V. Johansons and F. Gjerstad are writing a piece for Skaņu Mežs and Insomnia

Latvian contemporary artist Voldemārs Johansons and Norwegian free improviser Frode Gjerstad are collaborating on a new composition, jointly commissioned by Latvia’s Skaņu Mežs festival and Norway’s Insomnia festival. The commission is a part of the project “Experimental music lighthouses: Riga – Tromsø”.



A new piece by Latvian contemporary composer and visual artist Voldemārs Johansons is being written for bass saxophone and electronics – in this case, it is also a collaborative project, as the work is being created for a particular performer: that is, the Norwegian free improvisation maverick Frode Gjerstad. The collaboration is part of the “Experimental music lighthouses” project, wherein two innovative music festivals – Riga’s Skaņu Mežs and Tromso’s Insomnia – co-curate each other’s programs.

Johansons, even though best known as a visual artist, frequently acts also as a composer, having written chamber music as well as music for films and theater. In interviews, he often expresses fondness for the work of Iannis Xenakis and Alvin Lucier, yet he stresses that he views modern composition as an inherently individualistic endeavor that doesn’t give room for emulating one’s authorities. “It is a direction towards a set of methods and approaches that, for practical reasons among others, simply cannot be repeated or imitated,” he says.

When asked, how he feels about the upcoming collaboration with Gjerstad, who clearly comes from a different field of music, he replies the following: “It is always interesting to work with strong personalities. When I collaborate with people who are creatively very different from me, but strong in their own field, the work gains a lot from this kind of synergy.”

In April, Johansons will visit Norway to meet Frode Gjerstad for their first rehearsal, as well as to start working on the structure of the piece. “Recently I’ve started to notice that there is something very northern about us, Latvians,” he says. “On this trip I hope to draw loads of inspiration that would facilitate my exploration of this theme.”

In summer, Johansons and Gjerstad will meet for the second time.

The piece will be premiered at Skaņu Mežs (October 2, 9 and 10) and subsequently also presented at Insomnia (October 22 – 24).

The work of Voldemārs Johansons (1980) merges his interests in visuality, sound and science. In experimental projects he strives to explore diverse phenomena, representing the experience through audible forms and spatiality of sound, building environments from visual and acoustic structures. Borders between the perception of the visible, the invisible and the audible dissolve in his works, creating a perceptual situation where rationally built spatio-visual order and irrational yet objective temporal processes overlap. “Art has the privilege of being able to speak about the unproven, the unrecognized, thus broadening the horizons of thinking,” comments the artist.

Saxophonist Frode Gjerstad is the leading free improvisation musician of Norway. He started out as a trumpet player, but switched to tenor sax as a fill-in for an R&B band, and has stuck with the instrument since. Gjerstad was attracted to free jazz after hearing albums by Eric Dolphy and, most influentially, Albert Ayler. Almost a decade after his jazz saxophone beginnings, Gjerstad started up his own label, Circulasione Totale. He had difficulty finding other musicians in Norway who were interested in playing, so his first, cassette-only release was a solo recording. Gjerstad eventually started a trio named Detail with British drummer John Stevens. The trio — and Gjerstad and Stevens’ close musical relationship — continued until Stevens’ death in 1994. Gjerstad then went on to collaborate with a myriad of free improvisers, such as Derek Bailey, Peter Broetzmann, William Parker, Hamid Drake, John Edwards and Mark Sanders.

Sam Prestianni of Jazziz magazine writes the following: “Frode Gjerstad may be the heaviest Norwegian alto saxophonist you’ve never heard of. His melodic phrases are punchy and surprising, soaring, at times beyond the Milky Way. This music exemplifies the health and wealth of energetic, contemporary free jazz.”

The „Experimental Music Lighthouses” project will take place between November 1 2014 – October 31 2015 and will be available to the greater public in October 2015 during the Skaņu Mežs festival in Latvia, as well as at the Insomnia festival in Norway shortly thereafter. The aim of the project is to promote a four part cooperation between Skaņu Mežs and Insomnia. This includes, amongst other things: the production of a Latvian/Norwegian composition; an exchange of Latvian and Norwegian musicians between the programs of the festival; creating a mutual festival program; the exchange of new compositions between Riga and Tromsø with the help of artists’ residencies. The unique soundscapes of both cities and their symbiosis is the emphasis of each of the exchange.

The project is co-financed by the European Economic Area’s (EEA) Financial Mechanism programme “Conservation and Revitalisation of Cultural and Natural Heritage.” The grant is made up of 84.236,74 EUR from the EEA (consisting of money from Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein), an allocation of 14.865,31 EUR from the Latvian national budget and 15.625,95 EUR of Skaņu Mežs’s, own means.

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