Tallinn 2011 Ends: World of Glass / 60 Seconds of Solitude in Year Zero
Von Krahl and Port of Tallinn
December 20-22, 2011
Having visited Tallinn earlier in the year for its annual Jazzkaar jazz festivalan even more special event, thanks to additional funding as part of Tallinn 2011 (the city's celebration as European Capital of Culture), including an invite to Norway's Punkt Live Remix Festival for a two-day festival-within-a-festival that turned out to be one of the year's best live eventsand learning of the myriad of projects in play for the year, two in particular stood out. Originally scheduled to take place later in the year but months apart, however, there seemed little chance of making a return trip to catch onelet alone bothof these unique artistic events. But one person's bad luck is another's good fortune, and with both events ultimately scheduled for consecutive days in late December as Tallinn 2011 wrapped up, the 16-hour return trip to Estonia, to experience both World of Glass and 60 Seconds of Solitude in Year Zero, became a reality.
Tallinn in December should have been cold, with plenty of snow, but unseasonably warm temperatures were keeping the white stuff away. Still, with the city lit up everywhere from the old town to the more modern areas surrounding it, there was no doubt that Christmas was in the air. And while folks were out in great numbers getting some last-minute shopping out of the way, others were involved in pursuits of a completely different kind.
December 20-21: World of Glass
It all started in 2009, when Programme Coordinator Madli-Liis Parts approached Eeva Käsper of the Estonian Academy of the Arts about a possible collaboration with Norwegians Arve Henriksen and Terje Isungset for Tallinn 2011. Beyond the idea that her group of teachers and third-year students would fashion glassworks to be used as musical instruments, few instructions were given. "We were given absolute freedom," explained Käsper, the day before World of Glass premiered on December 20, 2011. "Later, Terje came to visit, played the instruments, made his first selections and provided suggestions for additional instrumentssome similar to those used for Ice Music."
Käsper's team ultimately fashioned over thirty instruments/instrumental groups: tuned bars; glass plates that created huge, throbbing bass tones when miked; chimes; bowls; hollowed glass hemispheres to rub together; and bowls of crushed glass emulating a hi-hat. A series of wind instruments based on trumpets, clarinets, ocarinas and didgeridoosall with very specific sonic characteristicsaugmented others with absolutely no precedent.
If Isungset was using his 13 year-old Ice Music projectwhere instruments are built, used in performance and then gone, as they melt back into the groundas the foundation for some of the glass instruments, it quickly became obvious that, as a medium, glass presented its own set of challenges. "It is possible to tune glass," Käsper explained, "but glass grinding, for example, takes hours and hours while, with ice, you just shave it with a knife or a saw, to make it slimmer."
Some of Käsper 's team spent considerable time studying the characteristics of extant musical instruments. "One student really explored mouthpieces," Käsper explained, "and went to the Music Academy to find out about the construction of such instruments. Another student studied the ocarina (originally made of clay) and succeeded in making one of glass. The technical side was really difficult, and some pieces made were nice glass pieces, but didn't work as instruments. We have learned a lot about music instruments. They may look beautiful onstage, but behind every instrument is a lot of work. I am absolutely fascinated by what they [Henriksen and Isungset] can do with these instruments; I know that they want to take some of them home with them, but some Estonian musicians are already interested in continuing this projectnot only with Norwegians but around the world."
Launching World of Glass took more than just the musicians and their instruments. As is typical of many Norwegian artists, Henriksen and Isungset also brought Asle Karstad, a trusted friend and colleague, to handle the sound in the small, 150-seat Von Krahl. Despite a breadth of professional experienceranging from acoustic groups like saxophonist Trygve Seim's ensemble to more electro-centric projects like Humcrush's recent collaborations with singer Sidsel EndresenKarstad was faced with a series of unique challenges, including amplifying uncharacteristically quiet instruments (barely audible, in some cases) and creating a three-dimensional surround sound mix of music with absolutely no roadmap. In-the-moment architecting rendered Karstad a key participant, shaping soundwith, at times, lengthy reverb decays of 20-30 secondsthe way sculptors mold clay, his keen ear instantly responsive to Isungset and Henriksen.
