Kollar/Henriksen duo: Illusion of a Separate World

Slovakian guitarist David Kollar and Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen accidentally met in 2017 at the Spectaculare Festival in Prague. They performed together at the Slovakian festival Hevhetia shortly afterwards, which only confirmed their similarities and assumptions about successful collaboration potential, and this resulted in a decision to record an album together. Illusion of a Separate World started out as Kollar's "music diary". Inspiration was, above all, personal: to shape and respond to different frustrations and situations in the language of music, to illustrate intimate turmoils and emotions. It is interesting that Kollar and Henriksen never found themselves the same room together: the album was created with the two artists exchanging music outlines and ideas. That is precisely why they are dominantly preoccupied with the theme of duality.

This is evident in the very first minutes of the album. The Night Navigator works as an introduction to the album, rather than as a stand-alone piece. On the one hand, this piece determines the overall dark tone of the album, creating a somewhat threatening, and yet surprisingly mild, atmosphere while, on the other hand, offers a kind of insight into the methodology of the work, that is, demonstrates to what extent a collaboration is a process which counts on vulnerability and requires that the artists relinquish their control over the creative process. The layering of the general sound image is achieved precisely through boundary testing, interplay, overlapping, but also through conscious pulling away to give up space to the fellow musician's melody. The Night Navigator opens with Kollar's dark orchestration, while the much sweeter melody of Henriksen's trumpet becomes prominent halfway through, and intertwines with everything else up until it becomes almost unrecognizable by the very end.

Kollar's guitar instrumentation is particularly interesting because he primarily emphasizes the color and texture of the sound, drawing the album towards the post-rock genre, while at the same time very cleverly manages to fuse in more typical rock guitar riffs, not slipping into pure technicality at any time. Since the riffs are actually relatively simple and sporadically introduced, Kollar shows the right measure to be the decisive quality of technical competence. As already evident in the Night Navigator, there is an impression of elegance at the piece level, while at the album level there is complexity, evocation Kollar's permanent inspiration: the progressive rock genre. 

The next piece, Mirror Transformations, already makes a clearer distinction between instruments; here, the intent is not so much to create a compact sound-scape, as is to show how the guitar and the trumpet, as the name of the song suggests, mirror each other. This piece also opens with Kollar, but after playing a few chords, he pulls away and lets them echo, creating a minimalist, yet effective background, ideal for a demonstration of Henriksen's distinctive sound. It is characterized by its incredible pliability, lightness, and admirable plasticity; the melodies are in constant flux, as if they are constantly hesitating, any yet Henriksen's precise and determined performance coerces the listener's trust makes them perceive every atypical jump as a deliberate artistic decision. Henriksen builds his recognizable sound by simulating a trombone flute, specifically a Japanese shakukachi flute made of bamboo wood.

This is just one of several folklore influences on The Illusion of a Separate World. Another is already obvious in the second half of the afore-mentioned Mirror Transformations. Gradual softening of Henriksen's melody follows Kollar's descending arpeggio. The tempo accelerates, tones deepen, the tension increases. Henriksen then introduces vocals for the first time, and not singing in the traditional sense. Henriksen's deep, repetitive murmur is closer to ritual singing; he is more interested in the performative function of the voice than wanting to experiment with its expressiveness and/or even demonstrating his own singing capacity. In a similar way, Henriksen uses his voice in Vision of Light: again a in low register and guttural, but the ritual element is present not so much in repetition here, as it is present in a linear progression which makes an almost cathartic effect on the listener in its final crescendo.

However, the treatment of vocals in The Spiral Turn is quite different. There it is prominent and at the same time laid completely bare. Henriksen now invites to listen more carefully, perhaps even to detect some potential flaw. This infuses the piece with a special kind of intimacy: Henriksen manages to create such a closeness with the listener that even if they were to reveal some kind of imperfection, it would most likely be accepted as a part of being human, instead of rejected as a failure. I have already pointed out that Henriksen's intention is not to present his own vocal prowess, but it is important to point out that The Spiral Turn still shows his enviable vocal range, which, keeping it, unlike in the aforementioned Vision of Light and Mirror Transformations, in an extremely high register. On the one hand, this way Henriksen achieves an androgynous effect, and on the other, he accomplishes an almost inconspicuous transition from vocals into the trumpet in the second part of the piece.    

The Vision of Light is an interesting piece also because it mirrors one of the key aspects of Kollar's sound – its remarkable film-like quality. Due to the fact that he also tried composing film scores, this is quite logical. However, it was harder to predict the way in which this feature would work in other contexts, that is how each piece, and then the album as a whole, would really function as a self-sufficient, rounded unit, engaging the listener with its own distinctiveness, while at the same time being conceivable as an unobtrusive and/or simply adequate additional material for a visual template. Illusion of a Separate World manages to achieve this delicate balance, perhaps the best in Kollar's entire so-called non-cinematic opus. Kollar's nervous (but fascinatingly precise) string plucking combined with Henriksen's previously described guttural singing in Vision of Light reminds of Krzysztof Penderecki or György Ligeti's compositions form Stanley Kubrick's best soundtracks, and particularly of Eduard Artemyev's works in Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker or Solaris.

The film-like quality is also reflected in compositions Chimera and Beyond the iCloud, mainly because of their narrative, the world-creating potential of a single sound image. Chimera is definitely the most ambitious piece on the album. Composed of just three tones, Henriksen's melancholy melody in the first half dissipates through an abstract, ambient sound background. The piece culminates with the inclusion of electronic beat and Kollar's rhythm guitar, peaking in Henriksen's spectacular solo in the last minute of the composition. Beyond the iCloud is arguably the gentlest, softest piece on The Illusion of a Separate World. Its narrativity is not evident so much in its internal organization, as the piece itself seems as an epilogue, the last look at the album from an imaginary movie frame totals. The Illusion of a Separate World in its totality is intense, complex, occasionally even difficult, any yet open, straightforward and sophisticated. Kollar and Henriksen are aware of the diversity of their influences, their initial ideas, as well as their own approaches to sound production, but in this album, drawing the best out of their contrast, Kollar and Henriksen have shown how complementary, in fact, they are.


Barbara Gregov

Photos: Arnold Horvath (Kollar) and Frank Schemmann (Henriksen)