AKKU Quintet – Depart (7d Media 2019)

AKKU Quintet – Depart (7d Media 2019)

Sep 9, 2019 0 By Marcello Nardi

INTERVIEW with Manual Pasquinelli in May 2019

-La guerre, je vous dis, la guerre!-

When linguist Ferdinand de Saussure uttered this sentence in front of a classroom, he had no intent to evoke aggressiveness  –War! I tell you war! that’s the English translation. Indeed, the dramatical gesture had a more scholarly intent. He was looking for explaining how the meaning of a word is not given once for all, like in dictionary’s definitions, but it always depends on the context of the sentence. Putting it simple, the first time the students heard la guerre, it was not like the second time; the meaning had slightly slipped away to another direction. This is pivotal in our today’s understanding of the language, how we are able to manipulate the meaning of words, how this is dependent on the context. The haunting power of repetition in this sentence, which I heard as well like a student yelled in a classroom, has always intrigued me. Repeating the same word, multiple times, this exercise conveys a deep emotional charge. The letters, the sound is gonna be the same, not the feeling around it. AKKU Quintet plays repetition in a similar way in their latest Depart: they manipulate the meaning of sounds, expand the emotional charge through an extensive use of repetition and sink those in deep polyrhythmic nets. Their music is full of narrative development, whether they are taking sometimes a prolonged or very short timeframes to evolve it, and they are playing themes in loop for multiple times with slight changes.

Nurtured in the flourishing scene of Swiss postminimal, AKKU Quintet mixes post-rock and progressive rock leanings within an electro-acoustic framework. Led by drummer Manuel Pasquinelli, who is in charge also of the composition, the line-up resembles a typical jazz fusion quintet, looking at the instruments involved. They formed in 2010 in Bern while all the former members were involved in jazz studies. I just asked people I liked to play with if they would like to join this group -says Pasquinelli. I had some ideas, compositions that I wanted to try out. Then this worked very well we had fun time together. The meeting was fruitful and the drummer eventually prepared this band for his diploma’s completion exam. They came up with a demo in 2011 and, then, recorded what later became Stages of Sleep, their first release published in 2013. Even though Pasquinelli was sharing duties behind the drummer’s stool in Sonar band, he found time to keep pace and release albums with AKKU Quintet on a two-years cadence. With keyboardist Maja Nydegger and guitarist Markus Ischer, who both started since the very first recording, the band now includes also Michael Gilsenan at saxes and Andi Schnellmann, who is incidentally also playing in alternative prog trio Schnellertollermeier, at bass.

AKKU Quintet has developed quite a solid body of works, moving through the second release Molecules in 2015 and the third Aeon in 2017, with a very precise vision behind it. A set of rules that clearly identifies a peculiar sound, a consistent approach at time development, at mixing distant styles like post-rock, progressive rock and minimalism, across all four albums. If listening to a single track by the quintet is a careful exercise of dedication to smallest details, it is however easier to listen to their discography like a whole, single journey. Yet, there are differences among the four releases and what they are showing in Depart, published on Trey Gunn‘s 7d Media, is an even more solid, distinctive language of their own. I wanted to have a bit more like stable parts compared to Aeon -says PasquinelliAeon is a little more in the cloud, while Depart is more on Earth.


Largo opens the album with a repetitive theme played by electric piano around a minor A chord. The minimalistic, reductive melody is pushed forward by bass and drum, playing in staccato and on the beat, and by guitar adding string scratches in the background. At start of the piece there is this basic piano riff that I composed that on a kalimba -says the drummer. I just took this kalimba and started playing around and it came to this pattern. Then I put it on the piano. The whole fourteen minutes tune started with this. Also in the second section, where the piano comes in, it’s the same notes from the kalimba, but this time it’s rhythmically different, even though the basic idea is the same. When the sax gently comes in, repeating the main theme, it’s time to move ahead to a steady rock-driven beat at 1 minute and 35 seconds. Pasquinelli jumps back on forth around the beat, playing juicy polyrhythms; Ischer adds layers of prolonged notes, at times going side by side with Gilsenan. The interruption at 4 minutes marks an evocative break: Nydegger‘s echoing piano catches the attention at around 4 minutes. In a sort of cause-effect game, this leaves the floor to the sax to come in with a sharp, neat sound, playing around the main rhythmic figure. This figure is the centerpiece all over the track. The guitar takes the lead again with the same intense main theme made of prolonged notes. Bouncing to the middle section of the piece, the mood becomes relaxing, somewhat haunting. A new break allows all instruments, but the drums, to come in and repeat the main rhythmic figure, but at a faster pace. The band is now split in two duos: guitar and drums create intricate polyrhythmicity, while bass and sax play an intense theme in unison. When they modulate to another chord, Pasquinelli comes in with his raw and stark drumming in a crescendo until the end.

