Erik K. Skodvin returns to his Svarte Greiner persona for Devolving Trust, a bleak yet meditative electro-acoustic improvisation for cello and electronics recorded in the crypt-like basement of an old Berlin brewery. While a seasoned improviser, Skodvin has eschewed releasing live recordings until now, a testament to the extraordinary character of this performance. Despite what Skodvin calls mistakes or imperfections in his playing, I hear instead only evocative gestures and deft responses of a skilled musician. Skodvin’s performance is intimately site-specific, and the recording successfully captures the rich acoustics of this subterranean space. As bleak, unnerving, and dark as one would expect from a project whose name means “Black Branches,” Devolving Trust is nonetheless animated by a spirit of tranquility.
Like many of our readers, I was introduced first to the music of Deaf Center, Skodvin’s duo with fellow Norwegian Otto Totland. And while both have amassed impressive bodies of work as solo artists, I still find it hard not to think in terms of their collaborations. One of the tentpole artists of the beloved TYPE label, Deaf Center was an early favorite of ours during the early days of “The Site Before” this one with records such as Pale Ravine (2005). The conversation between Skodvin’s cello and Totland’s piano is always compelling, both acoustic instruments which allow for deep timbral investigations, something Skodvin explores in even greater detail on Svarte Greiner’s Knive (2006) and Kappe (2009). The connection between the two projects was further established with Twin, released as a companion to Deaf Center’s Nils Frahm produced magnum opus, Owl Splinters (2011), which was composed from unused recordings from those sessions. As a solo performer, Skodvin often tends to focus on manipulating minute sonic details, and the role of absent improvising partner is often taken up by a dialogue with his acoustic environment.
Devolving Trust is comprised of two side-long compositions, as were previous albums Black Tie (2013) and Moss Garden (2016), all released by Miasmah. The title track is a lightly edited live recording of a 2018 performance in the remarkable Musikbrauerei, a 19th century former brewery in the northeast of Berlin. In this respect, the LP shares something with the most recent Svarte Greiner solo album, Apart (2017), a collection of short improvisations made during brief quiet moments in an old farm house in Switzerland. Unlike that experience, in Berlin Skodvin had an audience, animating the recordings in a different way. Loops were left running for hours after the performance, a long tail echo which afforded audience members a new perspective on both the sound and the space. The b-side, “Devolve,” is the distorted twin of this echo, reworking and reversing these loops to unusual effect, ensuring continuity between the two sides.
Once the Schneider Brewery, the Musikbrauerei venue is precisely the creative use of old architecture one expects from Berlin. Additional performers that evening in August 2018 included Clarice Jensen, Ash Koosha, and Laura Cannell. In addition to the stage in the main room, where most of the performances took place, the venue also features four cellars in the basement, 15 meters below ground, each with vaulted ceilings. Dark, damp, cool, dimly lit, and of course with remarkable acoustics, this afforded the perfect conditions for a performance by Svarte Greiner.
Skodvin’s work released under his own name tends to emphasize “acoustic doom” without the electronic means that pervade his work as Svarte Greiner. Nonetheless, the cello is unavoidably an acoustic instrument, and its resonate properties make it particularly well-suited for electro-acoustic manipulation. “Devolving Trust” begins with some tentatively plucked bass notes sounding out the cellar walls, a slow and steady pulse which evolves into sustained chords. Upon that loop Skodvin gradually adds layers of bowed embellishments, occasionally catching some new resonant property of the room. About midway through, as the initial pulse has largely devolved into a faint echo, a new heart-beat pulse takes its place. The looping bowed cello melody finds itself juxtaposed with the irregular rhythms of small electronic sounds, gradually plateauing into a high-pitch drone. Skodvin manipulates a small speaker, transforming it into an expressive feedback solo, as the cello pulse slowly fades away entirely.
Though a recording can never capture the experience of being-there, Skodvin wisely doesn’t try. Devolving Trust features none of the crowd noise or other trappings one might associate with a live recording, and indeed there is nothing hear that announces the origin of the recording at all. The reversed swells of “Devolve” sound alien to its source material, conveying the singular acoustics of the cellar from yet another perspective. There is a freedom in the evasive character of these sounds, just as important to the composition as the melancholia of its fragmentary nature. (Joseph Sannicandro)