Guitar Moderne’s first artist article is a reprint of a piece on Eivind Aarset from the now defunct magazine EI. Michael Ross went to the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal to interview this icon of modern guitar. Be sure to check out Aarset’s latest, Live Extracts, on Jazzland.
By Michael Ross
“They look like cooks up there,” says Anne-Marie Giortz referring to her husband, Eivind Aarset and his band. “Up there” is the stage of the Spectrum theater in Montreal, Canada where guitarist Aarset, in town for the 25th Anniversary of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, is soundchecking with his trio for a show later that evening. Her description is spot on: Bassist Marius Reksjo is seated, with his instrument in his lap, tinkering with a keyboard that controls the software-synths on his computer; on another laptop, drummer Wetle Holte is setting up “scenes” of loops that he will trigger during the show from a percussion pad, and Aarset is huddled over a low table filled with effects, still more sonic modifiers at his feet. They are truly redolent of busy chefs, each working intently on the ingredients for a gourmet musical meal.
Beyond eclectic, said ingredients include jazz, surf, drum and bass, ambient, metal, noise, and more; typical of the fearlessness Scandinavian musicians demonstrate when it comes to fusing genres. Another Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal—known to write jet fighters flying overhead into the score of a symphony—was an early hero of Aarset’s, “Terje Rypdal’s sound was big influence, and also the guts he has. That generation of Norwegian musician meant a lot to Norwegian players.” “Superstring” on Aarset’s first solo record, Electronique Noir, reveals some residual Rypdal-style soloing, resolving in the final third however, into a blip-filled, trip-hop scenario that foreshadows the combination of technology and humanity that marks all of the guitarist’s work.
Aarset’s career followed a normal path at first: an infatuation with Jimi Hendrix followed by guitar studies at university in Oslo. “I didn’t finish my studies. I began to get session gigs and play with hard rock groups,” he recalls, “I loved being in the studio and checking things out—the kind of textures that can be made.” In addition to helping him explore the possibilities of the recorded medium, his session work brought him into contact with three artists who would mid-wife his metamorphoses from just another talented guitarist into an electronic innovator. Listening to the final mix of a session he did with sax player Bendik Hofseth, he noticed that the artist had cut up his played parts and reassembled them in an entirely different way. “That is not very strange now but at that time I was amazed, and I really liked it,” he relates, “To hear this was triggering me to begin with computers and samplers.”
This influenced the guitarist’s working method: he and his trio jam live in the studio, then cut up, augment, treat and rearrange, what Aarset calls “the lucky parts.” Much of the freshness of the music comes from the fact that most of the additional sonics are created on guitar; sounds that seem to be synths are as likely to be sampled guitar feedback played on a keyboard sampler, and even some of what sounds like percussion or drums is carefully edited guitar noise. Aarset’s sonic skills and rejection of the traditional guitar approach were kicked up a notch through his experience with pianist Bugge Wesseltoft, now the head of Jazzland, the label that releases his work. “Bugge said something to me when I started to play in his band, ‘I don’t want any solos, I don’t want any rhythm guitar’,” he laughs. “I thought, yeah, but that’s what I do. It was really healthy, because I had to re-think.”
The fruits of this re-conception were initially heard by the world-at-large on Nils Petter Molvær’s Khmer. One of the first sounds you hear on the trumpeter’s groundbreaking record is Aarset’s guitar. Equalized to remove all edge and EBowed for infinite sustain, it conjures up a world of Mid-eastern mystery where technology has been tamed by the ancient power of the desert. “For me it has been very important to play with Nils because he gave me lots of space and invited me to do whatever I wanted with his music. That has been important in finding my own voice,” he states.
Influenced as well by the ethnic stringed instruments on Peter Gabriel’s Passion, this voice reappears on Aarset’s own Light Extracts and Connected. Aarset’s previous records never suffered from sameness, but Connected is like an eclectic radio station, as it moves from the minimalist music-box of “Family Pictures,” to the chill of “Silk Worm,” to the World Music sound of “Nagabo Tomora,” where Aarset’s guitar colors are wrapped around the voice and oud of Dhafer Youssef. Even within a single tune the sounds, beat and textures will change radically yet somehow the composer manages to maintain an internal logic and integrity. “What I like is to have a feeling in track that attracts me and not lose it,” he explains. Though he will often play a melodic motif only once in a tune, his melodies are strong enough to impart identity. These same riffs are the stuff that helps turn complex studio creations into live performances. “We keep the main themes and the most important things, but still try to keep it as open as possible while retaining the identity of the tunes,” he declares. The drummer triggers samples in the software program Ableton Live so that they can stretch parts or keep them short. “What comes from Live we try to keep very simple so it doesn’t seem like a bigger band than it is on stage,” he says, “Instead of having guitars coming from the computer, I prefer to loop them [in real time] – It’s a little more dangerous.”
After his band’s performance at the Spectrum Aarset will hurry across the street to the Gesù-Centre de créativité theater where he will again court danger improvising with Dhafer Youssef and Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu. This new combination of cooks will brew up an equally tasty repast, linked to the earlier show by Eivind Aarset’s guitar, with its unique mixture of human warmth and techno cool.