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Acoustic Noise, Anarchist Utopias and the Never Ending Process: An Interview with Sult

Over the course of more than a decade the Norway / Oakland California "Acoustic Noise" trio Sult have forged a fascinating, visceral sound world that evokes natural phenomenon while at the same time expressing both the individual member's voices and an ecstatic holistic group vision. On the release of their new album "Always I Gnaw" Sult's members Guro Skumsnes Moe (contrabass), Håvard Skaset (acoustic guitar) and Jacob Felix Heule (bass drum) discuss their methods, philosophies and overall place in the world of sound and at large with the Unwrinkled Ear's Andrew Choate.

Andrew Choate: The phrase “Acoustic Noise” seems to be your favored way of addressing the inevitably fraught issue of describing your music. What does the noise label that you apply to the band bring to the table, in terms of how you want to set your audiences up to be ready to listen?

Håvard: I am not really the kind of person that needs to put labels on music, but I guess we agreed that we had to call it something, to describe what we are doing. Since the beginning of the group we have developed our sound a lot. And it feels like we have been filtering our music every year, removing the sounds that didn't fit. I think our music was softer, more melodic and less harsh in the beginning. Maybe more “conventional improvisational”. Especially after we became a trio, this development started going fast. It seems like we got more liberated from traditional musical elements and we started to become more like three individual voices playing simultaneously. For some reason this sounds good to us. And this might be the reason we use the word “Noise”. “Acoustic” comes natural, since we play traditional instruments; a bass drum, contrabass and acoustic guitar.

To me there is something in the word “noise” that points to elements that are not commonly accepted for what people perceive in “normal music”. Music is sometimes described as organized sounds, Sult organizes our sound in an aleatoric way and I think we are attracted to some kind of brutality when it comes to our sounds. If you´ve seen Guro play the contrabass, or Jacob's drumming, or my guitar playing for that sake, you will probably experience it as quite raw and somehow brutal. It's a very physical way of playing, that actually wears the instruments. Needless to say, we are always playing cheap instruments…

Guro: I like the term because it expands what two clearly set terms of music are. Acoustic music noise music. But it is acoustic noise music. The noise aesthetic has become very close to me, on many levels, also towards how I want society to be. Individual equal layers operating at the same time creating a stronger whole. Perhaps Holistic even.

Jacob: For me it’s a way of contextualizing the music. As in electronic noise, our music works primarily with sounds, and also on a more visceral level. Simultaneous layers might not be coherently related, but nonetheless comprise the whole. It connects us to a community that we feel a part of even though that’s probably not apparent just from looking at our instruments.

Do people need to know anything to approach your music? What makes it personal?

Håvard: I don't think you need to know much to enjoy or approach our music; but you of course need to be open minded. If you are looking for the beauty in art, you might look at it differently than music based on harmony or consonance. Our beauty might lie in the energy and the rawness of the sounds. Maybe similar to how nature can be perceived. Like a river or waterfall can be beautiful and the next moment it can be deadly and terrifying, but that also has some beauty to it.

I think it's personal because we allow each other's personal experiments in music to flow into the interaction. Sult would not sound as we do without each individual performer's deep devotion to this music.

Guro: I do it for my own sake, not to entertain others. Yet it has to resonate with the listeners. To me creativity is personal. Or I think, when opening up into yet unknown territories of the senses, its a deep trust. As in Sult we have gained a profound trust towards our equal voices and what this becomes as a whole. It's a risk to trust. Perhaps that makes it personal, because you risk to fall.

Jacob: I think our music is very visceral, natural, and maybe even simple. “Knowledge” and expectations are probably more of an obstacle to connecting to the music. Those of us who enjoy listening to music like this listen to sounds for their own sake, welcome the unexpected, and pay attention to, and on various levels.

Our music is very personal in that we don’t have any specific roles to play. Our only obligation is fully investing ourselves in the experience.

What is something of value you’ve learned from one of your teachers, and what is something you focus on communicating now when you teach?

Håvard: For me it feels a bit hard to answer this one. I studied for a bachelor's that was similar to the Berkley system, and there is very little that I can bring to the table of what I learned back then. Me and Guro later did our master's degree together as a band, and that led to meeting Jacob. We did some shows in the Bay Area and worked a bit with Fred Frith [1], and that was probably the most important thing that happened for me during education. We got in touch with Jacob through our friend Lasse Marhaug [2] (That we collaborated with on our previous album “Harpoon”). Jacob did sound for Jazzkammer in San Francisco, and Lasse forwarded his email to us before we went to play in the Bay area for the first time. Must have been in 2005 or 2006. So Sult is a result of several long relationships.

[1] English multi-instrumentalist, composer, and improviser.

Guitar innovator known for his solo and extensive collaborative works as well being

a founding member of Henry Cow, The Art Bears, Massacre and Skeleton Crew.

