A duo consisting of tenor saxophone and trumpet isn’t something you’d often come across in Fluid Radio’s virtual pages, but Norwegian pair Streifenjunko blew me away with their recent album “Sval Torv” and their unique approach to ensemble improvisation. I sat down with them before their gig at London’s Cafe Oto and asked them a few questions…
Maybe we should begin with the basics. What got you started playing music?
Espen Reinertsen (tenor sax): Maybe it was just an accident, or coincidence. I was living in the countryside, playing in a school band, as a horn player.
Eivind Lønning (trumpet): It was kind of the same for me. There’s a big school band tradition in Norway, these kind of marching bands, so many children play horns when they’re growing up.
What made you choose the instruments that you play?
EL: I wanted to play drums, but my mother wouldn’t let me! And my father is a church organ player, so he said “you can use it [the trumpet] in church!”…
ER: I think pretty much everyone wants to play drums… (laughter) Why is that?
EL: It’s every parent’s nightmare!
ER: So at one point, at around 14 or 15, I started to practise on my own initiative.
Was there any particular experience that made you decide to become a musician, or was it more of a gradual process?
ER: I think it happened more gradually…
EL: For me too, I think. My mother and father are classical musicians and teachers, so I thought maybe I could become something like that, but then an interest in improvisation became more of a priority.
That leads on nicely to the next question. How would you describe your approach to your instruments, and to improvisation, if you were to sum it up in a few words?
EL: I guess it’s a lot to do with when we started playing as a duo. We went to the jazz academy and played a lot of jazz music. But it was more playing around with the sound and trying to make the instrument sound like other things. Playing around and making textures.
So it was really something that grew out of the friendship between the two of you?
EL: I would say so. We were both looking to find new stuff to play around with…
ER: I guess for us it was lucky that we just developed in the same direction, at the same pace.
Was the scene in Norway at the time open to that? Was it a good place to be if you wanted to pursue those kinds of experiments?
EL: Yes, there have been some very visible musicians, a bit older than us, that started playing this music and started things like the label Sofa, people who started fighting for improvised music and building a scene, especially in Oslo.
And you have also played with the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra, is that right? Are they quite a forward-thinking orchestra, or more traditional?
ER: I guess it’s both. It’s very project-based — so they have a commission with a composer, and the composer puts together the band that he or she wants to work with.
EL: So it’s different each time.
ER: We’ve played everything from Kim Myhr’s work, which had almost no preparation, improvising with fifteen musicians, to something like the New York Voices…
EL: …and stars like Chick Corea and Joshua Redman… very different projects! A lot of them are quite interesting, but we don’t participate in all of them. Only when we are asked. And Kim Myhr’s project was very much like how we work as a duo — a big improvised orchestra!
How would you describe your relationship to more traditional forms of jazz? I don’t know much about jazz at all, but when I listen to your music, on the one hand it sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before, and yet on the other hand there’s something there that I recognise, perhaps in the tone more than in the technique…
ER: For me, and I think for Eivind too, I think we are very comfortable with jazz-type playing, or used to be at least. There was no kind of break with tradition or anything — maybe we don’t even consider what we do to be experimental. For me I’m more uncomfortable with the traditional role of the saxophone player, with being a kind of a soloist all the time.
EL: We both like to focus on ensemble playing, working together to create the music.
ER: We just heard some records and thought, “Wow, this is nice, we’ll try this”! But the form of our pieces, it’s quite traditional.
I’d like to talk about your latest album, “Sval Torv”, which according to Google translates as “Svalbard Peat”, is that right?
ER & EL: Err, no…
ER: ‘Sval’ means just ‘cool’…
EL: …like ‘lukewarm’ or something…
EL: ‘Cool’ as in cold, but comfortable. Like a shade of colour. But with no implication of a style, like the English word.
[After a brief discussion we establish that at least Google’s translation of ‘torv’ as ‘peat’ is correct.]
ER: None of the titles are meant to describe what’s going on in any way. But at the same time they can be thought of as a kind of link. Like in this title, the word ‘peat’ refers to something earthy and degenerate, which you then harvest, cut up into nice pieces and take home!
But there’s no overarching concept to the record?
EL: No. We played a lot together, just rehearsing, and often recording and listening back. We began to find different shapes and perspectives we wanted to try out and work more with, different frameworks.
ER: We have some equipment, and space for free, so we could take our time.
Something that really struck me when I first heard “Sval Torv” was the way in which breathing seemed to be foregrounded. How do you understand the role of breathing in your work? Is it something you’re consciously thinking about?
ER: It’s just a musical decision, something that benefits the music.
EL: We play wind instruments, so it’s always kind of there!
Well yes, but I guess for a lot of players the breath is taken for granted, it’s always in the background, and as a listener you’re never put in a position where you feel you have to think about it…
EL: I guess we’re aware of it and how it affects the sound, we like these kinds of sounds. It’s kind of the essence of playing these instruments — it’s just air through tubes! The more drawn-out stuff is a lot of circular breathing, but we never really thought about it, it’s perhaps unconscious…
ER: I think the main question for me is how can we keep the tension? Where can we put the focus to keep that tension?
EL: Yeah, how we maintain the flow of energy.
Are there other artists out there at the moment who you feel are working in similar ways to yourselves?
ER: Technically there’s a lot of people who we listen to, people who are far beyond us… But when it comes to the ensemble focus, maybe in Norway there are not so many bands working like that, in this style at least.
EL: There’s another duo that we work together with sometimes, they call themselves Sheriffs of Nothingness, Ole Henrik Moe and Kari Rønnekleiv on violins and sometimes viola. They are fantastic. Ole Henrik Moe is also a fantastic contemporary composer, but together they work as a duo, with a similar kind of framework thinking, they improvise together and find different frameworks that they like. It’s a bit similar to how we work. When we play together as a quartet it’s also a lot of fun — should we think as the two duos we actually are, or should we mix it up and try to destroy it all?!
So what I understand is that the focus is really on the ensemble, and what happens between the two of you.
ER & EL: Yes.
Interview dispensed with, now on with the show. Streifenjunko’s sound is Zen-like in its restraint and focus, often as quiet and precise as a quick intake of breath, yet this seems to compel a more intense and attentive form of listening than music with more going on, and this turned out to be especially true in a live setting. The set flowed gently from long, taut horizontal lines to short, sharp verticals, and back again; despite the great difference in rhythm and texture, the two polar extremes seemed equally tensile and energetic. As an ensemble, they remained in perfect cohesion from start to finish, without ever lapsing into foreground/background or melody/accompaniment. If anything, their working relationship could perhaps be described with reference to the way a right and left hand mirror one another without being superposable: they look identical, but just try fitting your right hand into a left-handed glove. And somehow this binary star arrangement is audible in the music: one is conscious of a tremendous balance, of everything happening in a space in between, with no additions and no remainder.
Also on the evening’s bill was US improvisation trio Memorize the Sky, whose combination of drums, double bass, clarinet, tenor sax and electronics was definitely more raucous than the triple-distilled sounds we had just heard, without too much of a stylistic clash. Again, sensitive ensemble playing was the focus, but the group gave themselves much more room to play in, producing technicolour music that was broad and expansive in comparison with Streifenjunko’s spartan and focused black-and-white. On any other night Memorize the Sky would probably have come across as more ambient and reflective, but there was plenty of well-controlled variety in their set, the quieter moments retaining tension and the more blown-out ones restraint. It was good as well to hear an acoustic trio deploy electronics so sensitively and thoughtfully. Another great night at Cafe Oto.
– Interview/Review: Nathan Thomas – Film: Gianmarco Del Re – Photography: Pascal Savy