Terje Rypdal: Conspiracy (ECM 2658)

Terje Rypdal

Terje Rypdal electric guitar
Ståle Storløkken keyboards
Endre Hareide Hallre fretless bass, Fender Precision
Pål Thowsen drums, percussion
Recorded February 2019 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Martin Abrahamsen
Mixing: January 2020 by Manfred Eicher, Terje Rypdal, and Martin Abrahamsen (engineer)
Cover photo: Woong Chul An
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 11, 2020

For his first studio album in twenty years, Norwegian guitarist and composer Terje Rypdal convenes the talents of Ståle Storløkken (made familiar to Rypdal fans by his contributions to Vossabrygg and Crime Scene) on keyboards, Pål Thowsen (whose association with ECM dates back to Arild Andersen’s projects during the label’s first decade) on drums and percussion, and the youngest recruit, Endre Hareid Hallre, on fretless and Fender Precision basses. Known collectively as Conspiracy, they map territories that are at once well-trodden and uninhabited.

While Rypdal intended to use the group as a platform for reexamining old tunes, it became entity unto itself, yielding the six new cuts (many first performed for the first time here) included on the present disc. Foremost among them is “As If The Ghost… Was Me!?” As enigmatic as its title suggests, it opens with crisp cymbals before Rypdal’s unmistakable crooning snakes into frame. This clarion call to (and of) the creative spirit recalls the fishing lines cast into the waters of If Mountains Could Sing. Storløkken’s washes bring temperance to Rypdal’s fire, while Hallre’s bass dances without ever severing its roots.

The production yields organic details throughout. The buzz of Rypdal’s amp in “What Was I Thinking,” for example, is a bright comfort in an otherwise nocturnal hymn. In the face of such introspection turned into song, there’s hardly a lyric that would fit it. The keyboard swells are like breathing—so natural and automatic that we barely think of it. Not all is mist and gloom, however, as the rock-leaning title track attests. Even so, Rypdal’s painterly sensibilities are no less impeded by the harder canvas. 

Hallre absorbs the spotlight of “By His Lonesome,” wherein his flexible tones take low flight, surveying the landscape set before him with careful regard. Although such rounded topographies might be impossible in reality, save for the windswept dunes of faraway deserts, they sculpt a mountain with its own songs to sing. “Baby Beautiful” submerges its heart in a pool of liquid mercury. Cohering groovily halfway through, riding the tails of brushed drums and Hammond organ, it suggests rather than declares. The waves are dynamic but short-lived, content with never knowing another shore. And as “Dawn” crests with bowed tones and gongs, it signals the transformation of immobility into nomadism.

Conspiracy offers much to celebrate and admire for the longtime listener. Licks and atmospheres will go down as easily as favorite comfort foods. What shakes the boughs of expectation a bit, however, is the music’s clarity of purpose, which can only be born of experience. Gone are the 20-minute jams of his Odyssey days. In their place are concise yet dense short stories that parse nothing to convey their characters’ inner worlds, each a wayward blush with which we are privileged to share this leg of the journey.

Terje Rypdal: Selected Recordings (:rarum 7)


Terje Rypdal
Selected Recordings
Release date: April 29, 2002

Among the cadre of guitarists gathered beneath ECM’s umbrella, Terje Rypdal stands as a pioneer of Nordic hybridism. His cross-pollination of rock, jazz, and classical influences continues to inspire listeners all these decades later, and a collection like this offers blinks of an eye’s worth of insight into the full scope of his craftsmanship. Having said that, I can lead you through this sequence in confidence that Rypdal himself has chosen for us a worthy discographic pilgrimage.

Of the trifecta referenced above, the most thoroughly represented persona is that of art rocker. Wielding his guitar like an ax in both the proverbial and literal sense, he rightly divides sonic truth from fluff across a spectrum of classic albums. From the representative 14-minute “Silver Bird Is Heading For The Sun” (Whenever I Seem To Be Far Away, 1974), in lockstep with drummer Jon Christensen over Mellotron strings, to the aphoristic “The Curse” (Blue, 1987), with bassist Bjørn Kjellemyr and drummer Audun Kleive, Rypdal takes fearless melodic risks, compressing shadows into a prism through which to shine the distorted light of his guitar. Said guitar sings in “Transition” (Chaser, 1985) and distorts in “Tough Enough” (from his 1971 self-titled debut), but always in a way that listens before it speaks.