Beyond Ice Music, the delicate and intuitive Isungset's distinctive approach to color and pulse keeps him in-demand in a variety of contexts including duos with with trumpeter Per Jorgensen (AGBALAGBA DAADA) and saxophonist Karl Seglem (ISGLEM), while Henriksen has, since emerging with noise improv group Supersilent in the mid-1990s, become one of Norway's preeminent improvisers, incorporating everything from traditional Japanese music to the American jazz tradition. His Cartography (ECM, 2009) honed an evolving method of reverse compositional construction, but no single recording can paint a complete picture of this versatile and complex artist. Together, Henriksen and Isungset share a fearless improvisational spirit unbound by convention or orthodoxy.
That would have been enough to make the four World of Glass performances must-see, but encountering their instruments for the first time since April, Isungset and Henriksen allowed their audience an even rarer opportunity to witness their creative process in nascent, unpolished form. Sharing their exploration of a myriad of possibilities and ultimate understanding, warts and all, of each instruments' potential, the duo steadfastly refused repetitive behaviors and predictable patterns.
Moving methodically around the instruments, the goal was to find ways to turn these beautiful works of art into musical resonators. Effortlessly traveling to different destinationsunderscored with a primal, elemental approach rooted in ancient folkloric tradition while, at the same time, remaining absolutely modernthe duo explored angular yet strangely accessible terrain. Minimalist tinges imbued Isungset's evocation of brief, repetitive melodies, with Henriksen countering with pulses either melodic, as he blew into one of his many horns, or percussive, as he chanted through one of his instruments in a Norwegian variant of India's traditional vocal percussion, Konnakol.
Mostly considered a trumpeter and a percussionist, World of Glass underscored that any such reductionist titles are unfairly constraining for Henriksen and Isungset; better, instead, to just call them musicians. Henriksen favored air-driven instruments, including long, branch-like tubes through which he whistled and evoked long bass tones, and curved horns, including one with a clarinet mouthpiece. Still, over the four shows he began crossing into Isungset's turf (and vice versa), at one point blowing into a large horn while using its bell to strike the percussionist's tuned bars. Henriksen also employed a laptop for real-time sampling and processing; feeding previously recorded fragments and real-time looped percussion and harmonized melodies into the mix. An endless variety of embouchures broadened a palette that included pouring water into a curved instrument and changing the pitch of a set of glass bowls by redistributing the amount of liquidblowing into them while simultaneously emulating Tuvan throat singing through the horn.
Spending most of his time hitting/rubbing things with hands, glass sticks and a muted bass drum pedal, didn't preclude Isungset from uttering quiet chants with a pulse, or emulating the sound of wind with his voice, as smiles and nods of encouragement became part of the prerequisite eye contact which augmented each player's open ears and minds.
Amidst these four shows, the final one represented the most focus and coalescence; it was also the only one with an encore. If the series was defined by sublime delicacy and understatement, this last exploration of the calming stasis of near-silence was a perfect conclusion. As Isungset's glass bars created a gentle harmonic foundation, Henriksen ran his finger along the top of a small wine glass to create a soft but persistent tone. Beginning to sing a gentle hymn as the sound and lights faded, in total silence and utter darkness, Henriksen wished everyone "Merry Christmas" butunable to further constrain his Puckish sidein a Donald Duck voice.
Conceived by catalyst Liis-Parts and realized through the work of eleven glass artisans, two musicians, one sound engineer, one lighting engineer and two video artists, World of Glass proved an even greater success than its participants had hoped possible. Leaving the theatre, it was clear people felt privy to something special. World of Glass could have been a one-time event, but its combination of intrepid experimentalism and unerring creativity/musicality signaled the beginning of something that will, most certainly, continue to evolve well into the future.