Uncommon Deities is the product of a conjunction, a coming together of at least three bodies of work that have been developing at the fringes of jazz and the avant-garde over the last few years. David Sylvian’s Samadhisound imprint is a fitting locus for these developments to coalesce, not least owing to his role in bringing together this strange, understated, but nevertheless quietly radical aesthetic. At the centre is Sylvian’s gnomic spoken evocation of Norwegian poet Paal-Helge Haugen text, here calling into being a series of unheard-of Gods, uncommon deities whose sphere of influence extend from twilight domains of sleeplessness to the microscopic world and even the incidental in the form of The God of Small Caresses. But while the delivery of the text will be the first thing to capture the attention it is the subtle work by Jan Bang and Arve Henriksen, the two other principle figures in this collective, that really sets the tone.
Those who have followed the recent output of the loose collective of Scandinavian musicians that include Henriksen and Bang, as well as Nils Petter Molvaer and Eivind Aarset will instantly recognise the form of composition that their numerous collaborations have been slowly refining. Henriksen’s trumpet, always muted, always gesturing at something just beneath the surface is here pitched as perfectly as it was on his gorgeous Cartography record from 2008 which also featured Bang and Sylvian. Indeed the painterly approach to sound design that Jan Bang adds to Henriksen’s playing was first really refines there, and on Uncommon Deities it reaches new heights of virtuosity. Perhaps it’s a little odd to talk of virtuosity when referring to the placement of sounds like the slow tic-toc of a grandfather clock or the almost inaudible undulation of synthetic and concrete sounds, but it’s the word that most comes to mind. On The God of Silence this minimal concentration of sound that forms a thin background for Sylvian’s voice is then joined by Henriksen’s trumpet, sounding almost as if it were pleading with the listener, perhaps on behalf of that God whose only wish is to put an end to the noisy turning of the world.
As reviews of this collective’s previous work demonstrate, the minimal pallet and quite knowingly high art ambitions can draw accusations of po-faced pretentiousness. What refutes this is firstly the playful text of Haugen, at once melancholy and austere, and yet again whimsical as on the Borges like God of smaller God’s, where is described the existence of a frustrated paternal God, cleaning up the detritus of failed miracles and trying to steer his charges on a more edifying path. He gives them maps of the heavens and details of the movement of the stars, but it does little to avail them of their grand duty. Secondly, to the ear that is used to the tired formula of post Eno “ambient” music the restrained tone of the record, full of discontinuities and silences, might well fall beneath the radar. The influence of Japanese electronic and avant-garde music on this collective is implicit in this style which hovers precariously between concrete, synthetic and improvised forms. You can hear the free improvisation of Otomo Yoshihide and Toshimaru Nakamura in the ghostly electronics that permeate each of these pieces. Indeed Sylvian recently released a record of the latter’s no input mixing board improvisations and invited him to contribute to 2009’s Manafon.
I’d be doing an injustice if I didn’t mention the sublime vocal improvisations of Sidsel Endresen that pop up on seven of the twelve tracks. Her intonations function well as a second otherworldly pole to Henriksen’s playing. Just as he contorts his tone to mimic the Japanese Shakuhachi flute, Endresen twists her voice into wild shapes, forming clusters of rhythmic glossolalia punctuating the mood of pieces like The God of Sleeplessness and The God of Single Cell Organisms with a strange unintelligible anxiety. It would be hard for me to say that Uncommon Deities provides any kind of straightforward satisfaction. The composition is sparse and demanding, and Sylvian’s spoken word delivery is very much of the love it or hate it type. “I am a lesson in fossils” he states on the final piece of the record. There is something of the archaeological about listening to the work of these artists. They bring up specimens of a strange type, seeming familiar and yet clearly aiming towards some other place and time. I certainly wouldn’t claim their work to be within the cannon of that recently fashionable “Hauntology” trend, nor however do I think this record, or the others which have come before it are a mere extension of the cool Norwegian avant-garde that ECM have locked down. Rather what these artists have done is to open up a space of improvisation and composition that genuinely challenges the horizons and presuppositions of the forms from which they come. It’s as if each of these artists is seeking to question the limits of their own form and are doing so by questioning the limits of each others. The result is the feeling of trepidation, tension, and slow mutual confrontation that you hear on all these pieces. Each player decentres from the others and disengages from their own comfort zone, producing something that while hardly immediate, tight, or even always coherent, is without doubt entirely new.