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Vertical Time
The making of Static Motion
By Anil Prasad

We live in an era of sensory overload. Our lives have the potential to be saturated by multimedia elements every waking moment. The unfortunate reality is that the most unique music can float by in an instant without one having a chance to ponder its significance or profundity. But for children, wonder and intrigue remain integral to the process of discovering music. It's that feeling SONAR sought to capture with the compositions on Static Motion.

With that in mind, founder and guitarist Stephan Thelen set out some key principles to adhere to during the making of the album. The goal was to encourage the band, also comprised of bassist Christian Kuntner, drummer Manuel Pasquinelli and guitarist Bernhard Wagner, to work on a blank canvas. The environment was one in which anything could happen and the musicians were free to create without the limitations of traditional forms.

The group agreed to avoid conventional major/minor harmonies, but concentrate on tritone harmonics. Routine 4/4 beats were outlawed while polyrhythms and isorhythms were celebrated. Soloing and intentional virtuosity were jettisoned in favor of group interplay. And the majority of effects were left in their cases, allowing the group's personality to emerge through its members' hands and hearts. Most importantly, they decided to do as much as they could with as little material as possible.

"SONAR is the first band I have been a part of where I consciously made the decision that playing good or even great music is not enough," says Thelen. "It has to be new and innovative as well. There are many well-trained and excellent musicians today who can play fluently in almost any style, but I very rarely hear something really new and daring, yet still enjoyable. It's almost always the same harmonies over the same rhythms. We feel the need to push the creative envelope and that's what you hear on the album."

Static Motion was propelled by honing the material in front of audiences prior to recording. In an age of Pro Tools pastiche in which albums are often more compilations of remote contributions than organic interaction, this made a fundamental difference in the success and timelessness of the work.

"I believe it's crucial to play a piece live before it's recorded," says Thelen. "It's only then that you can really decide if it works. A sensitive musician immediately can tell if an audience is drawn into the music or not. For instance, the duration of a section is probably too long if the audience visibly loses interest. Or if one piece gets a lukewarm response from an otherwise very supportive audience, you know the piece is somehow not really working yet. This contributed significantly to our process, leading to the shortening, lengthening or complete dropping of parts."

From there, the band went into the studio, working at Ocean Sound Recordings in Giske, Norway. SONAR was convinced it could carry the lessons of the live experience straight into the sessions. But things didn't go quite as planned.

"The recording in Norway was a new and intense experience for us," says Thelen. "For the first time, we lived together for four days and nights in an absolutely remote and stunning environment. The tracks were all recorded live in the studio, with the four of us playing in the same large room. The first three days were rather difficult. We missed the presence of a supportive audience. We also felt the improvised parts didn't work as well as before on stage. Fortunately, on the fourth and last day, everything fell into place and we recorded almost all of the material that was used on the CD. For the most part, what you hear is exactly what we played, with just a handful of edits and post-production work. Our philosophy is to do as much as possible without technological help, so all the dynamics are heard as played."

Even with minimal electronic intervention, Static Motion is without a doubt a precision-based project. The compositions are like sculptures with every contour serving a purpose. In fact, each piece on the album involves its own organizational construct situated within an overarching hierarchy to communicate the group's vision.

"The CD is symmetrically arranged as a triptych, with three groups of three pieces," says Thelen. 'Static Motion' is the first piece of the first group. Its main riff, an isorhythm in 9/8, evokes the sonic illusion of something that moves forward and stands still at the same time. 'Vertical Time,' which shares a related rhythmic structure, and the same time signature and key, is the last piece of the third and last group. The title comes from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who described music as 'Time that stands vertical to the direction of fading hearts'-another way to evoke the paradoxical concept of static motion.

In the middle of the second group is 'Triptych,' the centerpiece of the album, which is itself divided into three separate, but related parts."

Thelen refers to the second grouping last for a specific reason. It relates to a key influence on SONAR's outlook.

"The best advice I ever got concerning dynamic flow, dramaturgy and structure of a piece-or an entire CD or concert, for that matter-came from Robert Fripp. He told me to first 'Be very careful about the beginning, then be very careful about the end, and finally, be very careful about the middle.' It's a simple idea, but actually very efficient and valuable."

While Static Motion is firmly rooted in the now, Fripp and other contemporaries further informed the journey that led to its creation.

"The album is a huge step forward for SONAR in experimenting with increasingly complex polyrhythms in the field of groove-based minimal music," says Thelen. "But it also looks back to the music that influenced us as teenagers. For me personally, that mainly meant European progressive music of the early 1970s. For instance, parts of the title track were inspired by King Crimson's 'Fracture' and Mahavishnu Orchestra's 'Meeting of the Spirits.' Also, 'Continuum' was spurred by ELP's 'Eruption' from Tarkus, and part of 'Triptych' was driven by my fascination with Shylock's 'Laocksetal.'"

For all the painstaking effort and conceptual focus that went into Static Motion, the band prefers people to contemplate the end result free of the attachments that often surround the act of listening. In fact, he sees the musician-listener relationship as a true, interdependent partnership.

"We believe the gradually evolving, pattern-based music realm we work within gives listeners a much more active and liberating role in the ritual of performing music," says Thelen. "It's not about being passively entertained, about personal feelings or about admiring musicians with great technical abilities. It's about players and listeners being together in the same space and at the same moment in time, breathing the same air, standing in awe of the seemingly infinite power of music and working together to create something remarkable."

Anil Prasad is the founder of Innerviews, the first and longest-running online music magazine, established in 1994. www.innerviews.org