The Exercise of Being Present: Das Wohltemperierte SPUNK

SPUNK-kvartetten.
SPUNK-kvartetten. Foto: Rune Kongsro

At one minute past eight in the evening of the twentieth of January, 2001, the Norwegian quartet SPUNK began playing a drone in the key of B, inaugurating a project that would weave into their musical lives for the foreseeable future. Eleven years, eleven months and eleven minutes later, the same foursome struck up a G, embarking on the final leg of a journey that had taken them through the twelve notes of the equal tempered scale – one tone per year.

Mathematics, as Igor Stravinsky once said, swims seductively just below the surface of these pieces. The twelve-tone scale lies at the root of some of the twentieth century’s most paradigmatic modernist music developments. At the same time, the internal dodecaphonic logic radiated outwards to define the dates and start times of each of SPUNK’s concerts in celebration of this enduring musical system. The group placed themselves at the mercy of the unchallengeable authority of numbers: contracting themselves to a twelve year commitment to return, at 20:02 in the year 2002, 20:03 in 2003, etc, and explore the next tone in the sequence.

Lene: In the late nineties we had developed an etude called The Scelsi-Etude, inspired by the composer Giacinto Scelsi’s orchestral work Quattro pezzi su una nota sola [1959]. It was also inspired by the story of Scelsi sitting in a hospital playing the same key on the piano over and over again for years, listening to the sound of one single pitch. We mainly used this for warming up together  – we still do – as the limitations of one pitch opens the ear and mind for variations in timbres, and also focuses collective listening. At the same time, we explored Stockhausen’s text pieces, and were particularly intrigued by one where you are supposed to meditate for a week by yourself and then come together and play only the sounds that are really necessary to play. From this came the idea to play a whole concert based on one pitch, and the rest of the project grew from this.

Kristin: I think Maja was the first one to notice the date 20.01.2001. Then someone realised it would be a succession of dates during the next twelve years, and the concurrence of the number twelve in the tempered scale was immediately obvious.

Maja: As with most SPUNK projects, it was a result of meeting and talking and getting ideas together in a group process. Around 2000 there were so many millennium projects everywhere, and we felt like doing something less commercial. It is a celebratory project, as we celebrate the tempered scale as well as the history of tonal music. At the same time, we are looking ahead, as if playing each note in the tempered twelve-tone scale allows us to throw the old harmonic system away once and for all.

Hild Sofie: It was unifying, focused and meditative, and it was room for our personalities to colour and develop the ensemble sound. I think the core of Das Wohltemperierte SPUNK is our love of being in that meditative flow together, playing that single pitch as a meeting point. Associations thrive in SPUNK, and our conceptual ideas have always come out of creative and divergent conversations, building on each other’s outbursts and thoughts.

SPUNK interview (excerpt)

For the CD box set Das Wohltemperierte SPUNK, released on Rune Grammofon, the four members of SPUNK were interviewed by nyMusikk’s artistic director Anne Hilde Neset and music writer Rob Young. This is an excerpt from the interview.

Between 11 - 16 February, SPUNK played a lunch festival at nyMusikk.