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