The electric dreams and the lucid reality of Eivind Aarset
“…space, abstraction and very little regulated rhythm…”1
We are in 1997 and something is moving in the Jazz’s underworld. For those who had not yet managed to recover the shock of John Zorn and Naked City’s records, a disturbing new question mark arrives. Manfred Eicher’s ECM releases “Khmer”, the work of the Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær and the world suddenly becomes acquainted with the new wing of jazz from cold Europe and with a new style, on which the specialized media throws themselves with ardor, called nu-jazz, an exciting mix of jazz, electronics, samples and an unprecedented sound vision.
Molvær was not alone on that record, but he accompanied himself to a group of associates, some of whom over the years developed their own personal stylistic path. Among them we found the Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset, who, in the course of the years to come, will become a highly appreciated name among those who love experimentation given his long and brilliant career as a sideman having collaborated not only with Molvaer, but also with Jon Hassell, David Sylvian, Bill Laswell, Jan Garbarek, Paolo Fresu, Marilyn Mazur, J.Peter Schwalm, Mike Manieri, Marc Ducret, Michel Benitas Ethics, Martux-M, Stefano Battaglia, Michele Rabbia, Talvin Singh, and Andy Sheppard.
Aarset is an innovator who stands out on the international scene for his talent and ability to create a unique sound that sets him apart from all other guitarists. The sound of the electric guitar always depends not only on the instrument itself but on a long chain made by amplifiers, analog and digital effects, computer connections and loops that offer any guitarist the widest possibilities to generate unprecedented sounds and far from the best known rock sound.
What fascinates me about musicians like Aarset is their ability to overturn a conceptual idea such as the standardization of industrial production. Think about it. Electric guitars, amplifiers and effects are not the result of a violin work, they are not unique pieces with a unique sound. They are tools created by a production cycle that has the standardization of the product as its basis to facilitate its large-scale production. The industry at the service of entertainment. The cultural industry. From these bases you would expect that all those who play a Fender Stratocaster will all have the same sound, since they all play the same instrument, and instead it isn’t. Eivind Aarset is an obvious example: unlike other colleagues, the Norwegian guitarist does not seem to simply play a guitar and the effects connected to it, but is distinguished by a radically revolutionary use of the instrument.
In these records, “Dream Logic” (ECM 2012), “IE” (Jazzland 2015) and “Snow Catches on her Eyelashes” (Jazzland 2020), where he is flanked by Jan Bang’s samplers and electronics, his music unravels through slow constructions and textures crossed by bass grooves that disappear in brilliant hums interrupted only by occasional snare shots and marimbas that evolve in the sound of dissonant strings and soft metallic carpets. In some pieces of “Dream Logic” and “I.E.” his guitar seems invaded by a Dionysian free-improvisation, in others it reverberates like a string quartet that plays melancholic religious music, or like sparkling Hawaiian guitars dancing on the slow lapping of lagoon waters, revealing all the sound amplitude of the sonic fantasies and of the unorthodox approaches of Aarset.
In Jukai (Sea of Trees), he evokes images of a minimal Zen east, emulating, thanks to an ebow, the gagaku sounds of a Japanese kokyu and hichiriki over layers of percussion and soft sound washes.
In the soft Hommage to Green the tremolo of his guitar draws comfortable and jazzy panoramas, while in the longer track, The Beauty of Decay, he weaves stratospheric landscapes mixing John Hassell brass sounds, echoes of funky grooves, liquid hints, electric bass pulses and abstruse melodies in completely different sound, never heard before from a guitar.
Aarset’s dreamy logic rarely picks up speed: “Snow Catches on her Eyelashes” is a deep, dark record that leads to trance, with a texture sometimes so impalpable that it occasionally manages to touch the silence, without ever touching it.
I read comments that talked about a dystopian character of Aarset’s music. I don’t think so, I don’t think Aarset’s music has dystopian characteristics, I believe instead that it’s an extremely coherent and constructed music with the aim of creating a structured, opaque and impalpable narrative. The music of Aarset and Bang are calm masterpieces that demonstrate a mysterious ability to be able to draw new sound plateaux where the ear ranges towards three-dimensional horizons that are always visible, but never reachable. Here it is. Yes. Maybe they are mysterious in the sense of that “eerie”, so dear to Mark Fisher. But it’s a sense of enveloping and not terrifying mystery, listening to his music does not raise worries but manages to stimulate new connections and insights. Eivind Arset’s music is interesting because it comes out of the canons of hauntology and retromania that seem to characterize most of the experimental productions of recent years: Aarset, on the other hand, manages to draw his own paradigm, without needing to express nostalgic revisions or liberal post-anxieties.What do you think?
1Johnson, Phil (2012-11-18). “Album: Eivind Aarset, Dream Logic (ECM)”. Music Reviews. The Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/reviews/album-eivind-aarset-dream-logic-ecm-8326268.html