Frith taught at Mills College in Oakland Ca. until his retirement in 2018.

[2] Norwegian musician, producer and engineer primarily working in the field of

noise music as well as improvisation, jazz, rock and metal since the early 1990's.

He has also been involved in creating music for theatre, dance, art installations and video art.

I haven't taught for many years. I am really bad at accepting that the students are not always there because they want music to become their life. A lot of people have music as their hobby, and that's great. But that never worked for me.

Guro: I have not really ever been a teacher. I had a strong lesson from Joélle Leandre [3], in her home in Montmartre. I tried to find all excuses as to why I did not have the technique I thought I should have. As tears ran down my face I realized you can never put anything between you and where you want to be with your music. What you want your music to be. There´s never any excuse. And Fred Frith's question in our masterclass, "why are you playing like you do?" sent me off to a road with responsibility towards my own choices.

[3] French double bassist, vocalist, and composer active in new music and free improvisation.

In the field of contemporary music, she has performed with Pierre Boulez's Ensemble InterContemporain

and worked with Merce Cunningham and John Cage.

Jacob: I’ve led workshops in improvisation for a couple years now. Mostly we play pieces (many by Pauline Oliveros and John Stevens) that instruct us to work with our attention in different ways. How you pay attention (and there are many ways) can be as important to the music as what you play.

What is it about hard work that is attractive? What makes work hard or easy? (This is in relation to statements by Håvard about being inspired being around hard-working people)

Håvard: I think I'm attracted to it because it shows that people are dedicated and serious about what they are doing. I really enjoy hearing musicians that have put down a lot of time and effort into their music. Not in terms of technical brilliance, but hearing musicians that are deeply rooted in their art. And that usually comes with a lot of hard work. Working with this kind of music doesn't really give you a lot of credibility, so enjoying the never ending work process is a good way of surviving.

Guro: To use the potential to its best. To find the best possible flow. To progress. Not as machines but as human beings. In a dialog or relation between action and reflection.

Jacob: I have pretty good discipline in my practice, but I don’t really think of it as working hard.

For Guro (though also great if both of you boys want to chime in). You said in another interview that you don't see your view of music and art resonating in your surroundings, in Norway - what would it look like if it did? How would it feel? Describe a life where your music is embraced not only by the seekers and the aficionados, but by THE PEOPLE. (I know this could be a huge exercise in imagination and the creation of entirely new worlds, take it as far as you’d like - the initial thoughts when I tried to answer the question are quite pleasant to me!)

Guro: That people would feel at ease with themselves and their contributions to the world. Equality. Instead of seeing their own limitations they would encounter them as possibilities to reach something yet unfolded. Inspired by Paolo Freire [4], and his descriptions of the border situations. It would be a society looking upon time in a different way, their sets of goals and growth would also be intertwined in thinking about time in a different way. Thoughts and ideas free from capitalistic thinking I guess could be the sum of this reality. I think not just music but art in general, lets people be vulnerable, makes us remember we are humans. So its not just to embrace the music, our music, because it is the way of living with it that I feel has given me this point of view. From being able to live with such a strong feeling of meaning.

[4] Brazilian educator and philosopher who was a leading advocate of critical pedagogy.

His work Pedagogy of the Oppressed is generally considered one of

the foundational texts of the critical pedagogy movement

Håvard: Tricky question! Over the last decade we have toured a lot abroad, both with Sult and our rock band MoE. This has put us in close connection with musicians from all over the world, and there have been times I have felt like I don't understand the motivation among my fellow musicians at home. But that could also mean that I am not all that aware of what is happening here. 2020 has been different, since I´ve been home a lot. And I have been able to check out a lot more of what's going on.

On the other hand, I think it's necessary to stay strong in your own search for the music and not be too preoccupied with what other people are doing. To me it makes sense to keep a steady stream and not think too much about what other people are doing.

Jacob: If the operating principles of our band could scale up to a societal level it would be an anarchist utopia. To look at it a different way, a society that embraced music like ours would be more mindful of everything around them, and would consequently treat everyone and everything better than we currently see.

For Jacob. You said that rock music is in your soul. How does it feed there? For Guro and Håvard. What music is in your soul? Is it the music you make, or the music you listen to? How do those things combine?

Jacob: I guess at the time I was trying to say that playing in weirdo rock bands as a teenager ignited my lifelong commitment to music, and it has been enjoyable to stay in touch with that way of working. Band practices, developing songs, playing shows. It’s honestly hard for me to connect with that feeling in this moment, though most of my current improvising groups “practice” way more than we play shows.

