SONAR WAVES (A Flaw of Nature sleeve notes, by Sid Smith)
"The first memory I have is of the beach" says musician, composer and
mathematician Stephan Thelen. When asked to time-travel back into his memory
to see if he could recall the earliest sounds he heard when he was a child there
was no hesitation in identifying the sound and the place. "I was born in Santa Rosa,
California and grew up there. On Sundays we would always go to the beach at
Bodega Bay. The gulls, the wind and the waves; just sitting there, listening to this
beautiful sound. That's my first real conscious memory of listening to something.
It wasn't strictly music, but in the wider scheme these things are important."
Important indeed when you consider that the music of SONAR is constructed in
such a way that it suggests an ongoing process of ebb and flow, advance and
retreat, of tension and release.
The waves detected in SONAR's music draw and pull upon our attention, their
rhythmic undertow engaging both the heart and brain despite the deliberately
restricted sonic palette. "It was a very conscious decision to limit ourselves to
doing little things and to try and get as much as we could out from them" offers
Thelen. "We also decided to almost completely abandon all our effects, delays
and loop machines in order to concentrate more on the subtleties of our playing
techniques and tone production."
With the guitars and bass tuned in tritones, there's a semi-dissonant, challenging
quality to the constellations of plucked harmonics that chime in orbit around each
other. They create interlocking, overlapping and polyrhythmic meters, reminiscent
of the early minimalist microworlds of Steve Reich and the 80s-era gamelan-rock
of King Crimson.
Anchored by Manuel Pasquinelli's crisp drumming, Christian Kuntner's bass meshes
seamlessly with the guitars of Bernhard Wagner and Stephan Thelen. The music
requires both discipline and stamina, as each member of the small chamber
ensemble focuses upon his own individual time signature, whilst simultaneously
ensuring that it all fits together.
SONAR's music often appears to occupy two different worlds at the same time.
Despite the rigorous, metrical nature of these compositions, they conjure a curiously
porous sound through which the emphasis of the beat passes baton-like from one
musical runner to another, lithely crossing from the drums to the bass, or leaping
between the guitars. Two worlds because alongside such movement is an illusory
stillness and zen-like calm as patterns of time and space imperceptibly shift.
"That's all intentional. For instance on Slow Shift, it's actually a five note sequence that
every player plays at a different speed" explains Thelen. "You have the bass playing
very slowly, the first guitar playing a little faster and the second one even faster
than that. So, you have this sense of different times and structures going on. That's
also the case in Tromsø, which we play slowly and then a bass riff comes in which is
twice as fast. So you get this transition from a slow tempo without really knowing
In this context even tiny changes within the playing generate apparently sudden
extremes in dynamics that very much embody Thelen's intentions when formulating
the group. "If you want to do something with minimal music you have to find your
variety somewhere else. Variations in time are a fantastic opportunity to produce
little shifts that can be very exciting if you really concentrate on them."
Despite such a reductive approach, their sound-world is paradoxically expansive,
creating a distinctive place where small incremental movements form into newer,
subtle combinations for the listener to experience and explore.
Although the musicians have played in different line-ups, the recording of A FLAW OF
NATURE is the first time this particular configuration has worked together. Laid
down in just two days, the music was honed by a lot of pre-recording rehearsals
first with just Wagner and Thelen, and then with the rest of the band. Having come
up with the basic composition on paper, Thelen was more than happy to see each
piece then worked on and developed in a series of workshop rehearsals, with each
musician contributing to the nuances and subtleties of the original piece.
For example, as Thelen explains the jagged 'chord' occurring toward the end of
Tromsø wasn't originally envisaged in the composition "Bernhard and I were playing
with the tuning, just exploring. Some things work and others don't. The power chord
thing was Bernhard's idea and that's actually a funny chord because in the SONAR
tuning you can play six Cs in five different octaves at once. So it's not really a chord
but one note sounded six times and that's why it sounds so powerful."
Though mathematical structures underpin much of Thelen's work he argues that
for music to be successful, it has to be far more than a mere conceptual exercise.
"There are many mathematical schemes you can use to make an interesting
composition but that doesn't necessarily make it good music. For me, good music
should be satisfying for the mind but of course it has to move you emotionally."
Happily, SONAR's music achieves both in a manner that firmly locates the group as
a glisteningly brilliant node on the continuum of the Swiss minimalist scene alongside
the pioneering work of saxophonist Don Li and the ritual groove of Nik Bärtsch's
Ronin. In Switzerland a growing number of people are getting into this kind of
music where the players intentionally concentrate on just a few musical elements
and try to present them as clearly and as precisely as possible. Perhaps it's
something in the air - at least here in Switzerland!
Sid Smith, Whitley Bay, England, September 2011
(Sid Smith is a freelance music writer and author of numerous sleeve notes. A regular contributor to Classic Rock Presents
Prog, BBC Music and other publications, he is also the author of In The Court of King Crimson and Northstars. You can find
out more at www.sidsmith.net)