On the jazzier side of things, we find him guiding a band of melodic travelers in “Waves” (from the 1978 album of the same name) and forensically examining the horn-laced groove of “Over Birkerot” (Odyssey, 1975) as if his life depended on it. His sweet spot, however, lies somewhere between those two coasts, and reaches its apex in “The Return Of Per Ulv” (If Mountains Could Sing, 1995). More than my all-time favorite Rypdal track, it’s also a giant leap of intuition for ECM’s shaping of his sound. Rypdal is unabashedly lyrical and Kjellemyr’s bass pliant yet unbreakably supportive in a tightrope walk between grunge and beauty. Other liminal spaces to be noted are the cowboy’s funereal dream that is “Mystery Man” (The Singles Collection, 1989) and “Ørnen” (another from Chaser), which stokes Bill Frisell-esque flame with a distinctly Rypdalian kindling.

We encounter Rypdal the bona fide composer via the second movement of his Double Concerto, which was paired with his 5th Symphony on a wonderful 2000 release. Strings and harpsichord add a finely woven carpet beneath Rypdal’s guitar, building to urgency before flowing back into a comfortable baseline.

Like a saddle that must be ridden many times before it is broken in and which molds itself to rider and horse alike, Rypdal’s guitar has been well-traveled and handled to the point of serving as an extension of his body and soul. Only time can know where each ride will take us and how long we will need to get there.

Terje Rypdal: Works


Terje Rypdal
Release date: April 1, 1985

Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal almost singlehandedly defined an era with his signature electric sound. While that sound had much to do with his balancing of lyricism and grunge, and of his classical and rock leanings, it was forged in no small way in his compositional foundry. Such eclectic roots were already well-watered by the time of his 1971 self-titled ECM debut, from which “Rainbow” is included in this deserving collection. Joined by Jan Garbarek on flute, Eckehard Fintl on oboe, Arild Andersen on bass, and Jon Christensen on percussion, Rypdal delineates a resonant dream space where symphonies and concertos go to be reborn.

Though the works featured here are not presented in chronological order, it makes sense to do so here. Next in the chain is “The Hunt” (Whenever I Seem To Be Far Away, 1974). This relatively surreal tune marries the Mellotron of Pete Knutsen with the deep digs of bassist Sveinung Hovensjø, while the French horn of Odd Ulleberg exchanges letters of the soul with Rypdal through forested landscapes. Said letters might as well be signed “Better Off Without You” (Odyssey, 1975), in which Rypdal’s delicate arpeggio draws a trajectory through the heat distortion of Brynjulf Blix’s organ. The title track of 1978’s Waves carries over the same Hovensjø/Christensen rhythm section over the uninhabited spaces mapped by Palle Mikkelborg on trumpet and keyboards. Rypdal takes an immaterial rather than physical role, brushing on the atmosphere one shadowy strand at a time.

“Den Forste Sne” references Rypdal’s marvelous 1979 trio album with bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Jack DeJohnette. The latter’s call is so bright that it would blind Vitous and Rypdal were it not for their solar responses. “Topplue, Votter & Skjerf,” from the 1981 follow-up To Be Continued, casts Rypdal in a leading role. Like a warrior without armor, he wields only melody and protective instincts. Between those two signposts stretches the hybrid banner of Descendre. With Mikkelborg and Christensen at his side, he digs through clouds like an archaeologist of the ether in “Innseiling” and sings like liquid mercury personified in that 1980 album’s title track. These are, however, but a few of his many facets, all of which are worth exploring in a career that continues to evolve with listeners firmly in mind.

Ketil Bjørnstad/Terje Rypdal: Life in Leipzig (ECM 2052)

Life in Leipzig

Life in Leipzig

Ketil Bjørnstad piano
Terje Rypdal guitar
Recorded live by MDR, October 14, 2005 during the Leipziger Jazztage
Engineer: Matthias Sachers
Produced by Christian Cerny

Pianist Ketil Bjørnstad and guitarist Terje Rypdal present a parallel universe to the former’s duo recordings with cellist David Darling. Despite having performed with Rypdal more than any other musician, Bjørnstad makes here his album debut with Rypdal as a duo. Recorded live at Leipzig’s Opera House in 2005, this document finds both musicians unmasked and in prime lyric form. They are also more focused and impactful in their playing, needing only to listen to each other and to the muses guiding them to sing.

