Ikarus – Mosaismic [Ronin Rhythm Records 2019]
INTERVIEW with Ramón Oliveras in April 2019
Architecture is not only an influence, but a nice way to describe my work as a composer or the way Ikarus is doing music. Because in architecture, you first have to consider the right statics and the foundation. You can’t go against the law of gravity. But if you have this first step done, you can create otherwordly shapes on top of it. In the words penned by Ramón Oliveras, drummer and main composer of the swiss quintet Ikarus, there’s much more than inspiration, imitation or worship for the pleasures of architecture. Shaping a living experience, reverting the constraints of materials to create art, bending the laws of physics to their own purposes, those are things that Ikarus‘s music takes inspiration from architecture and applies within their music. The swiss quintet shapes an house of narrations built around geometric patterns, sonic layouts, rhythmic illusions and emotional landscapes. The notes inhabit this place like they were walls and doors that trigger new perceptions of the reality.
Ikraus creates an unprecedented mix of minimalist polyrhythmicity, chamber contemporary music, progressive rock aggressive start and stops, notably also with some hypnotic Zeuhl flavors. Not to be forgotten, that the acoustic line-up has roots in jazz improvisation as well -listen to the use of chromaticisms in the intricate obbligatos of Mosaismic‘s Mondrian. Bending the massive layers of rhythms more to the narrative development of the songs than to static repetitions, the complex writing behind their music never jeopardizes the emotional side. Formed in the flourishing Swiss scene of postminimalism, which is spawning a flood of artists and visions, they met around the founder and drummer Ramón Oliveras. I studied the drums at the Zurich University of Arts until a couple of years ago – he says. There I had plans to start a band for completing my studies. I was very inspired by the music of Arvo Part at that time, and other ECM artists, mainly choirs or minimalistic artists. I wanted to merge a jazz band with those vocal vibe. I wanted a piano trio, which I really liked as a rhythm section. I played in many piano trios at that time. Then, of course, I wanted to have voices. Starting with an acoustic line-up in mind, Oliveras was very attentive in choosing his music mates: I wished for two voices, like a male and female. Moritz Meyer, the bass player, and also the first singer, Stefanie Suhner, started with me. I knew them already, I wanted to make more music with them.
I always try to find a musical idea, which can be played in different shapes
Finding a fit for the piano would have been a critical step, looking at this in retrospect. Considering how much Ikarus music is ruled by an ‘all instruments play rhythm, all instruments play harmonic’ routine, it would been hard to do that with the ‘usual’ piano player. Lucca Fries was like a lucky punch – says Oliveras. Someone told me there was a great pianist in Luzern, who was really in all kind of music, but hadn’t a main project at the moment. I wanted someone who had time invest and not musicians who were playing in a thousand bands. Because I knew it would have been hard to rehearse or to do bigger tours with a big band of five musicians. Lucca Fries came to be an ideal fit, perfectly adapting at the postminimalistic concepts behind Ikarus‘s music, which he developed himself in parallel with his duo Hely. Completing the line-up, it was the moment to find a second singer, this time a male voice. Oliveras looked for help of now renowned swiss singer Andreas Scherer, who suggested one of his students might have been interested, his name is Andreas Lareida. Most other bands and projects, which were formed as study bands, just live for about two years -the drummer observes. Ikarus has since published three albums, starting from 2015’s Echo, which was anticipated by an EP released the year before. Also, the band kept a quite stable line-up, facing only now, with the release of Mosaismic, the first change. Singer Anna Hirsch is replacing Stefanie Suhner, who left after Chronosome, their 2017 sophomore release. She is pairing Andreas Lareida on vocals, Lucca Fries at piano, Mo Meyer at bass and, of course, Ramón Oliveras at drums.
Ikarus seem to have a very idiosyncratic relationship with space: their music explores the resonance of their acoustic instruments, but also it inhabits the living space, the space surrounding their music influences the writing and performing process. Ramón Oliveras makes no mystery for his love for specific places of the world and how those have affected his writing: one example being the zen influences from Japan, where the band frequently travels. Or Brazil, which deeply influenced the previous recording Chronosome and which architecture played a role in the writing of some tracks in Mosaismic. And, finally, Berlin, where Oliveras stayed for a prolonged time during the writing process of this album. Most of the music was written in Berlin -he says. Notably, he hints at how initial track of the record, Meridian, was written after the experience of living the German city. Most of the new music was written in Berlin –he says. Notably, he hints at how initial track of the record, Meridian, was written after the experience of living the German city. When I stayed there for fourteen months and I worked on this piece, I was inspired by the electronic and contemporary music scene in Berlin. Some elements, like the arpeggiator melody of the piano on the first piece Meridian, were directly inspired by this crazy city.
