MARK FRANCOMBE Musician, Filmmaker, Game-designer & Kipple-monger

Norwegian Noise: An Audience with the king.

The King of Norwegian Noise orders a cup of tea.

“What kind, we have many types?” asks the waiter, 
“Something good?” says the King, 
“Normal good or strange good” comes the reply…
“A little strange is good” says the King.

Since the early nineties Lasse Marhaug has been releasing, on a multitude of labels, some of the most extreme noise music to come out of Norway. His dedication and sheer hard work has had him collaborating with a dazzling array of people in many different constellations and groups (Del and Jazzkammer to name but two) and has seen him performing almost non stop in a variety of countries. His music is harsh and uncompromising, and yet thoughtful and intelligent, working with basic audio tools like oscillators, tape manipulation and the ubiquitous laptop a Marhaug show can be anything from undertated simplicity of the man at a screen to a junkyard of metal objects, cables and obscure devices. As a joint organiser of Oslo’s All Ears festival (with Maja S.K. Ratkje and Paal Nilssen-Love) he has brought together fascinating line-ups from many spheres of experimental music.

For four or five months every year, the majority of Norway is in darkness. Depression and suicide is high. Snow and ice makes travel hard and gruelling. Traditionally the small close-knit communities that scatter the mountain sides and Fjords have survived by a fervent and somewhat crazed Christianity on one side and on the other, the consumption of low grade home brewed illegal alcohol (“Hjemme Brent” or Home Burnt), the only connection between the two being Norsk produced Country and Western dance band music. However, for over 20 years now the young Norwegian youth have survived this enforced captivity and darkness by producing, recording and ultimately bringing to the wider world some of the most brutal and angst ridden noise, Black Metal.

Everyone here likes metal, they grow up on it. Not in the capital particularly, which like any other cosmopolitan metropolis is more influenced by the rise of incomes, re-furbishing of industrial areas into trendy workshops and studios, restaurants, smooth jazz bars, house music and theatre. Although it was in the old town area of Oslo where the infamous violence and murders surrounding seminal Black Metal groups Mayhemand Burzum occurred, it is predominately in the countryside where Metal flourished, developed mainly by the eager, serious and almost neurotic swapping of tapes and fanzines by eager, serious and almost neurotic young boys.

Lasse Marhaug was one of these boys.

Marhaug: “I lived far far up north, snow and ice, dark for months, I developed a big craving for some kind of culture. There was no theatre there, no venues, no clubs, nothing. So I just started digging, pulling whatever threads I could find. Of course one was film and I watched as many videos as I could get my hands on, and the other was music and coming from the countryside in Norway, that would be metal. Metal is big. I went from Iron Maiden and AC/DC, to Metallica and Slayer and further on to death metal Morbid Angel and Carcass, Napalm Death, and if you keep going there, you sort of end up with noise and experimental Industrial. So, I would mail-order records from wherever I could find around the world, got to know people and was trading tapes, making fanzines, and started putting out my own tapes, and doing my own stuff. Now of course there’s CDR’s and MP3’s. It’s beautiful!!!

The first noise I heard was Napalm Death, Godflesh and that led onto Swans, and in industrial music, Coil and Throbbing Gristle. They were a fantastic discovery, when I was 16 or something… so my musical upbringing was very fragmented, it wasn’t a very natural thing. I would just grab what ever I could hold on to. I was listening to Grindcore bands, that had been recorded very badly, and then dubbed on home cassette decks, I still think that they all sound best like that, before they all got into these big studios. I still love that raw ugly sound. But I never saw any of these bands live. There were no shows in Norway, especially up North, and I just thought that’s how they should sound.”

Nor Noise

There is a well established Noise and Improv scene in Oslo. Although operating on a “who you know” txt messaging basis (“GIG TONIGHT 20:30 30 kroner entry, pass it on!”) it is busy and friendly. Never a weekend goes by when you can’t go to see some experimental performance often in someone’s apartment, a gallery, or a disused Chocolate Factory.

Marhaug: “There is an acceptance for noise and weird music here in Oslo, it’s a healthy scene, I mean even the King is letting the biggest noise composer live on his property!!!”

It is true that one Norwegian artist is given the lifetimes right to live in a house called “The Grotto” that sits in the grounds of the Kings Palace. This honour is currently resting with Norwegian Electro Acoustic composer Arne Nordheim

Marhaug: “But I think the main reason Norway has had more attention than other places, is that people are more mixed here, there are so few people, that everyone mixes from different scenes, so people doing Noise will interact with people doing Jazz or Metal or anything really. Whereas in England or the US, people are more segregated and stay in their little groups, the scenes will not mix that much. But I do think that there is a bit of a Norway hype, that I’m kind of suspicious about and I think that it would be bad if somehow Norway was in itself a stamp of quality, in the same way that Norwegian Black Metal became a thing, it means that a lot of good stuff would be overlooked elsewhere. I mean I treat it as a joke, and being called the Norwegian King of Noise it’s a bloody joke, its horrible!”

