Memnon – Reflections on the music and musicians
(Written by Bjarne Søltoft)

The creative process can take many forms. There is a common notion in music about the genius composer who carefully fashions his verses in total isolation, correcting and adjusting until the work is ready to be presented by performing musicians.

On the diametrically opposite end, jazz in particular has been an advocate of improvisation as a governing principle, which in its final consequence, namely free jazz, creates a collective music that arises in the moment and can never be repeated. Repetition can only occur by playing a recording, leading to the somewhat paradoxical fact that the improvising performers are credited as composers.
Needless to say, a wealth of variations exists between these extremes. One such variant, rooted in contemporary music, is precisely what the two dedicated Norwegian musicians behind Memnon have devised.

Singer Ruth Wilhelmine Meyer and pianist Helge Lien have here harvested some of the best aspects of each of these “adverse methods.” The basis for their approach is improvisation as a dialogical process, an exploration of Ibsen’s archetypal, but very much alive female characters, as well as the dynamic relationships between the various dramatis personæ in Peer Gynt. Meyer and Lien have chosen to give themselves the twofold challenge of creating soundscapes of mental states and processes, while at the same time allowing the music to convey its own intrinsic and independent qualities. Meticulously, through repeated improvisatory processes, the two musicians have pared away all “spurious” notes and effects, and attempted to maintain the core attributes and essence of the music.

Lien plays mainly on the piano keyboard, contemplatively as well as expressively, but he also uses the instrument’s internal and external surfaces. Meyer characteristically refrains from using words in lending expression to Ibsen’s characters, taking more of a sensuous, rather than an analytic approach to the musical process.

Naturally, the work refuses to let itself be pinned down to a score from beginning to end, but consists of pre-planned sequences in open form. Composed, in other words, but at the same time preserving its flexibility and situational variability during live performance.
Biographical particularities about the two composing artists may shed some light on the background for the collaboration on Memnon.

Helge Lien, jazz pianist and composer, holds a master degree in music from the Norwegian Academy of Music, where Russian pianist Misha Alperin was an inspiring mentor and teacher of improvisation.
The core of Lien’s work has since 1999 centered on the Helge Lien Trio, consisting of the classical jazz constellation piano, bass and drums. In 2008 the trio won the Norwegian Grammy for their album Hello Troll, and has achieved international acclaim following tours in Japan, Germany and Canada, among other places.

With Tri O’Trang (1998–2006), consisting of piano, saxophone and tuba, Lien has cultivated a more structural music with strong melodic as well as abstract features, in which composed and improvised elements are interwoven.

The duo HERO (2005–6), with saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm, focused on “contemporary music,” emphasizing atonal and arhythmic elements and extensive experimentation with timbre. During this period, the two musicians participated in folksong artist Jørn Simen Øverli’s project Prøysenvisene som forsvant (The Prøysen songs that disappeared).

Besides the current collaboration with Ruth Wilhelmine Meyer, Helge Lien has in recent years also played in a duo-constellation with singer Live Maria Roggen.

Helge Lien has shown himself to be a musician who is not afraid to explore the borders between different musical genres, but whose basic sound as a jazz pianist is always a distinctive feature. Originally influenced by Bill Evans’ lyric-dynamic style of playing, he also shows affinity with Keith Jarrett’s narrative inventiveness and the subtle strophic expression of Brad Mehldau. Lien is a technically brilliant player, with a solid and rich sound. His resourcefulness and briskly responsive playing comes in extremely handy as a “composer of the moment” in Memnon.

Ruth Wilhelmine Meyer has a master degree in music from the Grieg Academy in Bergen, and has explored many different musical genres such as folk music, Eastern European underground music, baroque and contemporary music during her two-year study at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. She was also a member of The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir for ten years. Meyer fittingly refers to herself as a “vocal explorer” and freelance singer.

Her work in musical theatre (e.g. Fugl, Ljod and Kald) brought her into contact with musicians such as Norwegian folk singer Agnes Buen Garnås, Danish percussionists Marilyn Mazur and Birgit Løkke, and harpist Helen Davies Mikkelborg. Her theatrical awareness and dazzling vocal technique, with a range of over five octaves, are major resources for a freelancer, but it is undoubtedly the conviction carried by her expressive and richly faceted voice that explains why she is in such high demand – not least among contemporary composers. The Norwegian composer Synne Skouen, for example, has written several works with Meyer’s voice in mind.

The leap from soloist in the folk-based, partly improvised music of Grzech Piotrowski’s Polish World Orchestra seems at first glance to be a major one, but Meyer’s exploration of the expressive possibilities of the voice is her strongest initiation into all areas with which she becomes involved.

Since 1996, AKKU, currently a quintet that originally started as a trio, has been her practical laboratory for this development. AKKU’s music primarily takes its lead from the vocal traditions of different cultures, such as coloratura techniques, overtone singing and throat singing, especially in connection with the song traditions of northern Scandinavia.
Meyer’s early inspirations were among others the overtone singing of Tuvan singer Sainkho Namtchylak, the expressive temperament of American performance artist Diamanda Galás, and the precise control and rigorous structuralism of Meredith Monk.
She now specializes in continuing to develop free, non-verbal, but tonal forms of vocal expression.

With Memnon, Ruth Wilhelmine Meyer and Helge Lien have created a music engendered by dialogue and characterized by a broad range of melodic and harmonic movement that spans from silence to pandemonium, while at the same time giving rise to sensuously saturated depictions of poignant figures and dramatic states.

A work that invites you to experience the soul of the music and the music of the soul.

Bjarne Søltoft
Music critic for music magazines Jazznytt (Norway) and Jazz Special (Denmark).
Oslo, 5 July 2012

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