With a Bösendorfer piano at his fingertips, Bjørnstad elicits a heavier sound not heard on previous projects. “The Sea V” thus begins the set in rather dark territory for Bjørnstad, whose lyricism tends to skim the waterline. Only now it scours the ocean floor, a ghost from some ancient wreckage clawing silt and coral into musical rebirth. The pianism gradually turns into sparkle, while Rypdal’s fire remains untainted by the waves—if anything, enlivened by them. Thus the album offers its first of a handful of reprises from The Sea, including also Nos. II and IX. Both overflow with aching nostalgia, the mode of speech between the duo so heartwarming that you’d swear you’ve heard it before, even if for the first time. The latter tune treats us to some rare strumming from Rypdal for a webbed, Bill Frisell-like effect.

Other tracks link back to further group collaborations. From Bjørnstad’s Water Stories we get the utterly fragile “Flotation And Surroundings,” for which Rypdal’s subdued, mid-heavy whispers bob like petals on water, while Bjørnstad dips into some crisp, jazzy playing that takes a page out of Keith Jarrett’s vast book. This in turn elicits from Rypdal a crispness of his own as he carves out a fiercely melodic solo. “By The Fjord” comes by way of The Light. Originally written for voice, it gains even truer vocal quality by virtue of Rypdal’s introspection. His is a physiological bed made up in sheets of gold.

The guitarist’s own Skywards gets props with “The Pleasure Is Mine, I’m Sure.” There or here, it is a luscious and soaring thing, equal parts muscle and fragrant breeze. Two references to If Mountains Could Sing also put Rypdal in the spotlight. The overlapping guitars of “Le Manfred / Foran Peisen” whip up a fiery solo replete with grungy delays. This is a profound moment in the program, and a bursting foray into Rypdal’s cosmology. Fan favorite “The Return Of Per Ulv” closes out the concert in a spirited version. This has a different quality with only a piano to back it. One can almost see it relegated to the corner of a nondescript tavern, even as it blasts its message across tundra and sand. Rypdal’s soloing takes this one to new heights…and depths.

Three standalones round out the set. “Easy Now,” excerpted from Rypdal’s Melodic Warrior, receives an astonishing treatment. Rypdal navigates its chordal landscape with his eyes closed and his pick telepathically attuned to every change in wind. And a fragment of Edvard Grieg’s “Notturno,” a short piano solo with slightest shadows, shifts into a short piece by Bjørnstad entitled “Alai’s Room,” another solo so pretty that might have upset the balance had it been any longer. It offers just enough reprieve.

Even at its most sensitive, the duo maintains an epic quality to its playing. About as good as it gets from either man, and a sheer joy to have them—and no one else—together at last.

Terje Rypdal: Crime Scene (ECM 2041)

Crime Scene

Terje Rypdal
Crime Scene

Terje Rypdal electric guitar
Palle Mikkelborg trumpet
Ståle Storløkken Hammond B-3 organ
Paolo Vinaccia drums, sampling
Bergen Big Band
Olav Dale conductor
Recorded May 2009 at Nattjazz, Bergen by Norsk Rikskringkasting
Engineer: Per Ravnaas
Produced by Erling Wicklund

A line from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly plunges us into the world of Terje Rypdal’s Crime Scene: “Since we’re all going in the same direction, we might as well go together.” The fruit of a commission for the 2009 Nattjazz Festival in Bergen, Norway, the album is both a departure and a homecoming. In the former sense, it puts the Norwegian guitarist-composer’s pen to the 17-piece Bergen Big Band; latterly it deploys the rawness of his electric guitar into a mounting energy field. Joining him on the main stage are trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, drummer Paolo Vinaccia, and Ståle Storløkken on Hammond B-3 organ, all under the baton of Olav Dale. The cinematic charge of such forces is brought home by Vinaccia’s tasteful, if unabashed, sampling of classic Hollywood westerns, gangster pictures, and films noirs.

