A Truly Grand Mutation: An Interview with Lasse Marhaug and Nils Henrik Asheim
Although they come from very different backgrounds, the pairing of classical composer and organist, Nils Henrik Asheim, and noise musician, Lasse Marhaug, is a stroke of pure, alchemical inspiration. Asheim is one of Norway's most innovative organists. In his work, he focuses on the tactile, textural nature of the instrument's sound, using both the organ's keys and stops to bend pitches and create ghostly whistles and weird, shuddering vibrations. Marhaug is a central figure in the Norwegian noise and experimental music scene. An extraordinarily versatile and prolific musician, he has produced a large and stylistically varied body of work, ranging from spare abstract compositions to cochlea-shredding noise blowouts.
Asheim and Marhaug first performed together at the Oslo Cathedral as part of the All Ears Festival in 2004. In 2006, they returned to the same cathedral, which houses one of Asheim's favorite instruments, for a two-day recording session. The result was Grand Mutation, which was released earlier this year on the UK imprint, Touch. A dark, magisterial, hour-long piece, Grand Mutation features the fascinating interplay between Asheim's sonorous, textured playing and Marhaug's abrasive electronics. I interviewed Asheim and Marhaug by email soon after the album's release.
Susanna Bolle: I'd like to start by asking you about the origins of your collaboration. Given your rather different musical backgrounds, what spurred you to work together? Had either of the two of you ever worked on a project that you describe as similar to what you do together?
Nils Henrik Asheim: I have some experience in duo work with different kinds of musicians, and find it always very stimulating. Compared to solo improvisation, the duo work enables you to go "in and out" of your own sound. You can choose an angle: seeing what you are doing at a distance, as a background, or being very present and claiming attention, fighting for the leading role. Lasse and I first met when he performed at Tou Scene in Stavanger, I had recently co-founded that venue, and his appearance was part of an awakening for me, when I was made aware of a different and more direct "what you play is what you get" approach to electronics – compared to my own more academic background. What spurred us to work together at this specific festival was, well, that we were asked.
Lasse Marhaug: My solo performance at Tou was pretty extreme in terms of volume, so I was thrilled that Nils Henrik wasn't scared and wanted to work with me.
Bolle: You first played together at the All Ears Festival in 2004; was the set-up there similar to what you did with Grand Mutation?
Asheim: Yes, but what we learned from that experience was to place the loudspeakers closer to the organ pipes in order to make the sounds emerge from the same point in space. There are enough differences in the material, you don't need to emphasize that by making two levels of sound.
Lasse: Also, for the live performance we used subs. We discovered this wasn't really necessary for the recording, since the interesting part is where the organ tones mix with my sine-waves and become textures. And there are more than enough low frequencies in the organ alone.
Bolle: Why did you choose to record in the Oslo Cathedral? Is there something specific about the organ or the space itself that was particularly conducive to what you were hoping to do?
Asheim: This was my choice. I have been performing concerts on this instrument since I wrote a piece for its inauguration in 1998. This organ sounds very expressive, full and rich but not too edgy. Also, it has mechanical stops, which means that I can control the opening of the valves seamlessly. I am constantly playing both on the keys and on the stops, resulting in fine detunings and splitting of the notes in whistling sounds and other strange vibrations. This may be compared to having a full-color palette instead of just black and white (meaning, the so-called chromatic scale, which I feel is not the least bit chromatic).
Bolle: How did the piece come together? Did it evolve out of a series of improvisations, which were then edited in the studio, or did the two of you map out the basic structure beforehand?
Asheim: We spent one day soundchecking and trying out the sonic space. The next day we started playing, stopping (rather exhausted) after 1 hour and 20 minutes. A while afterwards, Lasse listened through the recording, made some small cuts, and separated the material into 5 parts. So basically this is one coherent performance, sectioned for the sake of clarity.
Lasse: Actually, the last track on the album is from the first day of soundchecking. When working on the mix, I wasn't happy with my own performance, but luckily I found a section from the first day that fit perfectly as a close to the album. The only thing we agreed on before recording was the pace; to let things develop and build in a slow manner.
Bolle: Do you see any precedents or models for Grand Mutation?
Asheim: Not really, in that case it would not have been so much fun.
Bolle: Lasse, I know you've worked with a lot of different musicians from metal to jazz artists, but is your collaboration with Nils Henrik the first time you've worked with a classical musician? Did working with him present any particular challenges or opportunities?
Lasse: No, I've worked with classical musicians before, but probably never at the level of Nils Henrik. Since I'm not a trained musician myself, I don't find working with people in different fields of music that difficult. Abstract electronics and noise are like potatoes; they fit with a large number of dishes.
Bolle: Nils Henrik, prior to working with Lasse, had you ever worked with a noise artist before? Did working with him present any particular challenges?
Asheim: Lasse was the first. Both his performance and his feedback to my sounds made my playing develop in a certain direction in the Grand Mutation project. I would not call it a challenge, rather a catalyst. He tuned into the organ sounds, and, on the other hand, my music turned more drone-like than usual. If you listen to my first solo album 16 Pieces for Organ (Sofa Music) it is anything but drone-like; things change with lightning rapidity. With Lasse, we quickly found that turning down the pace and working with slow music was the way to create a common ground for the two instruments. Then, his playing astonished me - how expressive it is, in the way of a classical instrument. It's just as if there's the macro hand of a violinist wrapping around his scratchy noises.
Bolle: What projects do you currently have in the works?
Asheim: A concerto for cello and strings for the Norwegian master cellist Truls Mørk. Voice-based music for the "Bacchai," at the local theatre in Stavanger where I live. Music for a Chinese traditional instrument and symphony orchestra.
Lasse: Whenever asked this, I get a bit embarrassed about how many projects I'm currently working on, and I usually just mention a few of them. In general it seems I have between 5 to 10 upcoming records in the works at any given time. Then there's the graphic design, the touring, installation work, and now also the label (Pica Disk). I guess I really enjoy what I do. My new album for Anoema Recordings is called Quality Control.
Bolle: Do you have any plans for future collaboration? A Grand Mutation tour, perhaps?
Asheim: Yes, we have. For 2008.
Lasse: Coming soon to a church near you!
By Susanna Bolle