Bar Piano – an interview with Christian Wallumrød

by Øyvind Skarbø, Oslo, November 24th, 2014.
I’ve only done a few interviews, and I don’t see myself as a journalist at all. I am however hungry for information – always has been. So the few people I have chosen to interview have been people I personally wanted to talk to and figure out how they work. When Hubro asked me to talk to pianist Christian Wallumrød, who will release his first album on Hubro in January/February 2015 – the solo piano album Pianokammer – I was very glad. He is one of the few people that I had actually thought about interviewing. On one hand he is one of the most serious and dedicated musicians I know. On the other hand he is also the nicest guy you would ever meet. We met up at Nodee, an Asian cuisine lunch place in Oslo, surrounded by corporate workers in suit and with at least two cell phones each.
ØYVIND: How do you want your music to be?
CHRISTIAN: Eh… (long break) Do you mean in general?
CHRISTIAN: (longer break) That is tightly knit to the various areas I’m working on. In one aspect you could say that for people like us who do a lot of different things, it’s a working method, that stems from the need to do different things. At the same time, for me at least, I feel that it is all connected, even though it might sound very different. So the answer has to be more local, depending on the different projects. Like the piano album, I want it to be like it is on that record.
ØYVIND: And how is that?
CHRISTIAN: I think I always want the music to be very clear. That is a very important part of the music, regardless of whether it is simple or very complex, or if it is improvised or not, or whatever. None of that is important. But that the music is clear is important.
ØYVIND: Does it matter to you as a performer if the music is composed or improvised?
CHRISTIAN: In general, no. But on the other hand, it obviously plays a role, since I like to work in both ways. But that is because if I only did one thing, it would get boring and sort of limiting to myself.
ØYVIND: Do you think your goals in music are different, depending on whether it is improvised or composed?
CHRISTIAN: I think the ideal is the same… yes. But it’s more that based on experience, I know a lot about what is possible to achieve by working in one way or the other.
ØYVIND: Apart from the aspect of clarity, which I agree is very evident in all your work, if you look at something as seemingly different as (electronic project with drummer and brother Fredrik) Brutter and the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble, what are the similarities?
CHRISTIAN: Those two are maybe the two where it is the hardest to find any obvious link. Brutter is almost dogmatic, in the way that I wanted a place where I didn’t have to deal with harmony or melody, which I have done so much of elsewhere. It’s only rhythms, or pulses. But then again, trying to mold that as far as I can. But I’m still concerned with achieving something just as clear as anything else. I’m surprised how hard that is. At the same time, whenever we achieve that, it is just as obvious as with any other group. We have basically only practised. We did two concerts, and then we played Jassbox in Oslo a few weeks ago – which felt more or less disastrous. The noise level was intense and very few was interested.
ØYVIND: When you say Jassbox (club concept in Bergen and Oslo), the way I know it is more of a dance party.
CHRISTIAN: Yes, but sometimes there can be room for a small set of listening in the middle and there can be enough interested people to make it work, but we were being too optimistic. It is music for listening. Especially for us (playing). We’ve been mostly practising, and have worked on how to get to where we want to be, even though it’s all improvised.
ØYVIND: Do you and Fredrik have the same vision of what you want to do with this band?
CHRISTIAN: None of us has expressed the need to doing anything else to solve the task we have given ourselves. Like, could we have solved it by introducing harmonic material, or soundscapes. So far, that hasn’t been an issue.
ØYVIND: But the hypothesis you have set up that you want to research, is that expressed verbally or did it just happen? Did you call Fredrik up and said “hey, what about this?”
CHRISTIAN: It’s very defined as a working method connected to the idea about how we want it to sound, yes.
ØYVIND: Is that because you wanted to explore this area as a challenge, or is it because you had the feeling that there is gold somewhere in this material? What is the driving force?
CHRISTIAN: I have the feeling that there is something unexplored about it. I’m not really good at digging into the recorded history of music, or checking out stuff online, but I have listened to at least some music, and I’m quite open to exploring new stuff. So when it comes to rhythmic material, in the widest sense, there is still a lot of work to be done. But it is very hard to know how to do it.
