Ahead of his performance with Britten Sinfonia on Saturday 14 December, Fiona Talkington speaks to avant-garde guitarist Stian Westerhus about his choice of instrument and style of composition.
Stian Westerhus is a guitarist, but that’s hardly an adequate description of what he’s already brought to the music world. Yes, he’s an inspiring and virtuosic performer but he’s not a showman, no matter how awesome his stage appearances might be. His guitars are simply the channel through which his music comes, his techniques and affinity with the instrument giving him a vast expressive language.
Stian the composer is something of an “impatient visionary” as excited about the contemporary music scene as he is about performance. His 2012 album The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers, has inspired his writing for a collaboration with Britten Sinfonia as part of Spitalfields Music Winter Festival at Shoreditch Church on 14 December. The day before they’ll have performed it together in Norway as part of the Conexions series which I curated for the Nasjonal Jazzscene in Oslo. It’s an exciting proposition! His commission for the Molde Jazz Festival a few years ago gave a taster of musical ideas to come, his string and vocal writing in particular showed his growing affinity with the contemporary classical world: “exploring the territories that don’t necessarily come out in other contexts” as he says.
“Writing for any ensemble is the same as improvising on stage, just at an agonizingly slow rate. The same feeling and decisiveness, the urgency, needs to be there in the music. In this way the musicians represent both the opportunities as well as the limitations in the music regardless of instrumentation. Without them and their interpretation there is no music, but their possibilities are not endless, though the context between the musical entities are, so when I write I try to peel away the layers of colour and reference and write as honestly as I can.” says Westerhus. In the Britten Sinfonia, who will perform in both London and Norway, Stian found an ensemble which shows no mercy regarding the territorial rights of the perceived classical music scene.
So, would Stian describe himself as a jazz musician? “Just a musician! Rock people will tell me that what I’m doing isn’t rock and jazz people say I don’t play jazz. But I don’t care. I’m very happy to have my own ideas of how I want things to sound, and that I feel free from feeling locked up inside some dogma of harmonic and structural rules.
With all the people I play with we share a similar way of thinking, and an attitude towards the music. It’s totally beyond the boundaries of the instruments and the ego of being a good player. There’s an understanding and a focus on the music itself. It’s the same mind-set: blank out, listen, play. It’s an intimate, fragile situation which demands a lot of everybody on stage, and I think this focus has helped me a lot. This attitude to music really matters. It’s not about who and where, but about what comes out there and then.”
Stian will be performing with Britten Sinfonia on Saturday 14 December in Shoreditch. Tickets are available to purchase via our website.