Neuzeit, which German electro-acoustic composer J. Peter Schwalm views through his new duo outing with the Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen, is generally taken to refer to the modern era that began in the 16th century and witnessed the rise of Western Civilization. Schwalm chooses to take the term on its face, however; the fusion of “new” and “time” he defines as a period marked by sudden and drastic change. To borrow another word from the German, it ably yet dauntingly captures the zeitgeist of our tumultuous moment, one in which political upheaval, global pandemic and catastrophic climate change seem poised to usher in an uncertain new existence.
“Neuzeit reflects the time of change after a crash,” says Schwalm. “The cards are remixed again; changes in any direction are possible. There are opportunities to get things right again – e.g. to rearrange them. Of course, there is always a dark side in everything.”
Neuzeit is not only a sonic commentary on this unstable age but a product of it. The collaboration was created almost entirely in the altered reality brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Schwalm began crafting the compositions in February, as cities around the world began instigating lockdowns to stem the tide of the virus. Realizing that he and Henriksen would be unable to meet in an actual studio, a collaboration by correspondence began, with conversations over the phone and ideas and music sent via email. Once the parts were recorded, Schwalm sequestered himself in the studio for months, assembling, mixing and editing to conjure the finished product.
“My idea was to offer Arve ideas that might inspire him to step into a territory where neither of us have ventured before. After some conversations on the phone we narrowed it down to a basic idea. Our starting point was rather formal and orchestral. It was quite a formal but at the same time a very creative working process in the beginning as we couldn’t meet in a studio due to the COVID-19 situation. But I soon realized that Arve is a really fast and creative performer and co-composer.”
Both men can boast a rich history of deep and inventive collaboration throughout their respective careers. In 1998 Schwalm’s electro-jazz ensemble Projekt Slop Shop caught the ear of legendary musician/producer Brian Eno, instigating a six-year partnership that included recording the album Drawn From Life, composing the soundtrack to Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Fear X, and the creation of a multi-channel sound installation in the crater of the Volcano del Cuervo on the Spanish island of Lanzarote. Schwalm released Musikain, the first album under his own name, in 2006; since then he’s released three other albums, the last two for RareNoise: The Beauty of Disaster in 2016 and How We Fall in 2018.
Over the last three decades, Arve Henriksen has established himself as one of the most distinctive and in-demand trumpeters and improvisers on the diverse Scandinavian scene. In addition to releasing ten albums of his own through Rune Grammofon and ECM, Henriksen has also been an integral member of the renowned avant-jazz band Supersilent since its formation in 1997. The trumpeter has worked with a staggering list of creative music luminaries, including Jon Balke, Marilyn Mazur, Nils Petter Molvær, Arild Andersen, Dhafer Youssef, David Sylvian, Jon Hassell, Laurie Anderson, John Paul Jones, Gavin Bryars, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bill Frisell, Terje Rypdal, Maria Schneider and Christian Fennesz, among many others.
The pair met in 2006 at the second Punktfestival in Kristiansand, Norway, an annual gathering of experimental musicians dedicated to the idea of live remixing. Since that year Schwalm and Henriksen have both made regular appearances at the festival, and have often discussed the idea of a joint project. “I always felt that the right moment and the right basic idea to start with would come when the time was right,” Schwalm explains.
Despite their mutually impressive credentials, Schwalm says that the two were strangers to each other’s work when their paths crossed initially. “When I saw Arve performing for the first time at the Punktfestival, I didn’t know him and Iwas absolutely amazed by his natural musical drive,” the composer says. “He is one of the few musicians where I think, ‘He is music.’ The way that the instruments he plays and his voice melt into such a unique sound is just stunning.”
Henriksen’s singular voice, combined with Schwalm’s visionary approach to crafting vast and evocative sonic landscapes, immediately seize the listener and transport them into an exploratory terrain on Neuzeit. The tone is vividly set by the opening piece, “Blütezeit,” which refers to something emerging and growing. There’s a bristling hybridity to the sounds created by the two men; the elusive atmospherics that usher in the piece seem to morph fluidly from snare drum echoes to crashing tides. Henriksen’s horn tone mutates into a vocal keen and back again seamlessly. Throbbing electronics and tolling piano suggest a no man’s land between the organic and the artificial.
The title of “Suchzeit” alludes to a search for answers and reasons, a resonant quest amidst such disquiet. Henriksen’s inquisitive horn probes the dark recesses of Schwalm’s mysterious environments, with an element of hope – if not quite certainty – arising over the course of the track. The title track, with its suggestion of tentative, unsteady footsteps, sums up the album’s theme of radical change driven by world events. The same is reflected in the album’s cover art, a vast expanse of sea and sky, momentarily poised between light and darkness – which, depending on the viewer’s mood, could be perceived as either threatening or promising.
With Schwalm’s elegiac piano tones, Henriksen’s breathy, mournful horn and the patter of rain upon an imaginary window, “Raumzeit” suggests a place of reflection and peace, whether physical or mental. Schwalm describes “Schonzeit” as the pause between the onset and the finale of a Big Bang; that could be the infinitesimal break of a held breath or it could be time itself, and the pair’s tautly cinematic dialogue here suggests the intimacy and expanse of that ambiguity.
Stark and pointillist, “Unzeit” stands for the wrong time, thrilling in the dissonant strangeness of its disjointed design. “Wellenzeit,” with its suggestion of waves, refers to the cyclical nature of time, a returning and repeating contained in the rhythms of life and the echoes of history. Gentle, questing and heartbreakingly hopeful, “Zeitnah” means, simply, “soon.”
Interpret that single word however you will, but with Neuzeit J. Peter Schwalm and Arve Henriksen not only encapsulate the conflicting feelings of our modern era but suggest a way forward. How today is seen will only be clear through the lens of history; but its shaping, this transportive and powerful album, seems to urge, is entirely our doing.