Interviews for
«All About» and
«Sounds of Timeless», USA, July 2001

Interviewer: Paula Edelstein

1. What is the best preparation for playing or listening to your concepts on such creative works as MOMENTUM 2, The Law of Refraction?

With respect to the individuality of each listener, there is no such thing as a single formula or recipe for listening, just as there isn‘t one for cooking... My best advice is to sit back and relax, grant yourself a moment/um (sic!) of silence and let the music flow, let the stream of sound and the stream of consciousness find their own confluence, now & here, no where, everywhere. Music has a habit of growing into its own realm, creating its own universe of time and space. So sometimes the best preparation is no preparation at all, just like someone asks you if you want to join a Mars expedition and, moments later, you find yourself buckled up in a space shuttle. Or maybe let‘s go back to an old Amazon Indian legend telling us that there are only two ways to cross the jungle alive: as an old, wise man (who knows all the dangers), or as a newborn baby (who‘s perfectly innocent).

2. The concept of a music completely devoid of a logic of continuity has been the domain of such free and avant-garde improvisers as pianists Cecil Taylor or Matthew Shipp, or string players like William Parker or Tristan Honsinger. Many times, they played with the same core personnel on their recordings. However, your ingenious sound has come forth in a variety of formats with many different players comprising your ensembles. Is this change of personnel linked to the desire to keep your compositions free and creative and able to extend to the outer edges of refractive music making?

In my experience, both models can work and bear fertile results. The spontaneous interaction with musicians you might encounter for the very first time on stage (typically in the case of my music: «Momentum» meeting cellist Alfred Zimmerlin, the trio «MinuteAge» with Margrit Rieben and Reto Senn, the sextet «HeXtet» with Julie Tippetts, Evan Parker, Chris Cutler, Paul Rutherford and Peter Whyman); as well as longstanding, time-honoured collaborations like my pan-european quartet PAGO LIBRE (which was founded in 1989) or PIPELINES where I play the pipe organ with Hans Kennel on trumpet/alphorn and Marc Unternährer on tuba, a project Kennel started in 1994. So, contrary to the “free” statement above, I strongly believe in the logic of continuity, regardless of persons, and if the concepts can grow together with the spirits behind them, even better so.

3. On MOMENTUM 2, the use of staccato sounds, and sounds of small duration that make up a great deal of the style the quartet is using is very interesting and quite a contrast from the trio version of MOMENTUM. Why did you use a quartet format for MOMENTUM 2?

From the beginning, MOMENTUM was conceived as an avant-garde platform for experimental quests, an adventure playground in a parallel universe, a kind of laboratorium for scientific sound research, a quarry for innovative soundscapes. If you listen to the first album, there are already a lot of nutshells, serving as nucleus of ideas for further expansion later on, ready to be shot off like vector arrows, back to the future. To begin with, even in the titles (“Robots don‘t cough”, “With a knot-knowing smile”, “Harmolodic Outlaws”) you can find the seeds of this evolution. Together with Swiss percussionist Christian Wolfarth and bassclarinettist Gene Coleman from Chicago, we explore the frontiers of the present day, pushing the boundaries of knowledge a bit further. However, there is a pre-requisite: musicians need to talk the same basic language together. Working with cellist Alfred Zimmerlin was like exchanging ideas with an old (i.e. new) family friend. Besides, the science context has never ceased to fascinate me — think of “Science Friction” or “R2D2” on “The Well-Prepared Clavier”. One future MOMENTUM project is called “Newton‘s Cradle” and will focus on scientific texts from five centuries, from Leonardo da Vinci to Nils Bohr, from Einstein to Heisenberg, this time adding a singer — my favourite choice would be Lauren Newton.

4. When thinking of refraction as a metaphor for improvisational interaction, refraction is the effect which a medium has on a wave passing through it and hence it’s a model of mediation. What is happening in this quartet with respect to mediation?

Once again, language in form of the written alphabet is severly limited in trying to answer such questions. One can argue, that if you could really explain music in words, why ever bother to perform it? Having said this, one could reflect on the meaning of the word “to mediate“. Very often, the quest for innovative art propels the artist to extreme ends, to stratospheric heights where there‘s barely enough oxygen to breathe, therefore finding the opposite pole (i.e. making both, or even multiple, ends meet) can be a life-saving operation. Hence a mediating force is very useful. In the context of MOMENTUM, this force is essentially brought about, elaborated and sustained by the instantaneous interaction, the split-second decisions in the very process of creating improvised music, which is intrinsically a collective effort.