Rypdal’s long-range suite erects a ghost town of familiar voices: Clint Eastwood’s Blondie, Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone, and even (surprisingly?) Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown add their own grit and wit to an appropriately gravelly undercurrent. Much has been made about the use of samples in this otherwise muscled sonic experience, but these popular sound bites provide anchorage for the music’s spiraling outcomes. In regard to those outcomes Rypdal gives us tantalizing clues by way of tongue-in-cheek track titles like “Prime Suspects,” “The Criminals,” and “Investigation.” Throughout this course in aural detection we encounter dueling tenors (both instrumental and emotional) and a trio of bass clarinets, the undercurrent of Storløkken’s Hammond stoking the furnace all the while. Mikkelborg often echoes Miles Davis (a major influence on Rypdal’s earliest fusional stirrings) as the rhythm section’s grungy airlock holds its own against a tide of brass. Through this Rypdal’s guitar cuts—not a knife but a siren, breaking the seal on a bag of forensic evidence with sheer force of thought.

As referential as Crime Scene is to its thematic bon mots, it is even more so to Rypdal’s own career and inspirations. Head-nodding bass lines recall What Comes After and Odyssey, scalding the night with their nostalgia. The ambient collage of “Parli con me?!” and hard-hitting funk of “Action” (a prime vehicle for Rypdal the acrobat) rest comfortably between composite sketches of horns. And the darker “It’s Not Been Written Yet” leads to the even darker conclusion of “Crime Solved,” the low drone of which burrows into the skull in a way not heard since Q.E.D.

Crime Scene belongs to that sparsely populated league of such montage procedurals as John Zorn’s masterful Spillane. Although it may not puff as many cigarettes as Zorn’s exemplar, it nevertheless swims in its fair share of smoke.

(To hear samples of Crime Scene, click here.)

Terje Rypdal: Vossabrygg (ECM 1984)


Terje Rypdal

Terje Rypdal guitar
Palle Mikkelborg trumpet, synthesizer
Bugge Wesseltoft electric piano, synthesizer
Ståle Storløkken Hammond organ, electric piano, synthesizer
Marius Rypdal electronics, samples, turntables
Bjørn Kjellemyr electric and acoustic bass
Jon Christensen drums
Paolo Vinaccia percussion
Recorded live April 12, 2003 at Vossa Jazz Festival, Norway
Engineer: Per Ravnaas, NRK
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

Terje Rypdal’s Opus 84 is an interdisciplinary suite of epic proportions. The fruit of a 2003 commission by Norway’s Vossa Jazz Festival, this live recording finds the Norwegian guitarist-composer fronting an all-star cast that brings trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, bassist Bjørn Kjellemyr, drummers Jon Christensen and Paolo Vinaccia, and keyboardists Bugge Wesseltoft and Ståle Storløkken to the fold. Truly special, though, is the ECM debut of Marius Rypdal, who provides digital connective tissue at key points along the way and mines his father’s own discography—particularly Ineo, op. 29 and the 5th Symphony, op. 50—to nu-jazz levels. His veritable hand basket of samples, breakbeats, and atmospheres spreads a picnic that tastes much like Khmer (and, for the obscurists out there, also like Japanese guitarist Sugizo’s 1997 drum ‘n’ bass solo effort, Truth?). His computational acumen is clearest on the three movements he co-writes with Terje: “Hidden Chapter,” “Incognito Traveller,” and “Jungeltelegrafen.” Of these, the first two wield classically cinematic brushes, moving waves of ambience and computerized utterances across swaths of bedrock. Samples range from violin and chorus to a warped phone call pulsing through city streets under cover of night. Gesture for gesture, Mikkelborg matches Rypdal’s every cry, breaking out in the final piece toward full-on escape.

The “brygg” of the album’s title means “Brew,” a forthright reference to Miles Davis’s seminal electric-era Bitches Brew. The introductory, 18-and-a-half-minute “Ghostdancing” mixes a likeminded concoction of heat-distorted drums and organ over a rocking bass line. The thinking is bold, dynamic, and recalls “Rolling Stone,” the once-lost track off Rypdal’s own Odyssey. In this sea of reverberation, Mikkelborg’s vessel stretches the broadest sail.