That’s something that we learnt with playing together for long time, to make the composed music to sound lively

Starting from simple patterns, tweaking beats and accents in a quirky manner and then revolting them again through the work of the band, AKKU Quintet’s music starts off from basic riff ideas, like Pasquinelli indicates: I wrote the pieces either at piano or at drums. Sometimes it can be a drumbeat that I arranged for the band. Someone plays bass drum, another the rest. I am fascinated by this rhythmical stuff. I just try to write music that I would like to listen to. It always happens that there’s something rhythmical inside. It can be complicated, but the most important thing is this still sounds natural, organic. That’s important for me that sounds good even if the listener or the player don’t know what it is. Arrangement plays a pivotal role in their music and the quintet shows an high degree of consistency in adapting those ideas to the band. This might be challenging for the players, as it often means going out of what it might be the usual scope, the “playing blueprint” of the instrument. What I think is interesting when we are rehearsing as a band is that the band members are to take roles that they are not used for. The sax player has to play a lot of patterns, most of the time is the leading melody voice. It’s very interesting to change the roles or to experiment with changing the roles of the instrument, to have the sax player playing a pattern, something spacey. There are many possibilities to arrange this rhythmic structure. For me it’s a lot of fun to have a basic idea and then to experiment how it sounds good or what possibilities are available to make the sounds different.

Made in China is an hypnotic gamelan jem that plays around a main piano theme and is full of noteworthy moments. As Pasquinelli recounts, this theme was composed and played on a toy piano, that eventually turned out to be out of tune and having very few keys working, still it was enough to play a chinese-like pentatonic. This drives the slightly off-beat rhythmic feel and attracts all the players to progressively adapt and create their own polyrhythmic alternatives. First is the drummer who adds his strokes, immediately answered by guitar’s playing. There’s an irresistible toe-tapping feeling in the air. When the break leaves sax and drums alone at 1 minute and 30 seconds, this is one of the first memorable moments: Schnellmann plays an intense and reverberated single note that creates an incredible amount of tension. Again, at 2 minutes and 30 seconds, it’s guitar solo entrance to reload tension and drum the new drumming pattern as well. Again in Pasquinelli‘s words: in Made in China there’s this guitar solo: I told Markus just go full in a crazy solo and then he did what he did. I tried to leave the solos in direction or in the mood I thought it was be good for the tune. The soloist can put in what he likes, his personality, but it should also fit to composition. I tried to have the mix of that, to leave the soloist in a direction where he can be himself, still play something that can make stand with composition. This leads to the second part of the track, with the band showing its playfulness at highest degree. The main pattern is analyzed, destructured, cut and revolved until the track almost loses its thread. It’s again the guitar, at 5 minutes and 50 seconds, to play the initial pattern and to drive the band back to the circular ending of the piece.

AKKU Quintet is more acoustic and it has different colors with sax and piano. Sonar is more rough. 

