Photographs of the band by Erling Sand.
All digital formats music links: https://orcd.co/b-a-r
Green Isac began as a duo, Morten Lund and Andreas Eriksen, creating their first two albums, Strings & Pottery (1991) with a sound combining electronics and rhythms, fusing bowed strings and pottery with vintage synths and guitar sounds into a delightful ethnic stew, followed by their second album, Happy Endings (1997) an earthy blend of exotic strings and hand percussion. On the Spotted Peccary music label (https://spottedpeccary.com/artists/green-isac/) their releases include Groundrush (2001) which feature trance-dance ethno new age grooves, Etnotronica (2004) bringing a world music flavored electronic dance masterpiece, and then Passengers (2014) with an exotic trancelike feeling.
In 2015 they released their eponymous first album as the Green Isac Orchestra (sometimes in this discussion abbreviated as GIO), and expanded to five members which include Jo Wang performing on piano, therevox, mellotron, organ, and synths; Tov Ramstad performing on cello and electric cello; Morten Lund performing on electric guitar, lapsteel, electronics, baritone guitar, and gizmotron; Frode Larsen performing on percussion, mallets, and grand cassa; plus Andreas Eriksen performing on drums, percussion, synth bass, programming and arpeggiations.
The new album is titled simply b a r. This one word brings to mind many things: a unit of musical notation, a drinking place, a measurement of pressure, a professional body of lawyers, a landform composed of sand, silt, or pebbles, perhaps to prevent or prohibit someone from doing something or from going somewhere, a 1906 book by Margery Williams, a line through a letter or a punctuation symbol, it could be a family name or the name of a place... let us return again and again to a long raised narrow table or bench designed for dispensing beer or other alcoholic drinks. "Bar" is a word with a lot of different meanings, both in English and Norwegian. GIO tells us that it's not what these meanings are that's important, it's the idea of openness and wide views - and truly this is reflected in the music.
Photograph of the band by Erling Sand
To examine the musical, historical, and philosophical roots of the Green Isac sound, let's go back further in order to set the stage for where we are now. In 1978, along came an album called Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich; in 1980 came Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics by Jon Hassell; and in February of 1981 an album was released that really changed the world, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Brian Eno–David Byrne. All of this set the course that led to the birth of the various Green Isac projects.
Music for 18 Musicians is based on a cycle of eleven chords, employing in a new way pulsing modules of high-register acoustic sound from an ensemble comprised of violin, cello, clarinet, piano, marimbas, xylophone, metallophone, and women's voices. The augmentation of the harmonies and melodies, and the way that they develop in this piece, resulted in a growth of psycho-acoustic effects that merited further exploration that was eventually pursued extensively, including by GIO. The instrumentation, structure and harmony created a new sound sometimes called minimalism, or perhaps it helped to popularize serialism, but it is based on ancient repetitive progressive cyclic forms.
Jon Hassell is a Memphis-born trumpeter whose first interest was the sound of '50s jazz, he set about acquiring a PhD in musicology with a deep dive into Gregorian chants before he went off to Cologne (at the time located in a place called West Germany) to study electronic music with Stockhausen in 1965, then in 1972, he journeyed to northern India with La Monte Young and others to study the strange vocalisations and meters of those traditions. He learned to combine the sounds of Raga, African, Arabic music and more, folding it all into the richest of rhythms and textures, leading to his release of Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics and inspiring Brian Eno to take all this even further.
Brian Eno called his collaboration with David Byrne, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a "vision of a psychedelic Africa." He had not actually read Amos Tutuola's 1954 novel, but he liked the name and used it for the album title, nor had he anticipated the problems with using a technique being developed by the Hip Hop culture of appropriating anything and everything, which lead to a great deal of friction, controversy, and legal hot water, while being gloriously pounded by massive beats and wicked strange sounds. This infuriated Jon Hassell for a time because of many issues, including Eno's casual disregard for cultural provenance, but the album blew off the doors to free up a popular fascination with world music forever. Not to worry, Jon and Brian settled their differences and went on to create much more music.