The initial track is opened by a martial polyrhythmic pattern by Oliveras, who’s mixing an odd meter with a plain four beats bar. Lucca Fries adds a thrilling semiquavers pattern, a stark descending theme with a minor feel that spirals back and forth over the beat. The entrance of the two voices in the higher register, singing wordless vocals -as usual for the band-, marks an ambiguous counterpoint, which bass and piano reinforce with a punchy effect in the lower register. Lucca Fries comes then back in with the intro theme, this time in the highest register. The floating mood of the track is enhanced by juxtaposition of the deep bass lines and the ethereal singing of Lareida and Hirsch. When, at around two minutes and thirty, Fries leads a bridge in E, the rhythmic section goes in a full improvisation mode, adding intensity and a crescendo feeling. Although this track is a bit dark, I put it as the initial track of the album, because I wanted to show off the big journey and the pulsing energy. In almost eigth minutes, the piece is evolving continuously. It shows, that Ikarus is much more going in this new direction of improvisation and simple ideas shaped in a complex way. The second part is an half tempo staccato, this time built around an ascending imperative theme, led by piano and doubled by voices and bass. It’s a time modulation from seven to five –says Oliveras. You can play the first part over the second part, it could kind of go together. I really like this rapid and surprising tempo change, and it’s something I want to do more often in the future. For about two minutes the theme leads to a progressive slowing until, at around six minutes and half, the song gains its initial momentum with a memorable staccato played by piano’s plucked strings and bass, reinforced by drums.
Oliveras, who also plays in another interesting trio called Punkt3 with two albums released at their own name, is busy working as PR for Ronin Rhythm Records, the label led and founded by Swiss zen funk pioneer Nik Bärtsch. They met before the release of Ikarus‘s very first album, and the Swiss pianist played a role in their development, as Oliveras recalls: we made this EP, these four songs [before Echo, which was released in 2015]. Lars who mixed these fours songs, was also the new sound tech of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin at the EXIL club for their Monday concerts. So Lars played some of the EP at the soundcheck and Nik called me imitiately to say, that he really likes the music and that we should talk again, in case Ikarus is doing an album. I liked the idea and I wanted to work with Nik Bärtsch and his label. Oliveras eventually stepped up in providing support also to the label mates, putting in practice the experience he previously gained with logistic and marketing for his own band: I did a lot of booking and public relations for Ikarus. At some point, Nik asked, if I wanted to supported his label Ronin Rhythm Records. I was very interested and did some PR work also for the other bands of the label family, like for Kali, Hely or Nicolas Stocker. In the end, this experience helps Ikarus too.
The music of Ikarus tells a story
Since the very start the band has worked within the realms of heavily composed tracks, which thing might have reduced the improvisation opportunities for the members. Still, they developed, through an intensive live process, a very unique approach to improvisation, carefully working through the cracks of their composition, constantly and slowly crafting new versions of their own songs. Ramón Oliveras remembers the start of the band: I wrote crazy partiture, scores with everything written out like contemporary classical music and my band members had to practice really hard. In the beginning, the music of Ikarus was heavily composed. The longer we play together, the more creative we become with the written material. Each band member got much more important. I am shaping the direction with my compositions. Starting from deeply populated scores, Oliveras‘s apporach to writing retains elements of minimlism practices of removing the unnecessary. In the beginning I am using music sheets, scores. Now I write everything out. But when we start rehearsing it, there’s a
deadline for when the piece has to be known by heart. The interesting ideas and the arranging starts at this point, where the score material is internalized. Then the music starts to flow. Incorporating the new tracks in the live sets, even before they are actually recorded, this plays an important element in vitalizing their music. So they did for Mosaismic: we made the last changes the day before the studio. But before, it was really important to test it in the live concerts. With every tour the songs synchronize more deeply. It’s really important that we play many concerts, even many tours, before we go to the studio or play important shows with new pieces. They are reworking their music on a continuous basis and it’s since no surprise that their third record contains two tracks they previsouly published, now rearranged in a new format: the aggressive, almost math rock oriented, Subzero from the previous Chronosome, and Aligulin, previously released as Ligulin in their debut album Echo. Played around the irregular beats of the two voices singing at unison, Aligulin is now revamped more towards a direction of leaving space for improvisation. Where the initial version highlighted the bass lines, with a deep and percussive mood, now Oliveras explores polyrhythmic patterns, often combining different meters in the same bar. Meyer follows him, and they create an incredibly extended dialogue, while Fries carefully build maximalists chords, working on extending the chords to a modal vortex.
