The spirit of community with Dugnad Rec

Dugnad is a Norwegian term for voluntary work done together with other people.

Dugnad Rec. is a record label, an artist collective and event series with its origins in the communal spirit of Norwegian culture. Founded by Kjetil Jerve and Erland Albertsen and born within the vociferous cauldron of Norway’s improvised Jazz scene, Dugnad Rec began with a single aim in mind. After recording an album together, Kjetil and Erland had struggled to find an outlet for their work, and instead forged ahead to do it themselves. Dugnåd Rec was born. It was a preliminary introduction however and after releasing a second record it almost immediately went into hibernation. 

It would remain dormant, waiting for some coincidental prospect to emerge, but with the two core members not releasing anything, it would take someone working on the fringes of their community to give it the injection it needed. Enter Bendik Baksaas. The Norwegian artist had been sitting on a wealth of material he had created in a fusion of music that channeled the improvised nature of Jazz into the electronic realm and the dance floor, but had yet to find a suitable outlet. Sensing an opportunity and recognising Baksaas’ talents, Kjetil proffered his services and said “release it on Dugnad.”

*Dugnad Rec play Jaeger this Wednesday

“The giant awoke again,” says Gabriel Varskog, sipping on a tepid black coffee across the table from me. He looks like he just woke (and he did), his big mop of curly hair bulging at the sides framing his pinhole eyes and warm smile. As an artist, he performs, DJs and composes by his middle name, Patås  and he’s one of the central figures in the Dugnåd collective which today constitutes Kjetil Jerve, Erland Albertsen, Fredrik Høyer, Bendik Baksaas, Joar Renolen, Kim Dürbeck, Gabriel and many more that makeup the fringes of their community.

“At the core we’re 7 people,” explains Gabriel, “but the outer core is around 30 people.” There are no designated roles within the collective and the label as “everybody contributes what they can to a common goal,“ and “nobody expects compensation.” It’s an ever expanding community, cooperating with the larger improv and club music community in Oslo. The core constituents take all responsibility for the daily operations between the label and the periphery of the collective, with outsiders often lending a hand on single aspects. Over the course of their existence Gabriel says that they have “grown into designated roles” with Kjetil as the ”driving force and glue,” balancing a life with newborn triplets and Dugnad Rec. 

Kjetil and the other instrumental figures of the Dugnad Rec. society, have entrusted Gabriel to represent them for the interview and he’s eager to relay the central ideologies. An artist with roots in Norway’s Jazz scene, currently making club music he’s contributed the latest record to the Dugnad Rec. catalogue, with four stark atmospheric tracks that float between ambient and Techno across the release. From the subtle plucked strings of ”Siste Dag” to the breathy beat sequences of “Techslo,” two hemispheres in Oslo’s music community between Jazz and Techno converge for a record that connects a thin redline between these two distinct worlds.

Bendik and Kjetil had “been ripping my songs apart for a year” before it was released says Gabriel, wincing through the thought. Although the criticism might seem harsh to the outside viewer, it’s this kind of honesty that has strengthened Dugnad’s resolve in determining the sonic identity of the collective. There’s an “underlying trust in the communication” between them which is “very direct” but efficient as each artist involved benefits from the shared experience of the collective. 

The “evolution in our sound has just skyrocketed” during this second wave of Dugnad Rec. according to Gabriel, “because the feedback loop is so short” between them. “You kind of get the experience of all the people around you as well as your own. This is how we as human beings can grow to our fullest potential, in these small groups of like minded individuals.” As the latest addition to Dugnad, Kim Dürbeck has also had to endure this trial by fire, relinquishing his own artistic identity for the greater good in one of the future releases for the label. “Acceptance is key,” stresses Gabriel as he reflects on an email he had sent that very morning to Kim, unpicking the latest version of some new music from his label co-hort. 