Blending improvisation and rigidly structured polyrhythmic nets is a common trait in Swiss postminimalism, something shared by such bands as Nik Bärtsch‘s Ronin, Ikarus, Hely and, of course, Sonar. Still each one of them, including AKKU Quintet, is interpreting this in a manner different from the others. In the new album we have more spots for improvisation -indicates PasquinelliWe improvised also in the little parts, not only during solos. AKKU Quintet is able to translate this potential collapse between rhythmic structure and improvisation in a very unique manner: that’s something that we learnt with playing together for long time, to make the composed music, even if it’s composed, to sound lively and with a personal touch. What I find interesting it’s to improvise as a band. Not to have only one solo player, but to have a soloist who is leading and all band has a dynamic built-up. It’s more a collective improvisation, not only one single instrument. I enjoy playing and doing dynamics with all band and not just to have one. What we tried to do is to make the solo part of the composition, it was not just the theme and the solo. The solo can lead somewhere else. The composed and the solo parts are more connected, that’s what we tried to do. This increased confidence in exploring the improvisation degree in their intricate playing is one of the key components behind Depart: I had different approaches for the tunes. Some tunes, were there for more time, others I wrote just two weeks before the studio. What was different than other albums is that we did not play them live a lot. We just played them live once and then we went to studio. Everything was fresh for us. We finished tunes in the studio. We were very attentive and open for ideas. We tried to expand the sound. For Aeon we played a lot live. We always knew what would have worked in a specific solo. For Depart, instead, we knew tunes, but we played solos for the first or second time. We were still creating, but we needed to learn composed parts and rehearse.

Manuel Pasquinelli sits at the drumming stool also with Sonar, a band which is gaining increasing attention and is close to release another album with guest maestro guitarist David Torn later this year, after the stunning Vortex. I just had a chat with Manuel Pasquinelli the week after they recorded that in the studio. Discussing the difference between the two bands, the Swiss drummer explains: the idea of sound is different. AKKU Quintet is more acoustic and it has different colors with sax and piano. Sonar is more rough. Playing with two tritone guitars, with harsh and raw sounds, has a definitively different directions than managing a palette of multiple colors like with this quintet. The title track is a perfect example of how AKKU Quintet interprets those colors. Gilsenan plays a 2 + 3 rhythmic pattern on sax during the intro. This is repeated in loop, and sounds very close to what Sha, Nik Bärtsch‘s reedist, has created as his trademark sound. Piano adds liquid arpeggios and guitar moves around a single string clean pattern, so close to 80s’ King Crimson. As Gilsenan interprets his solo moving between breaths, ripping atonal scales and abrasive sounds, the four increase intensity and then release it. The second part is started by keyboards, through a seamless transition. The proggy intervallic jumps that Nydegger explores so intensely during her solo are like walking a rope ladder to the Moon. Then Gilsenan adds some delicate sounds, which seem to recreate an apparent counterbalance. 

What I think is interesting when we are rehearsing as a band is that the band members are to take roles that they are not used for.

AKKU Quintet‘s music is often made of steady and slow beats. They aim at progressively creating, through often gigantic tracks, a sense of growing tension. Whether this is influenced by post-rock bands, progressive rock or classical minimalism, their sense of time is idiosyncratic. We have to give the time to the music to develop in a way that this makes sense. We have to have patience and give room to music that can develop. I like if the music has a direction, that we go somewhere. Like unfolding something they barely know, they are on a quest to discover the inner sense of time behind their music. Maybe sometimes I have something in mind and then we try it with the band maybe it works exactly like I planned, maybe we see it’s much better to do it in a different way, that is so much fun that it should stay longer. It can also happen that I have a specific tempo in mind, but when we play all together, it feels much better in a slower or faster tempo. Things like that happen all the time. And then, after trying out an idea or a tune, I write a new arrangement with the experience in mind of the first touch with the band. I think it’s the mix of doing things in the rehearsal and doing things at home.

Mixing theoretical and practical approach, mixing multiple styles, mixing both a reflective and a visceral approach to music, AKKU Quintet is able to take us to a journey to discover their sense of time. Depart, both in the title sense as in the musical sense, is just a starting point for a world of new discoveries.

AKKU Quintet

1.Largo 14:35
2.Made In China 07:16
3.Breeze 03:44
4.Depart 10:52
5.Cyan 07:07

Manuel Pasquinelli – Drums, Compositions
Michael Gilsenan – Sax
Maja Nydegger – Keys
Markus Ischer – Guitar
Andi Schnellmann – Bass