Ketil Bjørnstad Devotions

by Stuart Nicholson

Where the Ketil Bjørnstad gets his energy is anybody’s guess. Dubbed Norway’s Renaissance Man for his critically acclaimed work in music and literature, the 55 year-old pianist is currently celebrating the release of Devotions. It’s the latest in a series of elegantly crafted tone poems that include Grace, Before the Light, The Nest, Seafarer’s Song, Floating and the epic three volume solo piano set Rainbow Sessions for Universal’s EmArcy label that have brought him an international audience for his haunting, moving and melodically intense music.

Devotions follows on from where 2005’s Floating, his first album in the orthodox piano-bass-drums configuration, left off. On it he is joined by bassist Arild Andersen and drummer Alex Riel, but this time the trio becomes a quartet with the addition of Wolfgang Puschnig on bass clarinet and flutes. “I enjoyed Floating and it would have been easy for me to make two or even three more albums as a trio,” says Bjørnstad. “But bringing in Wolfgang Puschnig’s instruments widens the soundscape, and after Floating I’m more conscious about melody, what are the possibilities. So for me it is to find a balance between a very intimate approach and expression I want and exploring further the possibilities of melody than ever before.”

Like so much of Bjørnstad’s work, Devotions is like a soundtrack for a movie yet to be written. Evoking powerful musical imagery through the tightly woven elements of composition and improvisation on “White (The Innocence),” “Red (The Passion),” and “Black (The Sorrow)” – inspired by Edvard Munch’s painting “The Dance of Life” – and pieces such as “The Moon Arising” and “The Tree in the Courtyard,” the unifying theme of the album is the bitter sweet memories of places and associations of time gone by.

“For me it is more like a short story with the titles giving a little hint of the story line,” he says. “The private house which becomes a private concert hall – you listen to music in this flat or in that house. I remember my old flat in Oslo, where I was listening to some important players and I can still see the rooftops and the sky, and how important this small flat was for me and my music. You are playing music during the night and the morning comes and there is something is different in the music and there is also the fascination with people so close to each other in a city but not knowing anything about each other.”

Over the years Bjørnstad says he has come to realise how important melody, its variation and development, are to his music. “I have come to realise what I can do, and what I can’t do, and so I concentrate on what I can do,” he reflects. “I like there to be very distinct melodic content, not just on the themes, but during the improvisation as well. What has developed in the later years is a more conscious collaboration with the recording engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug in his famous Rainbow Studio here in Oslo and I feel that he is able to record something very close to the perfect piano sound. I know I can do things that will be heard, the dynamics and the overtones will be there, so you dare to play less notes.”

The recording studio is where Bjørnstad defines his music, “For me the studio situation is very important, I know many of my colleagues – musicians – they have concerts first and then they can say, ‘Okay we go into the studio and record it.’ For me it starts in the studio, when the music is very fresh and new, rather than going on tour for many weeks to prepare and then go in the studio, because I believe you loose the first magical feelings of the music. I bring in new material and everything is very fresh, very new and extremely vulnerable, so for me the studio production is extremely important so I prepare a lot for it.”

Throughout Devotions, the elements of simplicity and purity in Bjørnstad’s music and the way he and his musicians respond to them are often impressive in their momentary effect. With Puschnig’s flutes and bass clarinet adding an ethereal, floating quality to his music, Devotions opens a fresh chapter in Bjørnstad’s musical odyssey. Arild Andersen on bass and Alex Riel on drums shape the music from within, with Andersen’s haunting bowed acoustic bass providing a hint of “ambient” shading on three titles. “There were so many surprises the way the music was created,” reflects Bjørnstad. “With four people the energy of wanting to try out things and go further was so exciting.”

But ultimately Devotions success lies with the touch, the intensity and the transparency of Bjørnstad’s piano. Somehow he manages to suggest a tension between the temporal art form of music making and art itself, an aspiration of timelessness that can be found throughout his best work. There is hard earned musical wisdom in this music as Bjørnstad condenses powerful emotions into small spaces. A Renaissance Man yes, where the joy of music surfaces in his literature and the writer’s storytelling privilege surfaces in his music.

(This text is a press release by Universal/Emarcy, 2007)