By Ron Schepper, Textura
TEN QUESTIONS WITH ELSA NILSSON
Like many, Elsa Nilsson experienced a visceral reaction to the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, as well as to the many other disconcerting issues that arose in its wake. Rather than let herself be incapacitated by what she saw happening, the Gothenburg-born, New York City-based flutist did what all artists do: she went to work, the result Hindsight, a ten-track collection whose pieces—“resistance compositions,” in her words—address many of the key political and social issues of our time. On her third album as a leader (reviewed here; available to order here), Nilsson’s joined by guitarist Jeff McLaughlin, bassist Alex Minier, and drummer Cody Rahn, who give impassioned voice to her music. Make no mistake: sophisticated instrumental music it is, but it’s infused with rock’n’ roll energy and swagger; by any measure, Hindsight is a major addition to Nilsson’s discography. Before embarking on dates in the U.S. and Europe to support the release (including album release shows at Seattle’s Sea Monster Lounge on March 17th and NYC’s Cutting Room on April 10th), Nilsson spoke with textura about the project.
01. The ten pieces your wrote for Hindsight are described as a reaction to what’s happening in America, politically and culturally. Yet while the recording originated in response to the 2016 presidential election, it encompasses many issues, from the refugees’ plight and climate-related disasters to high school shootings and economic disparity, among others. My question doesn’t concern why you decided to take such a committed stance with this album and its subject matter but rather has to do with wondering why your choice stands out for being so singular. Stated otherwise, there’s ample cause for outrage in the face of such issues, so why haven’t legions of other artists taken as strong and explicit a stand as you?
I actually see artists doing this in their own way all over. Music is so abstract and personal and often not explicit, but most live shows I see in New York have a moment or two of music that relates to our times. In the last year I’ve heard several different “reaction to the Brett Kavanaugh hearings” songs and quite a few “Kids in Cages” songs. This past week I’ve heard three different statements on immigration. I see a direct lineage of this type of action in jazz, from Coltrane’s “Alabama” to Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” and Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus,” and of course it’s there in the backbone of rock’n’roll. Jimi Hendrix might be my favourite example of instrumental soloing that feels like political resistance.
Improvised instrumental music has such a rich tradition on so many levels, and I see artists following this side of the tradition all around me: Ron Miles’s “I Am A Man” on civil rights, Antonio Sanchez’s “Bad Hombre” and his and Migration’s “Lines In The Sand” on immigration. Roxy Coss has released albums with specifically feminist music, Thana Alexa is releasing Ona, a record of women’s stories, and I just listened to the My Queen is A Reptile album by Sons of Kemet, where each track is dedicated to a significant woman and there’s highly political rapping throughout.
The thing that I think sets Hindsight apart is the fact that we looked at many different issues. I didn’t want to only talk about issues that are ‘mine’ because I don’t believe that is a thing. All of these issues to me are at their core issues of humanity and civil rights, and no one is unaffected by this. The way that I experience these issues and how they feel in the world is that we are all choosing what to care about, separating them into distinct categories when they all in fact connect. I feel that I, in my privilege, have a responsibility to speak out and use my voice and my platform to amplify these voices. Just because I’m white doesn’t mean I don’t have a place in the conversations about race, just because I’m an American citizen doesn’t mean I don’t have a vested interest on issues of immigration. All of these issues belong to all of us.
There is an inherent risk in doing this. I know that in talking about issues that are outside of my personal experience, no matter how well intentioned I am with it, I will mis-step. But staying silent because I’m scared of looking foolish is selfish and arrogant and leans into my privilege instead of addressing it. In this knowledge lies a vulnerability, and in vulnerability lies our humanity. I believe we need more of that in the world, and this is my way of being the change I want to see.
02. The album’s described as a collection of “resistance compositions.” What precisely do you mean by the term?
One thing that really strikes me with what I’m seeing and hearing in the world right now is the intense and constant destruction. Opposing ideas wanting to silence each other, people in power acting in ways to destroy dissent, humanity destroying nature. I feel in this climate the act of creating something is in and of itself an act of rebellion, of resistance. What I wanted to do with the music on this record was create something that could live in a positive space without ignoring or hiding from the reality and the difficulty of the issues we face as individuals and as a society. The term resistance composition is meant to capture this dichotomy, resisting the culture of powers-that-be in the process of creating something. In a more literal way, I also mean “resistance compositions” as compositions based on the rhythms of resistance as I hear them in the streets during protests. I like it when things have multiple layers of meaning, and this term is one that encompasses a lot.
03. In what ways can instrumental music and your music in particular symbolize the values you believe in and want to promote?
Instrumental music is by nature an abstract form of communication. What that means to me is that it communicates beyond words, into the part of ourselves that lies beneath all the definitions we place on ourselves and each other. I believe that my work as a musician and a composer is to create a space for the listener to be themselves, and explore themselves. This means that what I put into the music is what holds that space. The abstraction of it allows the listener to place themselves and their story inside and feel supported. I have no intention of, or indeed capacity to, control what anyone experiences when they hear what I do.
