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Interview with Karl Seglem

img  Tobias Fischer

How do you feel about Ossicles at the moment, a couple of months after its release?
I feel very satisfied and happy. I managed to keep the focus over a long period - both after I had started working on the live-mix from Germany and did the live-studio recordings in Oslo to complete the album. I know we will develop the music even further when touring and I really look forward to that. Music must develop. It's not a static thing - only one day after you've delivered the master to the pressing plant, you know you could have done it "better"!

Why did you decide against continuing the direction of, which sounded extremely successful in artistic terms at the time?
The Jazz-album I did in 2009 was a dream come true. And I still want to keep developing this approach as what it was intended to be: a side project. Working with this acoustic quartet, with these young musicians, not just suits me – it stimulates me and feels satisfying. We've been touring Norway over the past year. It is a kind of meditative, contemplative concert mood, where it is very important to hold back and play less - and melodically. Melody and sound are a particularly strong focus when performing the material of on stage.

You've spoken about recording parts of an album in concert for a while. Why was the idea postponed until Ossicles?
It just felt right, both time-wise and musically. I had composed new songs for the quintet after working live with the material from Femstein and Urbs for some years. We started to rehearse these tunes and played them live many times before recording Ossicles in Salderatzen and Oslo.

Did the situation feel like a natural concert environment or rather like an open studio performance?
A mix of both actually. We both recorded with and without audience. The mood was absolutely comparable to a live-setting. It was all-or-nothing! We played just one tune twice - as an encore-piece. All tracks on Osscicles were recorded live by all participating musicians, except for „Ørken (Desert)“. Here, I built a new arrangement in the studio around a goat-horn theme I recorded in 2005. Four of the tracks on the album are from Salderatzen and the rest was recorded at the 7Etage Studio in Oslo.

How do you feel studio albums and live performances relate in general?

I will always search for the best things from both worlds, but there is no doubt, as mentioned earlier, that my music has an acoustic heart that is best presented when performing it live. So it is essential to make sure that the studio or recording situation takes this into consideration.That all musicians can give their best when playing my music. There and then.

So, do you see the danger at times, that too much post-production work can lead you away from this acoustic heart?

It's a balance that I've always been aware of - and which has worked out. Sometimes in the past, though, on some productions, such as when I was working on the Urbs-album, I also wanted to stretch things a bit in the electronic direction. It also had to do with practical things like getting all my musicians, who were busy with projects of their own, in the studio on the same day. And with money, of course!

You seem to rely on a subtle balance between improvisation and composition.

A subtle balance hits the nail on the head. Improvisation is important in my music. I think musicians working with me know that they are going to get space to present themselves or contribute with their own "identity" as performers. The same applies for co-arranging when it comes to chords or grooves. I always try to attack a piece or the entire work by  composing in ways that are new to me. Especially with regards to form. I really want to avoid this standardised Jazz-form: Theme - Improvisation -Theme. It's a nightmare. If you listen closely to the form of each tune on Femstein, Urbs and Ossicles, you will notice that there is not much of this there. Presenting new tunes to the musicians and being prepared to receive different reactions that lead to changes is something I've learned from a lot. Because I trust people I've played with for years. In my world, composition and improvisation are almost equal.

So you feel a theme-oriented improvisation is merely rehashing what is already there?

Yes. And it's happening in a lot of Jazz - even "Free-Jazz"! A lot of that music is not very "free" at all - nor is it about following the music itself. I'm trying to avoid getting trapped in the Standard- or Free-Jazz frames, so to say, to expand them, or at least set up some new ones!

How do you encourage your fellow musicians to actively contribute, while still keeping your own stamp on the album?
Well, it's true: These are my compositions - yes! My collection of sounds from the beginning. But you have to give and take. I know what I want, but still I have to be open for new ways thinking about music. Open to listening. My music is mainly modal and not very "complicated" when it gets to chords - or at least thinking and arranging it chord-wise. It's more ostinato, modal, groove-oriented, as in most Folk-music throughout the world. The challenge when playing live rather consists in getting the sounds to blend well, especially when it comes to dynamic and power. With Femstein, Urbs and now Ossicles I also focused on strong melodies. I want them to be strong! Lyrical. I have been working many years playing tenor sax and goat-horns, practicing my way, with focus on the sounds more than the technique, and composed tunes, melodies, compositions that have grown into something very personal. This is only possible by constantly playing, practicing, rehearsing and doing hundreds of concerts. Always on my way into something I don't know. If I stay curios and open-minded, hopefully new music will be created.

A question of remaining open to multiple angles ...

Exactly! I like that idea of bringing in different perspectives, using different musicians. But with my quintet, I've had the collaboration going on for years with some of the same musicians. Especially with the fiddler, who is of great importance in my music when playing in this constellation. Nobody else uses the Hardanger fiddle the way I do in my band - and it's taken years to get there.

Your music prominently uses sounds from around the world.

I feel lucky to be able to play with musicians using instruments from different places on the globe – and playing them in their own way. I think it's because they feel they can express something through these instruments other than just present them as gimmicks. Like: "Hey I found this ngoni or that  strange horn on a flee market and want to play it because then people will think and hear I am making exotic World-Music!“ I'm working with listening musicians that are eager to explore new sounds - and luckily they want to play my compositions with me. Their instruments are like colors from the entire planet  and they add something to my music, expand my small world.

So you're not interested in an explicit political message like Joe Zawinul on My People, which sought to identify ties between different tribes and peoples?

Music is communication. Politics, political messages are often not. There are ties between all people and music itself is a very strong one. This cliché that it's the only global language is something we must "work on", not forget. I've been thinking a lot about this and the title of the album points it out too: These tiny bones all human beings on earth have inside of them, allow us to listen – either to music or to each other. In the modern world, we need to listen more, speak less, and work against the notion that all amusement or communication "has to" be experienced through the eye. I have to make interesting sounds that catch peoples ossicles (laughs). And that hopefully lead to good vibrations in their souls or touch them in one or many ways.
How do you see the question of identity in a time when globalism and internationalism seem to uproot it from its immediate environment?

World music is local music made global. It all starts from a small place, growing to something bigger. The Norwegian Hardanger fiddle music and the vocal traditions I've been learning and worked with for twenty years is a tiny tiny music traditions from far north. Getting under the skin of this music has made me to a stronger musician in terms of knowing that my identity, or the music from my country goes far back, and that people living before me also developed music constantly. As long as there are people that are aware where they come from and want to express this through music, there will be good music. And it will develop, through new influences, into new identities.
After spending a lot of time with the musics of different people, are you finding that the similarities outweigh the differences or is it the other way round?
Music is the same - everywhere. And music, in my mind, is communication on a level that needs no explanations. It is very abstract. In the moment you are off stage the music is gone, it lives only in the single mind and body of the listeners who went to the concert. It's a goal to let the sounds  - the music I am creating - live a long time inside each listener. Just like dreams now and then do.

By Tobias Fischer

"Ossicles" is out on Ozella Music.

Karl Seglem Discography (extract):
Ossicles (Ozella) 2010 (Ozella) 2009
Urbs (Ozella) 2007
Reik (Ozella) 2005
Femstein (Ozella) 2004
New North (Ozella) 2004

Karl Seglem

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