Modern Painters Spring 2004
27/04/2004 :: Rune Grammofon, a relatively obscure Norwegian record label that embraces the more esoteric fringes of electronic, free jazz and improvised music, is this year celebrating its 5th anniversary.
The history of 'serious' popu-lar music is littered with follies brought about either by egotism, grandiloquence, sheer affectation or some ludicrous combination of the same. When the musicians Godley and Creme quit their band 10cc they re-leased a quadruple album box set, Consequences, designed to showcase 'the Gizmo', a primitive guitar synthesiser they had invented. Not long ago the justifi-ably lauded psychedelic pop outfit The Flaming Lips released a similarly overblown quartet, Zaireeka, in which all four CDs were designed to be played simultaneously. And who today could sit through Works, Emerson Lake and Palmer's triple LP disaster of classical pomposity?
So what chance for a celebratory (you could say self-congratulatory) project charting the fifth birthday of a tiny, rela-tively obscure Norwegian record label that embraces the more esoteric fringes of electronic, free jazz and improvised music, packaged as it is in a lavish ninety-six page hardback book whose first words are 'this book is a record cover'? That's before sitting through almost three hours of music over thirty individual tracks. Surprisingly, this very artefact, charm-ingly titled Money Will Ruin Everything, is easily among the most significant records that will be released this year.
Everything about this project might easily figure large on the pretension barometer were it not that the record label whose mini-retrospective this rep-resents, Rune Grammofon, is the cura-torial baby of a man with impeccable taste, former Norwegian pop musician Rune Kristofferson. Inspired by the likes of Manchester's Factory Records (whose house designer Peter Saville was hon-oured with a retrospective at London's Design Museum last year), the pioneering jazz label Blue Note and the ever-consis-tent ECM Records, where Kristofferson has held down a day job, Rune Grammofon treats the recorded disc as an art object and thing of substance. The visual component of Money Will Ruin Everything is a celebration of designer Kim Hiorthøy whose rigorous artwork and typography have graced the sleeves of all forty of the label's releases so far. Hiorthøy is himself a musician and his affinity with the music comes through strongly in his designs. He deftly blends organic shapes and a strong sense of colour which somehow almost always reflects the sound within. The three jagged forms adorning the sleeve of a record by Scorch Trio perfectly encapsu-lates the fiery free jazz improvisation they play, while the dark, delineated shapes on the front of Phonophani's Genetic Engineering album invoke a sense of icy claustrophobia that paral-lels its drifting soundscape.
Kristofferson has an intuitive sense for the carefully cultivated record label identity, but none of this would matter if the music he released did not match up. Thankfully, Rune Grammofon has a range rare in its consistency of quality, even though the individual acts it repre-sents can vary wildly across genres. There are melodic female vocals with delicate and restrained backing on the upcoming CD by Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, while the debut release five years ago was a triple CD by Rune Grammofon's signature act, Supersilent, that (it has to be said) is nigh on impos-sible to take at one sitting. In between RG has resurrected the electronic exper-iments of Norwegian classical composer Arne Nordheim, made its closest attempt at a rock album with the band Chocolate Overdose (for which Hiorthøy supplied a sleeve that looks like that of a teenage gay heavy metal band) and, in Arve Henriksen's Sakuteki, released one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of trumpet playing since the late sixties work of Miles Davis.
Henriksen, an elfin-like stalwart of the Norwegian jazz scene, is key to the label's history, appearing three times on Money Will Ruin Everything. His solo track is a brooding expansion of the muted trum-pet sound that best defines his playing, while the never-repeated improvisa-tions of Supersilent give him free rein to contribute some breathy and guttural singing. Meanwhile his performance with the band Food, led by the British sax-ophonist lain Ballamy, provides one of the most joyous and harmonious tracks on the compilation. This isn't to say that melody is largely absent from Rune Grammofon's output, but rather that it's often submerged or refracted by elec-tronics or digital processing. In this respect it can be rewarding rather than easy listening.