In this collection of music surrounding these issues I’m giving the listener the opportunity to read the concrete political, social, and cultural ideas embedded in the compositions, but the music can stand on its own outside of that as well. My intention here is to create snapshots of specific moments from the past four years. I wanted to capture how these moments felt, both for me personally and in the air of the world. My aim is not to convince anyone of anything, just to express things that feel, for lack of a better word, true to me. In doing so, I hope that someone can see a way to acknowledge their own humanity in their experience with the music and in the process of this be able to see themselves in others. This empathy is what changes perspectives and opens minds, not arguments or words. If the listener then wants to know why I wrote what I did, it’s easy to find on my website.
04. What specific strategies do you use to communicate your ideas about the need for political, cultural, and social change when the presentation is purely instrumental?
Compositionally the strategies used in creating this music was a conversational process. It took many months and many rehearsals. Most of the pieces began as a small idea, a bass line, melody, or a groove that stuck. I spent time alone with these ideas until the music told me what it was about. At that point I would begin building out the story from the core of the issue. The charts for this music are full of annotations of what is happening, describing what I am intending the emotional centre of the moment to be. Solo sections have several options for emotional directions written in along with the chords and standard information. I would bring these ideas to the band, and we would work on them together, having long conversations about how to express specific emotions using the written materials. I recorded these rehearsals and listened back to see if the intent translated they way that I was hoping, rewriting the music accordingly. I don’t think it’s possible to communicate literal information around these issues, so I’m specifically looking to communicate emotional information.
Empathy and humanity leads to change.
05. One of the album’s most powerful pieces is “Enough Is Enough” in the way its length—six minutes and twenty seconds—matches precisely the time the shooter was active at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida where seventeen people were killed and seventeen others injured; the music takes an especially chilling turn when the steadily increasing agitation is terminated by the school bell. Could you talk a little bit about the compositional choices you made in attempting to render such a tragic event into musical form?
I’m glad that piece had such an impact for you. What I was aiming to do with this piece was capture the experience as it was described by those who lived through it. I wanted to pay respect to both the lost and the survivors and felt the way to do that was listen to what they had to say and create based on that. The idea of the length came from Emma Gonzales’ speech at the March For Our Lives on March 24, 2018 in Washington, D.C. The bell that cuts everything off at the end is an interruption. It interrupts everybody’s lives, both those who survive and those who don’t.
Musically I wanted to capture the descriptions from the students of the surreal way that time morphed, and the melody that came from that space was the searching bass that slithers through as the guitar and flute repeat the rhythm of “enough is enough” played along with a clock. The clock fades out as the brushes on the snare come in, the sonic equivalent of sand running out of an hour glass—time running out. The flute takes over a altered version of that melody, and the instrumentation change is meant to bring the events out of the surreal into the real, the moment of realizing that this is really happening. The intensity grows, as the destruction continues and when the second melody using the rhythm from “we call BS” enters, the guitar is added to symbolizing the shared experience and outrage, both in the moment and after. At this point we begin to improvise over the structure, the guitar playing melodically and the flute gradually bringing in the chaos. I wanted the intensity to build constantly throughout the entire piece, ending in a breaking point. Short moments like these change and define our lives. What has been seen can’t be unseen, the bell can’t be un-rung.
Part of my experience with this issue is how unfathomable it is that we allow it to happen again and again. It’s like we think each tragedy is unrelated. So I wanted to overlay the immediacy of the experience with the chants that grew in the aftermath, signifying that this is not a one time thing, or a one-time fight. These young people are not alone, and we need to stand with them. We can’t keep going with business as usual.
photo: Butter Hu
06. The promo text accompanying the release indicates that the musical material on Hindsight “intertwines dialog from speeches and the rhythms from protest marches that Elsa has witnessed and been a part of.” Could you elaborate on specifically how those originating elements emerge in the music by using a track or two to show how you integrated them into the musical material?
Most tracks have a protest march embedded within. In writing the music I’ve made metaphorical choices with the use of instrumentation and sonic changes as well as the use of rhythms from protest marches.
“Hindsight” begins with the flute and guitar alone and frantic—how I was feeling before Jeff McLaughlin, my guitarist, sent me videos of protests in the streets on his way to a gig on November 9, 2016. When the bass and drums come in they rage with us, but the spots they hit are not in line with the spots the melody hits. Like we are all lost together, trying to see how to move forward in the mess we find ourselves in. The first theme returns, now with the rhythm section together and when the disjointed B section comes we play the same hits but fill the spaces, drawing parallels to finding paths forwards in what seems like a hopeless situation. After the solos bass and drums drop out, but instead of feeling naked the melody gathers momentum into the punk rock anger version of the theme. We then start playing the rhythm for “this is what democracy looks like” together, and let it gradually drift apart. Much like it would in a protest march, people chanting in the streets but there are so many you can’t hear each other or stay together.
