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Interview with Anders Dahl

“I set out to create the simplest twelve tone music I could think of….”

Could you explain how ‘Rows’ is structured, and how much freedom the instrumentalists are given in their interpretation of the score?

Let me start from the beginning. I was thinking about how Schoenberg's nice and simple solution to avoiding keys in music, the twelve-note technique, became used in a more and more advanced way as time went on. The technique was that you have to play each note of the chromatic scale once before you’re allowed to repeat any note again. In that way all the twelve notes became equally important, which is heart-warming. It later evolved into serialism and everything started to get dictated by different series in an amazing level of detail. I started wondering about how it would have sounded if they had simplified it instead. So I set out to create the simplest twelve tone music I could think of. The solution I came up with was to play each note of the twelve tone row once and then be done.

So each row is randomly generated as a twelve-tone row with a set duration. The musicians play all the notes once and in the specified order, at any point within the time assigned to that row. The musicians can play the note however they like. Only the letter for the note is specified so they can play it in any octave. They can also skip any note or replace it with an unpitched sound or noise. In addition some of the rows have a title, which suggests a particular approach, and acts as a kind of guide which they can either follow fully, partly or not at all.

There is one more thing that’s central to the piece. On the first recorded version of Rows (which will hopefully be released on the Bombax Bombax label at a future date), all the musicians were recorded individually without hearing any of the other tracks. The tracks were then layered on top of each other, creating an indeterminate interplay. The surprising thing, at least to my ears, was that the perceived interplay was very strong. I think this is because we are so used to music involving interplay that when there is none our brain creates a phantom interplay for us. The music also felt free from clichés as the musicians couldn't account for what the others were playing, and therefore sometimes one musician would merrily steamroll someone else without knowing it.

Now, this version of Rows was recorded with everyone playing together in one big room, but I was keen to retain some of that ‘phantom’ and ‘ruthless’ quality from the previous recording. So I asked the musicians to plan out ahead what to play and try to stick to that plan as much as possible. Of course I couldn't expect the musicians to succeed in this completely, but it still brought an interesting dynamic where they were trying to avoid their habit of improvising together.

The purpose of the composition is to create a certain kind of environment for the musicians to work in, but not to control them in detail.

“I started to get more and more involved in sound making…”

That’s great; I’ve listened to the recording lots of times now and hadn’t realised that was what was going on! But the music certainly has both a freshness and an unpredictability that fits with everything you describe. Can you say a bit more about why you want to disrupt the habitual playing patterns of improvised music?

I thought of a long answer for this, but it's really simple: what’s not to love? I just don't like my music to be predicable.

I've been experimenting with this for a while, starting around 2003 when I was working on the album Hundloka. At the time I developed it as a sort of a tool to help me with my own shortcomings, but on this project I'm working with great improvisers who don’t need any aid. And yet I can still hear the effect it has on, for example, Henrik (Olsson) and Magnus (Granberg), both of whom I've known for a very long time.  They are doing stuff in a different way than I ever heard before.

So can you tell us a bit more about your musical background?  When did you start playing experimental music, and have you always been involved with both composition and improvisation?

I began tinkering with music in art school in 1994. You could say that it was experimental from the beginning. At the time I was working mostly with computer manipulation of recorded sound. After school I got an office job. Working with art has always been a slow process for me, and I realised I never had time to get into it with the long hours I was working. With sound I could just listen to something and I was there immediately, so I started to do more and more sound and less art.

Improvisation began when I started working with Henrik in 2001. From the beginning I was just doing live computer manipulation of his sounds, but I started to get more and more involved in the sound making as time went on and my confidence grew.  By a stroke of luck the hard drive of my laptop crashed one day before a gig. What I had done until that point was mostly based on recording/replaying sounds (a bit like Alvin Lucier’s I'm sitting in a room but more chaotic) and using sinewaves. So I armed myself with a cassette recorder and a tuning fork and tried to manage that gig as well as I could. That set me on the path that I'm on now.

In a way composition has always been the main focus, but it’s been based around recording myself and others, and then arranging the results. Rows is the first composition that I’ve made on paper and then just recorded and mixed.

