Norwegian sax player Kornstad combines jazz, electronics, opera

Norwegian up-and-comer Hakon Kornstad

A saxophone ensemble, a percussionist and an opera singer walk on stage. Layers of experimental jazz gradually build to form a foundation for the singer, whose rich, young tenor at last fills the room.

The thing is, only one person is responsible for all those sounds.

Norwegian up-and-comer Hakon Kornstad uses a looping machine to layer his music live. He records one bit of music and plays it back on a loop before adding more layers to his creation - and he does it all in front of the audience.

He slams down the keys and slap tongues on his tenor saxophone, producing a popping sound on the mouthpiece, to emulate percussion instruments. He fades tracks in and out or cuts them abruptly as he so chooses. And then, a trained operatic tenor, he sings on top of his compositions.

The use of electronics and looping is not altogether new, especially in Norway's experimental jazz scene. But there is an art to keeping the music interesting.

"It can become monotonous, very boring, if you don't try to make it evolving or try to make it exciting," Kornstad said. "So I think I was really critical all the time ... to make something that sounds like it's composed, not looped."

John Kelman, who has been a reporter at the jazz website All About Jazz for 10 years, specializes in Norwegian jazz.

He spends two to four weeks in Norway every year, covering festivals and keeping up on the genre's trends. He said Kornstad's use of electronics may come as a surprise to American jazz audiences, but it's a common practice in Norway.

"There are lots of people all over the world that use electronics," Kelman said. "But with Hakon, it's not so much instruments with the addition of electronics. It's much more organic. It's very much an extension of his horn when he uses electronics.

In Norway, Hakon is an innovator, but not because he's using looping. It's what he does with it."

And what he does is create emotive, breathtaking music that sounds composed, when it would be so easy for a looping device to drag a song into tedium.

"What I really like about it is to be able to create my own soundscapes without anyone else interrupting or doing anything to it," Kornstad said. "So I can take my time as long as I need to create something."

Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, a Norwegian bassist who formed the band Atomic with Kornstad in 1999 and still plays with him occasionally, said Norway offers more creative freedom than the United States. The Norwegian government dedicates 1 percent of its budget to culture and makes grants available for musicians interested in touring or buying studio time.

"Norway has built up a lot of support through the government," Flaten said. "It creates a lot more possibilities for musicians to do things, whereas in the U.S., there is no security net. If you're starting to do music in the States, you have to commit to it in a whole different way."

Kornstad started playing clarinet in grammar school, but his career in jazz began to really blossom when he studied at Trondheim Jazz Conservatory, where he learned not only about technique but also how to be creative.

Even looping started to lose its appeal for the innovative musician over time. In 2009, however, a series of fortunate events changed the trajectory of Kornstad's career. He was at the Metropolitan Opera with some friends when he realized the music he was hearing had a profound effect on him. A few weeks later, he was taking singing lessons from a retired soprano. He now has a master's degree in opera.

Kornstad incorporates his singing into his solo performance now, building a musical foundation with his looping machine and then singing over it. He said his performance is perfect for Spoleto because of this combination of art forms.

Although Kornstad's music fits in well with Norway's jazz scene, his approach as a solo artist goes against one of the central conventions of American jazz: its interplay between musicians. This doesn't bother him.

"For me personally, jazz is about blending different types of music together," he said. "Some people would say that jazz is more a part of music history, and is a museum type of music that should be conserved and done in a certain way. They can do it, I don't care. It's nice. But my jazz is a little bit different."

Jessica Cabe is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.

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