Rehearsing with Per Zanussi

by christianfieldsjazz

So, we started practicing the music of Norwegian composer Per Zanussi yesterday. We’ll be practicing the set he’s composed everyday until  Monday when the orchestra will perform at the Mai Jazz Festival. Per has reworked some of his older compositions and composed new ones specifically for this band’s line up. In this blog I’ll hopefully explain what Per’s music sounds like and talk about the techniques he uses to achieves this sound.

The reason I’m doing this is to give a perspective audience more information about the music and the processes the composer and the musicians go through before the performance to transform the ink on the page, or an idea or concept in Per’s head, into an audible realm. I believe that giving the audience more information (in the form of blog in this case – but it could be giving them the scores, the composer himself telling the audience about the songs concepts before it is played, or under different circumstances, using other types of stimuli, such as combining the music with moving projections and other forms of technology) regardless of their musical understanding, will help them connect more intimately with music that is often perceived as more “difficult” to listen to.

As some of you may know, I’m a pianist and I compose and arrange my own music, so when playing other people’s material it’s the harmonic content that first attracts me. On Per’s music I have no chords written down! I’m looking at the scores and I can see the melody (there is an obvious linear compositional process throughout most of the pieces) so I try to figure out what is being implied by this. Half tone, whole tone scales appear frequently and what I first believe to be 9 tone-rows. So, I’m like, “Hey Per, where’s the chords dude? What the fuck should I play?”… Well, it turns out that there are chords (he has chosen not to give them to me, or the rest of the rhythm section) and when composing he does think vertically. Sometimes poly-tonally (two different chords sounded simultaneously – C minor and F sharp 7) In others he composes the melodies based on the the harmonic minor or, my personal fave – the octatonic mode (this is in two of the pieces we are playing) and 9 tone rows are created when they vary by one note from this mode. These modes are duuuurtay and can create extremely dissonant harmonies. Per uses them to great effect by keeping the melody line (played in the horns)  in mostly unison and only ever harmonising the last note of phrase with a simple, two note chord. The majority of the sound is created through octave doubling and at its greatest the same melody can be being played at 3, or even 4 different octaves.

Per Zanussi

The melodies are long (usually over 32 bars) and within them there are very subtle changes. The contour of melody often moves slowly in a stepwise motion, it is a tentative movement that could go either up or down yet remains around the same area for some time before suddenly leaping higher as if bored of its own sheepish nature. The long melodies are often repeated but with double octaves to widen the range of the sound. It is filmic in many ways and There is always a sense of growing intensity, the dynamics building slowly, constantly being pushed forward by the rhythm section.

Per is a bass player and so, his sense of groove is key to the compositions. The bass lines are syncopated yet still accent the downbeat, the counter rhythmic lines in the keys, guitars and sometimes baritone blur this feeling adding to the sense of changing time. The rhythmic complexity and the simple lines of the melody draw comparison with Korean Shamanic music. The utopian sounds of an introverted sacred place (in which the Shamen travels to as he experiences a trance like state, brought on by the ritual) where he encounters spirits is evoked by the melody whilst the rhythm section pulls him back to earth with its fragmentary groove. His piece “Sinawi” is a musical form used in Korean Shamanic ritual. It sounds amazing.

I’ll be writing more soon concerning Per’s music and how it links with free improvisation as well as its difficulties and strengths. I may also have a go at comparing the music of Duke Ellington with free improv also! The time is going very quickly now so my adventures in Norway will soon be over 😦

Hope you’ve enjoyed reading

Christian x