Basically, I’m very fond of rhythm and beat. That has always been a very basic driving force for me. Which might have led to a frustration regarding how to do rhythmically very cool music, without falling into all the traps and ditches. And that’s because in these traps and ditches there are just too many things that bores me, and I don’t want to be there. Even though I like listening to a lot of very straight music, for instance within pop music, funk, soul, punk…
ØYVIND: I remember when we played together with Stian Omenås in 2012, at that time you had a huge kick on Robyn.
CHRISTIAN: Yes, still! I think it’s fantastic. I really like listening to it, but I don’t think I would be completely happy making that kind of music myself.
ØYVIND: What is your relationship to funk? I’m asking because of the ending of your song Stompin’ at Gagarin (from Christian Wallumrød Ensemble: A Year From Easter). The phrasing at the outro of that song is the most funky playing I have ever heard. When I heard that the first time, I thought that you must have checked out a lot of funk. When you work on rhythm, do you work more from your own head, or do you look into specific things, like checking out how rhythm is being dealt with in different cultures for instance?
CHRISTIAN: I can’t claim that I have investigated things like that. It’s more on an instinctual level.
ØYVIND: Is it in any way systematic?
CHRISTIAN: No. With rhythm specifically, I trust my own feeling of time, so it’s not something I work explicitly on. To me, it has more to do with the placement of things, and I’ve never felt like that was something I had to work on or study, it’s more something that came naturally. I haven’t listened to a lot of funk or soul, there’s just something inside me that makes me very happy when I hear some of these things. Doesn’t really matter what style of music it is, it just so happens that some styles are more based on this than others.
ØYVIND: I find that interesting. Because the rhythmic aspect of your playing is so good, the usual way for drummers at least, would be to work on one thing systematically, and develop it step by step.
CHRISTIAN: I recognize that method when it comes to other aspects, like harmonically. I have worked very systematically on that. And I needed that.
ØYVIND: Are there any areas you work with in that fashion nowadays?
CHRISTIAN: No, not in that specific way. Haven’t done that in quite a while. Now it’s more that when I practice, I just play around with the stuff I’m interested in. You just have to play it, there’s no need thinking about it. For instance, some of the more song-like material on the new album, there’s obviously some things there that I like a lot, that feels good for me to play. And then there are heavy conventions related to those areas that I deal with, playing major and minor chords… bar piano so to speak.
ØYVIND: So you just play on that all day long, hit and miss… Sounds cosy.
CHRISTIAN: Yes! It’s very informal. Not very obligating. I love it! And the good thing about is that you get a renewed fondness for the piano. Because that changes a lot.
ØYVIND: In what way? You get fed up?
CHRISTIAN: God, yes! It’s such a rigid instrument. You can get fed up with it just sounding one way. Any pianist who has spent his life getting the most out of the piano will probably disagree, but for me I see the piano as one out of many sound sources, and compared to many others, it’s a very boring instrument. There’s so little you can do. You have very specific pitches and so on. But I am also very fond of it. So then it is important with these things that show up now and then, so I feel like I still want to play it. And surprisingly, these are kind of things that show up, this kind of material. I get a lot of joy from playing that.
ØYVIND: You said there are things you would gladly listen to, but that you don’t feel like doing yourself. Do you ever get the feeling like you would like to play some burning solos on jazz standards, or are you happy doing the things you do? I have a hard time explaining what I mean… I often get this feeling, like there are things I should be able to do, although I might not really like it that much.
CHRISTIAN: (laughs) Like “You’re a musician, you should be able to do it!” No, it might express itself as some kind of mild admiration of what some people can do. Not to mention the ability to absorb material, and send it out with seemingly no effort, that can be very impressive and in certain cases it can make you flat out happy, to witness this kind of human skill. But for myself, I have no need whatsoever, to be able to do some of that, like standards, or other stuff within the jazz sphere. Actually, at this point, I couldn’t care less. I’m totally uninterested.
ØYVIND: It’s almost like you wished you were a bit more interested?
