March 26th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

ROYAL COMMISSION INTO SEXUAL ABUSE: J'accuse...! A travesty of justice

CANBERRA OBSERVED Turnbull's grand plan coming apart it seems

EDITORIAL Defence White Paper: rhetoric outpaces action


DOMESTIC AND FAMILY VIOLENCE Is not family breakdown the real issue?

ECONOMICS Oil offers resistance to free market's operation

HISTORY OF TAIWAN Kaohsiung Incident opens road to democracy

LAW AND SOCIETY Section 18C may render all speech "inoffensive"

VICTORIAN PARLIAMENT Risk to democracy, rights in health complaints bill

RESEARCH Transgenderism: treat it as a mental illness

MUSIC In deliberate pursuit of accidental sounds: Arve Henriksen

CINEMA AND SOCIETY Hollywood writes in "hero" part for Trumbo

CINEMA Hailing the Golden Era: Hail Caesar!

BOOK REVIEW Diminished expectations

BOOK REVIEW 12 million refugees

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In deliberate pursuit of accidental sounds: Arve Henriksen

by David James

News Weekly, March 26, 2016

Classical and jazz musicians have a profoundly different approach to the playing of their instruments.

Arve Henriksen elicits an

extensive array of sounds

from his trumpet.


In classical music the emphasis is necessarily on uniformity because the training is, in the first instance, designed for playing in an orchestra. Only a small number ever get to play as soloists and even when they do, they will also play in orchestras. That means that the approach to the various aspects of technique, such as tuning, articulation and tone, has to be uniform.

There is also room for expression – usually subtle changes in rhythm or emphasis – but otherwise the training of classical musicians is extremely regimented. It has to be.

The approach to instrumental playing in jazz is very different. In order to acquire mastery over the instrument there is a need for the regimented training, without which it is not possible to communicate the various desired effects successfully. But then the jazz musician pursues a unique, or at least a distinctive sound.

Distinctiveness in jazz

Thus trumpeter Miles Davis’ tuning, his subtle use of microtones, is immediately recognisable and one of the secrets of his plangent sound. John Coltrane’s tenor saxophone playing is consistently sharp, then moves back into tune. It is one of reasons why his sound possesses such a suppressed sense of pain (he was often actually in pain because his life-long addiction to sweets had rotted his teeth).

The pursuit of distinctiveness is thus central to the art of jazz in a way it is not in classical music. It is why the tenor saxophone is so prominent in the genre. It is an instrument that is designed in such a way that it automatically creates differences, perhaps one reason why it has not been used much in orchestras.

Finding a distinctive voice is much harder with, say, a bassoon, or a flute, or a tuba.

The piano is different because the sound is largely set. It is not possible to vary the pitch, or to create large shifts in tone. That is perhaps why it is more common to see pianists who can, at least to some extent, move between genres.

Henriksen plays Henriksen

All of which is a slightly circuitous way to open the discussion about a fascinating Norwegian trumpeter, Arve Henriksen. He is surely the most exciting jazz voice to emerge this century – even though he is not really a jazz player.

Jazz musicians who have been able to find distinctive sounds have typically tended to take the “standard” sound and to vary it in an individual way. “Here is how the instrument is supposed to sound, and here is my departure from that.”

It is often true that the better players depart more radically. The warmth of Stan Getz’s tenor, for example, is intense and makes a delicious contrast with the comedy of Sonny Rollins’ gruff, throaty tenor sound. We recognise them easily because they are a long way from the “normal” tenor sax sound.

But Henriksen has done something quite different. In a sense, he has taken jazz adventurism to a new level. Although he is not playing jazz – there is no hint, for example, of jazz rhythms or blues inflections – he is a true jazz player because of his approach to sound.

Henriksen simply decided that he was not playing a trumpet; he was playing Henriksen. Initially inspired by the sound of the Japanese flute, the shakuhachi, he set out to imitate the sound on the trumpet. The result sounds a little at first listen like shakuhachi, but it is not. It is Henriksen.

That was the first step. Henriksen then simply ignored the limitations of his instrument and began to explore just how many different sounds he could make.

Sometimes his trumpet sounds like a duck, or the flapping of wings (made by hitting the keys) or a foghorn, or beautiful female singing, or a hoarse scream, or the echoes of an eastern chant, or harsh brass, or extreme breathiness.

And to top it off, he also can occasionally sound like Miles Davis.

What makes this so remarkable is that Henriksen possesses so many different sounds; most jazz players have only one or two. Miles Davis creates great contrast between his muted, melancholy sound and his aggressive, screaming tone. Other well-known players have two, at most three, variations.

Most of Henriksen’s recording is done with synthesiser backing by Jan Bang. It is a fruitful pairing. Synthesised sounds are superficially diverse, but tonally homogenous. There is nothing homogenous about Henriksen’s playing, and the tension is wonderful.

This is playing that points to a startling new future, when instrumental players throw off the shackles of their instrument in the pursuit of new horizons.

David James is a Melbourne journalist and musician.

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