Exactly what is it that inspires the dazzling imagination of saxophonist and composer Marius Neset to harness wild time signatures and ride off into a landscape which fizzes with chaotic energy and explodes in clouds of steam?
In Geyser, Neset’s commission piece premiered at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms 2022 (released as a live album on 27 October 2023), he works with the London Sinfonietta and a group of top jazz musicians under the baton of Geoffrey Paterson to invite the listener into this volatile world for an unforgettable adventure.
No stranger to large-scale projects, the extraordinary creative output of this visionary composer (who is still in his thirties) has been marked on over 20 occasions with nominations and awards from much respected European organisations. In this latest genre defying collaboration – his third foray with the London Sinfonietta after Snowmelt (2015) and Viaduct (2019) – complex rhythmic patterns drive ever forward as improvised solos skip and flow around complex arrangements, contrasting the joyful energy of live music against the sinister backdrop of war in Europe.
Neset is evidently bubbling over with musical ideas, and so it was fascinating to delve into his mind and discover how he tames and develops them, by asking him a few questions…
Where did the composition for Geyser start, with the rhythm, the bassline, the chord progressions – how do you begin to write such complicated music?
Actually, the very first idea that came to my head was the celebration theme in Part 7 – Meeting Magma.
This was a theme that was based on a clave over the 8-notes triplets in 13/4. The rhythmic pattern moves on 8-note triplet for each time it is repeated, something that creates an interesting tension.
Then I got another idea that came out of that, and another one that came out of the new idea, and it continues like that. Lots of music ideas, both good and less good I guess, but to me it’s important not to be too focused on small details during the first period of the writing. I will come back to the details later in the process, to a level where I can spend days on just 4 bars.
Another interesting concept that I had was a rhythmic pattern in 27/16-bar. This pattern became kind of the main idea for the whole piece and creates a tension that’s under the surface of the music actually during the whole piece. You can ́t really hear what it is, but it is an idea that constantly moves just a bit, and really a lot of the melodic themes came out of this idea.
The interesting thing then is that when you remove the concept that you started with, you still have the melodies/harmonies that were created out of it and never would have existed if it wasn’t for the first concept. I always leave all my concept during the writing process, in the end it doesn’t matter, it’s just my ears that decides if something sounds good or not.
Your work is very cinematographic, the way the music drives forward, contrasting one scene against the next. To what level are you inspired by the visual, specifically film? Are there any directors do you particularly admire?
Not specifically. My life is full of contrasts, and I love having long walks in the Norwegian mountains as much as I love to be in the city. I love going to the beach in the summer as much as I love to be skiing in very cold circumstances in the mountains in the winter.
I think this affects my music a lot, and probably can explain why it sometimes sounds cinematographic. I think it’s a very good thing if the music makes associations for people.
The natural world is an important inspirational reference across your work. A lot of people find the wilderness peaceful, but for you, is it more the cacophony of colour, energy and sound that you connect with, rather than the serenity?
I think I get a lot of energy of being in the mountains. It’s really a big part of me; nowhere do I get so many ideas as when I have a full day’s walk in the mountains. Climbing to 2000 metres altitude, standing at the top and looking at the view, it really moves me, and it’s too important not to let my music be affected by this in some way.
What are the main challenges of fusing an improvising jazz band with a conducted orchestra?
Getting everyone to speak the same language… And go in the same direction. Musicians that are classically trained often have a different relationship to the groove than jazz musicians.
It’s very much about explanation, to explain and make sure everyone understands what is going on. Geoffrey Paterson is incredibly good at that, and I am lucky to have been working with him for 8 years now.
This is a live album. Did that add pressure on top of what already must have been quite a nervous energy, performing this composition in front of an audience?
No really, it wasn’t something that I was thinking about at all. To me it was just fantastic to be on the stage in this beautiful hall, premiering this piece that I had been working on night and day the last year with a fantastic sounding orchestra.
What were you listening to when you were writing Geyser, or do you prefer to switch off from outside influence during the process of composition?
To be honest I can ́t remember. I am listening to so much music all the time but can ́t remember any specific album or work that was the main inspiration for Geyser.
When you listen to others’ music, does your brain constantly analyse the compositional choices, the orchestration, the structure, or can you step back and enjoy the overall effect?
No, I try to listen as a fan as often as I can, and focus on what the music makes me feel, rather than doing compositional analysis.
From a musical point of view, do you have more ideas than you have time to explore them?
I guess that I have. I always have lots of ideas in my head that I try to save for use for later… I might write it down or record it, just so that I remember it, and what the idea was about.
As a musician, how did you come to settle on the saxophone? What is it about this instrument that you appreciate most as a tool through which to express yourself?
I have heard people say that saxophone is the instrument that’s closest to the voice when it comes to make a personal sound. Every sax player in the world has their unique, very personal sound; each is quite fascinating. I don’t think too much about it, I think that I and the music would probably sound pretty much the same whatever instrument I played. The sax is just a tool that I use to express what’s inside me and what I think should be heard.
For more information visit Marius’s website