5. The titles used to create MOMENTUM 2 explore many quantum mechanics with terms such as velocity, relativity, force, torque, all suggesting energy and motion. On "Simple Harmonic Motion”, your piano and the violoncello are together in a contrapuntal workout which has its lines moving together and apart. This layering gets even better when Coleman brings in his bass clarinet solo and Wolfarth’s drumming is heightening the energy alongside. Please discuss the highlights of this session when recording. One take, two takes, etc.

The last question can be answered very quickly: there were no second takes at all – the whole session took a little more than two hours, including time to set up the microphones. Alfred had to go back home to mind his kids – sometimes it‘s a simple reason like this to stake out a clear frame for recording. Therefore, the highlight seems to be the session as a whole rather than its single parts. Still, I believe we were all taken by surprise about how easy the music kept flowing by while being created, and the good feeling even increased when we listened to it. The critical acclaim following the release of the CD is the “dot on the i”, as it were.

6. Since creativity is not primarily intuitive or mystical, but a rational process that can be learned, how do you keep this creativity alive, John?

Yes, the old question seems to be “What keeps the rebel going?” Nobody is sure to be alive the next morning – I guess this is ultimately a good reason to try and achieve something today — and not wait until tomorrow. From time to time, every creative artist experiences low tides, suffers from depressions, fears of “losing it” one day, one minute... and this anxiety lies at the very core of creativity, as one can never be sure of anything, no “quality guarantee”, no “life guard on duty”. To put it in more scientific words: the only continuity is everlasting change, the only constant is an infinite variable, and the sooner we can come to terms with this paradox of life, the better. For my own sake, I try to keep body & mind in shape doing outdoor sports (mountain hiking, swimming, cycling), and to spend as much time as possible with my family. Nothing keeps creativity more alive than playing with kids.... after all, they are the result, and ultimately the goal, of creation.

7. Many musicians that I’ve spoken to state that their creative process is enhanced by using various tools that fall into three categories: physiological, philosophical/spiritual and physical. Do you function on these wave lengths when creating?

This may be true, but most of the time I am not aware of such categories, in fact, I try to avoid them as strictly as possible. Nothing should interfere with the state of pristine innocence, the white sheet of paper at the very beginning of the creative process — and here I use “paper” in a metaphorical way. If anything, I regard aspiring a state of “emptiness” in the Zen-Buddhist tradition as a helpful tool, but here again, the notion “tool” connotes a very Western, dualistic, Cartesian concept of science, where you cut off the subject from the object. At the same time — this answer really turns out as an exercise in thinking “as well as” rather than “either/or” — it‘s equally true that the fish in the acquarium cannot observe itself, so reflection requires, by its own definition, distance.

8. Any suggestions to students interested in this area of music for putting their creative ideas to work?

I remember witnessing a workshop at Vancouver Jazz Festival in 1998, where Wadada Leo Smith told the peers they should “stop to rehearse”. This might seem a pretty shocking piece of advice, but there is a core of truth hidden inside: sometimes you simply should forget what you‘ve learnt, you‘ve got to clear out your mind and make room for new ideas. Nowadays, with all the thriving jazz schools in Europe, the academisation, all the available technical tools and the ubiquitous mass media, there is probably little lack of technique or “missing licks”, but lots of over-exposure to mindless media trash (stop gobbling up TV lies!) and, more profoundly, “missing links” – linking your own vision to a meaningful context. Let‘s not forget that the term “religion” is derived from the latin “religare”, i.e. linking yourself back to your roots and branches.

9. Please discuss briefly the “Seven Studies for Prepared Piano”.

I wrote the seven studies as a centrepiece of “The Well-Prepared Clavier” while living and working in London‘s East End in 1997. They are a part — and yet apart — of the whole album, which could be regarded as a compendium of contemporary piano treatments, a whole library of sounds incorporating all existing (and some new) ways to treat the good ol‘ Steinway grand piano, by means of arcopiano, pizzicatopiano, pianistic percussion techniques etc. Some twenty years of ongoing research went into this venture, similar to what Robert Dick did in his seminal work “The other flute” on the various techniques for the family of flute instruments.