“I Believe You” and “Fill The Courts” are the entire progression of Dr. Ford coming forward for the Kavanaugh hearings. In the music I have written what musical moment represents each part of that process. The melody of “I Believe You” represents the time period leading up to the hearings. There is fear in there, the threats and harassment she went through as a result of coming forward. The rhythm for “Her Body, Her Choice” gets played in the middle and end of the head, showing those who supported her and defended her. The melody is lonely and struggling against the highly altered chord changes. I wanted the melody to reflect how I imagined Dr. Ford felt in all of this, and the chords are meant to reflect the dissent and media battering. The solos begin with the same chord changes, but now played in their simplest and prettiest form. This is for how good it felt to hear Kamala Harris say “I Believe You” to Dr. Ford. As someone who posted “me too” on social media along with millions of others not being believed is a button for me, and hearing this felt really really good. I wanted the solo to start there, and I wanted to be the one to take that solo. The section gradually descends into darkness, bringing the harmonic tensions back in to represent the loss of that hope and the realization that none of it mattered. That it wasn’t going to change a thing. The end of the song is the confrontation in the elevator between the woman’s rights activist and Senator Flake.
“Fill The Courts” is the incessant forward march of conservative judges flooding the courts under this administration. There’s an undeniable momentum and sense of inevitability to it, and I depicted that musically with a Soundgarden-inspired through-composed rhythm section part set against a melody that stacks unrelated notes in the flute. It’s a depiction of making whatever you want happen without any consideration for other opinions or perspectives. This piece contains a lot of rage, and it feels really good to play on days when I’m angry at the world.
07. Shifting to a purely musical perspective, I love the concept you’ve adopted for your quartet with guitarist Jeff McLaughlin, bassist Alex Minier, and drummer Cody Rahn. Hearing flute played in the context of an instrumental, high-energy electric band is totally refreshing. I don’t hear your approach as a rejection necessarily of established approaches—the flute treated as a pastoral element within a folk context a familiar example—so much as a way of affirming the legitimacy of a harder-edged approach. How did you arrive at your concept for the group?
Ah, this question makes me happy! Flute does have a tendency to get pigeonholed as a pretty, pastoral element in music. And it absolutely can be that, I love that aspect of my instrument. But, the operative word here is aspect. To me it is a small aspect of what flute can do, not the defining characteristic of the instrument. Saying that the flute is this one thing sounds very similar to my ear as people saying women belong in the kitchen. Nothing is that cut-and-dry, anything can be anything in a different light.
In terms of the way flute moves air it is quite similar to trumpet and can hold that same space in jazz. This is something I’ve been exploring for a long time, how to have the flute sit sonically in a jazz context rather than sounding like a classical instrument superimposed over jazz. I am definitely not the first to do this. I actually learned the concept from Jamie Baum, whom I studied with for many years. There’s a lot there in terms of approach, articulation, tone manipulation, rhythmic and harmonic language, and use of air that places the flute in jazz in a way that makes sense. A lot of it is rhythm, getting inside the music instead of floating on top in the pastoral way flute is expected to.
For this record I was more interested in exploring the sonic landscape of the electric guitar. There is a power and versatility that I hear in a lot of guitar players that I wanted to translate onto the flute. One of the things I love about playing with Jeff is how easy it is for us to phrase lines together. We’ve been playing together for many years, and in that time we’ve developed a way of articulating together that makes me really happy. For this record I wanted to go deeper into his and other guitar players’ sound, exploring how to get that same impact out of the flute. Much like the compositional translation from emotion to sound, there is a translation from string to air that had to take place. Some of it was done with literal effect pedals, but much of it was other extended flute techniques. Having done this before with trumpet and saxophone articulation, it was a pretty natural and fun process to explore these concepts and sounds. I took a few lessons with Keith Underwood, an incredible classical flutist, and we discovered the similarities in Julius Baker’s and Stan Getz’s use of articulation syllables (apparently they were neighbours and could hear each other practice). I altered these a little bit when translating them to guitar, using similar syllables but with different placement.
I also brought the music to Robert Dick, the author of many of the definitive books on extended technique for flute and a brilliant musician, and told him what I was looking for in terms of sound in specific sections. We worked through the tunes together, and he showed me all sorts of alternate fingerings and uses of air to get the sounds I was looking for.
In terms of the band, I’ve always believed that music is music and the instrument is secondary to who we are as artists. Flute is the instrument I feel at home on, the one I’m drawn to as my voice, but that doesn’t mean that I want to stay in the conventional realm of what flute is expected to do. My whole being tends to reject any idea of a conventional realm for anything. The concept is too restrictive and leaves no room for grey zones.
