I play saxophone, often amplified and often processed, in improvised and composed music. In and through artistic practice I research the many processes, tensions, and artistic possibilities that emerge through interplay. This can be interplay between my body, the acoustic instrument, and electronic processing and amplification; in and between solo and ensemble projects; between musicians, collaborating partners, and infrastructure; and also extends to the interplay between improvisation and composition.
My background and musical experience roots in jazz and improvised music, and is also informed by electronic music, noise, contemporary music, hip-hop, pop, and rock music. Aesthetics and artistic processes draw inspiration from experimental jazz and rock from the 1960s and 1970s, more specifically the American and European experimental and “free” jazz; the electrification period of American jazz; and the German and British kraut- and prog rock scenes. A range of musical references has served as inspiration or directly informed the practice, which is discussed in the artistic result’s reflection texts.
If the above mapping of context may seem scant, dealing with explicit contextualization according to academic research traditions pose certain challenges when adapted to artistic research. My musical practice has developed from methods acquired during my undergraduate studies at Jazzlinja, NTNU, Trondheim. The pedagogic and didactic model of this education emphasizes embodying other artists’ music by learning in detail by ear over extended periods, often in several cycles, to such an extent that it becomes an ingrained part of one’s musical identity. The purpose of this method is not to reproduce, but to amalgamate all such artistic impulses. Tim Ingold eloquently describes how “[t]o know things you have to grow into them, and let them grow into you, so that they become a part of who you are”1. Consequently, the artists I have studied or worked with, and the music that I listen to, are so deeply entangled within me that they might be difficult to identify by myself in my practice, and by the listener faced with my music. Research texts contextualize by citing other research texts. My research in and through music need to be permitted to first contextualize in and through music. Discerned listeners with a set of references and reading (or rather listening) competency, regularly experience how contexts and a belonging within musical traditions and currents become apparent while listening to music. Engaging with the present work of artistic research depends on such listening competencies, and it is somewhat limited to what degree the research context can be explicitly clarified in reflective texts. I will though, do my best, as far as it may lead to productive discussions.
My interest in alternative use of the saxophone was sparked around the age of twenty by the work of John Coltrane, who in the early 1960s revolutionized the instrument when he started improvising on its timbral parameters as an expansion of the prevalent melodic-harmonic style. Whether Coltrane conceptualized his increasing “use of sound for sound itself”2 as a separate part of his playing is unknown, but it had ripple effects on generations of saxophonists who investigate the saxophone’s timbral possibilities as the main focus of their practice.
Electronic sound processing within the wind instrument group has mainly been practiced among trumpet players. Miles Davis’ use of the wah-wah effect during the 1970s might have been the first example known to a wider audience, but the practice has seen a continual line of descent with pioneering work by Jon Hassell, furcating into the Norwegian scene by the works of Nils Petter Molvær, Arve Henriksen, and Hilde Marie Holsen. Electronic processing of saxophone sound has insofar not become widespread within the field of improvised music, even though there are several examples of it over the last fifty years. In 1967 the saxophone company Selmer launched the Varitone, a saxophone with an integrated pickup microphone and electric amplification. It did not become a commercial success and was taken out of production, even though the prominent saxophonist Eddie Harris is acknowledged for introducing this electrified sax publicly. On Frank Zappa's album Uncle Meat (Bizarre/Reprise, 1969), we can hear a magnificent example of an electric saxophone-sound processing device called Maestro played by soprano saxophonist Bunk Gardner. Also, saxophonist Elton Dean of the British prog-rock band Soft Machine played an important role in developing the amplified use of the instrument in experimental rock. More recent projects involving processing of saxophone sound within the field of improvised music include Colin Stetson’s extended use of microphone amplification; Evan Parker with his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble engaging other live electronics artists to process his sound live in concert; the American group Borbetomagus using extremely distorted saxophone and feedback to perform within the noise music genre; and Håkon Kornstad’s solo saxophone releases of compositions with layer-based looping.
This research explores the expanded role of the instrument and the relations made possible by such expansions. How can exploring possibilities and conditions for the acoustic saxophone in interplay with electric and electronic tools and sounds pave the way for new music, new insights, and expand the conception of what the instrument can be? How can playing with electrically and digitally manipulated sound facilitate the instrument’s ability to connect to musicians and artists from other fields of practice?
The use of digital and analog electronics for sound treatment represents a big and rapidly growing trend in music performance, together with the use of various kinds of sensors to generate control signals for effect processing and syntheses. The fields of new musical interfaces for musical expression and technologically augmented instruments usually referred to as hyper-instruments, are embedded in this research but not its focal point. I use technology to facilitate research into the main subject area, which is collaborative practices. The research is thus not about developing new technologies for the arts, but using technologies as a means to explore interplay through artistic practice.
