WORKING IN THE STUDIO
It was in the winter of 2007, while we were in the process of mixing The Light, when Manfred Eicher came up with the idea for Night Song at a coffee bar in Oslo. It was particularly welcome for me that he wanted to invite Svante Henryson to participate, as I remembered with great pleasure a duo concert Svante and I had held at the Bath Festival two years earlier. I remembered some of the powerful compositions Svante had presented to me on that occasion, and as always, I found it easy to compose for him. I took my own fascination with Schubert as my point of departure. Ever since I sat evenings in the school gym as a 14-year-old, playing his sonatas in the dark, afraid that someone would discover that I had borrowed the caretaker's keys without permission, I have been nearly obsessed with Schubert's linear melodic and harmonic patterns. It is no coincidence that in my novel 'The River' ('Der Fluss'), the protagonist Aksel Vinding sees Schubert twice in dream sequences. Schubert's almost naïve openness, his existential sense of wonder and his emotional passion make him at the same time both concrete and mythical. He is a musician one wishes one had known, could talk to, could confide in. Schubert lacked much of the theoretical knowledge that many of his contemporaries possessed. Perhaps it was precisely this limitation that attuned him so intensely to his own originality. Night Song was conceived as a musical dialogue with Schubert and as a tribute to him. Without paraphrasing him directly, many of Schubert's musical ideas are used in this suite, not least the linear model apparent in many of the subsidiary themes of his piano sonatas, as well as the frequent shifts between major and minor keys.
With this starting point, I met Svante for the first practice sessions before making the recording and discovered that he shared the same musical frame of reference in his compositions. Svante's unique responsiveness makes him the perfect chamber musician. And Manfred knew this, of course. Because when we entered the studio he wanted us to sit as close to each other as possible, and to play acoustically, without headphones or glass partitions.
It is always special for a musician when an ECM production evolves through a dialogue with producer Manfred Eicher from the very beginning. It can probably be compared to what an actor felt, or feels, when working with a film director like Ingmar Bergman or Jean-Luc Godard. The director's, or producer's, own aesthetic sense and creative techniques can be so compelling that the actor, or musician, willingly defers to a conceptual universe that may have a wider scope than the ideas he or she had been working on. When Manfred Eicher decides to produce a musician, he knows precisely what this person is capable of. But he may want to coax forth other elements than those in the original concept. This could result, for instance, in a composition with an entirely different structure or dynamics than those of the original score.
This dialogue between the producer and the musician is typical of ECM. When you go into the studio with Manfred, you are keenly focused and prepared for hard work and sudden surprises.
Just as I did on my recordings The Sea and The River, I experienced maximum presence on the part of Manfred, which meant that he sometimes literally sat beside me and conducted the music. As a former young bass player in an orchestra, he knows what the task of the conductor involves. It is as much a matter of defining limits as of providing freedom. But freedom is not something that can just be grabbed and used successfully. Using freedom is something that must be learned, often through hard-earned experience. Manfred Eicher has always shown enormous confidence in his musicians by not interfering with the music before it is presented in the studio. The musicians' intentions become clear to him in just a few minutes. Then it is also easy for him to hear what is superfluous or unnecessary in the relevant context. Being produced by Manfred Eicher is very much a question of becoming aware of one's own expressive idiom, while at the same time being able to surrender oneself to his vast musical space, just as an actor must surrender to a director, and to believe that he or she is exactly the right person to see what is unique while also respecting one's integrity of expression.
Creating music from such a starting point is a cathartic process which can be a shock to an inexperienced musician. But in the final analysis it will always be perceived as liberating. Many of the compositions on Night Song ended up with a totally different expressive quality than in our original concept, but there was never any doubt as to the path we had to take.