One version of the GIO odyssey begins in Norway, with the label Origo Sound, an independent record label formed in 1990 by Harald Lervik. The first albums released that year were from Erik Wøllo, titled Images of Light, and Green Isac's Strings & Pottery, which were soon followed by more Norwegian artists including Geir Jenssen (Biosphere), Sverre Knut Johansen, Karsten Brustad, Langsomt Mot Nord, Eyeman Reel, and Neural Network. In 2007, Planet Origo came about, and returning to the original name in 2013, Origo Sound was re-established.
In Norway in the 1990s there was plenty of electronic music happening, with adventuresome collaborations and musicians moving between projects from time to time, as tends to happen in any exploding musical scene. There was a strong influence from a little settlement located way up above the arctic circle, in Tromsø, Norway. Mostly Oslo is the place to be. Some names to pay attention to are Bel Canto (Geir Jenssen: synthesizer, programming; Nils Johansen: synthesizer, violin, bass guitar, guitar; and vocalist Anneli Drecker), Erik Wøllo and Sverre Knut Johansen.
"We were directed to Origo from another company in this segment. Green Isac and Erik Wøllo were the first two releases on the label in 1990, followed by several releases of Biosphere. When Geir Jenssen quit the «arctic pop»-act Bel Canto to start Biosphere, he was replaced by GIO´s drummer/percussionist Andreas Eriksen. Bel Canto toured extensively worldwide during the '90s."
As horizons expanded, John Diliberto, of the pioneering radio program Echoes, recommended Spotted Peccary as a prospective new label for the duo, and the rest is history.
On Tuesday, November 4, 2020, at 4:48 PM, I had asked about a possible connection between the music of GIO and mathematics, and they had some interesting insights: "There are connections both in rhythms and in the dividing of the pitches of the notes. Green Isac (Orchestra) has always played with different meters and also different instruments playing in different meters in the same piece."
When asked for a definition of "music" the discussion turned to the German philosopher Arthur Schoppenhauer (1788 – 1860), "Music as a human form of expression is a unique phenomenon in the world, a phenomenon where one encounters something that cannot be replaced by anything else." Schoppenhauer deemed music a timeless, universal language comprehended everywhere, that can imbue global enthusiasm, if in possession of a significant melody. Many would argue that this applies to any artistic expression, but until abstract painting emerged in the early twentieth century, music was the only art that unfolded freely in its own purely artistic material that served no other purpose than music. He was among the first Western philosophers to contemplate Indian asceticism, denial of the self, and the notion of the world-as-appearance. Schopenhauer is famous for his influence on many artists and philosophers, providing for some a spiritual world and a new awareness of happiness.
Next I asked GIO for a definition of listening.
"Listening is a very central aspect of music making and especially during improvisation. It is as important as the playing itself."
Improvisation is musical extemporization in the moment, traditionally without planning or preparation but in the Ambient world, there is often a vague plan, places where musical signatures will change, places where special textures are deployed. In a group setting this is particularly interesting because there is a wonderful tension between the plan and the spirit of surprise or discovery. In the Jazz tradition there are long established patterns, when to take a solo, when to return to the base theme or groove. It's all about the results, how it sounds for the listener, but sometimes it is about discovering new and unexpected things, for the musicians, and the scientists.
"You could say that all our music is improvised since we never write anything down. However, we use a lot of time on arrangements. The approach is a little bit different between Green Isac and Green Isac Orchestra. The duo material is mostly studiowork with a lot of overdubs, while the 5 piece GIO is rehearsed and arranged by the band and then recorded with all members playing in the studio. There are of course overdubs afterwards, but the core arrangements are recorded live in the studio."
"We have had a recording studio for many years, and most of the ideas are developed there. Our studio is downtown Oslo, the capital of Norway. The inspiration for us here is more the sounds and noises from the city life, rather than mountaintops and sunsets. Living in a small country in Europe, we are heavily influenced by Anglo-American culture."
Ethnic electronica (aka ethnotronica, ethno electronica or ethno techno) is where artists combine elements of electronic and world music. Folktronica is a genre of music utilizing elements of folk music and electronica, often featuring stringed, or any type of acoustic instruments.
"We had some time ago a project called Etnotronica, a series of concerts where we invited guest musicians to perform with us. One of these performances has later been released as GIO-tracks («Thon» from Green Isac Orchestra). We definitely look forward to performing live on stage again."