If Rypdal and friends seem to be digging into the past, it’s only because they are messengers from the future. Be it encoded in the double-headed “Waltz For Broken Hearts / Makes You Wonder” or the halting “That’s More Like It,” his resonant stream is palpable whether his plectrum touches string or not. In this context, Mikkelborg, ever the empathic performer, plays the melodic prince to Rypdal’s atmospheric king. The guitarist holds his authority by no small feat of restraint, as he does further in the post-meridiem groove of “You’re Making It Personal.” Bass and drums haul a heavy cart of night while trumpet cuts shooting star scars over the cityscape. This leaves only “A Quiet Word,” actually a rather dense wave of dreams, to build the afterglow, particle by particle.

This is how it’s done.

Terje Rypdal: Lux Aeterna (ECM 1818)

Lux Aeterna

Terje Rypdal
Lux Aeterna

Terje Rypdal guitar
Palle Mikkelborg trumpet
Iver Kleive church organ
Åshild Stubø Gundersen soprano
Bergen Chamber Ensemble
Kjell Seim conductor
Recorded live July 19, 2000 at Molde Domkirke
Recording engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Album produced by Manfred Eicher

Regarding the modern Lux Aeterna (Eternal light), György Ligeti’s setting of the Latin text comes foremost to mind. Made famous by way of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (incidentally, my first exposure to Ligeti’s music), it did, of course, through that association take on cosmic aspects that may or may not have been originally intended. Although Ligeti was an earlier influence on Norwegian guitarist-composer Terje Rypdal’s take recorded here, the latter’s mapping processes are as distant as the faintest star. It is a setting in the truest sense, nesting one vocal movement among four others in a large-scale work that defies idiomatic description.

The first movement, subtitled “Luminous Galaxy,” is a serenade to the universe. Rypdal’s epic arranging skills and attention to color clear the sky of all pollution and distraction, leaving a naked belt, a cleft in the chin of darkness. The strings of the Bergen Chamber Ensemble (under the direction of Kjell Seim) reach heavenward even as their intentions burrow into the soil, spreading fingers and toes in pursuit of a shared, nameless goal. A celeste adds handfuls of stardust to the palette. Palle Mikkelborg then takes to the stage, almost startling in his surety. Warmed by the horse-haired fire around him, his echo-processed trumpet describes a vaulted architecture, of which windows and doors are galaxies unto themselves. The dialogic relationship established here at the outset encompasses so much space that the bulk of existence seems within reach. Swaying key changes mimic the flapping of a dress in the wind, the swirl of Jupiter’s eye, the quiet circumscription of Saturn’s rings. Through it all, the light of many suns coalesces in planetary alignment. And then, another entrance as a church organ (played by Iver Kleive) throws all satellite transmissions into paroxysms of static with its volcanic breath. It looses a subterranean call, rumbling more than singing, and bows in a gesture so luminous that only the pitch of night can contain it.

Rypdal explains the meaning behind “Fjelldåpen” (Baptized by the mountains): “For some reason now forgotten I wanted to teach my parents a lesson. I was 9 or 10 years old. I found a track used by sheep—very steep—and climbed the mountain fast. Once on top for a while I felt a very special connection to the mountain (and still do). At first I felt quite brave, but then a forceful wind started to scare me. And this feeling I’ve tried to capture in the second movement—you can hear when the wind is coming.” Rypdal goes on to say that he came down from the mountain to find that nobody had missed him: the world had gone on turning without him. The profundity of this realization at such a young age—the knowledge that one may be nothing more than an arbitrary arrangement of dark matter—is captured achingly in the composer’s lonely electric guitar as it leaves a trail of fuel to the mountain’s apex. Only when he surveys his achievement does he hold his axe to the sunset and light that trail with its fire. And as the world goes up in flames and licks the sky with its profound indifference, Rypdal shreds, balancing his trademark melodic lasers with the mercury of their fragmentation. His feet lift from the peak and float him beyond the clouds.

Hence the third movement, “Escalator.” Here the strings flow unlike earthly water, moving from land to mountain: a return to origins. Mikkelborg makes a subtle return. Spilling from a caesura in the very firmament, the trumpet liquefies and returns to a solid state in the musician’s hands, already itching with muscle memory to coat the landscape with elliptical grammar.

