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JON BALKE: MAGNETIC WORKS 1993-2001 / ECM2182-83

This anthology contains music from a trilogy of albums made in the period of 1993 to 2001 by Jon Balke’s Magnetic North Orchestra: “Further”, “Solarized” and “Kyanos”. “Further” and “Kyanos” were issued by ECM in1994 and 2002, respectively. Between them, in 1999, came “Solarized”, which was issued by Emarcy in Norway, but was only briefly available. The inclusion of nine tracks from this disc in the present compilation helps to cast light on the evolution of Balke’s musical thinking and the concepts he has developed to redefine music for larger groups of players.

“My agenda after leaving Oslo 13,” says Balke (see the 1990 album “Nonsentration”), “was to work my way around the overwhelming big band sound as the defining characteristic of a large improvising ensemble. Inspired by Gil Evans, Claus Ogerman and Oum Khalsoum, I saw the possibility of blending my favourite musicians into a sound that could wrap itself around my compositional ideas.”

The Magnetic North Orchestra, in the first phase of its existence, drew upon the same core of musicians, “with Audun Kleive and Anders Jormin as the ensemble’s pulsating engine and Morten Halle, Per Jørgensen and, later, Arve Henriksen as the leading melodic improvising players. The string sound has been a key element of the music, and MNO has worked with a high profiled line of players. The first element to address was, of course, the strings – which immediately set a challenge to the rest of the group to bring down the general volume so that violins and celli could be heard acoustically. From a starting point with three percussion players and four horns, we reduced the ensemble to three horns, string quartet and very delicate percussion playing in the hands of Marilyn Mazur and Audun Kleive. All rooted by the formidable bass playing of Anders Jormin.”

As with Oslo 13 the group’s music was written “to allow the individual musicians to enter an optimal playground for their expressivity. The first priority for the compositions was to support and encourage the dynamic creativity of the players, and not to block the flowing energies of a performance. As well as musical dynamics, we needed also conceptual dynamics within a performance. As an example, the insertion of a short piece of non-improvised music would actually function as a way to focus the energies for the next outburst of creative freedom. Taking off from this ‘credo’, the music for MNO started developing and pulsating between different approaches to release this creative energy.”

Balke’s recasting of structural and improvisational responsibilities in a chamber-orchestral context has been highly influential. And although the Magnetic North Orchestra officially disbanded in 2005 its music lives on in other Balke projects including Magnetic Book, which was premiered in 2011.

In 2007 Balke created Siwan, another orchestral adventure, blending Baroque players and musicians from Arab traditions, whose debut album was released to considerable critical acclaim in 2009. A second incarnation of Siwan will record for ECM later this year.

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