Terje Rypdal: Navigator

"We are going to start again, right from the beginning, and play all kinds of music. If it’s beautiful music, it must be beautiful music, and if it’s exciting music, then there must really be excitement all the way through!" (Terje Rypdal, 1967)

Part I – A Composer’s Odyssey:

Terje Rypdal’s musical activities have been colourful and unprejudiced ever since he was a child. He started learning to play the piano when he was five. As a teenager, he played in a Shadows sound-alike, The Vanguards. When twenty-year-old Rypdal helped to start the multi-experimental band The Dream in 1967, rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix and jazz organist Jimmy Smith (interpreted by talented organist Christian Reim) were the band’s most obvious sources of inspiration. This alone is an imaginative and surprising combination, indicating that these musicians were not going to allow themselves to be bound by ant particular musical style. Both Hendrix’s spacey guitar sound and Hank B. Marvin’s twanging guitar solos have influenced Terje Rypdal’s later personal style without ever being embarrassingly recognisable.

The new dream:

The Dream broke into all the musical styles that they came across, and at its best Get Dreamy (Polygram), the only record they ever made, was a musical inferno in which you could find loot from all of them. The first time Terje Rypdal’s own compositions and playing style emerged independent and unfettered was on the record Bleak House (Polygram, 1968). Here we heard something that was entirely new in Norway at the time; independent, powerful music that could not immediately be characterized as pop, rock, jazz or classical, although Bleak House contained elements of all four. The record ranged between the extreme of free improvisation and quiet segments that presaged Rypdal’s later open, clarified style. Bleak House made a lasting impression on the musically conscious generation; it represented the new spirit of the times.

In its final phase; The Dream was joined by saxophonist/composer Jan Garbarek and drummer Jon Christensen. The searching branch of jazz represented by Garbarek brought Rypdal new impulses, and they both acquired further inspiration and knowledge as pupils and members of George Russell’s sextet and big band. This American musician, composer and musicologist was living in Sweden in the sixties and arranged musical productions with Norwegian and Swedish musicians, while at the same time teaching “The Lydian chromatic (for improvisers)”, also the title of the work in which he summarises his theories. On Trip to Prillarguri (Soul Note, 1981) and Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature (Soul Note, 1985), recorded in 1969 and 1970, we can hear both Rypdal and Garbarek in an avant-garde pan-tylisctic context.

The new composition class: In 1969, composer Finn Mortensen started the very first composition class at the Music Conservatory of Oslo (later to become the Norwegian State Academy of Music) and Terje Rypdal was one of his students. At the same time he was now investigating the possibilities of free jazz (among other things, he participated in the 1969 Baden-Baden Jazz Festival, where he played in a band with other up-and-coming names such as Lester Bowie, Roscoe Mitchelle, John Surman and Kenny Wheeler), Rypdal made his debut as a serious composer with Eternal Circulation, which was performed in the Oslo University Aula in 1971 by the Jan Garbarek Quartet and the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra.

Terje Rypdal was also a member of the Jan Garbarek Quartet, and through tours and recordings this “different” guitarists also became known to audiences outside Norway’s borders. Jan Garbarek’s records from that era, Afric Pepperbird (ECM, 1970) and Sart (ECM, 1971), contain daring free jazz, but at the same time the improvisation has a new delicacy in comparison with much of the extrovert American and continental free jazz that was already well known. The ethnic influence had also begun to affect the music. Although rebellion is still the dominant factor, we hear the beginnings of the new tonality, the lucid music for which Garbarek and Rypdal would later become famous.

The new realm of sound: On Rypdal’s first ECM release, What Comes After (1974), in addition to a rhythm section consisting of drums and electric bass guitar, he is accompanied by bass player and cellist Barre Phillips (for whom he had already composed music before) and oboist Erik Niord Larsen. When you listen to this record now, it is easy to hear the relationship between Terje Rypdal and Miles Davis. But while Miles’ music was based on the black funk tradition, Rypdal’s reservoir might be said to be classical music.

The strange thing is that they end up in almost the same place, with an open, pulsing style and movements that bless rather than capture. They touch the diversity, instead of frenetically collecting individual elements. Miles Davis and Terje Rypdal therefore each represent their own wing (the American and the European, if you like) of a new musical body which, with its “modal” style, masters the great heights as well as the surprising attacks, the long distances as well as the almost static circling over its chose prey. This eagle metaphor may perhaps help some people to understand the value of the new melodious, richly harmonic music which particularly jazz musicians from the bop generation have difficulty in digesting. What Comes After is a masterpiece that excellently combines pulse, improvisation and classical overview and still represents some of the most holistic and universal work that Terje Rypdal has created.

New Communication: Whenever I Seem to be Far Away (ECM, 1974), recorded the year after What Comes After; was probably the clearest indication so far that Rypdal’s music would from now on diverge and develop in two parallel directions; composing serious music that is seldom performed, and composing music for the touring bands Rypdal travels and performs with. On Whenever I seem to be Far Away, Rypdal first tends towards a more aggressive, live rock form and forges links between Get Dreamy, Bleak House and the spacey power jazz that would later emerge from his hand.

On the other hand, the title track on the recordings is an “image for electric guitar, strings, oboe and clarinet” recorded with members of the Südfunk Symphony Orchestra. A beautiful composition, characterized by light, friendly sounds, but where a dark undercurrent is beginning to emerge. Later on in this composition, Rypdal addresses the basic program; how to get the modern electric guitar to communicate with a classical string format, and convince us that its interest in communication is real. The work is more interesting because it succeeds than because the conversation itself is in any way unique.

