Released in October 2012
MENGI01CD & MENGI01LP
Winner ‘Record of the Year’ in Jazz and Blues category at The Iceland Music Awards 2012.
Nominated ‘Record Cover of the Year’ in Jazz and Blues category at The Iceland Music Awards 2012. Cover by Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir & Orri Jónsson.
Skúli Sverrisson, acoustic bass guitar
Óskar Guðjónsson, tenor saxophone
Recorded at Langholtskirkja, Iceland
Oct 15th 2010 by Orri
Mixed at Sundlaugin by Finnur Hákonarson
Artwork by Inga & Orri
All music by Skúli Sverrisson
except Keeper by Skúli Sverrisson and Óskar Guðjónsson
Skuli Sverrisson and Oskar Gudjonsson
THE BOX TREE
If you put Stan Getz in an echo chamber, playing at the quietest volume possible, his breath audibly escaping around the reed, alongside someone playing a semi-acoustic bass with baroque-guitar technique, you’d get something roughly like “The Box Tree” (Mengi), a gorgeous record of duets between two Icelandic musicians, the bassist Skuli Sverrisson and the tenor saxophonist Oskar Gudjonsson. The 10 pieces on the album are studies in melodic ebb and flow at even projection. They’re not improvised pieces; they’re well-charted with sweet melodies. (The CD comes in a folded map). Because it doesn’t sound like much else, it can carve out a privileged space for you pretty quickly. It’s a pulse-settler and an order-restorer: It could be the last thing you listen to before you go to bed, or something to lead you into sleep.
music is the art of making the outside of time return to every time, making return to every moment
the beginning that listens to itself beginning and beginning again.
there is nothing obvious about this music.
it is ambiguous on nearly every level.
it is intensely private, yet has none of the usual halting cadences of tortured introspection. on the contrary, it is hard to imagine a music more plain-spoken: the melodies are presented unadorned and the accompaniments are what one might term sturdy if that didn’t sound backhanded.
it conveys an at times strong feeling of nostalgia, yet carries none of its usual signifiers. there’s no aping of old-fashioned styles, and there’s no hiss, crackle, surface noise or reverb to distance us. the recorded sound is clear and direct. we feel the two musicians playing together in the room, as if they were to be here tomorrow.
it both does and doesn’t feel like jazz or folk music. it doesn’t really adhere to the forms or the performance style that mark those genres, but does foreground a sort of specificity that is fundamental to both (in jazz the way that contingent features of performance become structural; and in folk music the way a certain performer distinguishes themselves from tradition).
this record’s predecessor offers a strong clue to the sensibility at work here. on that one, each of the songs was functionally related to a person or context. and while this set of songs were composed specifically for the record, that generally feeling remains. this is music that lives in everyday life. and not as background tint, but as a subjective means of being in the world and taking note of ones circumstances, relationships with ones friends. this is why it can still feel private while being so direct and present. it is charged with the undeniable intimacy of the listening that lies at the heart of the private relationships with people.
when we try to make sense of meaning in music we tend to reach for the social. how genres form, how and where particular styles of music are performed, and the manner of social engagement that accompanies the music. each style has its own baggage, that weighs it down, but also helps us make sense of it and deepen our own experiences through reference to tradition. what this manner of thinking privileges is performance and the public space of music with a capital m.
it elides that our most private memories are often shaped by music that was heard alone, out of context, or with just one or two friends. it elides the memories that can be wrapped up in playing a song after dinner, alone or with other people. or that week that you listened to the same record all day every day. the most deeply lived social spaces of music, in other words, are often domestic.
that music has some kind of privileged status with respect to memory is a commonplace. it’s in everything from proust to oldies radio. people organize their memories of their lives according to what was playing in the background.
but it is more subtle than that. there’s a sense that by listening again we can find exactly the attentiveness to our surroundings that marked the corresponding moments in the past. we can feel exactly as we did, or at the least we can grasp threads of our previous experience. it is precisely the privacy and vulnerability of the listening experience that allows for this. further, because this kind of listening is a complete immersion in the present, the desire to re-live, to re-hear these experiences is not just to remind ourselves of where we were when we heard that song, but even more to find the feelings of possibility from those other hearings that opened into the future.
in very subtle ways, this music does this. both musicians understand that one relates to both the present and to other music on the basis of single moments in a song. and these songs are filled with these moments–sometimes “beautiful” but on occasion awkward too. these are the moments where one realizes that how some specific feature in the music articulates the feeling that makes the whole song turn, where you catch your breath, stuck for a moment out of time. (it could be one particular moment of voice-leading, how the melody shadows the accompanying chords, how the performance waits infinitesimally to hear exactly where the next phrase starts).
this, then, is the formal musical equivalent of how ordinary listeners use music to frame their memories. in essence, though, it’s exactly the same thing, and it is this that these musicians understand, and this that makes the music both humble and mysterious.