The fourth movement, “Toccata,” is an interlude for organ that twists the frame until all beings expire as they are, leaving only ruins behind. There, beneath tattered banners and dilapidated thrones, before the corpses of servants and skeleton-inhabited armor, a wordless sermon emerges with the force of a jumping spider. Distant flutes sing the praises of an idyllic age, when maidens and warriors needed no excuse to weep for love. This luxury of beauty plays out tearfully in the windowless corridor of this most titanic of instruments.

The titular movement ends the work with the voice of soprano Åshild Stubø Gundersen, introduced in points of contact and unison with electric guitar. Gundersen is captivating in her fallible tone, whereby she reveals the imperfections that make outer space such a ageless vessel for fascination. The difference between media blurs over time, so that Rypdal and the singer emote on almost exactly the same wavelength. The relationship between throat and pick feels entirely organic, less a shift between than a transfusion from one sonic entity to another. The organ sustains a drone and drops single notes like the signal tones in Close Encounters of the Third Kind—only here, the answer comes from within, from the trumpet (the messenger of peace), from the very rhythms of the heart by which all things cohere and expand. Descending chords—a recurring motif in Rypdal’s classically minded outings—leave their footprints clearly in mind. Thus spent, the densest matter spins into diffusion, leaving only the core theme intact, billiard-struck toward a black hole, silent and waiting.

Terje Rypdal: Melodic Warrior (ECM 2006)

2006 X

Terje Rypdal
Melodic Warrior

Terje Rypdal guitar
The Hilliard Ensemble
Bruckner Orchester Linz
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra
Sebastian Perloswski conductor
Melodic Warrior recorded December 2003 at Brucknerhaus, Linz (ORF)
Recording engineer: Alice Ertlbauer-Camerer
Engineer: Alois Hummer
And The Sky Was Coloured… recorded November 2009 at Jazztopad Festival, Wrocław
Recording engineer: Maurycy Kin
Mixed at Rainbow Studio, Oslo by Jan Erik Kongshaug, Manfred Eicher and Terje Rypdal
Album produced by Manfred Eicher

…from the house made of mirage…
…the rainbow rose up with me…
…the rainbow returned with me…
…to the entrance of my house…
…from the house made of mirage…
–excerpted from a Navajo Night Chant

How does one review an album for which one has also written liner notes? This is the challenge I set before myself in the instance of Terje Rypdal’s astonishing Melodic Warrior. Pairing the gargantuan title piece with a younger sibling, it reveals yet another facet of the Norwegian guitarist’s compositional profile, one that has given us such wondrous reflective surfaces as Undisonus and his Lux Aeterna. Where those two works examined sonic temperatures across relatively expansive climates, here the lens cracks in an implosion of voices.

Of those voices we get four prominent stewards in the Hilliard Ensemble, who also commissioned Melodic Warrior from the very ether. Their singing burgeons in a selection of Native American poetry chosen by Rypdal, along with a sprinkle of original words. To the touch-and-go listener it may seem an outlying choice for the Hilliards, unless of course one considers their likeminded reworking of Quechua and Passamaquoddy sources with saxophonist Jan Garbarek on, respectively, Mnemosyne and Officium Novum—in which case the fit could hardly be more intuitive. These are poetries rooted in that which roots us, pouring mercury into the primacy of oral over written expression: the lived knowledge that eternal regeneration is impossible without the fleeting rain.

The instrumental makeup alone chains this magnum opus to an immovable classical altar, surrounding the Hilliards with a full orchestra under the ever-erudite guidance of Dennis Russell Davies. It further bears the scars of Rypdal’s many-hued pools of influence, for his electric guitar bleeds through its movements like fire through lit steel wool, cupping a prog-rock relic or two in its satchel. In light of this, Melodic Warrior would seem to bring together many of his earlier threads into unified fruition—from his supergroup The Dream and on through the defining ECM years (Odyssey, Chasers, and especially Skywards) to the large-scale compositions mentioned above. The end effect is a snake coiled and poised to strike. Yet rather than deploy its secrets as weaponry (the melodic warrior sustains injury in place of others), it holds venom in mind and makes it palatable to the tongue and to the ear. Rypdal’s baying leads are unmistakable in this regard, stringing us as they do along a necklace of vocal cells, each writ large within the itinerant body. That we can at last experience the journey of that body on disc (prior to release, it had been maturing in ECM’s vaults for nearly a decade) is a gift for the soul.