Mosaismic marks a shift in the development path of the band. The difference is of course Anna Hirsch –says Oliveras hinting at the new member joining. She made a huge impact on the other vocalist Andreas Lareida, as she had a different voice than Stefanie Suhner. Andreas had to adjust his singing. On the new album, he is much warmer and softer overall, because this mixes better with Anna’s voice. Stefanie had more a more clear and classical voice, so Andreas could also be a little bit harder then. I like this new rounder sound they found together. It’s also going nicely with the piano and the bass, merging a bit better in the mix. It’s frequently uneasy to understand whose is the voice who’s singing in some specific moments of the songs, this being a testament of the kind of connection between the two. Cirrus starts with an hocket singing, the two vocalists dialoguing with the bass and moving through an ascending theme like a ladder. This retains a sort of contemporary jazz atmosphere, even when the two voices alternate during the long coda building momentum for amazing comeback of the initial theme, and then moving to the last peaceful modulation of the chords. The enhanced cohesion played a pivotal role in the final outcome of the album, together with a different approach on recording process, again disclosed by Oliveras‘ words: another important thing is that Martin Ruch, our
sound guy that mixed also our second album Chronosome, was now also at the recording. This made a huge impact, as he already knew exactly what he wanted the sound to be in the final mix.
We never play live with music sheets, this is really important for me. With music sheets, you never get to the point, where you can shape the music in different directions
Writing a song means creating a living shape for Ramón Oliveras, something that the band can work, adapt, populate, each musician with her/his own approach. He elaborates more on writing practices: every song has a very strong idea. Like the third track Saiko, is a great example. In the beginning, this song was comprised of seven different parts. In the band rehearsals we found out, that the first two parts had so much ideas in it, that switching back and forth and develop something out of it, was totally enough. We didn’t need the additional five parts for completing the piece. A slow circular theme of single quavers played by piano bounces from diminished intervals and then sort of resolves on a fifths cadenza. The two voices alternate in creating a branching counterpoint, that triggers a richful rhythmic and harmonic dialogue. Still the atmosphere retains a mood of ethereal sunrise, more specifically when the theme stops and Meyer plucks the strings during an intermission. The initial rhythmic pattern is then back in, with Fries adding an ambiguous, unresolving piano solo. The band is able to create a growing sense of intimacy, mixed with a thrilling feeling for something that’s coming, through an articulated dialogue. Saiko has undergone a severe process of rewriting from the initial material, still now it appears to be very fresh, immediate. It’s one of the most important things as a musician to know how much you need to cut away from the idea –Oliveras says– to get to the core of the idea. Also because I found out that, if you find the good idea, you reduce everything to what is necessary. Then you can be much more creative than before. Because the stronger the idea, the easier you can play around it and be creative. If it’s too complicated and has too many parts, you never arrive to at the level where you can play everything you want. We usually need some time for this, mostly one year of rehearsing and touring until the piece gets really free and we can do whatever we want with it. For this to happen, it is really important to cut away everything that’s not necessary. Reflecting on how the written material is still elastic enough to allow musicians to shape that with their own personality: the musical core ideas came from me, but everyone in the band has a strong individual voice, and so we arranged the pieces together. I couldn’t compose the resulting music on the album myself. The band is really important for getting the music to flow.
