An album called Silence purporting to have well over an hour's worth of music certainly had me wondering what to expect. Any initial silence is broken by pressing play, after which instead you'll hear a low-level synth drone over which Norwegian jazz pianist Tord Gustavsen adds some tentative introductory piano notes with his right hand. He is then joined by kemenche player Derya Tűrkan, percussionist Őmer Arslan and finally Coşkun Karademir, who plays two Turkish long-necked lutes on the album, the kopuz and the bağluma. After three minutes of slow tempo improvisation with each musician setting out his stall, Gustavsen introduces the melody "Gondol," a 19th century piece composed by an Ottoman sultan, which then forms the basis of some rich collective playing.
With three out of the four musicians being steeped in Turkish traditional music, Tord Gustavsen takes on the role of guest collaborator, but that is not to say that it doesn't hold together musically. He may be from a different musical tradition but there is a thoughtful, meditative, sometimes sombre quality in the chosen pieces which matches Gustavsen's personal style perfectly. He has been recording for about twenty years and following the example of a succession of Scandinavian jazz musicians, he eschewed the virtuosic dazzle of much jazz, going for a more minimal approach, seeking essence rather than extravagant elaboration. Here, while Gustavsen's melodic interventions show his jazz sensibilities, they pretty much keep true to the modality of the pieces and much of the time he is to be found providing rhythmic support alongside Arslan.
On tracks such as the uptempo "Sirdaş" he brings a dark quality from the lower strings of the piano while Tűrkan and Karademir improvise above it. The soaring tones Derya Tűrkan produces from the bowed kemenche are irresistible, setting up a fine contrast with the plucked strings of the equally adept Karademir. Add to that the percussive piano playing from Gustavsen and you have a perfect illustration of the wide range of sounds stringed instruments can offer.
Two tracks on Silence feature Coşkun Karademir singing, joined on "Payton Geldi" by Derya Tűrkan playing in unison on the kemenche, duplicating the subtle vocal inflections and demonstrating the close relationship of the vocal and instrumental styles in such traditional music.
The penultimate track on the album features two pieces from the Anatolian region of Turkey, "Aşk Bezirgan" and "Uzundere Bari." According to the press release these "emphasize the eternity that transcends space and time in the human soul" and they feature some of the highlights of the album, a useful reminder in these days of isolation just how good music can be when it's possible for musicians to actually get together in a studio for a day (that's how long this album took to record) and create something new.
I'm still unsure quite why the album is called Silence. The explanation given, that "the album reminds all people that silence is the heavenly part of the universe" doesn't really help much. American composer John Cage gave the name "Silence" to a book of his essays back in 1961 and he's probably most widely known for his "silent" piano work, "4'33." He said that as human beings we can never experience pure silence and in doing so sought to shift the emphasis in music, for performers as well as the audience, to listening, even when there is no sound coming from the stage or the speakers.
The idea has gained currency in recent years, with a greater awareness of the importance space plays in music. Tord Gustavsen certainly brings this idea into his music, allowing the silences to (as it were) speak for themselves. There are beautiful moments on Silence when this is allowed to happen, but there could perhaps have been more. There is, though, plenty of wonderful playing from all the musicians and there is certainly a sense of them listening to each other throughout and that's good enough for me. The late English composer John Taverner wrote once "I don't see the point in writing a silent piece of music but I do see a point in the journey towards it." Maybe that's the journey they're on.
Coşkun Karademir Quartet
Mahsa Vahdat / Coşkun Karademir
Kayhan Kalhor and Erdal Erzincan
Manfred Eicher | Forty Years of ECM