Recorded September 1998 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Those familiar with previous work by these two instrumentalists will find no surprises on their second duo album, which consists primarily of compositions by pianist Bjornstad, interspersed with fragments of works by composers of the European Renaissance (William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Guillaume Dufay, and the obscure German composer Gregor Aichinger) and a couple of David Darling compositions, one of them written for multi-tracked cello. The sixteen pieces on this disc are highly consistent in terms of mood and texture: from Bjornstad's "Epigraph No. 1" that opens the program to the Aichinger compositions "Factus Est Repente" that closes it, the feeling is one of deep calm and contemplation. To call this music "minimalist" wouldn't be entirely accurate, since there's quite a bit of harmonic movement and not much repetition, but because Bjornstad and Darling's playing is so consistently gentle and the music is so consistently quiet and pleasant, this album has a flavor that will be familiar to fans of Philip Glass and Arvo Part.
-Rick Anderson (All Music Guide)
"The River" (ECM 1593), the 1996 recording by Norwegian pianist Ketil Bjornstad and American cellist David Darling received positive press notices around the world for its thoughtful and unostentatious approach to transidiomatic music-making. "An unforgettable listening experience", the Sydney Morning Herald insisted: "The boundaries between composition and improvisation are blurred beyond recognition. What emerges has an organic quality devoid of contrivances to provide 'blowing vehicles' or display 'clever writing'. Similarly, 'great playing' has been entirely subordinated to the cause of the most profoundly direct emotional communication with the listener. Much of what happens is quite simple: sublime melody from one instrument, delicately shaded by the other." This process is extended on "Epigraphs", which features performances of exceptional subtlety, whether shaped spontaneously in the moment, pre-formulated by cellist or pianist, or freely based upon music of the renaissance, an inspirational source for both musicians.
Darling and Bjornstad are both members of The Sea(see ECM1545 and 1633) the tempestuous quartet, now in its sixth year of existence, which also includes Terje Rypdal on guitar and Jon Christensen on drums; the duo was formed to isolate certain characteristics that arose in that group's improvising.
"From the beginning with The Sea," David Darling recalls, "there would be moments when, after a lot of movement or a lot of colour, you'd have perhaps an eight or sixteen bar phrase of purity or beauty, with no exaggeration, no vibrato on the cello, moments of pure tone really, with Ketil playing piano in such a reduced and simplistic way. There was something unique to this dynamic that we both wanted to take further. Plus, I've always been interested in 'adagio' and slow music generally, as my records on ECM show, and to a find a pianist with a similar sensibility and be able to explore these ideas together in a recording situation is, for me, a wonderful opportunity."
David Darling and Ketil Bjornstad have in common a background in classical music. Darling studied with the virtuoso cellist and Bach specialist Janos Starker, while Bjornstad at one point had contem-plated a career as an interpreter of the classical tradition (and made his concert debut in 1969 with the Oslo Philharmonic). And although both the pianist and cellist have worked extensively with jazz im-provisers over the last 30 years, each has done so on his own terms; developing a personal style without appropriating the specific vocabulary of 'jazz'. "Ketil has a very similar feeling in his improvisa-tions to my own," Darling notes. "There's some kind of cross mix in there between a contemporary improvisation that relates to Stravinsky and Shostakovich and an improvisatory approach that relates to the classical music era and also to impressionism and the whole spectrum of late romantic and early 20th century music. We touch on all of this."
Ketil Bjornstad feels that the duo is "playing with much more focus now, with a conscious mind. David and I have been through such a lot of different experiences together and they've given us strength. Quite early on we decided, for instance, that the first half hour of any of our concerts would be improvised, before we would allow ourselves to approach anything written. This was an important step and it showed us what we were capable of. And then again, the growing emphasis on older music, as the duo has developed, has provided a special framework, a unique framework for contemporary improvisers I would think, that we're both very happy to be inside."
On "The River", the players, encouraged by producer Manfred Eicher, brought in music of the 16th-17th century composers Orlando Gibbons and William Byrd, whose work has a role to play, as source material, also on "Epigraphs". "I've always loved early renaissance and medieval music," Darling says, "and I've been listening to that music more and more over the last ten or fifteen years. When we started rehearsing together, Ketil brought in some Orlando Gibbons to work through and I also brought in some early music and we were both just exhilarated by the experience. So we started to see if we could write in that way. Or if it was possible to improvise with it while still retaining that innocence."
Ketil Bjornstad: "And many concerts and conversations later, we had the feeling that more could be said, in a musical way. There were still so many Byrd and Gibbons pieces to be played, and David found this beautiful piece 'Le jour s'endort' by Guillaume Dufay while I myself picked up a piece by Gregor Aichinger. Much music was recorded for 'Epigraphs', but in the end we chose to retain only these pieces which were written by or most obviously inspired by, these old masters. That old music is so pure, and so mathematically perfect that it reminds you all of the time of what you should be struggling towards in your own free improvising - to take control of the emotions in a way, but also to let them flow."
A departure from the modus operandi of "The River" is marked in "Song for TKJD". The piece is built up in mysterious, overdubbed layers of cello, recorded in David Darling's Connecticut home studio, to which Bjornstad appended a piano part in Oslo's Rainbow Studio. The net "chamber ensemble" effect suggests a continuation of elements sketched on earlier Darling albums such as "Journal October", "Cello" and "Dark Wood". Jean-Luc Godard, who has used music by David Darling in several of films including "Nouvelle Vague", "Forever Mozart" and "Histoire(s) du Cinema" (the latter two also with music by Bjornstad), has already expressed his approval of "TKJD" and its incorpora-tion into a future soundtrack seems likely. Darling: "That's been such an unexpected honour, to have had Mr Godard consistently interested in the work over the years - unimaginable, surely, without Manfred (Eicher) to make the connections."