of the ‘rules’ governing musical language.” Yet by 2000, non-idiomatic or free improvising, after nearly 40 years of continuous development, had established a recognisable sonic and gestural language, or rather a set of related languages. For more than a decade before Grydeland was born, Tony Oxley had been a brilliant and formative figure, opening up the field, but also helping to define the nature of British free music.

Bailey, one of Oxley’s earliest, most radical and yet influential associates is an unmistakable presence lingering within the actions and accents of Grydeland’s own Konigsberg performance. So although the music he made with Oxley and Kluften is inextricably embedded within the context of a specific occasion, a particular festival appearance, it also belongs to an identifiable tradition of non-idiomatic playing. Creating this absorbing and intense free music, Grydeland was nonetheless conforming to certain expectations.

Fast forward to 2012 and the release of Grydeland’s Bathymetric Modes (Hubro CD). It’s a solo album packed with seductively articulated melodies, delicately finger-picked motifs and unapologetically lovely sounds. As well as steel-stringed acoustic and other guitars, Grydeland uses banjo, mandolin, ukelele, zither, pedal steel and the electronic tenori-on, creating ravishing colours and subtle shades as the music moves gracefully amongst options opened up by rock, country, folk, minimalism and movie soundtrack ambience. The contrast with Triangular Screens is as striking as that between, say, American guitarist Henry Kaiser’s early adventures in free-form improvising and later recordings that presented his band reworking music by Captain Beefheart and The Grateful Dead.

By 2012 Grydeland had already been making, for several years, entrancing electro-acoustic drone-rock as a member of the group Huntsville, along with Tonny Kluften and Ingar Zach. But a whole new dimension of his creative imagination seemed to reveal itself within Bathymetric Modes. The spirit of this fresh-sounding, border-crossing, genre-skipping music is broadly reminiscent of classic left-field rock outfits such as Aksak Maboul or ZNR, yet this is decidedly Grydeland’s own music, despite the friendly help he receives from Xavier Charles on clarinet, trombonist Marius Tobias Hoven and snare drummer Jonas Howden Sjøvaag.

Grydeland has moved on, but he has surely carried with him important lessons from his experience of non-idiomatic improvising. Bathymetric Modes retains the feel of music being made from within the act of playing, rather than as a performed idea. Grydeland’s approach is clearly now more self-aware in terms of the quality and character of the resultant sound, but his understanding of action and interaction within the music-making still draws nourishment from his free playing. That includes bringing to his solo project an insider’s awareness of the dynamics of tight and intricate group work. It also involves heightened sensitivity to possibilities of texture, coloration, layering and spontaneous shaping, yet now defined not in terms of what is to be avoided but of what is available for inclusion, drawn from Grydeland’s wide experience as a listener as well as a practising musician.

“How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Well maybe it’s enough to know that the dance may change in unexpected and delightful ways. And that the dancer may continue not only to hold our attention but also to surprise us, excite us and make us smile.