Rypdal’s Opus 79 finds company in his Opus 97, And The Sky Was Coloured With Waterfalls And Angels. Whether coincidental or not, the numerical reversal suggests a kinship. And indeed, despite its wordless topography, the second piece would seem to drink from the same ocean, albeit on a different coast. Fronting now another orchestra and without the company of (human) voices, Rypdal paints bruises of a different kind: these the bursting flowers of a fireworks display. Although not overtly programmatic, those eruptions do materialize in periodic squints, carrying us out on a breath of awe.

It was an honor and a dream come true to contribute liner notes to this release. In solidarity with listeners (and because digital downloads deprive us of the pleasure of holding a booklet), I offer said notes in full below, with ECM’s kind permission.

… . …

Contrapunctus naturalis: Rypdal’s Warriors and Angels

The Chippewa tell a form of picture-story in which silence takes the form of two lines, close but never touching. As the asymptote of all existence, they do more than represent. They enshrine. Surrounding them is a need for self-questioning, for acknowledging the power of the beating drum.

River, nature, vision: these are the tools of the warrior whose flesh stands firm against the tide. Like the stag hanging from a tree—last touched by chipped stone and hunter’s eye, now drained by gravity and sun’s transit—it has an illusory stillness. Somewhere, in another time, the warrior’s legs still run. Terje Rypdal’s warrior is consequently melodic. Protagonist of his magnum opus, he activates a landscape by contact of lyric and pen. Its composer is a river; the voices of the Hilliard Ensemble its fauna; the writhing Bruckner Orchestra Linz, under the baton of Dennis Russell Davies, its flora. Davies adds depth through an abiding passion for living works. He gives voice to the margins, here doubly so, guiding Rypdal’s assembly through a 45-minute epic drawn from Chippewa, Navajo, Pima, and Papago sources. The words came to Rypdal by way of stage director and musician Carl Jørgen Kiønig, who lent him a book of Native American poetry. “Its closeness to nature mirrored my own,” he says, and thus the seeds were planted. Since its 2003 Austrian premiere, this Hilliard commission has taken on a soul that consolidates Rypdal’s many paths.

From his early ECM leader dates onward, including the self-titled 1971 debut and 1974’s Whenever I Seem To Be Far Away, Rypdal has had a hand in multiple idioms. He grew up in a classical home (his father was also a composer) and trained formatively in that sphere before taking to the guitar in his teens. If we can paint anything with these biographical colors, it is not the portrait of a fusion artist, but rather one who walks along dissolving borders. Whether in the chamber music aesthetics of Q.E.D. or the wayfaring 5th Symphony, in the droning lyricism of Undisonus or the flowing textures of Lux Aeterna, through it all persists a consistency of vision.

And what of Melodic Warrior? “The title came to me almost as a vision,” Rypdal recalls. “It felt as if I had planned something like this all my life.” Given the strength of this conviction, one might expect a ruder “Awakening” than what transpires in the eponymous prologue. The first of nine movements, it opens its eyes in high-pitched stasis, an abyss where the fray of human awareness hums above the earth’s surface. The ensuing plunge is cinematic to the core, traveling from cosmos to land, from breath to heart. In it we find the glitter of coastal waters, a veritable Bering land bridge rooted in sea floor and spreading its fingers toward wounded sky. To tread here is to embrace daylight, to feast on it, as the crow takes to carrion.

Storm, leaf, soil: the constellations Rypdal’s electric guitar lives by, echoes from a mythic past, garments donned by our four unmistakable voices when twilight falls around them. Their welcome blessing reveals an organic body, splitting and fusing like water’s flow. As one, they fly. In isolation, they soar. During solos their spirits thread disparate needles, sometimes flirting with call and response, but always with unity in sight. A storm is nothing without its droplets.