Oops, sorry…

Indeed, there are infact three main camps within the experimental scene in Oslo. Those like Marhaug who arrived through metal and extreme rock, then there is a healthy Jazz scene based around the club Blå, (and practitioners such as Pål Neilsen Love and Swedish Saxophonist Mats Gustafsson). Then there is the academic input of players from the Oslo Conservatory (Maja Ratkje for example), that have through study, arrived at Noise via Stockhausen, Xenakis and Cage.

Coming firmly from the Metal camp, I asked Marhaug about the Free Jazz and the academic approaches, and what he thinks of it.

Marhaug: “Of course, everything’s Jazz, it has become the word for anything that is not just totally commercial. I like Jazz, but I grew up on Rock and Metal, and Jazz came later. I don’t have much of a Jazz collection, I prefer it in a live context, and (the venue) Blå is important. It is originally a Jazz venue, but like in many places the Jazz scene has accepted more experimental music, but here in Oslo, one reason why Jazz is often mixed with, not just Noise, but Hip Hop Club Scene and even Rock is that Jazz gets funding in Norway. As far as the more theoretical approach that some people have after coming from music school, like Maja (Ratkje) for example, shes great, a good friend of mine and we have made a few albums together, but mostly, I find that they talk too much and play too little! After years of doing experimenting on tape recorders and putting out my own stuff. I sat down to read Silence (John Cage’s seminal book), and I enjoyed reading it, but after 6 years of experimenting I just thought, “I know all this, its kind of obvious”.
My music is not so much about the concepts and ideas, because the really important ideas are quite obvious, and if you start digging and experimenting, you just get them immediately but I do like Xenekis, and Morton Feldman is a great composer, but I think some people become a bit damaged by coming into music from that more academic approach, I think you should just DO music and then read about it afterward. I once gave a presentation at the Music school here in Oslo, and the students asked all these highly intellectual conceptual questions, which had really simple answers… I really think that they think too much and play too little. I think it’s the same in art, often people are weighed down with this art history, and obsession with doing something new, instead of just doing it, it should be a personal thing. It’s something that you should feel you have to do, over and over again, because it feels right.”

Depite what he says, Marhaugs’ music feels quite composed, in a classical sense, and has a feel of being taken very seriously by its author. Far from being a ‘noise head’ who just wants eveything louder and more extreme, Marhaug can work at very quiet and sensitive levels as easily as he works at earsplitting volume. His recent ‘alternative soundtrack’ to the Stan Brakage film (the classic “The Art of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes”) is a slow and relatively quiet piece that complements the autopsy footage that Brakage’s 1971 film depicts, in both mood and percieved sound. The original film is silent which makes viewing uneasy and gives you a feeling of voyeurism, the sounds in the room are imagined, ringing metal surfaces, cutting instruments, the bone saw, the low murmur of voices at work, maybe even the slow last exhale of putrid breath. The sounds that one hears are not literally what make up the Marhaug composition, but it’s as if he has chosen substitutes, given us a new layer of sound, that somehow masks the relative horror of your own imagination and softens the grit of the documentary camerawork, so that the film can be viewed for what it is, a piece of Art, now no longer accompanied by the unease of misunderstanding. Is this disgusting?

Is this fair on the dead guy? 

Did they ask him? 

I can handle this, but whats coming next? 

Finally, with the Marhaug soundtrack, the concerns and fears are gone, and the film takes on a new sadness, as the film marks the passing of one mans life.

Marhaug: “The original is very sensitively filmed and the camerawork sympathetic, and not at all unpleasant, I wanted to keep this feeling with my soundtrack, and maybe to extend this feeling, to make it even easier to watch.”

(Well… maybe Lasse, I wouldn’t say it’s exactly easy though!)

In his recorded work he has a quite conventional pace to his music, the changes in sound texture, the ‘movements’ if you like, come where you would expect them, there is even some counting to 4, 8, 16 in terms of rhythm (I think) the pallete of sound is strange, yes, grating and nasty even, but there is a well thought out, considered feel.

Marhaug: “I’m not really even into noise, I do a lot of quiet stuff, a lot of minimalistic quiet things, but I guess when I yell the loudest is the part that people remember. And Norway, being associated with Noise and extreme music, it’s what they notice but I do a lot of different things. I don’t think in terms of is this loud or is this noise or is this extreme or hard. It’s whatever feels right for that piece or setting. I will do it. I’m more interested in sounds in general, I want to explore the whole palette of this sound world, I don’t want to concentrate on this extreme high pitched electronic sounds, I want to do a bit of everything.”

