“The River” (ECM 1593), the 1996 recording by Norwegian pianist Ketil Bjørnstad and American cellist David Darling received positive press notices around the world for its thoughtful and unostentatious approach to transidiomatic music-making. “An unforgettable listening experience”, the Sydney Morning Herald insisted: “The boundaries between composition and improvisation are blurred beyond recognition. What emerges has an organic quality devoid of contrivances to provide ‘blowing vehicles’ or display ‘clever writing’. Similarly, ‘great playing’ has been entirely subordinated to the cause of the most profoundly direct emotional communication with the listener. Much of what happens is quite simple: sublime melody from one instrument, delicately shaded by the other.” This process is extended on “Epigraphs”, which features performances of exceptional subtlety, whether shaped spontaneously in the moment, pre-formulated by cellist or pianist, or freely based upon music of the renaissance, an inspirational source for both musicians.
Darling and Bjørnstad are both members of The Sea(see ECM1545 and 1633) the tempestuous quartet, now in its sixth year of existence, which also includes Terje Rypdal on guitar and Jon Christensen on drums; the duo was formed to isolate certain characteristics that arose in that group’s improvising.
“From the beginning with The Sea,” David Darling recalls, “there would be moments when, after a lot of movement or a lot of colour, you’d have perhaps an eight or sixteen bar phrase of purity or beauty, with no exaggeration, no vibrato on the cello, moments of pure tone really, with Ketil playing piano in such a reduced and simplistic way. There was something unique to this dynamic that we both wanted to take further. Plus, I’ve always been interested in ‘adagio’ and slow music generally, as my records on ECM show, and to a find a pianist with a similar sensibility and be able to explore these ideas together in a recording situation is, for me, a wonderful opportunity.”
David Darling and Ketil Bjørnstad have in common a background in classical music. Darling studied with the virtuoso cellist and Bach specialist Janos Starker, while Bjørnstad at one point had contem-plated a career as an interpreter of the classical tradition (and made his concert debut in 1969 with the Oslo Philharmonic). And although both the pianist and cellist have worked extensively with jazz im-provisers over the last 30 years, each has done so on his own terms; developing a personal style without appropriating the specific vocabulary of ‘jazz’. “Ketil has a very similar feeling in his improvisa-tions to my own,” Darling notes. “There’s some kind of cross mix in there between a contemporary improvisation that relates to Stravinsky and Shostakovich and an improvisatory approach that relates to the classical music era and also to impressionism and the whole spectrum of late romantic and early 20th century music. We touch on all of this.”
Ketil Bjørnstad feels that the duo is “playing with much more focus now, with a conscious mind. David and I have been through such a lot of different experiences together and they’ve given us strength. Quite early on we decided, for instance, that the first half hour of any of our concerts would be improvised, before we would allow ourselves to approach anything written. This was an important step and it showed us what we were capable of. And then again, the growing emphasis on older music, as the duo has developed, has provided a special framework, a unique framework for contemporary improvisers I would think, that we’re both very happy to be inside.”
On “The River”, the players, encouraged by producer Manfred Eicher, brought in music of the 16th-17th century composers Orlando Gibbons and William Byrd, whose work has a role to play, as source material, also on “Epigraphs”. “I’ve always loved early renaissance and medieval music,” Darling says, “and I’ve been listening to that music more and more over the last ten or fifteen years. When we started rehearsing together, Ketil brought in some Orlando Gibbons to work through and I also brought in some early music and we were both just exhilarated by the experience. So we started to see if we could write in that way. Or if it was possible to improvise with it while still retaining that innocence.”
Ketil Bjørnstad: “And many concerts and conversations later, we had the feeling that more could be said, in a musical way. There were still so many Byrd and Gibbons pieces to be played, and David found this beautiful piece ‘Le jour s’endort’ by Guillaume Dufay while I myself picked up a piece by Gregor Aichinger. Much music was recorded for ‘Epigraphs’, but in the end we chose to retain only these pieces which were written by or most obviously inspired by, these old masters. That old music is so pure, and so mathematically perfect that it reminds you all of the time of what you should be struggling towards in your own free improvising – to take control of the emotions in a way, but also to let them flow.”
