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The Lark, album cover

Alceste Ayroldi, longtime contributor to Italian magazine Musica Jazz has published an extended interview of SG. It covers The Lark, At First, authors John Steinbeck and Peter Watson, Arvo Pärt, and the difference between modern jazz in the US and Europe among many other things.

The interview is in Italian and can be found at Musica Jazz’s Musica Jazz’s interview. An English version is provided here:

AA: “Could you tell us something about your musical and life background?”

SG: Well, basically, I grew up in the countryside in the Northern part of Jutland in an academic home with very little music. My mother nonetheless wanted us kids to ‘live full lives’ and sent me and my sisters off to piano lessons in the local music school. I caught on pretty early, but with very little music around me, I didn’t really get serious about it until my early high school years.
I was drummer for a while also and was made aware of jazz and improvisation by a drum teacher through a play-along tape. Improvising was highly interesting! But my initial reaction was not to seek out recordings of actual jazz music, rather I went to the back of the library and found books on jazz theory. I read all I could find and it was very alluring, this notion of freedom of expression under certain stylistic boundaries. Later on came actual recordings, but for me, the ideas and concepts very often precedes the sensory experience and to be honest, I took quite a while for me to be able to relate to the actual sound of jazz.
I was already an institutionalized music student and so followed the beaten path and eventually ended up in Copenhagen with a masters degree in jazz piano and a desire to become part of scene and to make my mark. Then came At First.

“Go on…”

My decisive inspiration for At First was a very short piece by Sergei Prokofiev, the first of the Visions Fugitives, which has a peculiar mix of ambiguous harmony underneath a very clear-cut melody. The chords are behaving outside of functional harmony, moving in parallel and always on the brink of suggesting other key centers. Basically it’s an exploration of how to colour a very simple melody with very simple building blocks creating a sense of subdued tension and for me, it proved to be a starting point in terms of working with melody and harmony. I find that many contemporary jazz composer’s have a tendency to dive headfirst into very laden sounds, that are all a world unto themselves and sometimes clarity of expression is lost to my ears.
So for me personally, stumbling upon certain pieces of modern classical music gave me a way of developing a harmonic concept that takes a step back from functional harmony and the innovations of the fifties and sixties and find sound a somewhat distinct sound that is prominent on most pieces on At First.

“From At First to The Lark, what is changed in your way of composing?/ What’s the story that The Lark tells? There is a common line between the songs?”

…but for my second album, I wanted to tackle a limitation to my way of writing and hearing music. Put shortly, most of my melodies up until that point were very dependent on the chords they essentially just formed part of. It’s like a reading in a foreign language, certain words you understand only because of the context they are in and you are clueless as to their meaning when you read them on their own.
So I wanted to write melodies with enough integrity and meaning to stand for themselves. Also, I worked away from the piano using a range of techniques to get away from having my hands direct the proceedings. A lot of the compositions have lines of unequal lengths, which create a more fluid feeling, something I am looking into doing much more in the future.
And I came up with the idea of portraying people in melodic lines, like a musical amalgam of everything these people mean to me. It’s a curios thing, that’s is not really that easy to do, because the impression you have of other people is complex and often contain contradictions.
Also, as is always the case for me when writing there was an element of catharsis. I had to say goodbye to a person very close to me and wish her luck, and had to express myself about certain individuals who might need a few words of advice. Other melodies are homages to people I admire.

“Something is changed in your band. Would you talk about your musicians that played in The Lark?”

There is a very fundamental difference between the way a guitar and flügelhorn convey the emotional content of a melodic line. The quality of a jazz guitar sound lends a melody with a certain kind of subdued intensity, whereas the horn is obviously more outspoken. So I wrote pieces specifically for the two different musicians in front, guitarist Per Møllehøj, and flügelhorn/trumpet player, Mads La Cour. They are in very different ways brilliant people and improvisers, I feel very grateful that they took part.
The group is completed by my old friends – drummer, Andreas Fryland and bassist, Tapani Toivanen. We met utterly coincidentally five years ago and immediately found a common understanding. Andreas and Tapani both have a very strong ability to find the emotional core of a song and project it, something that not too many players I meet can actually do with this music. We are very much a band thats plays songs, not one of pyrotechnical bliss, although I actually see us going in a direction of a more outwardly orientered approach for the next album.

“Stroke me the title (and music, of course) of The Madonna & The Whore. What do you mean?”