Where some noise music can give you the feeling, that it’s too easy, 45 minutes of white noise, PAH! I could do this, give us a break, he’s taking the piss, with Marhaug you can hear the work that he has put in. He try’s hard to fit in with the noise kids (“I can’t play any instruments you know, not a note ha ha giggle giggle.. ” Um Actually Mr Marhaug, you can… and infact you are a virtuoso) you can hear the late nights spend hunched over the laptop.

Marhaug: “I am a complete workaholic, I have this drive that I want to do stuff and I just get up in the morning and think it’s a new day, and I’m at a place in my life where I can, I mean I want to have kids and am completely aware that I won’t be able to carry on at this tempo as I have been, but I have all these ideas that I want to set up in life, so I try to work really focussed on how to do that most efficiently. I’ve always had a hard time sitting still. I don’t go out, I don’t drink, and I don’t party, I just keep working, working, working, and I don’t know, I would like to sit down and read a book, sometime, when there’s time!”

In a genre that embraces noise and distortion and error, we discussed the importance of conceptual and recording quality, the fact that good mastering is so important with experimental music, but the budgets will never be there to give the genre the quality it needs. But maybe this music needs a different approach, different ways of capturing the sound.

Marhaug: “I would love to be able to go into a big studio for a few months, like a big commercial act, to produce a big piece but it’s just not how I work. I have many projects and recordings all going at once. For example I have one track that was in the pipeline for seven years, it was so involved, but then sometimes I sit down and do something in two days, because that’s what it demanded. They work because they are raw ideas, and if I was to polish them too much, they would lose they’re essence. But some things will have to go on for years, like the album “Voice” I did with Maja (Radke) that was two years in the making, and we did hours and hours of stuff, but it was definitely worth it, and it was what that piece needed. But then again, Maja and me sat down and did an album in 2 hours, and I think both of them have equal value. I prefer it if I have 5 to 10 things going on at the same time, its easier to make two albums than one album for me.. it is! You can juggle ideas between projects, and something will happen that will work for something I am doing”.

My audience with the King of Norwegian Noise was coming to an end, but there was one last question I wanted to put to him. If Lasse Marhaug is the King of Norwegian noise, then Masami Akita alias Merzbow, is the King of the World… having recorded hundreds of releases since 1985, for many years turning out the most extreme noise, which at high volumes is the most intense sound of white noise, feedback, screech and howl all enveloped in multi layers of distortion and compression, and at low volumes sounds like one of those new age baby soothing CD’s (ok ok, extremly LOW volumes, but try it… I promise you it works like a charm), you know… “sounds from the womb, volume 4, now with added pan-pipes!)


In 2002 they met and performed together at the Moss Jazz festival, Crikey, what a racket that must have been?

Marhaug: “We’re in the same kind of field of course, we’re aware of what we both do, we’re great friends, and have been sending each other records for years. We just sat down and fooled around for a hour or two, had very simple discussion, of what worked and what didn’t, actually what we talked most about was the pacing of what we would do, not to play too fast, and how long things should go on before it should change. I think one of his great strengths is patience, he lets sounds unfold, he doesn’t rush anything. And I see that in a lot of Japanese stuff, letting things breath and evolve naturally, but still keeping that intensity and focus in the music”.

My time was up…
Dragged by unseen aides from his chambers, I shouted one last question, fingernails gripping the door-frame…

“Why noise?”

Marhaug: “I can’t play an instrument, not guitar, not drums, the first thing I did was experimenting with tape recorders, so that’s what I know. For me I think its an advantage, I just cant play a note, so if I picked up a guitar I wouldn’t get into one of those 3 chord blues basics, they’re not there.”

Yeah.. well, nah.. I’m not sure about that… I think he can probably scrape a sound out of an oscillator in precisely the way he wants, and being ABLE to play, um.. “Hey Joe”, for example… well, it doesnt mean you HAVE to play it! No, whatever your tools are (a specially made SuperCollidor patch, and a specially built box of electronics by Bristol based BugBrand are his tools for those geeks interested – I’m a geek too ! 

You work with them until you are a virtuoso, in much the same way as a classical or heavy metal musician. No, the music comes from somewhere else. Why Noise? I don’t think that it is noise at all, especially in the case of Lasse Marhaug, this music is the cleanest, simplest and purest form of music that there is, taking sound that (in normal everyday circumstances) we call noise, an annoyance, an irritation, and building with it, sculpting it, controlling it. The human race has made a lot of bad sound in this world, from TV, transport, construction, pain, despair and there is nothing more annoying than unwanted music from cars or next door neigbours! Noise is not new, to open your ears and say this is music, this is new, well not new perhaps, maybe 90 years old – Futurists? Art of noises anyone? Dada.. John Cage… See, its not that new!!! 
Well whatever…

Lasse Marhaug is in fact a well respected and highly skilled manipulator of sound, dealing with tone, form, timing, dynamics, emotion, colour, space, tension and ok, a tiny little bit of noise.

Long live the King!

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