Graeme Stephen teams up with string quartet

Graeme Stephen. Picture: Archie Macfarlane
Graeme Stephen. Picture: Archie Macfarlane
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OVER the past few years, Graeme Stephen’s music has generated atmospheric and often dramatic new accompaniments to silent screen classics, from the shadowy German expressionist nightmare of Nosferatu to the zany high jinks of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid.

Now the eclectically-minded, Edinburgh-based jazz guitarist takes to the high seas – and plumbs their depths – in his first collaboration with a string quartet.

He has composed and recorded his new album, Distances, in the company of the adventurous Amsterdam-based string quartet Zapp4, launching it with a brief Scottish tour starting in his native Aberdeen on 20 May. Following the launch concert, in Aberdeen University’s King’s College Chapel, he and the quartet play Edinburgh’s Outhouse on the 21st and An Lanntair in Stornoway on the 22nd.

When not playing in his long-standing duo with piper-saxophonist Fraser Fifield, co-hosting new jazz evenings at Edinburgh’s Outhouse with Martin Kershaw, or, until last year, embarking on everything from free-improvisation to Led Zeppelin covers with the prog-jazz trio NeWt, Stephen is composing and playing scores for silent movies, particularly the grainy and often surreal melodrama of 1920s German expressionist cinema. His score for F W Murnau’s extraordinary 1927 Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans won him an innovation award in the 2012 Scottish Jazz Awards (having been voted Instrumentalist of the Year the previous year). Currently he’s writing a score for Buster Keaton’s comedy The Navigator, which will run for a week at Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar during the Fringe.

But if Keaton finds himself all at sea and dons a diving suit in The Navigator, Stephen’s new album (a digital preview of which comes complete with image of similarly helmeted diver descending into the abyss), evokes wide open spaces, profound depths and, occasionally, a sense of precipitous unease as Stephen’s electric guitar chimes against the richly toned string sound.

Track titles such as Obscure Distance, Spheres and Challenger Deep similarly hint at the great beyond. “It’s all about the sea, really,” explains Stephen, whose music is frequently informed by a strong visual or narrative sense. “I got into some old Chinese poems from way back and took inspiration from those for some of it. Also, Challenger Deep, at 36,000 feet or so, is the deepest known point on the seabed. The Distances track, too, is from a Chinese poem, about two people on either side of the sea, many miles apart but still connected by the sea.”

The music is frequently haunting, while in Spheres, jagged guitar figures interact with expansive sighs and pulses on strings before giving way to some fiery soloing from the Zapp4 members, Emile Visser’s cello stalking along like a jazz bass while violinist Jeffrey Bruinsma really cuts loose, suggesting that this is no conventional string quartet.

Stephen had wanted to work with a string quartet but it was his frequent playing partner, Fraser Fifield, who put him on to the Amsterdam outfit. “Fraser went to Amsterdam to play with a group called the Nordanians, in which Zapp4’s viola player, Oene van Geel also plays, and he said I should check out this quartet.

“So I listened to them and thought they were amazing. Then I got in touch and said I wanted to write a piece for them and they were up for it.”

He subsequently spent time last year in Amsterdam with the quartet, writing the music and rehearsing with them. Although he’d worked with various instrumental combinations, particularly through his film scores, it was his first time with a string quartet. Despite this, it wasn’t too much of a challenge. “I just listened to a lot of string quartet stuff, and I spoke to van Geel a lot. I knew that they were great improvisers and I wanted to be able to improvise as well, so I made sure there were a lot of open sections in the music.”

He also spent time in New York last summer studying with the saxophonist and composer Tim Berne. “He uses a lot of improvisation in his compositions, so it was interesting and inspiring to go over there and work with him.”

He describes himself as “really excited” about the project, which was assisted by an artist’s bursary from Creative Scotland and which will see him and the quartet touring in the Netherlands in November.

In the meantime, his rather different voyaging with The Navigator means that there’s no let up in his film scoring duties: “I think I’m addicted to it.”

Distances is released on 20 May, www.graemestephen.com