Ståle Storløkken and Supersilent: The play of becoming

Like Finnegan’s Wake –Joyce’s book of the dark– the Norwegian jazz demiurges Supersilent delve into primordial matter. –Into the sound of a nothingness that is not nil, but everything, because it is pure becoming. On their newly released album 9, three Hammond organs are the vehicle of exploration. With drummer Jarle Vespestad having left the band the remaining trio decided to make the new situation an opportunity. 9 is a murmur, it gives no concessions. As with all Supersilent music it will not allow you to say that’s it, I’ve got it.

Supersilent 2009

On the contrary, Supersilent might well scare you, for what they do is to counter the human impulse to create or recognize logical structures and things. They transport us to the level of pre-genesis –there is no conclusion– and thus one is forced to stay in the pure phenomena, of sound, and remain in the senses. For a musician or any creative artist what they do can indeed seem superhuman, for they never sit down to make anything; they never write music, prepare or even rehearse. Ståle Storløkken, Arve Henriksen and Helge Steen just come together and press the record button. Supersilent is the now in the purest sense of the word: improvisation not as a device, but improvisation as a basic mode of being. We talk to keyboardist Ståle Storløkken about the research station that is Supersilent.

-We simply know that something will happen, says Storløkken. It may sound a bit laissez faire or arrogant even, but the truth is that over the years we have reached a level of confidence in the format itself. Personally, it gives me a great sense of freedom; Supersilent is like coming home, it is where I have learnt about the aural realm and where I continue to feel most acutely present musically.

The sense of homeliness might sound paradoxical, for how can a limitless research laboratory like Supersilent be a secure framework that the members have such confidence in? Wherein lies the sense that something will happen, no matter the circumstances? It sounds like religion..

-Naturally this confidence rests on experience. It is not a matter of presuming success every time, but rather a certainty that the feeling of uninhibited freedom that we enjoy in Supersilent will put us on interesting paths. It is not like we go into this blindfolded; we build on what we have done before, but in an unpronounced, semi-subconscious way. Over the years a certain palette has developed of course, we know each other well and can sense directions that manifests when we come together.

Most of the music Supersilent has produced over their more than ten-year-career has been characterised by brooding, darkish traits, and a sense of withdrawal: an apparition of sinus curves more than any architectural form. Is the subdued and sub-categorical a necessary character of music that comes into being this way?

-I don’t think darkness or obscurity is a function of Supersilent’s modus operandi, says Storløkken. In fact I don’t think our music is obscure, certainly not in any conscious way. But the nature of experimentation indicates that one seeks to avoid falling into patterns and known structures. Instead, during our years of experimentation and exploring we have found new pathways to beauty and strong lyrical veins, which are both part of the Supersilent palette. What is fantastic is finding beauty when you aren’t looking for it. In that sense it is perhaps true that our point of departure is a kind of sub stratum, a place where we can access things that are normally obscured by predetermined solutions and normative notions of music.

Matter, not architecture, is Stroløkken’s concern as a musician, at least in Supersilent. He refrains from calling what they do dogmatic, but admits that a sense of the uncompromising is conditional.

-We are very conscious about not departing from the outline that has disclosed itself over the years, says Storløkken. Because the insistence on improvising and always looking for new paths –buried ones that lead to something without seeking it– is what makes Supersilent what it is. I also think the uncompromising nature of the band is what makes us interesting to others. We have managed to make it a tool of disclosure for ourselves, and maybe for the listener as well. It is about exploring the nature of the pure aural matter and all the ways of handling that matter without thinking ahead to overall form. Improvisation is a mode of being that forces you to relate to what is actually there and use it without preparation or plan.

In other contexts Storløkken does plan and construct, for no man can improvise everything.

-There is a nice interplay between my different projects, as well as between my work with music and the rest of my life. Practical family life is about as far from Supersilent as it is possible to get. And in other musical projects too I enjoy focusing on structure and form.

A good example is the work Storløkken did on Odd Nordstoga’s latest album Pilgrim: a brilliant album of fairly straight folk pop tunes, on which Storløkken and fellow Supersilent member Arve Henriksen were given free reins. Storløkken wrote the string arrangements, while the combined musical contribution from the two of them became a kind of Supersilent solution transported into a completely different setting.

-I think what we did was add some unexpected turns that gave the record a sort of catalyst of freshness. It was a matter of improvised arrangements combined with some written parts, which allowed me to insert my own structures into the songs. It is interesting how much difference small deviations from the expected can make in a pop tune; tiny details can release a huge freshness. In improvised music the gestures have to be a lot bigger to achieve the same effect. For that reason alone, I find working with popular music very rewarding.

Storløkken enjoyed the leeway of the Pilegrim project and says he would like to do more of the same if the circumstances are right and the reins are loose. He also writes music in the more conventional way, e.g. commissions of contemporary and classical music.

–My biggest challenge in that respect is being able to get things down fast enough, in rhythm with my creative thinking. Sometimes I still have to go back to pencil and paper, but I have made great progress on the computer. Now I am more or less able to use that tool as freely and as fast as I need to.

Most of Storløkken’s work with music involves technological manipulation of sound. He is himself a hobby electro-engineer with a few effect boxes to his name. As a keyboardist he admits that the all-in-one workstations of the last decades are not exactly favourites, being as they are, Wall Marts of ready-made sounds. Some new interesting synths are being made these days, he admits, but the favourite is still the mini Moog.

-That’s the instrument that I really know and which and can use in a fully personal way. Like most instrumentalists I care about my instrument, and I need it to be responsive to my will and command. With the Moog it is like that, with it the sound is really mine.

Naturally, Storløkken writes on his instrument as well. Rock tunes, or rock outlines at least, like the ones played by his band Elephant9.

-Elephant9 takes up the rock vein, which is also an important part of my musical orientation: Prog and jazz-rock from the 70s. However, in Elephant9 too, a lot is improvised, even if the form is more recognizable as songs.

Elephant9 released their first album DodoVoodoo last year. It made critics doff their hats and talk about the greats of the seventies having been dethroned. Storløkken calls it a project for the future. Another Storløkken project to reap international acclaim is his duo with percussionist Thomas Strønen, Humcrush. It is a unit of rather extreme sound making, again mostly improvised, but more based on beats than his other bands.

-Improvisation is my basic approach, and what is musically dearest to me, admits Storløkken. So there are of course similarities between the different projects that I am involved with. However, different strands of taste and orientation get their expression if different projects. And Supersilent is always in the background somehow, as a parent in a way, that spawns diverse children.

Elephant9 have recorded a new, completely analogue album, reveals Ståle, which will be released in February. And Humcrush is on the move too, with a probable album release sometime next year. In all, 2010 will be pretty packed for him, with a big Supersilent tour of Norway together with Motorpsycho in March, and separate superplans for the spring in Europe and Canada.

–But it won’t be with the Hammonds, he reveals. It’s just too challenging to move that rig around, so it will be the normal Supersilent setup, with me on keys, Arve on trumpet and vocals and Helge Steen on guitars and machines.

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