I like to think that we’re all here to serve the music, and do whatever it takes to figure out how to make the sound that you are hearing. What I was hearing for this album, and for this group in general, is a continuation of the sonic language that grew out of the instrumental Seattle grunge scene, specifically bands like Critters Buggin and The Living Daylights but also Soundgarden. Loud rock jazz with momentum and attitude. I was also heavily influenced by Rage Against The Machine in terms of messages and sounds. Using electric bass and guitar and then electrifying the flute made sense in this context. It wasn’t so much about the flute itself, more about a process of discovering how to make the sounds I was hearing. I think anything is possible on any instrument; it just needs to come from a place of musicality. You need a certain amount of skill to facilitate that, but the skill is not the point.
photo: Butter Hu
08. Of course there are some precedents for an outfit consisting of flute, electric guitar, bass, and drums, Jethro Tull being one that comes to mind, and some degree of connection can be made between prog rock and the title track. Is that an association you’d rather distance yourself from or is the title track a bit of a cheeky nod in the genre’s direction? And speaking of genre, how do you categorize Hindsight?
Genre is a tricky one for me. It’s another box to fit myself into, and clearly I don’t like those. I write and play what I hear with no thought about where it lives on the genre spectrum. Most styles we think of as genres today didn’t start that way. They began as movements. I like to look at the artists who came before me and follow their approach to how they relate to their art, not necessarily what they played. Because of when I’m alive I will be compared to the past, but I’m not intentionally referencing anyone specific. If I had to categorize Hindsight as a genre, I would say its Avant Grunge Jazz with a Heavy Metal lining and some folk songs strewn throughout. But that answer avoids the question.
In terms of associations, I have no control (nor do I want it) over what people hear in my music. If it moves them in any way I feel like I did what I am here to do, but any connection they draw to anything else is entirely up to each individual.
09. You were born in Gothenburg and moved to the United States at eighteen to continue your music studies. Consequently, unlike someone who emigrates to another country during childhood, you arrived in America as an adult armed with a lifetime of experiences in Sweden. Did you find life in the U.S. hugely different from what you’d experienced before?
Wherever I go, there I am. Growing up in Sweden I was always seen as American because my mother is from California and we spoke English at home. Most of my friends were also foreigners, often immigrants, and we connected because we were outside of the Swedish way of doing things. When I moved to Seattle I suddenly realized just how Swedish I was. There are still certain cultural things that there’s no way I will ever leave behind. Like, it stresses me out to no end to be late to things, even just a few minutes.
My experiences visiting California as a child were all pretty specific to my family. I spent time with my cousins (our family reunions would boast up to five languages at any given time) and the idea of multi-cultural acceptance was the norm for me. We would come for the whole summer when we came, and I spent much of the time at Camp Unalayee in the back country of the Trinity Alps with no connection to the outside world. There is a specific type of kid who enjoys this, and these are the people I connected with and who I thought of as Americans. As a result, when I moved to Seattle I had an idealized summer camp version in my head of what life would be. I showed up at Cornish College of the Arts wearing no shoes and with red, blue, green and yellow splotches died into my hair. On my first walk to school I saw heroin needles in the sidewalk and decided that maybe it wasn’t so smart to go barefoot anymore. I had been through some crazy things as a teenager, but ‘crazy things’ in Sweden are different than ‘crazy things’ in Seattle.
Having grown up in Sweden where education and healthcare is free it was difficult to wrap my head around the risk that it is to go to college or the doctor here, and how people think about money before they think about their education or health. The realities of income inequality and class disparity were shocking to me. Everywhere I looked I saw people trying to define and separate themselves. The shock of suddenly being defined by those around me as the opposite culture from what I had thought I was growing up led me to think a lot about what culture and identity really are. I sounded American, but it was very clear to me and everyone around me that I was not.
10. In what ways did your life in Sweden influence the music you’re creating now?
In terms of how all of this translated to my music, I started looking for similarities. I played some Ukranian folk songs and recognized the melodies from the folk songs in Sweden, just slight variations. I played a lot of Brazilian music and felt the same joy in those dances as I felt in the Swedish summer music. I had always loved music for its ability to communicate across cultures, but seeing the nuts and bolts of it and studying it with the teachers at Cornish led me to draw parallels between this and other aspects of our humanity. Some of my first gigs had arrangements of Swedish melodies set against rhythms from Brazil. At nineteen, I was thinking about the things I’ve talked about in this interview. Music highlights our common humanity. Growing up with one foot in two different cultures and being asked to define myself as one or the other, always in the direction of the other from the person wanting that definition, is what led me to this. It is now the fundamental tenant of my compositions.
Everything we use to define ourselves and each other is arbitrary. Who we really are is beyond and beneath that, and that is the place where music hits us.