Guro: The music of Sult has been there as a core for me. Something I have never had a vocabulary towards, it has always felt as a step ahead of me, where I had no control. I like to dance and if I can, I do it every day, and I realized just recently I hardly never put music on. That comes from how I encountered improvised music in the first place. It was just movements. And it feels like this is coming back to me. Perhaps it could be described as seeing colors or energies. It is abstract but when I make movements with my body it appears to me as music. I do feel like every music that comes from a genuine place can resonate in me, no matter the genre.

Håvard: I grew up listening to metal and then got into jazz and contemporary classical music at age 15. That led to a degree in jazz and improvisation, but before I finished my degree I had already opened up to no wave, punk and odd forms of rock and punk. Heavy music has always been a part of my life, so the transition to noise and other experimental genres didn't seem like a leap. And it is still the energy and the expression that catches my attention when it comes to music. Nowadays I am deep into old acoustic blues players, probably for the same reasons.

How do you think about sacrifice in relation to a life in music?

Håvard: I don't think about it that way. I love working with music. To me it would be a sacrifice to work with something else.

Guro: I feel I have to hold tight to this other way of thinking about time. Because the hours of rehearsing, making music, booking, there's almost never a direct result, it's always tangled with other threads that need different time aspects to be revealed and it's alive and it changes. Concerts give direct verification and this energy is what drives me also. And I navigate after this energy. A lot of this work feels invisible to the outside world, but the energy to me is strong, the energy from performing. So it feels like I am holding a ship with many many sails and the wind in each of them are different but the energy is strong, the energy from performing, and that somehow always gives wind. I love this life I feel so enormously grateful that this is my life and I just want to continue this, and try to give music as much worth as I can on the way.

Jacob: Music is a joy.

How has improvisation, despite its inherent accessibility and inclusiveness, remained so unpopular for so many decades?

Håvard: It's hard for me to think in this way. But A lot of people are afraid of subgroups and countercultures, or at least don't want to mess with that for various reasons. And you also have the fact that most people can't make a living of it. And in a capitalistic world, that's a failure. Middle class values don't really support this necessary fundament that this culture is rooted in. I'm not saying there shouldn't be money in art, but if that's the core, it kills everything.

Guro: It talks to our unconsciousness, it goes (sometimes) beyond the expected, it charges energy from the very present. And the mainstream has never aspired to those aspects. So in its origin I think its considered dangerous. But I don´t think that is the reason on a daily ordinary life basis. People are so flock minded, the fear of being different scares them too much. To feel, to think, to have their own reflections.

Jacob: It feels so natural to me, but most people are uncomfortable with ambiguity and the unknown. I’m willing to accept that I’m an anomaly. The degree to which our attention has been increasingly commodified probably makes it harder than ever to get into music like this.

How would your art have changed if each of you were twice your current age? Or half? what would you be doing?

Håvard: Haha. I don't know anything else than organizing, making music and playing music. If I was half my age, I would probably be doing something else, but I have no clue what it would be. If twice my age I would be in a geriatric home right now!

Guro: Twice my age I would be doing big multidisciplinary work. Half my age I would perhaps have been doing the same but I would not have known that is was that I was doing.

Jacob: My first thought is that I don’t think the music would be too different. At half my age I was still finding my way into this music, fumbling around. I can’t really imagine any counterfactual. At twice my age I hope to still be able to play.

What's the most annoying thing that happens in music for each of you? Pet peeves, either about experimental music or any music.

Håvard: I don´t really know. I mostly focus on making music and expanding my knowledge in how to make my own music better. We dont have TV and I stopped listening to radio, so I am mostly exposed to the music I search for. But on tour I sometimes get tired of bands and musicians trying to recreate something from the past or trying to fit into something established. Metal, punk and hardcore is extremely populated with bands that have no personality.

Guro: I am concerned towards what happens with the independent network throughout the globe in music and all levels actually.

Jacob: I guess in improvised music it’s hard for me as a listener when one of the musicians is not open to (or aware of) what’s going on around them.

How do you see music being affected by the professionalization/ institutionalization of experimental practices?

Håvard: I guess it points to the previous answer, but there have probably never been so many great musicians as now. But as always, nothing is fair. It's not always the greatest or the most creative artists that get the credit. In the world of social media and promo agencies, even the experimental scene has embraced these capitalist sides of the industry. Visibility is everything, even for experimental music.

Jacob: I don’t think I see that. It feels very DIY and underground where I operate.

Guro: Well, to gain freedom to fully manage experimental practices I think comes from a strong search and strength within. When just looking at the words "institutionalization" "professionalization" I feel the weight of unnecessary bureaucracy. I am not sure whether I am facing the question the right way by this comment... The risk and the responsibility that is planted, as I see it, in the core of experimental practices has never needed an institution or the professional conditions. Its like the cactus. It lives through everything. All though (as I experienced when a neighbor took care of our plants during a long tour) if you give it water it will grow more.


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