This PhD is positioned within the field of artistic research, which “unfolds in and through the acts of creating and performing.”3 The research is embedded in my instrumental saxophone practice. I modify the instrument as a strategy to disrupt my practice’s habits in order to re-examine my relation to the saxophone and search for potential roles it may inhabit in collaborative projects. The experiments have mainly been conducted with the use of electric amplification and electronic sound processing tools.
The research’s primary mode of inquiry is collaborative composition through improvisation. The project discloses and extracts artistic potential from the energy being triggered when habitual behaviors are confronted with unknown work methods and/or unfamiliar assemblies of elements. The research’s main fora have been the rehearsal space, the recording studio, and the concert venue. They are inseparable and works interdependently: The studio is the space where each project’s framework and material emerge through collective, non-hierarchical processes. Recording music and evaluating those recordings builds a group experience and -knowledge which is further developed through live concert performances. The stage is not merely a place for exhibiting an artistic product, but most importantly a laboratory for real-time exploration of the material’s potential through improvisation, as the concert format creates the tensions necessary to test and sharpen the projects’ material. A complete overview of concerts, recording releases, and artistic presentations carried out over the duration of the research is provided as an appendix.
The research’s main artistic outcome is the sum of a series of artistic projects:
The band Møster! has been the research’s main project ensemble. In this forum, I have initiated and explored artistic ideas and processes in rehearsals, studio recordings, and concerts. Its artistic results are presented as two album releases: States of Minds (Hubro, 2018) and Dust Breathing (Hubro, 2020). The releases make the bookends of the PhD project, and each represents a set of inquiries and work methods. States of Minds was made during the initial stages of the research and serves as a basis for further explorations. It was an experimental, instrument-led inquiry in search of new material and work methods, where free improvisation and postproduction composition informed the artistic result. The follow-up album Dust Breathing was made towards the end of the research and may be seen as a response to, and distillate of, the experiences acquired through the studio work with States of Minds and the concerts following it. The research is conducted within the tension span between the two releases, as they posit differing questions in regards of method, process, purpose, and aesthetics.
The End is a collaborative effort since 2017. It has released two LPs and one EP and played several concerts. It offers different perspectives into the research and my practice, as the band’s work processes and musical role distribution contrast and complement those of Møster!. Three compositions are included to illustrate the work within this project, and additionally, all the band’s released music is available through hyperlinks in the exposition.
AKB Trio consists of the Norwegian members of The End. The project developed from a need for more frequent interaction and a desire to explore the immanent musical potential that this configuration generated. The group is presented through a live concert video.
Pyramiden is the result of a week’s intense collaboration at Henie Onstad Art Centre. It is an audio-visual concert performance that presents Norwegian rapper Lars Vaular’s spoken word accompanied by two modular synthesizers, an electrophonic saxophone, and a light pyramid made of plexiglass. It is presented here with video documentation.
The final artistic outcome and public presentation of the PhD research is a concert during the Nattjazz Festival at Røkeriet, USF Verftet in Bergen on June 1st, 2021. The performance summarizes experiences from the research period, and will present an ensemble of improvising musicians in various configurations, as well as the main project ensemble Møster!.
This Research Catalogue exposition exposes the research through a combination of artistic results, documentation, and reflections. The two texts Playing Air and Playing Parasitic constitute the ethical and methodological basis for the research and my practice and transfers to the projects’ two basic elements: roles and their relations. Playing Air discusses the relation between me and the instrument and seeks to confront the hierarchy that humans employ towards things. It may be read as a utopian dream of breaking instrumental practice down to uncontaminated relationality. As a succession, Playing Parasitic reflects on the things that distort the relations, the actants, and how they disrupt the relational energy streams and create tensions by inhabiting different roles.
The PhD research period has sparked processes that I believe will continue to affect the direction of my work in the indefinite future, much due to an enhanced awareness of what my practice consists of. On a foundational level, many aspects of my practice that I insofar have been unable to articulate have been offered an understanding from the philosophic concepts discussed in the reflection texts. Its transferability to improvisational instrumental practices is obvious and has vast potential. Also, working closely with fellow PhD candidates and artists with technology as the main focus has opened possibilities of interactivity that I will continue to develop.
The practice in this research depends on interplay in concert performances, which spans beyond the projects that are presented in this exposition. See the appendix for a full overview.
The research has been done as an artistic PhD at The Grieg Academy, Faculty of Fine Arts, Music and Design, University of Bergen. I would like to thank the many contributors to this research, as detailed in the acknowledgments section.