Arild Andersen: Electric Electra
By Christopher Porter
When director Yannis Margaritis decided to stage Sophocles’ murder-and-revenge tragedy Electra, he wanted a 21st-century soundtrack for a play that was first staged around 420 B.C. So Margaritis turned to Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen, whose 1990 CD, Sagn (ECM), was a favorite.
Sitting in an Oslo bar waiting to hit the stage with guitarist Frode Alnas during the 2005 Oslo Jazz Festival, Andersen laughingly admits that he didn’t reread the whole play before writing the score. «I was at certain rehearsals and listened to the actors,» he says. «I felt their rhythm and the language–it was in ancient Greek. It’s a very strange language. But I love Brazilian music without understanding Portuguese, so it’s not a big difference.»
Like any Greek tragedy, Sophocles’ play is over the top. Electra is the most miserable creature ever, and today her incessant whining would win her a guest slot on Dr. Phil. But Andersen didn’t try to compete with the intense drama onstage; his music is subdued and sad but it’s not melodramatic. «After the performance at [Odeon of Herodes Atticus] theater by the Acropolis in 2002, a lot of people said they’d really like to have a CD of the music,» Andersen says. The stage production didn’t feature the bassist and his group playing live; the theater used a CD that Andersen made specifically for the performance. But that didn’t mean the music could stand on its own as a CD for home listening; the theatrical score was sometimes kept in check in order to not interfere with the actors’ lines.
«So I remixed and reorganized the music for a CD production, which means I could bring out the more dynamic side of the music,» Andersen says. «I added more guitars [from Eivind Aarset], and also the trumpet, which Arve Henriksen is playing–he’s like the lead instrument through the whole thing. And I added some more percussion [from Paolo Vinaccia and Patrice Heral] and I added [Greek singer] Savina Yannatou–she wasn’t in the original production. I also recorded some more bass. I worked for about a year, and somehow I made a CD version of the music.»
ECM released Electra, the album, in 2005, and it sounds like the darker cousin of a Hans Zimmer film score (think Gladiator). The gorgeous disc features grandly meditative passages, ethno-techno rhythms and the beautifully arranged chorus of Yannatou, Chrysanthi Douzi, Elly-Marina Casdas and Fotini-Niki Grammenou.
«The music was put together using Logic and [an Apple computer], using cut and paste,» Andersen says. «I had things recorded in different studios sent to me via Internet. I did all the editing, and then I mixed it in different studios using Pro Tools. I mastered it in Stockholm.»
Electra obviously isn’t a jazz CD, but it’s informed by jazz sensibilities. «I’m not pretending this to be interplay music,» Andersen says, «but there are solos–Arve improvised everything. And Eivind did a lot of stuff at home, and he came with a Firewire disk [drive] and we plugged it in. It’s a lot of improvised music but it’s not pretended to be interplay music.» But the only person who might complain about Electra not being «interplay music» is Electra herself.