10. Please discuss the “Russian Doors” Suite from The Well-Prepared Clavier.

You are right to call the Russian Doors “a suite”, although they are spread over the entire album, as no. 3, 6, 9, 12 and – exception to the rule of 3s – no.16. “Aldgate East” (no.15) is a London Underground story, a thriller radioplay featuring the famous warning “Mind the Gap!” at the final train station. However, I sampled the shrieking hinges and squeaking container lids during a Russian tour with Pago Libre in 1996 by means of a little tape recorder, to the horror of our Russian hornist Arkady Shilkloper, who considered this to be an illegal activity! Once, I was nearly arrested by a policeman who took me for a spy... so there‘s a little bit of James Bond contained in these five pieces, each of them opening into a new room, a new soundscape. If you look at the running order of the 24 tracks, you‘ll find another series of “tribute” pieces superimposed, following the Fibonacci numbers, no.5 (György Kurtag), no.8 (Henry Cowell), no.13 (Astor Piazzolla) and no.21 (John Cage). And strangely enough, the listener cannot always be sure if he or she is guided to the wrong track or not... These delusions are all part of a sonoric conspiracy, constituting “The Well-Prepared Clavier”. I believe art has to keep you alert, and a labyrinth is always a good place to sharpen your senses.

11. The music for Moskau–Petuschki was commissioned by Theater Maralam Zurich and the St. Petersburg Section of the Russian Theatre Association and premiered in 1994. Has the play been staged in Europe since the premiere?

Yes, the tragic story of Wenja getting more and more intoxicated as he embarks upon his train journey (he never reaches his target Petushky, and fails to see the Kremlin, so he doesn‘t believe it exists!) was performed throughout Russia and even won the prize of the “Baltic House“ theater festival in 1995. It was staged in a bilingual Russian-German version, and was situated in a fantastic set created by Emil Kapeljush. Among the actors were Liana Schwanja and Georgi Wassilijev from Russia, Oscar Bingisser from Switzerland, and Anton Ponrajah from Sri Lanka.

12. You used members of Pago Libre to play the original Moskau–Petuschki music on the recording. Have you performed this music in concert recently?

The original theatre music was a studio production and played from tape, so back then the music was actually never performed live. At the Kerava Festival 1999 in Finland, I was invited to perform the music live (a true premiere!) with outstanding Finnish actor Ilkka Heiskanen, who performed all the characters in a one-man tour-de-force, and extraordinary players Erkki Palola (violin), Mircea Stan (trombone) and Ulf Krokfors (bass). It was a highly intense experience for all of us, players as well as for the audience. As everywhere, alcoholism is a big issue in Finland, so the audience was very responsive. This success helped my other concerts at the same festival: a solo piano performance of “The Well-Prepared Clavier”, and a radical free-improv first encounter with Brazilian saxophonist Ivo Perelman, bassist Teppo Hauta-aho and drummer Teppo Mäkynen.

13. Pago Libre is an acronym for group members Daniele Patumi, Lars Lindvall, yourself and which other original member?

Our first violinist was Steve Goodman from L.A. – hence the GO. He got married, and his wife Nancy preferred to move back to the USA... Steve can be heard on the first album “Extempora” on the Italian Splash label. Then, Austrian violinist Tscho Theissing replaced him. Swedish trumpeter Lars Lindvall contributed the LI, and when he left in 1993, we played with various hornists, such as Claudio Pontiggia (member of the Vienna Art Orchestra) and Scotsman Martin Mayes (who plays on “Moskau-Petuschki”). In 1994, we finally found the ideal “brass man” to counterpoint the Patumi-Theissing-Brennan “string trio”, Mr Arkady Shilkloper from Moscow. We met him through Christian Muthspiel, rehearsed one afternoon at the jazz club “Porgy & Bess” in Vienna, performed the same night, and the rest is history. The first album in this line-up was released in 1996 and is simply entitled “pago libre” (Bellaphon); the second appeared in 1999, “Wake Up Call – live in Italy” (Leo Records), and the third, “cinémagique – 15 soundtracks for an imaginary cinema” was released on the Swiss TCB label earlier this year.

14. Thank you so much for this interview. It will be preceded by an introductory paragraph that focuses on your work with Pago Libre and will mention your catalogue and its availability from your website. This interview will appear in the July 2001 issue of and

Interviewer: Paula Edelstein

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