“After art school you have a lot of baggage and you need to figure out what to keep and what to discard.”

What about Skogen? When did the group form, and have you been involved with them from the start?

Magnus Granberg created Skogen in 2005 to realise composition ideas he was working on. I knew the people in the core group well (Erik Carlsson, Magnus Granberg, Henrik Olsson, Leo Svensson Sander & Petter Wästberg), but I wasn't involved with Skogen until I started to help them by mixing their albums, as with, for example, the Ist gefallen in den Schnee CD that was released on Another Timbre. We also did a collaboration under the name Skog och Dal that was released on Bombax Bombax, but I think that Rows is the first time that Skogen has performed a composition that wasn't written by Magnus.

I’m struck by how many of the musicians I interview trained in visual arts as opposed to music. Do you think that formal musical training can actually be a hindrance for experimentation?

After art school you have a lot of baggage and you need to figure out what to keep and what to discard. Switching from art to sound sort of sidestepped that issue, for me at least. You’re able to find your own voice faster.  But also, what you learn at art school applies very nicely to experimental music.

For me when I started with sound, I worked the same way that I did when I started off with traditional painting (my first school was very traditional): working intuitively and just re-working, re-working and re-working stuff until I was happy with it. That way the individual instruments weren’t so important, but I focused on the piece as a whole. I think that carried over into my improvising too. Also you’re never seduced to fall back into impressing people with your skill whenever you lack inspiration, because you have no skill to show off.

More musicians should switch to art and cheat the same way.

at64   Anders Dahl & Skogen - Rows  

Anders Dahl - composition

Angharad Davies - violin                 Magnus Granberg - piano & clarinet

Ko Ishikawa - sho                           Anna Lindal - violin

Henrik Olsson - bowls & glasses       Toshimaru Nakamura - no input mixing board

Petter Wästberg - contact microphone, objects, feedback

Erik Carlsson - percussion

9 tracks, total time 43:05

Recorded in Stockholm, November 2012

Youtube extract

Photo: Seth Starre Lacotte

Photo: Seth Starre Lacotte

Photo: Daniel Grahnemo


“Nothing spooks your average concertgoer more than the dread of having to sit through a piece of 12-tone music, but – tough shit – some composers find serial organisation a useful tool and so, music lovers everywhere, you’re stuck with it. Not that music on Sheffield’s Another Timbre is likely to reach those who rely on mainstream classical institutions. Composition is transported to another realm in these discs, typical of that fertile hinterland between fixed composition, free improvisation and electronics in which the label has seeded a new music.

Anders Dahl’s Rows reconfigures serial methodology. Dahl handed the Skogen ensemble – Angharad Davies (violin), Magnus Granberg (piano, clarinet), Ko Ishikawa (sho), Anna Lindal (violin), Toshimaru Nakamura (no-input mixing board), Henrik Olsson (bowls, glasses), Petter Wastberg (contact mic, objects, feedback), Erik Carlsson (percussion) – an array of contradictions ripe for working through. Each piece is grounded by a Schoenberg / Webern-style tone row; but the musicians are given licence to play any note in any octave and, in a genius move, to replace any note with any unpitched noise or sound. There’s more: the musicians were encouraged to plan what these noises might be, but improvisors being improvisors, Dahl works into his grand plan that they were unlikely to avoid the temptation of listening to each other, and therefore spontaneously interacting. “The purpose of the composition,” he says, “is to create a certain kind of environment for the musicians to work in, but not to control them in detail.”

And the result? Dahl quietly disentangles the cultural chasm that necessarily exists between the demands of serial composition and free improvisation. Too much music that attempts to bridge that same gap ends up tripping over its own ambition – bad composition, compromised improvisation – but here a higher, objectifying sense of pitched order co-exists with sounds vulnerable to the moment. It’s an unusual and intoxicating accommodation. Apart from the title and the suggestive cover art – ducks lined up, so to speak, in a row – you could listen to this music completely unaware of its serial workings. Roomy, unhurried sounds wear their technical baggage loosely. Big ideas are expressed within small structures; like Webern, only bigger.”

