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Håkon Stene
Lush Laments For Lazy Mammal Tristan Bath , April 23rd, 2014 09:08

Few tools better bring to life the phenomenon of decay with as much immediacy as percussion. Despite the intrinsic association with sheer physicality, percussionists are perhaps the musicians who spend the least time in actual physical contact with their instrument. Between player and instrument is more often an empty space, left to linger, resonating as the skin, metal or wood dissipates kinesis into sound. It's perhaps an illusion, but the transfer of energy encapsulates  the deteriorating dwindle of time. The sound of a snare drum explodes ephemerally from totality to nothingness like a bolt of lightning, while a cymbal or vibraphone left to play out its resonant destiny can seem to last an eternity, gradually melting away like an ocean cliff at the behest of the sea. Decay as a form of creation defies logic, yet the controlled coming and going of sound is perhaps the final surviving defining characteristic of what music "is". Since Gregorian chants first bounced around stone walls long after leaving a voice box, right up to when digital synthetics allowed notes to sustain potentially beyond physical limitations, sustained and decaying sounds have breathed musical life into mute silence. Post noise, post minimalism, post concrète, post glitch - post everything - the inevitability of death and decay prevails.

As such, the (questionably titled) British post-minimalist movement in the 1970s remains, amongst many other things, a seminal exploration of decay in composition. Unlike the more learned, jagged sounding American school of minimalism, the British wing - probably best viewed through the hub of Brian Eno's tragically short-lived Obscure Records label - produced lush meditative pieces, often focused on melodic simplicity in favour of ideological and textural complexity. It's to this very remit that Norwegian percussionist, Håkon Stene finds himself drawn on the extraordinary Lush Laments For Lazy Mammal, breathing a virtuoso's sigh of relief and putting his nimble hands to gentler work on lengthy, beautiful, drawn out meditations. 'Hi Tremolo', a seminal piece by Gavin Bryar (of The Sinking Of The Titanic fame, a constant on Eno's Obscure Records back in the day, and probably in need of no such introduction) features prominently on the album, as do a composition apiece from Stene himself and fellow Norwegian and pianist, Christian Wallumrød, but it's the six pieces by Oxford-born composer and minimalist descendant of Bryars et al, Laurence Crane, that define the record.

Crane was quoted in last month's The Wire as being "interested in using familiar and commonplace musical objects in new structural and formal relationships. Common chords and intervals, arpeggios, drones, cadences [...] presented in regular and irregular repetitions [...] partly intuitive and partly structured." The manifesto's clear, and while it may seem to the musical academic to be one of austerity, the sublime beauty of the pieces as captured by Håkon Stene on Lush Laments seem anything but ascetic - despite the restraint it's almost overwhelmingly rich and affecting for the listener. 

The opening 'Prelude For HS', presumably written by Crane for Stene, couldn't be simpler. A barely ascending series of chords from Stene's vibraphone shimmer alongside a single sustained note each from a piano and cello. Chamber music can't get less complex than this, yet it's a brilliantly desperate sounding moment of infinitely repeatable musical stasis. The aforementioned 'Hi Tremolo' argues slightly with Crane's more subdued approach, choosing to blend notes and instruments into one single wavering entity, as Stene's percussion, beside a mirroring piano, quivers its way through the titular tremolo, trudging from one chord to the next until seven minutes in to the piece, the barely discernible dulcimer explodes through the top of mix to lead the piece through to its final sweeping anti climax. The piece hovers with unease, inherently tentative and uncertain as infinitesimal variation smudges its sea of scattered gentle notes into one congealed whole. The Crane pieces eschew chaos for protracted tranquility - 'Bobby J' for example amounts to little more than an ebbing series of luminescent snail's pace guitar tones à la Stars Of The Lid (the guitar is in fact played by Stene himself, though he assures us he is "definitely not to be regarded as a guitarist"). Stene plays it much like his melodic percussion; hands off, allowing the strings sing out until they decay to nothing.

Stene's arrangement of Crane's 'Riis' - named after Danish Tour de France winner (and admitted doper), Bjarne Riis - is similarly comprised of little more than contemplative dreamy keyboard washes and stretched e-bow tones, albeit with something of the gradual peaks of troughs of Bryars. The track travels from chord to chord with all the haste of a funeral procession, and perhaps even more solemnity. Sombreness and dissonance return on the piece written by Christian Wallumrød (the pianist also plays on the album), composed on commission from Stene back in 2009. The piece wanders between the contrasting world of Wallumrød's densely cacophonous piano stridence and Stene's sweetly airy vibraphone notes, mathematically spaced out like grand banquet place settings.

On the closing 'Blue Blue Blue' (again by Laurence Crane) Håkon Stene turns to the piano himself, this time captured with marginally less fidelity and further away from the instrument, in a widescreen that allows the atmosphere of the echoey church or village hall that sits in the collective European unconscious to sustain the tones unnaturally longer. The piece consists of little more than two chords, with the player pressing each out in groups of eight before moving to the next, then back, and cycling on potentially infinitely. It's cinematic, divine and heartbreaking despite being so straight forward, as is the very quest of this music. Eventually the pieces, and Lush Laments For Lazy Mammals, comes to a simple and noble close. 

While virtuosity and complexity have always imbued compositional music with a certain baroque merit, Håkon Stene - like this album's ancestral British minimalists - has removed any frivolous intricacies, and let the notes and ideas ring out and true. For the listener it removes the question of "how" the music happens, and allows us to focus on the "why". Listen closely, and you'll find the answer for yourself.