CHRISTIAN: I don’t think I can bother to wish for that either (laughs). It’s strange that it can change that way, thinking about where I’m coming from. From studying jazz in Trondheim, and the period after that. At this point, there are many elements in so-called jazz music that I have a hard time listening to. I don’t think it makes sense. It has to do with the elements, the idea of what is important within that music. There’s so many rigid forms and conventions and ways of thinking. One thing is that there are many young people that enjoy it, I mean, that’s not strange at all. What surprises me is that they continue to deal with music on those premises. I consider it now more like a way of learning, a school you can stop by for a while. There are so many great things about jazz, especially historically, when you hear the right things you are totally blown away. But to be stuck in that same way of solving things, that makes less and less sense to me.
ØYVIND: Are there any artists within modern jazz music you feel make sense?
CHRISTIAN: Some of the excerpts I’ve heard from what Moskus is doing, have been very upliftling. I would consider them a jazz group. A band like Monkey Plot, they’re about to get away from the jazz thing, becoming freer.
ØYVIND: And with that there’s a whole new set of conventions that sets in…
CHRISTIAN: With its references, absolutely.
ØYVIND: I’m having a really hard time with that at the moment.
CHRISTIAN: With free improv?
ØYVIND: Totally. I’m only listening to Joni Mitchell from the 80s. Then I try to put on something more abstract, but I just give up. I can’t do it.
CHRISTIAN: It’s the same problems that show up, regardless of style. When the content is emptied out. To put it a bit bluntly, I feel like jazz’ big problem is that it deals too much with skills, where improv is too much about dogmas.
ØYVIND: On the new album, Pianokammer, there is some processing going on. I don’t think I’ve heard that from you before. How is this done? Like the two Fahrkunst-tracks; what is that sound?
CHRISTIAN: It’s the sound of vibrating piano strings. So we’ve recorded them very close. If you press down some keys and play some other keys, all of them vibrates. We’ve recorded that, and then edited out the attack. So we recorded tons of these chords, in all registers, and then put it together on the computer afterwards.
ØYVIND: Is this something you’ve worked on on your own?
CHRISTIAN: All of it is done together with (Ensemble saxophonist) Espen (Reinertsen). He has recorded everything, and then we edited it together. He has dealt with all the technical stuff. There were issues like noise. It’s gained pretty hard, because there isn’t that much sound generated from just the strings.
ØYVIND: I liked that there’s a human touch, with the creaking, combined with the spaced-out sound. It’s hard to realise what is actually happening. Is everything through-composed on this album?
CHRISTIAN: These pieces just mentioned are created using this specific material, but it isn’t played live. It’s put together afterwards. Of the things that sound more like songs, it’s only the track Boyd 1970 that is the same every time. The other two (Hoksang and Lassome) are more about me working with the specific material for those songs, and then those on the album are versions of that.
ØYVIND: The material on those two are quite similar. It’s the same riff, but in another key and a different tempo.
CHRISTIAN: It’s related, the three of those songs. But I see them as three distinct pieces too. On Second Fahrkunst, I also wanted to do a lot of overdubbing. Something I never get to do. So the background and the foreground is recorded separately, and then put together afterwards. The random piano figure is actually four different tracks put together, and I didn’t listen to anything else while recording them. Also to get away from the timing I would probably get into if I were to play them all at the same time.
ØYVIND: Almost a bit of John Cage in that. Is he someone you’re interested in?
CHRISTIAN: In certain ways, yes. I’ve read some and listened some; some of it I really like, some of it I don’t understand at all. I haven’t heard all of it, but of course the prepared piano pieces and also a string quartet. But it’s not like I’m very into him.
ØYVIND: The title Boyd 1970, what does it mean?
CHRISTIAN: It’s just a arbitrary reference to something litterary. A writer.
ØYVIND: These soundclusters stemming from the piano strings, can you trace the inspiration for those?
CHRISTIAN: I don’t know. Usually, I can track down what has inspired certain things, but with these I cannot. What I originally wanted to do, which I couldn’t quite make happen, was to record selected material on different pianos, possibly with slightly different tuning. I only tuned one of the pianos I use on the record, as I wanted it to not be totally square. So, the idea with the ambient chords was to create a room consisting of piano ambience. Like an artifical room, that weren’t the sound of the room, but the sound of the piano. I want to do that at some other point. That’s why we recorded very close, because I wanted to get away from that standard way of recording the piano, with room mikes and and so on. It’s only close mikes on the album.
