Ponca Jazz Records PJRCD 1010, 2012, CD album, 59m 30s
Visual Music is, according to the sleeve notes, a collaboration with the photographer Tomas Moss; the ‘power of combining vision and audio’, we are informed, offers a broader experience than either would alone, and we are directed to the ‘Visual Music’ website to discover more about this idea. The music on the album is all either composed by Brasilians, or inspired by Brasil, and on the website there are a lot of very beautifully composed photographs of Brasil and Brasilians. There is also a certain amount of explanatory text in Norwegian, but as it has all been inserted into the layouts as image files, I wasn’t able to paste it into Google for one of its Pythonesque translations. Judging by what I can see, the collaboration consists simply of some music, some images, and a short piece of text exhorting us to read them as a single work; granted, both sets of artworks have similar themes (a country as large, and nearly as diverse, as Western Europe), but I was at a loss to detect any real connective tissue, or any sense of a unified creative practice. Sure, we can look at the pictures while we listen to the music, and both convey a very similar representation of Brasil. They portray it in the way Western Europeans expect Brasil to be presented, as a country of beaches, smiles, capoeiristas and bossa; there is no sense of any specific meanings to be found in the collision of two media that could not be found in each independently, and notwithstanding a few minor intimations of poverty in the photography, no apparent agenda to explore or question received notions of Brasilian-ness. There seems little point interpreting this album as a collaborative work: although both it and the photos are very pleasing aesthetically, neither adds anything indispensible to our understanding of the other. The visual associations of these sounds are indeed well represented by Moss’s pictures, but I’ll stick to discussing the music.
So what indeed is there to be found on this handsomely digipak-ed CD? For the most part, there is just Marius Noss Gundersen’s classical guitar. He performs pieces by several Brasilian, and one Argentinian, composers, as well as a number of his own compositions; the composers he features straddle the classical and popular worlds, although the popular world involved is the rarified, middle-class milieu of bossa-nova and MPB, which is a small corner of Brasilian music, if a prominent one. All the material is treated very much in the manner of the classical repertoire, performed with respectful accuracy, and a mindful reverence for the tradition. Gundersen is a guitarist of impeccable technique and sensitive phrasing, less free with tempi than might be found in a purely classical context, but making full use of all the expressive levers that remain in the wake of a decision to record ‘readings’ of notated compositions. He is joined by percussionist Luis Landa-Schreitt on the Toquinho composition ‘Tarde em Itapua’ (a famous paean to a neighbourhood of Salvador, Bahia, a region whose musical culture is notably unrepresented in Visual Music’s picture of Brasil), who plays with rhythmic fire and great restraint; Beate Slettevold Lech lends breathy and mellifluous vocals to his interpretations of the Tom Jobim warhorses ‘Girl From Ipanema’ and ‘Corcovado’, and Magnar Olsen contributes a gorgeously lyrical double bass solo to the latter piece.
Visual Music is an irresistibly beautiful record. For all my reservations about the workings of the collaboration, it is also a very visual record: there is something about its aesthetic that seems to set neurons firing in the visual cortex. My predominant impressions while listening were of cool, clarity and poise; this is a music of the subtle nuance, the metaphorical raised eyebrow that can despatch the narrative in one direction or another (although the chances are both routes will lead to more or less the same place); it is a music of light and shade, dappled patterns of which are what I seem to see when I listen to it. This is a slightly airless recording: although the guitar provides its own reverberant space, there is (other than the percussion) virtually nothing at the top end of the frequency spectrum, which is an area where we sense the ambience of the (real or constructed) soundworld; it’s almost as though we had our heads in Gundersen’s guitar. Lech’s two vocals are delivered with rhythmic and timbral control as tasteful and as sexy as any readings I’ve heard of the English lyrics, although it has to be said that it’s some years since I’ve listened to the classic recordings of these tunes: had I heard them more recently, and considering how incredibly well-trodden these musical paths are, I might not have been that interested, but as it was I enjoyed listening to both songs a great deal. What this music is not, is a music of raging passions or life-and-death decisions; to play with Gundersen, his guest musicians do not need to be willing, as Elvin Jones said of playing with Coltrane, ‘to die with the motherfucker’. The whole vibe is one of cool detachment, of intellectual sophistication, of refinement and taste, like the ‘university music’ many of the composers were involved with.
Marius Noss Gundersen clearly loves Brasil, the country and its music; he has also spent some time there, which I haven’t, so I wouldn’t dream of questioning his experience of the place. But it is notable that his representation of Brasilian musical culture is very much the same one that is to be had in the world music racks of the few remaining mainstream CD retailers. Brasil is a vast and diverse country, of which I know very little, but I know enough to observe that the majority of that diversity is not getting a look-in here, and those parts that are have already received copious exposure in Europe and North America. What this means is that the record has a very specific audience; established fans of Brasilian music may well love it, if this is the kind of Brasilian music that they like, but it offers little in the way of novelty, and relatively little in the way of new musical insights into the material. People who like acoustic guitar music, and haven’t had much exposure to Brasilian sounds, will almost certainly be blown away by this, because it is a decidedly lovely collection of recordings. For me, the high points are Gundersen’s six compositions: not because I’m unsympathetic to musicians who choose to perform repertoire, but because I feel that the creative interest that remains in this area of music is more apt to be unleashed by new writing than by respectful interpretations of an exceptionally well-known canon. These pieces sit among the others with total confidence, evincing a complete assimilation of the rhythmic and harmonic vocabulary; ‘Obrigado’, with which the album closes, successfully integrates that vocabulary into a piece more obviously reminiscent of the classical tradition (and with a harmonic nod or two to The Beatles). Gundersen is a technically accomplished and emotionally committed guitarist, who knows exactly how to deploy delicacy for maximum emotional impact; he is also a gifted composer, and I hope that he’ll progress towards an emphasis on that aspect of his artistic practice, or a more adventurous choice of material.