That one is a reflection on the fact that we all have the potential to be saints and sinners. It was directly inspired by an interview between Arvo Pärt and Björk, in which Björk is the interviewer. Pärt at one point talks about a two-part melody, where one voice is sin and the other is forgiveness and I took upon me to write a piece based upon that concept.

“Apart from classical music composers, who else inspires you?”

Currently, John Steinbeck is a huge inspiration. His way of depicting very basic aspects of human life in a surprisingly inventive usage of the English language has got me absolutely stunned at times. Something about his blend of humanity and artistic ambition really speaks to me.
Also, the writings of Peter Watson, who every few years releases another brilliant account of the history of ideas, or art history, culture is hugely important to my well-being. I seem to escape into a world of knowledge on the broadest topics imaginable when the everyday practicalities get to me. Unfortunately I have no talent for remembering what I read.
In terms of music, I must admit that I take inspiration from the people in my vicinity. Fundamentally, I find it most inspirational to contemplate the artistic choices of musicians that I also know personally. Also, I very easily get overwhelmed by the amount of brilliant music that is out there and tend to reduce my world to a scope I can handle. So if do look for inspiration in music, I often take it very slowly, one artist at a time.

“The Lark: you mean the bird, or fun – amusement? Why this title?”

The Lark is a person who used to be very close to me. The album is dedicated to her, simply.

“How important is it for you the improvvisation in music and in the lifestyle?”

It’s a peculiar thing, improvising in music for me. And I am talking about free improvising, however problematic that term might be.
I am a highly structured person in almost all aspects of life. I live by a strict self-imposed schedule of when to practice, to write, to play and to take time off. Also, I live in a world in which the mediated self is becoming increasingly important, and spending a great deal of time on constructing and maintaining an image of yourself is just an integrated part of life.
So on the surface of it, it seems improvising in music is a way of letting go of schedules and restrictions. I think it is more complex than so, because improvising is actually the mental space where I am forced to take stock of where I really am as a musician and as a person. It’s an activity I do, because I there have to face up to what I can actually create as a musician, and of what I actually feel like as a person. So I find it not as a matter of letting go, rather for me it takes tremendous effort of actually facing myself on a fundamental level through music. And through that ‘facing myself’ then facing others in as honest a ways as I can.

“Do you think that the concept of jazz music improvisation is different between Europe and U.S.A.?”

I think we should generally avoid too broad conclusions in the differences here; it seems the level of integration between the European legacy from classical music and the American innovations is now very solid as a result of so much traffic going on in the last decades. From my experience though, there is a certain degree of a sense of obligation in the American jazz discourse and educational systems – the individual musician is obligated to pay homage to a great deal stylistic innovations that came prior before even being entitled to calling herself a jazz musician, whereas for instance on the Danish jazz scene I find we tend to act from a notion of jazz as being merely a conceptual entity.
In other words, the notion of jazz as being ‘an improvised contemporary music form characterized by high levels of instrumental proficiency and a inclination towards innovation’ is all ‘we’ need to get going here, whereas you might argue that there is a predominant notion in American jazz of having to do your homework before you aspire to innovate.

“Apologize me for this question: is it hard to be a jazz player in Denmark? I would ask it, because most italian jazz players says that in Italy is very hard to play jazz…”
Tricky one…Well, I do actually think that we have much to be grateful and Scandinavia in terms of support for the arts. Obviously, the job is tough and the level of competition seems to be increasing, but it is definitely doable to have a life in and with jazz in Denmark, but of course, it’s a life of continuously working hard to improve and to carve out a distinct voice for yourself all the while trying to not get too concerned with workings of the music business, while still somehow taking it very seriously.

“What are your future plans?”

I am currently preparing my next album, which will be a study into fluid non-metric rhythmic realities. Also, it will explore ways of using hypercomplex content while still creative settings that are inducive to a sense of free improvising for the players. It’s based on very tiny fragments of Messians Catalogue d’Oiseaux which had me completely stunned when I encountered them a few months back. Trumpet, flügelhorn, drums and prepared piano, with highly exciting people, fronted by polish trumpeter on the rise, Tomasz Dabrowski.
Also, I have some very exciting sideman appearances coming up, I join a Danish group and Ralph Alessi in June and have a Polish tour with guitarist Gilad Hekselman and a Polish group in the Fall. Also in the works is the follow-up album to The Lark, new songs are appearing every once in a while.