ØYVIND: I love the sound of it. It reminds me of David Lynch. There’s something eerie in there, somewhere. The clusters reminded me a bit of Ligeti. Maybe an obvious reference…
CHRISTIAN: I realise it’s easy to get those associations, but that was not on my mind at all. I just found it to be a very compelling sound. It created a lot of challenges related to noise, and that is why we abandoned the initial idea.
ØYVIND: Are you happy with the album, despite that you couldn’t execute the original idea?
CHRISTIAN: I’m very happy! It doesn’t bother me at all. It’s an unusual feeling for me to this happy with the result. I like all the recordings I’ve done, but there is something about the process with this one. It’s recorded over a longer stretch of time, recording a bit, then a few weeks later editing a bit at Espen’s place, then a few weeks after that recording some more… A very comfortable way of working. And also very nice that many of the ideas I had, I just had to throw them away.
ØYVIND: Is that hard to do?
ØYVIND: You have so many qualities I wish I just had a little of! If I have an idea, good or bad, it sticks with me for years until it’s done. Do you plan to tour with this material?
CHRISTIAN: I haven’t really planned that. It’s not like I really don’t want to, but the whole process, and what has been so liberating about it, is that I could get away totally from the live aspect. Almost every other album I have done have tried to make it sound like the actual performance as much as possible, especially with the Ensemble. This time, I just wanted to make a recording. A lot of this stuff is impossible to do live anyway, so it would have to different.
ØYVIND: Have you used any of this stuff with the Ensemble? You used to do a solo piece in your sets earlier I remember.
CHRISTIAN: We did a tour recently, where I made an arrangement of Hoksang for the Ensemble, and that worked out really well. If I want to do more solo performing, I think I would want to do something different. We’ll see.
ØYVIND: Why isn’t this album released on ECM, where you release your other stuff?
CHRISTIAN: The collaboration with ECM has been a good one, and one that I hope will continue. But I wanted to create a recording totally on my own terms. Sometimes you have to do things differently from what you normally do. I do think that in the way that you can’t make all your ideas come to life within one band, maybe in the same way you can’t release all the albums you want to on the same label. You could say that a solo piano should be possible to release on ECM, at the same time this album is made in a very different way from how they produce most of their albums.
ØYVIND: This according to your websiste: From 2008-2014, you did an average of 37,57 concerts a year. I just listened to a podcast with Paal Nilssen-Love, who does hundreds of concerts a year. I want to know your thoughts on this. Day to day life. Life basically.
CHRISTIAN: I don’t decide the frequency of things myself, things happen. The years you mention, I feel like I’ve worked exclusively with my own ensemble and Dans les Arbres, although I have done other stuff as well. It seems like despite how much work we put into it, this seems to be the concert frequency we can achieve.
ØYVIND: Would you like to play more?
CHRISTIAN: Yes and no. Earlier I wanted to do more work with both these groups. This year we’ve played more with the Ensemble than any other year, and that has been great. I wouldn’t mind if we did 20 concerts a year, instead of 10. Still, that’s not a lot. But it’s twice as much. But right now, it’s a bit too much, since both me and Tanja (Orning, wife and cellist) travels a lot. That’s a challenge, with regards to family life. That’s why I’m hesitant to say that I want to do a lot more concerts.
ØYVIND: How long do you feel you can be away for?
CHRISTIAN: Within two weeks is fine, but when it’s closer to two than one, it feels like a long time. For the kids it changes how they respond to it. So right now, I’m very happy with the balance between travelling and staying home. I also like working from home on musical things.
ØYVIND: Between the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble and Dans les Arbres, do you feel like you have covered the musical ground you want to?
CHRISTIAN: Both yes and no. The Brutter band is there because of a certain need. And I’m very happy for that project. It has a lot to do with instrumentation. For a period I was fed up with the electronic world. I couldn’t see why I should deal with it. But now I like it again.
ØYVIND: You have had some kind of electric project on and off through the years. Electric Pansori comes to mind. I don’t know if that still exists.
CHRISTIAN: It basically does, we just haven’t done anything in a long time. With Brutter we just recorded a bit last week, and that was a lot of fun. Some really good things started to develop from that. So including Brutter, I think I have a nice area to deal with, both concerning people and music.
Christian Wallumrød: Pianokammer