More and more articulated, Ikarus music could risk anytime to lose the red thread, but it never does, keeping an impressive sense of coherency: the coherence comes with editing everything not necessary out. Like Saiko which had seven parts. For me coherence comes with going back, seeing everything in context and deciding what’s important and what’s not. The narrative element still plays a pivotal role that is never surrendered in their music. Every element is pictured in a development state, starting from a point and moving to another. Since melodic element is central in the songs structure: I am composing in lines. I am mostly writing melodies, over melodies, over rhythm, over rhythm, over melodies. I never write changes, like I never write ‘in this melody you have to play an C major seventh chord with a ninth’. I even write melodies for the piano and Lucca can shape them how he wants. If you hear any piano chord, it’s mostly not that I wrote, but something he Lucca develooped because of how the voices, the bass, the drums and the top note line up. That’s something that applies to everyone in the band, like the bass can do variations and find new solutions as soon as everything fits in the place. […] For me, the second important thing are rhythmical motives. I always try to find one musical idea which can be played in multiple directions. Like most of the time, if the bass is playing the melody, at some point the singers will play the bass melody, but some octaves higher. If the piano is doing like an arpeggio, perhaps the drum is doing the same rhythm. I’m trying to get a musical idea everywhere possible.
Mosaismic is the final result of a wide range of experiences and sounds influencing the writing processes: I listened a lot to The Knife. This is a band from Sweden, which did every album totaly different. One is sounding like techno, one like a contemporary opera. I also listened to a lot of contemporary music this year, because I went back to University of Arts, where I studied contemporary classical music. So I listened a lot to Ligeti, Morton Feldman, and of course all the american minimalists like Steve Reich and Terry Riley. The third very important influence was my Sao Paulo residency: it was really amazing to hear all these grooves on the streets everyday and to see this amazing musical culture alive. Oliveras strives to create music that’s bringing multiple points of view in itself: for this record, I started every piece with a different composition medium. One song I improvised on the piano, one on an old organ. Another songs basic idea comes from a motive I hummed while waiting for the bus. Oumuamua, for example, is not composed while writing on a music sheet, it’s produced in a digital workstation with recording all the parts myself. For this piece, I also had puzzle of 20 small sheets on the floor for fixing the course of events. Of course, some tunes started with drum ideas, but I tried to be really flexible here, because the resulting music more interesting that way.
There are many interesting young musicians who tackle their music in a minimal fashion. I really like that
Oumuamua is built around a single polyrhythmic pattern repeated from start to end. The voices adding prolonged lines over the top until gradually moving to aggressive prog oriented staccato patterns towards the end. The repetition in Ikarus is always a mean to look at the progressive mutation of the music material. Being a core element of the zen funk style Bärtsch developed in the last twenty years, I asked Oliveras what differentiates his conception of repetition against the one of the swiss pianist: for me repetition is less a ritual, but more getting your senses sharpened. I like what happens when you repeat something, that you hear it in many different ways. You find many details in the same thing. Even if it’s copy paste: When you hear it a long time, you start to hear it in different ways through repetitions. This is one important reason why I think repetition is so important. In the case of Ikarus, the music is not just repetitive, it has also a dramatic development, while Ronin is much more a exhibition of ideas in a kind of ritual. The music of Nik Bärtsch structures my brainwaves so I have really great ideas while listening to it. With Ikarus, it’s more a storytelling experience, like watching a movie. People who come to a concert tell me often ‘I saw this and that image and I relived this and that memory because of this sound’. Of course repetition has an important part in this. But it’s less ritual more journey.
Ikarus is placing themselves at the point of interconnection of a flourishing scene, which is reinterpreting minimalism through multiple languages, looking at math rock, electronic, contemporary jazz or even progressive rock. Is there a postminimal scene in Switzerland? I think so –says Ramón Oliveras. Especially Nik is gathering interesting bands under his label, like Kali and Hely, which are similar in of how they treat musical material, but then totally different in the result.If not for Nik, this community wouldn’t grow like it is at the moment. […] There are many interesting young musicians who are tackle musical ideas in a minimal fashion. I really like that. Repetition is more than a means and less than an end for these bands. Repetition and patterns are also very important for them, as well as reducing the unnessesairy. They all have a very polished sound on recordings. Most of these post minimalistic bands are reaching further in the concept than only their music. They take care of amazing sound on stage, the stage lighting, an artistic album cover, to tight everything together. The visual aspect is getting very important in the jazz scene too. I think the music gets more depth, if you create a kind of visual perspective.
Ikarus build their own space, reverting geometry of patterns and angularities to their own narration, always carefully developing a tale, bending space and time to their own vision. Mosaismic is the third building block of their career.
Ramón Oliveras – Comp & Drums
Anna Hirsch – Vocals
Andreas Lareida – Vocals
Lucca Fries – Piano
Mo Meyer – Bass
Recorded Nov 2018 at Fattoria Musica Osnabrück
Published by Ronin Rhythm Productions & Neonstars Publishing