Kristofferson describes this collection as 'a signpost. A small glimpse back-wards but really mostly forwards'. And much as it obviously serves to landmark his own individual project, it's also gen-erous enough to draw in a variety of like-minded souls from similar labels who promote this burgeoning community that cross-pollinates Nordic jazz with the forward-thinking electronic music that's found a fertile home there. The consis-tently taut jazz outfit Jaga Jazzist has supplied an uncharacteristically restrained slice of organic and clipped electronic composition far removed from their regular big band sound. Jaga Jazzist's drummer and de facto leader, Martin Horntveth, by stark contrast unleashes a severe and sonically aggressive barrage of programmed drums and dissonant shards of synthesised noise miles apart from the delicate folk fiddles and tempered restraint that surrounds it.
None of which is to say that Money Ruins Everything is beyond criticism, nor that Rune Grammofon is a record label without failings. While a strike rate of close to 80 per cent is better than can be claimed by most independent record companies, let alone their major com-mercial equivalents, no artistic endeavour could sustain five years of flawless pro-ductivity. The book does rather overdo its concentration on Hiorthøy's graphic layouts, for example. The sequencing of the two discs is prone to an element of audio 'sameness'. Similarly, the dogged persistence which gives the label such a distinct identity could be a hindrance for some listeners - Supersilent's triple set '1-3' contains moments that skirt an extremely fragile line between challeng-ing and unlistenable.
However, the striking thing about Rune Grammofon is that while its aes-thetic is independent, uncompromis-ing and focused around a narrow musical scene, its reach is far from parochial. Ninety per cent of their records are sold outside Norway, par-ticularly in Germany, Japan and the United States. New York's finest record store, Other Music, even has a section devoted exclusively to RG discs. Among a dedicated group of followers they have garnered a profile to match longer running independent companies like Sheffield's Warp Records and Austria's equally obdurate Mego label. All share a passion for the kinds of music they release that's a far cry from the increas-ingly consolidated major multinationals of the record industry. Kristof-ferson himself has argued against losing sight of this passion and firmly believes that money does indeed ruin everything. Until very recently he alone operated every aspect of his label's busi-ness, filing all mail orders for records and replying personally to e-mails from around the world.
Money Will Ruin Everything pre-cedes two further, typically eclectic, releases. Fevergreens by Jono El Grande has, according to its British distributor, divided opinion among everyone who has heard it. The tracks have titles of uniform silliness - 'Rumba For A Slightly Excited Ape', 'Tango On the Crest Of Reality'. Imagine a fairground orchestra with a background in contemporary composition interpreting cartoon sound-tracks from the 1950s (such as Carl Stalling's work for Warner Brothers) and you get the idea. Comparisons have been made with Simon Jeffe's Penguin Cafe Orchestra, though to these ears El Grande has none of that outfit's self-imposed irony. Like many Rune Grammofon projects it appears to have no direct peers and may well turn out to be their strangest release to date. At the other end of the musical scale is Skyphone's Fabula which does have a fairly direct lineage (much as if the Scottish duo Boards of Canada were to record a Joy Division tribute album) but is no less precise and crafted. Its beautiful melding of organic found sounds with reverberating guitars and digital electronic interventions cer-tainly proves that Rune Kristofferson has not yet lost his ear.
So what is it about Norway that has enabled such an abundant scene to develop and progress in such an isolated place, where members of individual Rune Grammofon bands can often live hun-dreds of miles apart, communicating musical ideas digitally via computers? One thing that certainly helps is the support of the Norwegian government. Many of RG's discs carry thank you mes-sages to various councils or public funds, and many of their musicians studied at local, well-appointed music schools. Last year a subsidised tour brought some of these acts to play across the United Kingdom, giving wider audi-ences a chance to witness the intense, mesmerising chem-istry between the players in Supersilent, whose sixth record recently made a BBC poll for best experimental album of last year. The word, slowly, is spreading.
And though this is hardly pop or rock music as most people know it, Rune's net is cast so wide that there must already be, among the back catalogue, some-thing for everyone who cares about music. For the Shostakovich admirer there's the neglected Scandinavian com-poser Fartein Valen. Folk fans would do well to investigate Nils Økland's fiddle on Straum. Echoes of the more ambient output of British electronica star The Aphex Twin can be found to a degree in many artists' work, particularly the first half of Money Will Ruin Everything. It will surely only be a matter of time before it is no longer the case that, as a photo-copied note from a record distributor pinned up on Grammofon's office wall reads, 'It is hard work to sell Rune CD outside of small group of freaks.’