|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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
your catalogue and its availability from your website. This interview
will appear in the July 2001 issue of www.allaboutjazz.com and www.soundsoftimelessjazz.com
Interviewer: Paula Edelstein
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