Money Will Ruin Everything
he obvious answer, of course, being that they’ve jumped the shark. What label finds itself celebrating its 30th release as some kind of high water mark for quality and longevity and can get away with it? A label that has opened ears, traced lines between genres and has produced an incredibly diverse roster of musicians all based in a small geographical area can. And it has.
Rune Grammofon, since its first release in 1998, has done all of the above and more. Under the guidance of Rune Kristoffersen, the label has both released and re-released some of the most challenging music to ever be produced in Norway. The impetus for the label began with a trip to a record store, in which Kristoffersen searched in vain for the legendary composer Arne Nordheim’s electronic work on CD. Unable to find any, Kristoffersen took it upon himself to see that it got released. Around this same time period, Kristoffersen met Helge Sten who briefly mentioned that he would be joining forces with the free jazz group Veslefrekk to create a new group. Kristoffersen, having seen Veslefrekk only a week prior to the meeting jumped at the chance to hear such a collaboration and to release it—Supersilent’s 1-3 was the result. Armed with the possibility of two exciting releases that a built-in audience would have interest in, Kristoffersen created Rune Grammofon.
Since then, the label has gone on to document the free jazz/electronic/improv stylings of a number of Norwegian groups, with some odd detours along the way (Chocolate Overdose and Jono El Grande being obvious examples). What ties each release on the label together, past geographical concerns, are two important elements: Kristoffersen loves the music on each release and the graphic design work of Kim Hiorthøy.
Hiorthøy’s design work utilizes the simplicity of a small sans serif font against what often is an amorphous, yet organic, figure. Notable exceptions are present (his work on the Maja Ratjke album and the Supersilent series come to mind), but Hiorthøy relies on these large shapes and vibrant colors with enough frequency for it to be called a style. As with all distinctive styles, it borrows: primarily taking his shapes from the Automatic Surrealism of Joan Miro and the construction from the psuedo-sheen of the poster images of Warhol. This mix helps to make sense of many of the Rune Grammofon artists’ sound. There is a healthy mix of amorphous blob—throwing sounds on the aural canvas to see what sticks—and unclean, but obvious structure guiding the improvisations of groups like SPUNK.
But does it all really warrant a double disc/ book replete with an interview with the label head and essays by Rob Young (Wire editor) and others? In a word: yes. While the essay from Young says little of interest (but, then again, what do you expect from an essay that is built around praising something that you already like?), the rest of the book is essential for both fans of the label’s music and design. Hiorthøy’s designs are dissected in an essay by Adrian Shaughnessy, amid a slew of sumptuous close-ups and selected details from his work on the releases. Also, contained within the book is an interview with Kristoffersen, conducted by Hiorthøy, that sheds light on the history of the label and how it is run.
But, for all the treasures contained within, there remains two discs of music to be heard. A Rune Grammofon stalwart, Alog, starts the first disc off memorably with a track entitled ‘St. Paul Sessions II’. Allowing the prepared xylophone of Nicholas H. Møllerhaug to take the melodic lead, the group uses Branca-esque minimalism as a building block for the rest of the composition. Biosphere, who has only provided remixed material for the label in the past, turns in a haunting elegiac piece entitled ‘Colpa Mia’. The piece moves back and forth between two main motifs until the final third of the piece in which they are brought together to fight for supremacy. The plucked guitar finally overtakes the melodic refrain near the end of the piece, eventually wiping the beginning from memory. Recent entrant into the label catalogue, Jono El Grande, also provides a track on the first disc of note. It’s perhaps the cleanest and most linear of the compositions present, sounding like an imaginary soundtrack to a film never produced. It’s a bit disconcerting, placed directly after the avant stylings of SPUNK, but the link of obvious joy and humor in both is easily understandable, if not immediately audible.
The second disc begins with Arve Henriksen’s brand of Oriental ambience. What sounds like a didgeridoo and a flute weave a stunning and evocative duet. Nils Økland continues this trend by setting the same sort of aural setting with a whole host of different instruments. Økland’s composition is easily more busy, but holds the same sort of otherworldly air about it as Henriksen’s. As the disc moves on, the tracks get harsher and harsher, culminating in the trilogy of Maja Ratjke’s voice improvisations, Martin Horntveth’s IDM flavored cut-ups and Scorch Trio’s full-on jazz fusion rocking. The disc ends, however, with two quiet gems: Deathprod’s ambient ‘Deerstalker’ and the heart-wrenching Susannah and the Magical Orchestra ‘Believer’.
Over the course of two discs that span more than two and half hours of music from the Rune Grammofon artists and related friends, the entirety of the label is encapsulated and explained. Thus, if you are daunted by the sheer breadth of music of the Norwegian experimental electronic scene, interested in labels that are crafting their own aesthetic (in the tradition of 4AD, Factory, etc.) or already a Rune Grammofon fan, this is an essential artistic document. Go ahead, help them ruin everything.