Philip Clark, The Wire

“The nine-member ensemble Skogen released the highly impressive Ist gefallen in den Schnee on Another Timbre in late 2012. It consisted of one composition, the title piece, by the ensemble's pianist Marcus Granberg. It showed them to be capable of mixing improvised and composed elements together to create an uncluttered piece with a unique sense of space and beauty. All of which created a certain sense of anticipation at the arrival of their new album Rows. And despite it being rather different, this is a worthy follow-up.,

The line-up of the ensemble is similar to before, the most noticeable changes being the loss of Leo Svensson Sander on cello and John Eriksson on vibraphone & crotales and the addition of Ko Ishikawa on sho. Crucially, the group still contrasts the sounds of conventional instruments with electronic sounds plus the ringing of bows and glasses. A more significant difference is the music itself; rather than one extended piece, it consists of nine shorter pieces composed by Anders Dahl. He set out to create the simplest twelve-tone music he could think of. Each of his "rows" consists of a different permutation of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, each note being played once and once only per row. The musicians are allowed considerable freedom: they can play the note however they like; only the letter for the note is specified so they can play it in any octave; they can also skip any note or replace it with an unpitched sound or noise. The end results show considerable variations of duration—the longest lasting eight minutes, the shortest two; the mood and style of the pieces shows just as much variation, largely dependent on the extent to which individual musicians exploit the freedoms they are given. But, as a means of co-ordinating the playing of an ensemble of this size, Dahl's compositions are very successful and the end results extremely satisfying.”

John Eyles, All About Jazz

“Twelve tone music was the signature sound of mid-20th century avant garde art music. How to transpose it into the 21st century? Composer Anders Dahl presents one possibility with the music on Rows, a new CD featuring performances by the Swedish chamber ensemble Skogen.

As Dahl saw it, the challenge was to compose twelve tone music that, while avoiding the establishment of a key centre, would at the same time sidestep the problem of the overdetermination—and resulting rigidity—to which twelve tone serialism was particularly susceptible. Dahl’s elegant solution was to come up with a reduced kind of serialism in which the twelve tones of the row would only be played once. In addition, performers would be given the choice of skipping notes or replacing them with sounds of their own choosing.

As could be expected, the resulting sound is nothing like conventional twelve tone or serial music. Each brief piece is largely given over to tracing the exposition of a row; development comes through the overlap and alternation of difference voices from the ensemble as tones are passed between piano, pitched percussion, strings and winds. While the row is slowly unfolded, amplified objects and electronics skitter on top, adding a layer of quick activity and grit that seems to situate the pitches in the context of the 21st century’s prototypical ambient sounds. With its eclectic complement of instruments—piano, violin, clarinet, theremin, bamboo pipes, percussion, no-input mixing board, and various objects—Skogen is well suited to bringing out the austere beauty of this music.

Rows can be listened to as a meditation on the tone row as a free standing material in itself rather than as a means of expression. In fact Dahl’s approach—and the ensemble’s interpretation of his scores—removes twelve tone music as far as possible from its Expressionist beginnings, not to mention its later use to convey dread in cinema. In the process, he returns it to a more elemental plane of existence both prior to and presupposed by the expressive impulse.”

Daniel Barbiero, Avant Music News

“There's a certain sort of cracks of late between which some interesting music has been falling, the cracks perhaps being AMM and Christian Wolff, which indeed are no cracks at all as the latter was at one time a member of the former but nevertheless a new stripe in the vagaries of minimalist composition and improvisation, something we might (or might not) choose to call "chamber EAI," seems to have emerged (or been emerging). Such recordings as Varianter av Døde Trær (by the quartet of Tetuzi Akiyama, Martin Taxt. Eivind Lønning and Espen Reinertsen) and In Search of Wild Tulips (by Akiyama, Eric Carlsson, Toshimaru Nakamura and Henrik Olsson) come to mind, as well as the work of Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir as efforts that suggest a greater structural integrity, more forethought perhaps, than pure improvisation.