A departure from the modus operandi of “The River” is marked in “Song for TKJD”. The piece is built up in mysterious, overdubbed layers of cello, recorded in David Darling’s Connecticut home studio, to which Bjørnstad appended a piano part in Oslo’s Rainbow Studio. The net “chamber ensemble” effect suggests a continuation of elements sketched on earlier Darling albums such as “Journal October”, “Cello” and “Dark Wood”. Jean-Luc Godard, who has used music by David Darling in several of films including “Nouvelle Vague”, “Forever Mozart” and “Histoire(s) du Cinéma” (the latter two also with music by Bjørnstad), has already expressed his approval of “TKJD” and its incorpora-tion into a future soundtrack seems likely. Darling: “That’s been such an unexpected honour, to have had Mr Godard consistently interested in the work over the years – unimaginable, surely, without Manfred (Eicher) to make the connections.”
David Darling was born in Indiana in 1941, and began his career as an elementary and secondary school teacher and conductor of band and orchestra, specialising in cello and bass. He subsequently taught music and served as orchestra conductor and faculty cellist at Western Kentucky University.
In 1969 he joined the Paul Winter Consort, whose sound blended jazz with Brazilian, African, Indian and other “world musics”, and whose alumni include members of the group Oregon. During his eight-year stint as soloist, composer and vocalist with the Consort, Darling was exposed at length to ensemble and solo improvisation. He left the Winter group in 1978 and began to record for ECM, with early albums including the solo “Journal October”, “Cycles” (with Jan Garbarek, Steve Kuhn, Collin Walcott, Arild Andersen and Oscar-Castro Neves), and “Eos”(with Terje Rypdal).
He has since worked with the widest range of musicians - from Peter, Paul and Mary to Bobby McFer-rin, from Dino Saluzzi to Arlo Guthrie, from Ralph Towner and Kenny Wheeler to Tom Rush. He has won awards for his teaching of improvisation, and recently contributed to the book “Open Ears; Musicdiverse musicians including Paul McCartney, Pete Seeger and Mickey Hart.
Ketil Bjørnstad was born in Oslo in 1952, and is a ubiquitous figure in the arts in his native country. Classically trained, he studied in London and Paris as well as his home town, and made his debut as a soloist with the Oslo Philharmonic, playing Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3, in 1969. A long series of solo performances and concerts with Norwegian orchestras followed. However, exposure to the music of Miles Davis’s “In A Silent Way” and Terje Rypdal’s “Bleak House” convinced him of the viability of improvisational music, and he abandoned the classical milieu. In 1973 he made his first recording – with a quartet that included ECM regulars Jon Christensen and Arild Andersen – and went on to release a further 30 albums (including five albums of solo piano, several thematically unified “concept albums”, co-productions with rock musicians, musical settings of the writings of John Donne and Knut Hamsun and much more) before finally/inevitably arriving at ECM in 1993 with “Water Stories”, his first disc for the label.
“Water Stories”, which brought together Bjørnstad, Terje Rypdal and Jon Christensen, laid the groundwork for the formation of the quartet The Sea, completed with the addition of David Darling in the autumn of 1994. The quartet has become a regular presence on the international touring circuit, and Bjørnstad also performs with other permutations drawn from its personnel. In addition to the duo with David Darling heard on “The River” and “Epigraphs”, there is now also a duo with Terje Rypdal. Both duos and quartet will be on tour throughout the world in 2000.
An exceptionally well-rounded musician (pianist, composer/arranger, improviser, interpreter), Ketil Bjørnstad also has a considerable reputation as a writer. He has published more than 20 books in Nor-way, primarily novels but also collections of poetry and essays. Several of his books have been translated and published internationally. His most recent novel “Fall” will be published by Germany’s Insel Verlag in Spring 2001, and his acclaimed 1993 novel “Historien om Edvard Munch”, a fictionalized account of the great painter’s life, is to be issued in an English version by Arcade this autumn.