“We don’t try to change the sound,” explains Gabriel, “but we try to perfect that sound so it’s enhanced to its fullest potential.” It means whittling away at the excessive inconsequential elements in a piece of music and cutting everything down that “does not contribute to the main idea.“ In their efforts Dugnad Rec. have cultivated a sound that thrives in a stark minimalism, devoid of some external objective pursuit beyond the act of making music.  

Improvisation is key in all their endeavours and activities and it’s improvisation that constitutes the fundamental essence of the label, regardless of whether their artists are working within the Techno- or Jazz’s parameters. “Rec doesn’t stand for records,” says Gabriel by way of explaining, “it stands for the recording button.” The central idea comes down to recording everything and conditioning the artist to work beyond the recorded format. “If you’re not used to the record button being on,” explains Gabriel pointing to the device currently recording our conversation, “your behaviour changes.” Dugnad Rec. is about “getting used to this feeling” of being recorded to a point where you can completely ignore it and live in the moment of making music.

While this kind of thinking has permeated through Jazz for a long time, it’s something that has only crept up in Techno occasionally. The objective is to set it apart from the popularised form of the music, while conveying the fundamental ideology of the music. It’s at its heart an improvised music with a foot in the technology (music and otherwise) of the future. “I really feel Techno is the Jazz of club music,” proposes Gabriel. “That’s where the experimental stuff is happening and where the boundaries are being pushed.” 

Dugnad Rec. is based on the belief that the person who is willing to explore improvised Jazz is the same kind of person that would appreciate Techno. This is not just some glassy-eyed sentiment on Dugnad Rec’s behalf either, they are actually putting it into practise. They regularly host events around Norway as Dugnad Rec. and their events at Hærverk have become the most concrete realisation of this confluence between these two distinct worlds.

Hærverk’s location between these worlds; a live Jazz venue in the week and a bristling Techno club on the weekend, have assisted in Dugnad Rec. strengthening the connection between these two musical worlds. The “goal is to expose these two scenes that are very apparent in Oslo, and underground” to the other according to Gabriel. Going from live bands to DJ sets and improvised electronic performances, the night “jumps from one to the other,” with artists having “to make a transition” between their opposing music styles. They’ll “have to improvise with each other and this creates a lot of very special moments,” according to Gabriel. 

With many of these new electronic artists coming from a Jazz background like Gabriel they’ve merely transferred their skills to this new domain. “When we switched over to playing machines,” he says “it is only natural for us to continue improvising” and one day they hope to eventually incorporate both these aspects in a truly new fusion of music. “We’re definitely getting there.” 

Besides Gabriel’s own ruminations on his last record, the closest they’ve gotten is Bendik Baksaas and Fredrik Høyer’s collaboration on “Til Alt Ute.” While the record failed to garner much by the way of critical success according to Gabriel it was a breakthrough record for the label, in every other respect, specifically the awareness that it cultivated for people that “really love records.”  “I guess it didn’t really speak to any trend that was apparent,” considers Gabriel about the lack of press on the record, but the fact that they packed out Blå for the official release, speaks for itself.

If you take away Høyer’s vocal, “Til Alt Ute” is little more than a Tech-House record, but it’s in the amalgamation that the charm of that record lies. It’s not merely an extemporised  conversation between man and machine, but also between two very different factions of the artistic community in Oslo. While the record certainly had an impact on the label’s prominence, Gabriel believes “Dugnad’s breakthrough has been a slow thing” with small elements contributing to the larger picture. With “everybody being so active as they are and always pointing back to the community,” it’s raised their profile and “made (the collective) grow in both the jazz world and the club world. “

Oslo has facilitated this growth with its “long tradition in free improv” and “vibrant club scene,” but ultimately it’s up to those very defined parameters that makeup the collective’s ideologies.  “Limitation is liberation” says Gabriel echoing Bendik Baksaas in an interview from last year with this blog, and between, the convergence of musical styles, the freedom of expression in improvisation, the shared experience and the permissive attitudes, Dugnad Rec are making a serious mark on Norway’s music scene. 

The Norwegian word “dugnadsånd” is translatable to the spirit of will to work together for a better community.