Such is certainly the case with Rows, an album of short compositions by Anders Dahl performed with composer Magnus Granberg's largely acoustic septet Skogen, which includes Nakamura and Olsson as members. The nine pieces here (ranging from two to eight minutes) are strict 12 tone row compositions following Schoenberg's notion of not repeating a note in the scale until all have been played although register and duration aren't specified in the score. As a result, a sort of unity of purpose is discernible in the playing at the same time as an inviting feeling of spontaneity.

In practice this isn't wildly different from the work of Wolff, Cage, Cardew or others, and Dahl may not be claiming to have conquered new worlds. But the playing here is quite lovely. The ensemble (two violins, sho, clarinet, piano, bowls and glasses, and two electronicists, with Carlsson's percussion added on two tracks) is warm and airy and, under Dahl's cues, imminently listenable.”

Kurt Gottschalk, Squid’s Ear

“L'ensemble Skogen revient sur another timbre avec cette fois, une suite de compositions d'Anders Dahl. Quant aux musiciens, c'est l'occasion de retrouver Angharad Davies (violon), Toshimaru Nakamura (table de mixage bouclée sur elle-même), Magnus Granberg (piano, clarinette), Ko Ishikawa (sho), Anna Lindal (violon), Henrik Olsson (bols, verres), Peter Wättsberg (micro-contacts, objets et larsens) ainsi qu'Erik Carlsson (sur deux pistes, aux percussions).

L'idée de départ de Dahl pour ces neuf pièces assez courtes, c'était de revenir au dodécaphonisme, en le simplifiant, ou appliquer les méthodes réductionnistes à Schönberg en somme. Chaque pièce comporte les douze notes, et s'arrête là, pas question de créer des séries, il suffit de ne gravir l'échelle chromatique qu'une fois, dans un ordre déterminé. Seules les notes sont déterminées, et quant aux paramètres tels que la hauteur, le volume, l'attaque, ou la durée, ils sont laissés à la volonté et à l'inspiration des interprètes. Chaque musicien joue la série unique, de manière très libre, surtout avec les instruments indéterminés, et la pièce s'arrête dès que la série est terminée.

Le plus étonnant avec ces neuf pièces, c'est que malgré l'héritage dodécaphonique, ainsi que la directive de jouer son idée sans se soucier de ce que font les autres, chaque pièce surprend par sa chaleur et son humanité, par ses caractéristiques mélodieuses et concrètes beaucoup plus que formelles. Les neuf rows sont des pièces très calmes, aérées, justes, belles et envoutantes. Anders Dahl & Skogen sont parvenus à annihiler l'aspect mathématique et rigide du dodécaphonisme pour en arriver à une musique poétique et lumineuse.

L'aspect rigide est annulé par l'incertitude des instruments et de l'électronique : le frottement des cordes tout en retenue d'Angharad Davies et les objets ou larsens obligent. Une incertitude qui créer des frottements et des tensions incessantes, des moments de tension magnifique et organique. De plus, du fait que les durées soient indéterminées, les musiciens en profitent souvent pour produire des accords harmonieux quand ils le peuvent, ils laissent surgir des mélodies inattendues et poétiques, en faisant durer telle note qui s'accordera avec la prochaine. Mais c'est aussi l'opposition entre l'électronique abrasive et rugueuse et les mélodies instrumentales (ainsi que les variations de volume et d'intensité) qui rendent ces pièces profondes, et leur donnent des reliefs insoupçonnés.

Bref, neuf pièces faites de tension, de mélodie, de bruit et de note. De la poésie calme et lumineuse, aérée et profonde : neuf pièces envoutantes et vraiment innovantes. D'un côté, Rows s'inspire du dodécaphonisme pour l'écriture chromatique, de l'autre du réductionnisme et d'onkyo pour la concentration sur le timbre et les textures, mais aussi de Cage pour l'aspect indéterminé et ouvert de la partition, pourtant Rows est extrêmement original ne ressemble à aucune de ces influences, tout en leur étant vraiment fidèle. Recommandé.”

Julien Héraud, Improv-Sphere

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