“We have simply opened up our heads and let it all out."
Voice & Strings & Timpani is the latest project of guitarist Stephan Meidell and drummer Øyvind Hegg-Lunde, two of the most important figures in the new wave of Norwegian music. They are also staples of the Hubro roster of artists and of the vibrant Bergen experimental music scene. Both play in the acclaimed band of violinist/fiddler Erlend Apneseth; Meidell is part of the trio Cakewalk, plus his own solo projects including the Metrics Ensemble and TRIGGER, while Hegg-Lunde plays with Building Instrument, Electric Eye and Jose Gonzales’ ‘indie’ band Junip. They have worked together for fifteen years and released four albums, first as the duo The Sweetest Thrill, and then as Strings & Timpani. Both have collaborated across various art forms with other artists.
It feels important to detail such background or pre-history because with repeated listening it becomes apparent that the current album is very good indeed. It even seems to represent a perfect example of that mythical moment when a band or recording unit suddenly steps up a notch and creates a truly unforgettable piece of work. Recorded partly at a strikingly successful live performance at Bergen’s Nattjazz festival in 2016, and partly at Broen Studio in Bergen - where it was also mixed - in 2020, the album has an absolutely total attention to sonic detail. With the sound mastered by legendary producer Jorgen Tr’en, there’s an impressive concern with getting exactly the right effect that suggests an epic, and epically expansive, magnum opus production from a major label rather than a cutting-edge low-budget indie. And while the music is sufficiently sophisticated to nod knowingly to any number of disparate styles or references, it remains sharply focused and contemporary throughout.
"The idea for this project was mine and Øyvind’s” says Stephan Meidell. "We wanted to write music for us together with friends and colleagues in Bergen, musicians who inspire us and are a part of the same milieu that have some of the same attitudes towards music making: what I like to call a communal approach to playing. The sum of the music that comes out is the essential part; making music together, not impressing through individual virtuosic skills in the traditional sense. We do still strongly believe in the individual voices, but it's the totality of those voices together that is most important to us. This is at the core of our music making, and especially for this project. Me and Øyvind stand firmly as the founders and composers of the project and the music, but at the same time we want each individual voice to be heard. It’s tricky, but worth the effort in the end.”
The musicians involved in the album’s sextet ensemble also reflect the house identity of the Hubro label, with the prolific solo artist Stein Urheim, Building Instrument’s Mari Kvien Brunvoll and Super Heavy Metal’s Kim Åge Furuhaug among the multi-instrumentalist team. The role of the two singer/vocalists, with Brunvoll partnered by Eva Pfitzenmaier, is particularly key to the overall sound, and to the notion of ‘Voice’ contained in the new name of Voice & Strings & Timpani. Their rhythmically precise but wordless choruses can recall the work of singers in the minimalist projects of Steve Reich and Meredith Monk, while the addition of nonsense words or dadaistic poetry adds a further layer of defamiliarization - a Norwegian alienation technique? - to the thickening soup of influences and elements.
"Regarding using voice, we treat it mostly as an instrument, and it's something me and Øyvind have not explored so much before”, says Stephan Meidell. “Both Mari and Eva have unique approaches to using their voices that are both instrumental and lyrical. They both use loopers, and can blend in using effects, while their characteristic voices complement each other both in timbre and register. They both have solo projects where you can hear this: Mari's eponymous one, and Eva's 'By the Waterhole’”. As to the pan-linguistic lyrics: “We were looking for a sound and a feel - a texture - when lyrics were involved and Norwegian just didn’t fit”, says Meidell. "A mix of English and French did the trick. There are probably plenty of grammatical mistakes!”
Where the music ultimately comes from is beguiling and mysterious, as ‘Voice & Strings & Timpani’ can sound like various influences and exemplars while remaining entirely itself, so thoroughly are individual musical moments or movements incorporated into the macrocosm of the album as a whole. A bucolic Grantchester vibe provided by softly strummed acoustic guitar and wispily insubstantial ambient effects can give way to a hieratic vocal chorus with ritualistic-sounding percussion as if from some strange update to ‘The Wicker Man’, while odd bleeps and bloops suggest chill-out techno. "Although it seems inevitable that people hear references in our music, the process of making it has been completely without any specific bands or artists in mind”, says Meidell. "We have simply opened up our heads and let it all out."
released November 6, 2020
All music composed by Stephan Meidell and Øyvind Hegg-Lunde
Mari Kvien Brunvoll: vocal, electronics
Eva Pfitzenmaier: vocal, keys, recorder
Stein Urheim: guitar, electronics, langeleik
Stephan Meidell: guitar, electronics, synth
Kim Åge Furuhaug: drums, percussion
Øyvind Hegg-Lunde: drums, percussion, synth