Stian Carstensen plays music like most of us breathe; like an innate thing, something he can do it in his sleep. He can take up any instrument, it seems, and intuitively treat it like a natural extension of his own body and mind. His musical activities range from the asymmetrical Balkan explorations of his internationally renowned band Farmers Market to performances with symphony orchestras, from live improvisations with Mike Patton to musical narratives from the backwoods of his native rural region of Norway. In any and every context Stian Carstensen spellbinds, for in his hands music becomes something whimsical and unpredictable, something dazzling, intense and funny.
-I honestly feel that I express myself more precisely and instinctively in music than in ordinary language. Music is an intuitive thing; it is a way of expression that in many ways bypasses the intellectual faculties of mind. That is why indigenous folk music can be extremely sophisticated and completely un-intellectual at the same time. What I love about folk music and folk instruments is that you simply cannot fake it, no matter how much theoretical knowledge you have of music it comes to very little if you don’t go and see the actual people who know the tradition and learn from them. There are certain tricks and skills that you can only learn from people directly; things that are not comprised by the theoretical nomenclature of music.
Stian has been one to practise what he preaches: musical field work has been
one of his great interests ever since he discovered Bulgarian folk music almost twenty years ago.
-I got hold of some of the first recordings of Bulgarian folk music to reach the west after the iron curtain fell, says Stian. It was an instant kick, and I bought a plane ticket for Bulgaria almost at once. Since then I have been back every year to learn from different gipsy masters. In Bulgaria the folk music is a matter of utility; in weddings, funerals and other important occasions it serves a practical cultural function. What appears as very intricate structures to western ears, with asymmetrical rhythm patterns and widespread improvisation, is in fact a common musical idiom that everyone is familiar with. I really like this notion of music where emphasis is on actual use and contextual improvisation. The accordion, which is my main instrument, is very well suited to this concept of music; it is a utility instrument. Farmers Market has taken up these musical notions of asymmetry, improvisation and function based on the situation. Although Farmers Market may seem like too much and too fast to cope with for some, the fact is that it appeals very widely, says Stian.
-We have no desire to simply rebel against western musical norms or show off in terms of speed and intricacy. When we became interrested in the Bulgarian tradition, what we wanted was to delve into these new beats and become completely at ease with the strange rhythmic patterns. It is when you are at ease with the structure that the whole horizon of improvisation opens up. Our goal has been to investigate what we could make work musically and develop entirely new ways of playing. Even though it comes across as frantic and complex, most people immediately realize that this is not music to understand or to keep track of intellectually; it is more about allowing oneself to be swept away and feel that the music in fact is very open and unpretentious.
Improvisation is a key word, and Stian Carstensen thinks that all musicians should be able to improvise the same way we all do when we talk.
-Some very good musicians have lost the direct contact with their instrument, which means that they are unable to improvise. The idea of learning to read sheet music before learning to play an instrument really well is a little like learning to swim on dry land. I believe that learning an instrument from other people, and perhaps even more important, learning pieces of music by ear, is the only way to get truly intimate with music as a natural means of expression.
It is really a simple fact of human nature: we learn to talk by listening. In the same way musicians should primarily learn to play by ear. Personally I find that I remember things so much better when I learn them by ear because then the music becomes an internalized part of myself. Even though I can easily learn new pieces by just reading sheets, I still like to learn things by ear as much as I can. Recently I did a performance with the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra and in conjunction with that I sat down and learned a Paganini piece by ear.
Stian Carstensen talks about learning a Paganini piece as if it were a matter of memorizing a nursery rime. And in a way that is how he started out: earning the accordion from his father and picking simple tunes by ear from the age of nine. Since then he has taught himself many more instruments, often by travelling to specific places and seeking out people to learn first hand from the masters. He went to the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky to learn to play the banjo in the style he had heard in the movie Deliverance. In the United States he also got into the pedal steel guitar.
-It is the only instrument I have almost given up on, says Stian, it is so incredibly difficult. I actually gave up and sold the instrument I had just bought, but then I regretted it and bought a new one and practised every night for three weeks just to come to terms with the system of pedals and strings.
A great help for Carstensen is his ability to practice on the instruments mentally. Constantly travelling across Norway and the world, he very often finds himself unable to rehearse with instrument in hand. This is when he does his mental practising.
-It is a matter of figuring out the codes and systems of each instrument, says
Stian. Once you’ve done that you can sort of play the instrument mentally and find solutions and options. I guess I have a certain talent for this kind of mathematical and logical thinking, even though maths was the one thing that made me feel really useless at school. Even though I work with music in a logical way like this –which is a condition for me being able to play many different instruments and switch between them– I still keep to my principle of primarily trying and approach music directly; by ear and by taking up the physical instrument.
A different side to Stian Carstensen and his artistic temperament, which is perhaps related to his insistence on learning music from people first hand, is his love for the small things in life, i.e. the stories of individuals, details from places and particularities in general. What ensues is a tendency towards a certain ironic distance and a lot of warm-hearted humour.
-I have always been very fascinated by the indigenous aspect of music and culture. I grew up playing at local dance evenings and in that context all the stories and anecdotes are just as important as the music. So from early on I have been collecting stories and learning old tunes from the locals. This material is the basis of the concept of Spyttmyra (The saliva marsh), which is a kind of semi-authentic musical outfit that we have set up in my hometown. We record tunes, tell stories and make films about local yarns and characters, e.g. the three brothers that used their deceased father as fox bait in the woods; they shot seventeen foxes that winter!
At the Førde festival Stian Carstensen will appear in two of his musical guises. With the incomparable Farmers Market, and solo, as the storyteller and loony troubadour from Spyttmyra.
Farmers Market will be performing material from their latest record “Surfin’ USSR”, which was released by Mike Patton’s Ipecac label last year. And of course there will be a lot of improvisation and general, asymmetrical unpredictability.
Recommended listening: Surfin’ USSR (2008 - Ipecac/Tuba)