“Today, however, the new shining star of the guitar is the audacious and fearless Stian Westerhus (born in 1979), winner with the Puma trio of JazzIntro in 2006. In the short span of a few years his artistic growth was inexorable. After the intriguing project with the Indian singer Swati Natekar, commissioned by BBC radio, within a couple of years he released three albums, one more successful and unpredictable than the other. Heiren of Aarset in the trio of Nils Petter Molveer, he foreshadowed more and more rock sounds, and instead, after the release of the solo album Pitch Black Star Spangled, he followed with Didymoi Dreams, live performance at Nattjazz in Bergen, where together with Sidsel Endresen he whirls like an acrobat without a net, and even more surprising is the following “The Matriarch And The Wrong Kind Of Flowers” a small masterpiece built within the Gandland Mausoleum (where Arve Henriksen recorded his Sakuteiki).”
“The Sound of the Nord” by Luca Vitali, Auditorium, 2018
Luca Vitali says it well in his excellent Norwegian jazz reportage: Stian Westerhus is an extraordinary artist. The trio of solo records offers indeed some innovative sounds and stylistic imprints that have reached the attention of many experts.
Let’s start with the minimal “Pitch Black Star Spangled”, released in 2010, his second work for Rune Grammofon, a perfect example of a new form of improvisation for guitar with sharp and esoteric characteristics. “Pitch Black Star Spangled” is a record made of shadows and chilly and sharp guitar splinters. Reminiscent of a aurora borealis in black and white, with flashes of light that emerge and vanish in the darkness of a cold arctic night. Color is gradually added to the noise, thanks to the distortions created by the guitar, one of the distinctive features in Westerhus’s style. Westerhus uses noise, the abrasions extracted from his guitar in a completely surprising and poetic way. Another characteristic feature is the skilful contrast between empty and full surfaces. Even silence becomes color for him, the pauses turned into sonic adjectives that amplify the reverberations and echoes left running around limiting to enlarge a space that sometimes seems rarefied and sometimes seems to collapse.
The next listening is “The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers”, also released by Rune Grammofon two years later, in 2012. Recorded in a very special place like the Emanuele Vigeland Mausoleum, in Oslo: a sepulcher with a stable temperature of 5° C and a natural reverberation of about twenty seconds, this record moves semantically in the continuous dialogue between a natural acoustic source and its celebrated studio reworking. A gray cover, very different from the sidereal black and from the ominous figures in chiaroscuro that adorned that of its predecessor. “The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers” is a more complex record. An articulated work of filters and overdubs, overlapping layers of ambient sound creating a suspended and much more cinematic texture. An orchestra of articulated sounds that creates a pinkfloydish environmental picture, a complex, articulated and never static texture. Almost isolationist. The sound is “cleaner”, almost neat, it’s a softer record that expresses discomfort, suspension and enchantment, many different opposite and complementary feelings.
Amputation arrived in 2016, released by the House of Mythology, and is a new change of direction, towards arctic and naked singer-songwriter’s ideas. Amputation. As a clean cut, the removal of an unnecessary part of the body. Or like a body without organs, music as a return to Deleuze’s ideas, the guitar around an almost soulful voice, without organs. Loops and atonal fragments, noise clots. And the voice that is pure chimera, an ephemeral thought, a volatile thought. Amputation is a new, fascinating and innovative chapter in Westerhus’s journey, a new evolution in a free form where the guitar gets rid of its weight as a physical instrument.
In the end Stian Westerhus reminds me of a The Edge’s motto in the documentary It Might Get Louder: just when it seems that rock has exhausted its innovative drive and when it seems that the guitars are now gone, the electric guitar always manages to generate something that amazes us , excites us and makes us think. This is the great strength of Stian Westerhus: Westerhus transfigures his instrument.
After Hendrix’s serial feedback, after Page and Jeff Back’s arches, after Derek Bailey’s anti idiomatic strategies and Reg Bloor’s maximalist energy, what else should we expect? Westerhus is not the only one to move in these territories. In 1994, Virgin Records did something that today would be simple madness: it produced a compilation of two CDs entitled “Ambient 4: Isolationism”. In 1994 a major like Virgin could afford the luxury of creating a compilation of two CDs with a totally experimental and non-commercial taste that tried to represent a musical subculture defined in 1992 by Simon Reynolds on the pages of The Wire. An era that seems as distant as that of steam engines.
Much of that compilation was made by a small circle of guitarists: KK Null, Jim Plotkin, Jim O’Rourke, Justin Broadrick, Raoul Björkenheim, Keiji Haino, Keith Rowe, Robert Hampson, Peter Kember, Mark Clifford. Guitarists who expressed 25 years of aesthetic concepts on the guitar that were light years from what most of the public was willing to listen to in 1994. Now these concepts, this desire to make the electric guitar come out of its idiomatic and iconic cone to arrive at something completely different is taken up by Stian Westerhus, who is truly worthy of being remembered among the most innovative instrumentalists of recent years .