Sixteen years were to pass before we were to hear any more of this side of Rypdal on record, although during this period he wrote more than fifty works using both classical and contemporary techniques.

In 1990, however, at least Undisconus and Ineo (ECM) were released, followed by Q.E.D (ECM) in 1993. These are recordings of compositions written in 1979/81, 1983 and 1991 respectively. Terje Rypdal reveals himself as a composer with so much stabilising classical ballast that it is safe to follow him. Q.E.D. (Quod Erat demonstrandum) is the most challenging of the above works. Rypdal allows the different sound elements to sometimes collide and other times unite. If at first we are scared by this rather alienating landscape, we feel we are once again on solid ground in the no less alienating fourth part, which is, among other things, based on nature’s own rumbling thunder sounds. This theme continued in Largo, the second composition on the recording.

The new composers: Those who know the music of the Hungarian-Austrian composer György Ligeti who has himself investigated the colour level of static sound surfaces and the unrest in the same, splintered sound surface, and even written Artikulation, one of the major works of early electronic music – will not be surprised that Terje Rypdal describes his meeting with Ligeti as a revelation that had a significant effect on the development of his own music.

The Polish composer and teacher Krzysztof Penderecki, who is known for combining his innovative treatment of sound with naturalness and simplicity in his choice of motifs, is also a name that Rypdal utters with respect. The fact that Rypdal had already discovered Penderecki and Ligeti in the seventies, when he was sometimes working with people who were following John Coltrane and the new free jazz map.

Of the new serious music that Rypdal has recorded, Ineo is my favourite. Again, he has cultivated a hybrid with the ability to live between original species within the borders of a timeless format. A work for choir and chamber orchestra with a strange combination of spiritual and profane (sacred and film music) elements that is seldom heard.

The new Norwegian: When writing about Terje Rypdal’s music, many critics have helped to create the myth of a Nordic, or even Arctic, sound. But we can only agree with them to the extent that we are especially proud of our navigator on this journey; that Terje Rypdal is a Norwegian, and that, with this background, he masters all points of the compass and has achieved a cosmopolitan musical language that includes important elements from even the most forgotten corners of our musical world. As always, it is the lasting desire for discovery that matters. It is not surprising that it can arise, and burn with an undiminished flame, in Norway too.

PART II - A Guitarist's Odyssey:
Some people probably wish that Terje Rypdal were rather more of a snob, rather better at staying away from “inferior” music, and instead concerned himself with musical genres that bring lasting fame. For instance, his reunion concerts and new recordings with the Shadow band of his youth, The Vanguards, are not as easily accepted by everyone. Those who don't believe they are too elevated to listen to Twang!! (Slagerfabrikken, 1990) will, however, discover that it is not all that simple. Rypdal surprises us with creative innovation in this area too.

Parallel with the composition of about 60 classical works, Rypdal has always played in groups which, in spite of changing instruments and musical styles, have been characterised by the fact that he was originally a rock musician. Rypdal questions the incongruity of serious music being unable to captivate as large an audience as rock and jazz. This has brought results.

An electric journey: In 1975, Terje Rypdal formed a group consisting of trombone, organ, electric bass and drums, his own guitar, a string ensemble (mellotron) and a soprano saxophone. They released the Odyssey (EM disc, which must be regarded as a classic. This was a time when rock music was running on neutral and biting its own tail. Punk and New Wave had not yet surfaced with their vitalising reforms. Most of the energy had also deserted traditional jazz, and large sections of the public were looking for something new. With Odyssey, Rypdal moved the big “symphonic” format to a naked, simple, electric jazz rock group. An entirely new mood emerged, and Rypdal had a hit on his hands. The release of Waves (ECM, 1978) marked a new creative peak on this journey.

Harder times: The next time Terje Rypdal aroused major attention was in 1985 with the release of Chaser (ECM). Guitar, bass and drums, traditional instrumentation which, particularly with respect to jazz, had gradually become associated with peaceful, uncontroversial music. But Rypdal wasn't interested in peace. Part of the repertoire was based on the guitar technique and volume of heavy rock, and Rypdal used these methods with the insight of an improviser.

Rypdal's tranquil compositions are also represented, and here the Shadows sound is clearer than ever. Terje Rypdal & The Chasers therefore became ECM's second proof (the Pat Metheny Group's white album in 1978 was the first) that popularisation can go hand in hand with artistic innovation.

The Chaser group subsequently returned to the rock-symphonic world of Odyssey with the release of Blue (ECM, 1987), and culminated in the album The Singles Collection (ECM, 1989). This tide is particularly apt when we know the kind of many-faceted artist we are talking about. Terje Rypdal's musical ideas meet here in a funky setting. The record was an imaginative summary of most of the things Rypdal had been working on, and in a format that was popular, even with people who were spoiled with the best of funk and hip hop. Like Bleak House, What Comes After, Odyssey and Descendre, The Singles Collection is a Rypdal production of lasting value.

With guitarist Ronnie Le Tekrø, Rypdal has also recently established the rock band The Daredevils in order to investigate both the more serious and the more frivolous aspects of heavy rock. Judging by The Secret File and Trolltonetrall, two tracks on the Rypdal & Tekrø CD (BMG, 1994), this band also has something new to contribute. I’m glad we have artists like Terje Rypdal, artists who offer surprises even for those of us who don't intend to be surprised by anything.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©

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