Norwegian trumpet player Nils Petter Molvær makes music in the twilight zone of electronica and jazz, the processed and the anciently acoustic, the planetary and the earthly. His new record Hamada continues his unique musical enterprise.
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Nils Petter Molvær’s music makes people see things. Visions and images; some dark some luminous. –It all depends on the person says, Nils Petter. The images are not mine, they belong to the listener. But I think it’s a good sign that my music invokes images, and sometimes even discloses simple truth: A girl wrote me once to tell me that I had saved her life; my music made her realize that she was not alone.
Since his solo debut Khmer from 1997, NPM has stood forth as something of a musical sorcerer. His masterful blending of seemingly opposing principles of musical expressions continues to surprise and deeply affect the listener. His processed trumpet tone, the interweaving of electronic, ambient house elements with warm jazz timbres and eclectic field recordings is by now an unmistakable musical voice. Still, with each step and every record his powerful amalgamative music moves towards greater clarity and precision. How his music affects people is not his concern, that it does is.
-I always work towards emotional precision and clarity says Nils Petter, maybe it can be compared to refining tools: what they are used to is not up to me, but the fact that they can work with precision is very important. Maybe the fact that people always talk about my music in visual terms is a sign of such precision, I don’t know. What I do know is that I experience that what I do is becoming purer and clearer. It is a continuous search, trying to move away from creativity towards disclosure. I am more interested in truth than in sentiment. However, I hope there is a long way to go before I arrive at any kind of terminus in this respect. In fact I know that will never happen, because there is no end to the precision one can achieve in expression, which is the same as saying that there is no end to the wisdom one may acquire as a human being.
Notions of space and time, of infinities and eons, often suggest themselves in NPM’s music, which is both transcendental and earthly, like a big loop on technological wings, back to origins veiled and forgotten. On his new record Haman concepts and names from the world of geology lend titles to the tracks as well as the album itself.
-Hamada means death in Arabic, says Nils Petter, but it also means a barren rock desert, and several other things. I was intrigued by the openness of the word; the way it balances between what is inanimate and notions of deep possibility, of life beneath the barrenness.
One track is called Exhumation, which is a process where rocks slowly arise from the depths of the earth’s crust to the surface. I guess it can be an image applicable to humans as well. I like the notion of life which is dormant and concealed and lingers beneath what is apparently barren and dead. In this way there is certainly an interest in disclosure in what I do, but I never think of it consciously, it is more something I can acknowledge from a distance, and by the way people respond to my music. A German journalist recently told me he had played Hamada in the car while driving through his native city, which made him see the town as for the first time. Something was revealed through the music.
Hamada features field recordings from busy streets in Cairo and a Buddhist monastery in Ulan Bator in Mongolia. Nils Petter Molvær lets his records develop underway, and often he goes back to ideas and elements that he has used before, and liked.
-It is a little like cooking says Nils Petter, if I like an ingredient; I always try to make use of it again, in new ways and in new combinations. For me making a record is a process that continues all the way to the mastering phase. On Hamada I involved the other musicians a great deal and allowed the dynamic of the process itself play out in the music. I had a general idea in advance, an overall form, but the substance of the music arose out of the people, situations and places. I think of the tunes as postcards; in a way I simply letting people know where I am, the mood I’m in and what I am up to. We recorded at several different locations, among then a house high in the Norwegian mountains, and my parents attic, where I did some recording during Christmas. There are also two live tracks on the album.
Some have called Hamada his darkest record to date; others find it light and luminous.
-It is aggressive at times, even brutal. But I never think of music in terms of light and darkness, or any other colour for that matter. I think it is important to acknowledge that there is no link between aggression and darkness. Aggression can be blindingly white. Again it all depends on the mindset of the listener.
In terms of mindset the Germans seem especially receptive to Molvær’s music, but he will not venture an explanation of this.
-It is true that Germany is a big market for me; in fact I just learned that Hamada is number one on the German i-tunes jazz section. The record was released in down there first and then in Norway. Germany is a very rewarding place to play, attentive audiences and lots of good feedback. But France is an important market too. Hamada will be released there after the summer, and in Great Britain.
Molvær’s breakthrough Khmer was released by the prestigious ECM label, which he had been affiliated with for years in advance as the sideman par excellance on many milestone jazz records.
-ECM are very professional and there is a lot of credibility attached to being on that label. However, I got tired of working hard just to give my music away, in exchange for a fairly low percentage cut. So I set up my own label, Sula records, which in effect was just a device to retain control of my own music. Since 2001 I have licensed my records to Universal. I am very content with this system as I am basically free to do whatever I want.
Asked about the spectre of illegal downloading and the endangered livelihood of musicians, NPM gets excited.
-I just have to say that I find it incredibly vexing that several political parties in Norway are being so opportunistic about this whole issue. It is just incredibly arrogant to advocate free downloading. Who are they to decide that my music is to be free? Where does this idea even come from? I hope it is just a matter of not having really reflected on the consequences.
Apart from the problem of securing copyright by law and by political clear-headedness, I am very positive to the opportunities offered by digital distribution. It is very interesting explore new formats and challenge some conventions, like moving away from the full length album and instead making say twenty minute pieces of music sold exclusively on the web.
However, most of my listeners still buy regular albums. Hamada will be released around the world sequentially, and I will go touring in the different territories accordingly.
The year ahead is filled to the brim with music and travelling for NPM. And then there is a new challenge soon to be addressed:
-I have been commissioned to write the music for a big TV production, says Nils Petter. I will have to use and work with a symphonic orchestra, something I have never done before. I am very excited about it, so I need to keep cool and clear headed. I hope I will have time to mow the lawn as well, I looking forward to that.
Nils Petter Molvær's Last.fm site