Most of us are familiar with that cinematic effect where objects in the foreground suddenly blur as an element that was initially in the background sharpens into focus. From behind the camera lens, the transition is always smooth seamless, but in real life our mind’s eye doesn’t adjust quite as fluidly. Take, for example a song you’ve known your whole life that becomes forever changed the moment you notice a new detail. The detail was always there, hidden in plain sight. So it wasn’t like your brain didn’t “know.” But now that you’re conscious of it you can’t convince yourself to hear it the same way you’d always heard it. In reverse, any parent can tell you what it’s like to filter-out the noisy clamor of playing children and yet still somehow react when something serious happens.
Which means we’re always picking up on more than we think we are. In a sense, then, our entire matrix of perception boils down to a set of unconscious choices, a computer-like process of sifting through information and focusing on certain stimuli while relegating others to the “background.” Your brain enacts this process so efficiently and with such impressive speed that you rarely even notice it’s happening. Looked at from this perspective, our day-to-day experience — life! — isn’t actually as fixed as we realize. When you stop and think about it, you could say our sensations amount to an elaborate, ongoing magic trick as they stream past the central interface that organizes them into what we think we’re seeing, touching, hearing, etc… optical illusions carried out to the nth degree across all five senses.
It is this into this interior neuro-cognitive realm that Samuel Hällkvist has chosen to chart a path with this project. Yes, the maverick Copenhagen-based guitarist set up collaborations with musicians in Japan, Portugal, New York, Paris, Belgium, and other parts of Scandinavia for individual sections he then arranged into a continuous, looping suite. But, while Variety Of Loud does unfold like a journey, it doesn’t actually sound like a trip around the world. Instead, Hällkvist and company have attempted to capture and express the mirage-like nature of perception in rhythm. Each of the musicians, of course, brought native sounds to the table. But since Hällkvist has never been literal when it comes to musical vocabulary, he has come up with something far more expansive than his initial intentions would indicate.
He can explain the technicalities, but in straightforward terms Variety Of Rhythm consists of three composed pieces and several more improvisations, all significantly shaped by the presence of the various guest players. Hällkvist had been experimenting at the outset with relationships between counteractive tempos. That much is obvious right away. But the more time you spend with this piece, the more you’ll see that the contrast between rhythmic patterns allows you to hear the music differently depending on which patterns you listen for or notice first. In the process, conventional notions of time, space, culture, and sound warp and bend. And where you “go” when you listen depends on your own imagination. But you’ll definitely end up somewhere — the music is too fresh and evocative not to.
Throughout his body of work — in projects like Orbit Stern, Variety Of Loud, Samuel Hällkvist Center, etc — Hällkvist has charted a course into a kind of post-jazz universe. Typically, he’s used jazz as a jumping point from which to mix-in elements of rock, electronica, noise, modern composition, and Americana. But the results have never come across as a mere collision of those styles. There has always been a fresh, even alien aspect to his music. And with every style he touches, it’s as if he’s come back from another realm where the sounds mean something completely foreign to their familiar context. That is certainly the case here. Paulo Chagas’ saxophone on the “Portugal” suite, for example, takes us to a place where Pharoah Sanders might have lived another life as an street performer in a bustline all-night open-air market in India.
On “Tete-a-Tete / Blivet” Hällkvist and pianist/keyboardist Pete Drungle infuses Steve Reich/Terry Riley’s minimalist “cell”-based forms with progressive rock angularity that, for once, doesn’t hearken back to the 1970s. Likewise, Liesbeth Lambrecht’s violin hews towards country fiddle but sheds its Applachian coating to sound like something straight out of… somewhere you can’t quite place. On “Japan,” Kumiko Takara’s vibraphone doesn’t make you think “Japan” as much as it evokes an alternate universe where Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch was recorded underwater. And then there’s the David Torn solo piece “Huly Marga,” where Torn’s guitar wails like the dying hope of an astronaut running out of oxygen on an abandoned space station, a mechanical guitar loop beeping in cold repetition like a computer guidance system unable to stop itself from shutting down the air system.
The list goes on and on. Just like Hällkvist planned, you will hear different things every time you listen.