გახსენით მობილურ აპლიკაციაში

New era, Ideas, People.
Stian Westerhus

It’s not a show. It’s the real deal. Life and death | Stian Westerhus

On April 13th, the world of experimental music will witness a captivating performance by the Norwegian maestro, Stian Westerhus. Taking center stage at the Bassiani, as part of the experimental and electroacoustic music series ZENAARI, the gifted guitarist, composer, and researcher will treat his audience to an evening of electroacoustic and experimental music that transcends boundaries and invokes emotional connections. Westerhus's versatility is at the core of his prowess, as he seamlessly explores, writes, and performs with a rare blend of firmness, effortlessness, and inspiration. His artistic prowess extends beyond mere virtuosity, drawing listeners into a narrative that defies rational comprehension and demands emotional investment. It is this "third element," a familiar yet uncharted territory, that sets his work apart from others in the field. Stian Westerhus has a remarkable ability to maintain his unique identity in both solo and collaborative projects. However, it is when he stands alone on stage that his true genius shines, as he effortlessly channels his stream of consciousness into music. In these moments, the musician becomes an instrument that wields another instrument, together creating an expression that knows no bounds. Westerhus's performances are a masterful blend of unfiltered improvisation and meticulously crafted melodies. The chaotic energy of NU jazz gives way to simple minor harmonies, while atonal elements evolve into tonal structures. As the music progresses, harmony swells and becomes more liberated, and micro-structural outlines merge together. This auditory adventure activates all senses, leading listeners on a cathartic journey towards emotional release. Attempting to capture the essence of Westerhus's performance in words is akin to verbalizing love – the most one can say is "I love you." Similarly, descriptions of his music often fall back on words such as "devastating," "haunting," "charismatic," "mystical," "pressured," "surreal," "powerful," and "fantastic."  Beyond the aforementioned descriptors lies an artist with an acute awareness of his introspection, observations, and the very process of artistic expression. In the subsequent interview, Westerhus offered insightful responses to the questions I posed, revealing the profound depth of his creative vision. Our editorial team has chosen to present these responses to you in their unaltered form, maintaining the authenticity and impact of the artist's words.

You’ve chosen the academic route to study music, receiving your Bachelor’s degree at Middlesex university and Master’s at NTNU. Later you even got your PHD in Artistic Research. Why did you take this approach? How important is classical education or degrees for a musician? What motivated you?

Stain Westerhus: When I was in my early teens there was a local squat-style venue that presented the best of punk, hardcore and alternative rock bands in the nearby town. We would hang out there all the time to see concerts and there was also a rehearsal space there which was pretty much free to use for all bands in the area. Later when the council ran that over the space deteriorated into something like an institution for social workers without any understanding of culture. The venue disappeared without the TLC it got constantly from the people who would hang out there and most of what music I found interesting was presented at the local jazz club at Inderøy. It was, and still is a tiny club, but going strong. They had progressive bookings presenting what was happening in the young Norwegian jazz scene, many coming out of the Jazz Conservatoire (now NTNU) in Trondheim which is close by. I saw all these fantastic musicians coming out of there and I was interested in alternative and free jazz so I thought jazz education would do me good. As a toolbox for learning the theory and craft of music jazz education can be good. Important? Well, it depends, but I definitely think it’s important to have enough time to play with music rather than just play music. Experimentation. For that music education is great. I spent years trying to break music and break my instrument in new ways. Really destroy music and my own understanding of it and build it up again. But yeah, I had to write a PhD to figure out what happens to aesthetic development, maybe partly because of the heavy education I have! If you want to make a product out of yourself and your music then you might as well just take marketing classes, but if you’re curious and personally involved and only use music as a vehicle for self expression then knowledge never feels wrong.

INDIGO: In the review of your latest album, Joe Banks wrote that if your „Amputation sounded like a corporeal attack, a war being waged between voice and music, Redundance is the (relative) calm after the storm…” Redundance is indeed more lyrical and melodic, but the intensity and the raw and lightly hysterical passages have not gone anywhere either. What conditions the changes of the overall essence between the albums? How do the environment and current events influence your music and how consciously is the factual reality translated into your compositions?

Stain Westerhus: Well, Amputation became what it was because I was going through some very heavy things in my personal life where I ended up without a family, personal history and even a sense of place or belonging. It was like if I had lost such a big part of me at that time that I didn’t even know if the past I remembered was real. It really felt like a psychological amputation of a lived life.

Then, in the years that followed I did quite a few solo concerts with Amputation whilst I also got commissioned to write music for a couple of festivals and orchestras. Now Amputation and that whole process had opened the floodgates and the velocity of the stream was too hot to handle. And so a lot of that music from the years post Amputation was from that same length of rope. It really was a tremendous amount of music, hours, that was just performed once and never recorded and looking back at it I wanted to re-own that music, take control over it, and that became Redundance. Redundance was like picking up pieces of a broken mirror. Now, the coming album, SOTT, is the end of the trilogy. Where things were cryptical on previous releases SOTT is certainly more outspoken and direct. Where Amputation was explosive SOTT is a relentless infernal flame. Even the soft sides of that album are like acid burns. Where Redundance came to clean up the mess, SOTT comes to town with a hammer and a bucket of nails for the coffin.

INDIGO: They say that you cannot fill your cup if you don’t empty it first, but musicians normally take periods when they’re not creating rather harshly. How often do you experience aristic stagnation and how do you deal with it emotionally? Are these periods distinctive somehow? What can one learn when that happens?