Let us return to the ocean of world music, where there is a blending between the ancient and the current, foreign and contemporary, and pottery with liquid soundscapes to create a new melodic richness and depth. "Andreas and Frode have traveled several times to West-Africa to study traditional drumming and rhythms. We have all listened to folk music from all over the world for inspiration different from the typical western expressions. It is important for us to blend these influences with our own musical ideas without copying them directly."
The album cover for b a r is an image created by the Norwegian artist Nils Olav Bøe, who has had exhibitions of his work in many international gallery cities including Berlin, London, New York, Houston, and Oslo. He is among others purchased by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Oslo. His imagery is sometimes of constructed urban and industrial landscapes, atmospheric and dreamlike miniature tableaus, with warped dimensions and distances. http://www.omniweb.no/nob/
"We feel there is a relation between Nils Olav Bøe's artistic signature and our musical expression. The naked minimalism in his art suits us well." The cover of their previous album, Green Isac Orchestra, is also by Nils Olav Bøe.
Album cover image by Nils Olav Bøe, package design by Daniel Pipitone.
01 Volcanic 7:47
02 Le Grand Sportif 7:05
03 With Hat 3:25
04 Don Progini 7:03
05 Aarwaaken 6:10
06 Without Hat 5:50
Some of the song titles from b a r are unusual, it is interesting to speculate about them, allowing for the imagination to run amuck and make assumptions, freely associating word forms with foreign expressions and wandering into new areas of possible interpretations for the sound and for the languages used. The best way to understand song titles, I have found, without getting into distracting assumptions, is simply to just ask the musicians.
First I tried the old fashioned way, I typed each song title into Google just to see what comes up. The first title "Volcanic" really requires no deeper illumination, the awesome terrestrial power is self-explanatory. The second title revealed some sports clothing references, so I thought, sports... More energy! More power! A subsequent actual listen to the track removed me from that notion, the actual music is delicately exquisite slowly building patterns and details, layered instruments, mainly piano and cello, peppered with acoustic percussion and keeping a meditative mood that slides into a beat. "Le Grand Sportif" was a puzzler. So I asked. Here is what I learned: "One of the basic motifs in this track is inspired by an old jingle from a sports news show on Norwegian television. Add a touch of French and voila!" Merci. C’est si bon. Alors, laissez les bons temps rouler...
The next title is about having a hat, easy to grasp, but song number four, well you see, this is where my next question was applied, which revealed the following: "«Progini» is the original working title for this track, and is a contraction of «prog in nine» in Norwegian. This is referring to the influence from prog rock, and the actual time signature of the track. The addition of «Don» is a typical GIO-way of naming tracks."
Prog rock is also known as Progressive rock, perhaps it is an assimilation of classical music into rock, fused elements of cultivated music with the vernacular traditions of rock and roll, some harmonic language was imported from jazz and 19th-century classical music, creating a continuous aesthetic movement between formalism and eclecticism that is varied and is based on fusions of styles, approaches and genres, tapping into broader cultural resonances that connect to avant-garde art, classical music and folk music, performance and the moving image, with experimental timbres, rhythms, tonal structures, and poetic texts. Sometimes prog rock is called "art rock" or "classical rock" and can be recognized by electronic treatments, sound manipulation and minimal hypnotic motifs. Does that sound familiar? But can you dance to it? Some say that progressive rock is difficult to dance to, that it is music for listening, not dancing.
"We like people to dance, but it´s safe to say that we never intended to make dance music."
So all that to say that GIO has a refreshing and unique sound that you should listen to, it is not a sound that is easy to classify, nobody wants to simplify their life's work and reflected experience into a simple pigeonhole like "jazz" or "new age" or even "prog rock" so please don't try to put them in a tidy genre box, which is also the best way to approach, like, all of the Spotted Peccary catalog, because it all defies genres.
My favorite song on b a r is "Aarwaaken" which translates from Dutch as "to watch."
Let me close with a list of more music that GIO likes to listen to, this will allow listeners who are unfamiliar with Norwegian and Continental (and British Isle) or who just like exploring bands to hear something new and amazing. I know you love to discover new sounds.
Nils Petter Molvær
Three Trapped Tigers
Spotted Peccary Music
Music for 18 Musicians
Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics
La Monte Young
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
John Diliberto, Echoes
Nils Olav Bøe
Here is a review of b a r on BrainVoyager Electronic Music: https://brainvoyagermusic.com/review/b-a-r/