Rypdal remains the omniscient lurker, resurfacing across the suspenseful pages of “The Secret File” with script aflame. He envisions this dramatic intermezzo—having used it before in a hard-rock context—as a nod to Western film soundtracks, thereby bearing relevance on the contradictions of the Native American theme. Not until “Song Of Thunder” does he ride lightning into the roiling ash. He weaves stealthily, finding in the curve of a whale’s back, in the sweep of a honeybee’s pollen comb, the natural counterpoint that haunts his oeuvre at large.

The strings of Linz mark the face of this music with laugh lines. Profound shifts in light reveal rivulets and isles of possibility. In “Magician Song” countertenor David James evokes a leaf on that water, the tremble of the branch before its descent, the seed from which that tree burgeoned. Ancestors become stories, backgrounds become foregrounds, as they would in dreams, and close the circle by way of opening another in the light of a morning star.

The flair of Melodic Warrior brings to mind another ECM-represented composer, Erkki-Sven Tüür, whose background in progressive rock buoys a mind meld of fortitude and color. And if we can draw further lines of contact to the work of such 20th-century stalwarts as Górecki, Ligeti, Penderecki, and even a hint of Glass, it is only because Rypdal has mixed and baked his clay from the mineral-rich soil of deep listening.

All of this comprises a challenge to purveyors of modern music who rest on atmospheric crutches in lieu of compelling linear themes. Rypdal points to early conversations in this regard with label mate Ketil Bjørnstad: “We used to talk about how melody in contemporary music was looked down upon. I knew right from the start of my composing that I had to bring back melody…and beauty in general.” His forte embodies the uphill battle of this realization, beholds the world as new parents behold themselves, at once without and within. The polarity makes sense, for what is the guitar if not a bringer of visceral melody? It is a fortuitous compositional tool in the hands of one who wields it properly.

Sky, journey, reflection: the shaman’s initiations. As technician of the sacred, the shaman dismantles mortal designs. He abstains from taste of dust for that of haze. He casts bones through skin, passes mind through matter, and returns with timely prophecy. He visualizes decay, the withering of boundaries. He casts one eye down and the other up. Thus undone, the earth overflows.

And The Sky Was Coloured With Waterfalls And Angels is the receptacle of that excess. More than a landscape, it is another link in the chain of being. The live recording presented here opens a curtain on Wrocław, Poland, where the 2009 Jazztopad Festival (artistic director: Piotr Turkiewicz) is about to set forth on this purely instrumental journey. It is under these auspices that, with Sebastian Perłowski leading the Wrocław Philharmonic and Rypdal poised before six foreshortening strings, the music bubbles with the freshness of its premiere.

The piece was inspired by the 2008 International Fireworks Festival in Cannes and assumes a denser structure than its sibling. It brings to evidence the din of human commerce, technology, and construction, even as it links those rosettes high beyond mundane concern. The violin scratches an itch it cannot quell, unfurls banners of melancholia between explosions. Even a surge of harp brings little hope or heavenliness. It is caked with time, unshaken. Somehow all of this finds peace, such that the sky becomes the cell of another body, and that body the cell of another.

Mirror, vessel, silence: the totems of a composer seeking nectar. Once found, it drips from waterskin, emphasizes imperfections. This music holds a mirror to land, turning every arch into a ring. The counterpoint is more than natural. It is the all-encompassing sight of things created and destroyed. Every instrument sheds a skin.

The horns in particular take on a quasi-Wagnerian role throughout the program, signaling themes and atmospheres as they become intertwined with locations and avatars. At one moment the song of bestial life, swaying the next in bowed waters, they cast crimson lines of intention into a darkening sea. This is the trick of Rypdal’s notecraft: he digs into continental influences with an archaeologist’s eye, persevering where many have quit until that single common vessel is revealed, petrified yet singing.

Tyran Grillo


Melodic Warrior liner notes

It is my honor to announce that Terje Rypdal’s Melodic Warrior, a masterpiece commissioned by the Hilliard Ensemble and featuring Rypdal on electric guitar fronting two separate orchestras, will include liner notes by yours truly. You can pre-order your copy from Amazon here, or from your vendor of choice. In the meantime, I encourage you to check out a sample. Now the question is: How am I going to write a review for this one?

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