Stain Westerhus: Well, this is pretty much what my PhD is about. I felt like I was stagnating creatively, like I was becoming a circus horse doing “my tricks”, and that music was becoming uninteresting and predictable for myself. I took the chance to say; everything you have thought about your creative process, about how music and aesthetics works, and your own abilities – they are all wrong. Turned out I was right! So I’m rewriting that thesis into a more readable book in the year to come actually, so to answer your question; please ask me again this time next year! It is way too complex to answer in a few sentences.

INDIGO: How often do you listen to music the daily basis and can you share 5 tracks you’ve listened to frequently over the past 2 weeks? To what extent do you need to listen to music in an actively creative phase? Do you purposefully use music as an inspiration?

Stain Westerhus: Yeah, sure, but I don’t listen to music to be inspired, but more to just partake in the whole world of music. I have small kids and life’s reality is very much in the present so the abstract world of music can seem far off, and for that I find I sometimes need to remind myself how incredible the feeling of music can be, and that is inspiring of course. Last few weeks I’ve listened to a lot of folk music from Norway. Some new, some older. But I must admit that lately I’ve been immersed in recording some new tracks with ULVER as well as mixing and mastering a collaboration with composer, singer, noise artist and now organist Maja S. K. Ratkje. We’ve been writing tunes inspired by Shakespeare sonnets and plays and it’s all acoustic! Acoustic guitar, fiddle, manual harmonium organ and our two voices. It’s a little bit like americana played by Norwegian emigrants in the year 1895, all skewed with our contemporary classical and improv influences. Might sound a little scary, but it’s actually very beautiful. We even crash into and somehow politely dent Pergolesi in the process. That all feels very new to me, to be that naked, no effects, no nothing. Just the acoustic guitar and the voice. I really like the challenge. And above all the music and interplay with Maja is absolutely mind bending. And yeah, for periods like this I don’t listen so much to other peoples music.

INDIGO: Jazz musicians often say that improvisation, at its core, is an instant, or quick composition, which is true. This means that each improviser makes a composer, but not all composers are improvisers. What distinguishes a good composer from a good improviser?

Stain Westerhus: Interesting question and I wish I had an interesting answer, but I for me improvisation is a tool. You can use it in a live setting or you can use it slightly differently in a compositional setting etc. Tools are only tools. Instruments are tools. Also not really interesting. Theory and technical proficiency are also tools somehow. None of them are more than colors or materials if you want. I always think that the most interesting music comes out of those that dare to play or compose their music without trying to color it too much. If it’s improvised or composed doesn’t really matter. If it’s the real deal musical meaning will transcend the medium, the process and the tools.

INDIGO: Where’s the line between theoretical and technical capacity and the significance and authenticity of what you have to say? A good example for this would be John Coltrane’s Theory Freak stage which practically brought him to nihilism; What does it take to write Giant Steps for example, a piece that extends the capacity of music in all directions, while maintaining truth, honesty and accessibility to everyone.

Stain Westerhus: Woah, yeah, Coltrane. Now there’s a subject that I’m not even going to go close to, mostly because the whole history of Coltrane is not something I know as deeply as a lot of people, but I will say this; Giant steps and that whole technical side of his legacy is so powerful and such a massive leap out of mainstream jazz at that time – the fact that he could still tell his story over those changes and in those tempos was pretty explosive in its own right. Having said that I would rather listen to Om any day of the week. Now, to your question and to somehow repeat what I said earlier; to me music is interesting if you are able to play “your music” without coloring it. I think most people will agree that I am not a very good guitarist, I will agree to this as I am a lousy session player – I can’t play in the style of this and that over and over again – I just can’t bring myself to do it, but to be able to play the stuff I do, to be able to play “my music” and to have the creative processes without limitation I have to stay as technically proficient as I can. I don’t have to play really fast or technical, but it helps to be able to. Say, when I track with ULVER many times I will have an idea in my head, I’ll pick up the nearest guitar or bass or whatever and we’ll press record, we’ll do the take and maybe one more and that’s that. My improvisation is not “by chance”, I need to be able to take command of the instrument to make it respond to what I want to do. Once you have to stop to think about it the spirit of the moment is gone, and for me that is why I practice.

– What’s your favorite musical mode? 

– Transcendence

INDIGO: On the one hand, your music is quite complex to understand to the average contemporary listener, since it doesn’t follow the structure of classical popular compositions or familiar harmonies, but it’s also easy to listen to and rather catchy; is this something you do purposefully following a specific method, or do you just follow the flow?

Stain Westerhus: The records are all pretty produced and though they have a lot of “live” playing on them the music comes in its own format which I love to use for what it’s worth. It’s the only reason why I have my own studio. Live, in a concert setting, the music is performed in a completely different manner. Most songs will not sound the same, or even have the same expression to them. They might not even be with the same chords or rhythms or whatever, but they are the same compositions, only allowed to be performed in the moment with what music was at hand at that moment. A solo concert is in large very improvised. I don’t write a setlist and I don’t plan for anything. It’s a journey. An expedition. Doing a concert like this is a very personal and intimate expression of years of writing music and I think people really relate to that and find it easier to accept music that’s not overly predictable. It’s not a “show”. It’s the real deal. Life and death. Music as real and as complex as you and me and performed in a way that is believable, vulnerable and thus relatable.

INDIGO: Do you play around when you compose and play, or is it just work?

Stain Westerhus: To paraphrase Shakespeare; If music was like work then death would be like spring.

With your help we will be able to create even more high quality material Subscribe