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December 17, 2013 5:37 pm
Stian Westerhus opened this Spitalfields Winter Festival concert with the sound of a breeze quietly ruffling the trees and an echoing cry of sparsely placed notes, plucked purposefully from the upper range of his guitar. He thickened the sound with a single strum, moved down-key and poked at his laptop. Soon, ominous bass notes moved ponderously under a throbbing wall of harmonised sound and the Norwegian’s eerie falsetto vocal was conjuring the solitude of a bleak midwinter wasteland.
Westerhus conjures an extraordinary depth of sound and sonic detail from his extensively wired-up guitar. Single notes hover briefly and are then fractured or compressed, while simple phrases are orchestrated into dense thickets of harmony. He’s constantly in motion as first one foot jabs at a pedal, then the other. He leans and sways to get precisely pitched feedback and stoops to adjust the laptops, samplers and sequencers on his music stand.
And he’s not content merely to pick and strum. He manipulates his guitar lead for a percussive blast, sings like a chorister in high tenor and, for much of this concert, he played his guitar with a violin bow. He creates myriad textures from a scattering of notes and crafts each sound to the last detail.
The music at this concert, premiered in Oslo the previous evening, unfolded as an uninterrupted sequence of densely textured, highly atmospheric musical tableaux. And as Westerhus set each soundscape in motion, the music had such depth that at first it seemed he needed no assistance.
But gradually, the warmth of the Britten Sinfonia’s strings would take over with a drone, a riff or an occasional flourish of violins. One passage conjured the ghost of Albinoni, another shimmered with violins, and rousing bowed bass implied things on the move.
Towards the end, the guitarist launched a sequence of plops, dribbles and sighs. He added woofy bass, cued in a drone and, after many goings-on, a Westerhus vocal was orchestrated to a howl, from which emerged the final motif. The minor-key line was introduced by guitar, textured by strings, then sweetened and faded by solo violins.
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