Interview by Dan Warburton, February 2001
What took you to London in the first place and who did you play with when you first arrived there?
All of them - Chris McGregor, Dudu [Pukwana], Mongezi [Feza], John Surman, John [Stevens] and Trevor [Watts], Ozzy [Mike Osborne].... I went there because of the music, and because I had to leave Austria in order to avoid militaristic-soul-destroying. I was lucky to be in London when it all started, and I think I had my own tiny little share in the evolution of that way of playing. For us it was really necessary to do what we did: we'd just had enough of jazz and free jazz, and we were eager to do something new, not knowing what the outcome or the result would be - maybe not even thinking about it. We only knew what we didn't want to do anymore. Then, gradually it became more and more a status quo: improvisors had to act and react in a precise way in order to be accepted as improvisors. "Rules" emerged and certain ways of playing were "forbidden" and became unacceptable - stagnation took place and a pure, idiomatic way of playing was born! I once walked offstage at the Little Theatre during an SME gig because I was so unhappy with the way the music was going at the time. I just packed up the "horn" (as we used to say back then) and left. You see, even in my earlier days I wasn't always easy to deal with!
What was your perception of the different scenes in London as opposed to Amsterdam (where you also lived and worked) during those formative years? Were you aware of national styles as such? And, as a fan of the Satie/Monk/Cage end of things, did you ever talk about this with Misha Mengelberg, who I find constantly intriguing?
Oh, yes! There always was a distinct difference between England, Holland, France (perhaps) and Germany! The Dutch always liked "humour" in their music, Breuker and the like, but in the very beginning it was much closer together than later on. "Topography of the Lungs" [with Evan Parker, Derek Bailey and Han Bennink] really is English improvised music, I find, and maybe not very far away from the SME's "Karyobin" (which, by the way, has always been a great record for me). As for Misha, yes - I've always liked him a lot, and it was quite fascinating to work with him. We had beautiful games of chess together too! Intriguing he certainly is!
Though you were trying to go beyond free jazz, you did spend quite a bit of time with musicians - Chris McGregor, Elton Dean, and later Roscoe Mitchell - who were, one supposes, quite happy with the jazz moniker. Was that a question of financial expediency (no money to be made in improv!) or double identity (I'm quite happy playing improv one day and free jazz the next, and see no reason why I should sacrifice one on the altar of the other)?
When free jazz happened, it wasn't a question of financial expediency, because it was too new to make money with. Then when improvised music came along, it was too new to make money with, and what's happening to me now, again, is too new to make money with! When new things happen, they don't make money.. And yes, the "double identity" arises in all of us, especially if we're not yet sure what we should or could be doing: changes don't happen quickly - it's not like one Friday morning at half past seven I wake up and say to myself: "God, I've been doing this for such a long time now - I'm going to do that or the other!" I think real changes do take time. I remember playing a concert in Italy in September 1993, and while improvising, I thought: "Why are you doing this old stuff now? You don't want to do this anymore, do you?" I got sort of angry with myself a little, and on returning home, I sat down and wrote a solo piece for trombone - "Die Temperatur der Bedeutung" - the temperature of the meaning - precisely to avoid the old(er) stuff, to help myself overcome my routine, to leave all those things in my rucksack behind me. (Funnily enough, the first version still had too many old things in it, but eventually I managed to scrub them out one by one..)
You have said that you consider yourself more a composer than an improvisor these days. Would you care to elaborate on that?
I'm not too happy with the distinction between improvised and composed music. It's all the same to me: you obviously have fantastic stuff and crap in both fields, so what interests me much more is what can be done in the one or the other? Not why, but how. For me, there are three basic modules within music - and any other kind of activity as well - these are form, material and structure. I think we can easily observe all kinds of new activities in the light of these three items. Whenever something really new happens in music, there must be at least one of the three phenomena involved in the renewal. Lachenmann, for instance, was deeply interested in the renewal of material, but with all his love (as he told me once) for his own work, he neglected, or forgot, the aspect of form and structure. For me, his pieces still are hopelessly old-fashioned, the structures and the forms tumble around in 19th century-idiomatics: with all his beautiful sounds, I still hear rondos, climaxes, anti-climaxes, and so on.
It's wonderful to hear somebody say they find Lachenmann "hopelessly old-fashioned", since he's somehow considered to be one of the most "extreme" composers! What do you make of Mathias Spahlinger, judging along the same lines?
I haven't listened to his music for some time now. I used to like a lot of it - especially the "128 augenblicke" and the String Quartet - but I wonder if they'd still hold up today for me. He's heavily involved in philosophical questions and just adores Hegel and, of course, Marx. I had a very long discussion once with him where every second sentence was a quotation from Hegel. Maybe he'd forgotten that Hegel was only four months older than Beethoven and died only four and a half years after him.. I wonder what he'd think if he discussed musical questions with a philosopher who kept quoting Hedwig van Bootluven all the time?! Philosophy had to move on as well in order to be able to follow the world-course or -curse, if you wish... What about analytical philosophy? What's wrong with Russell, Quine, Wittgenstein, Adorno, Deleuze, Sloterdijk, to name a few? OK, maybe there is a lot wrong with them, but at least they had something to say more up to date then good old Hegel!
I was thinking of his compositions compared to Lachenmann's (because the two of them often get lumped together). Would you say Spahlinger is more progressive?
No, I wouldn't say so. If you have a close look at Lachenmann's "Guero", "Pression" and some other pieces from the end of the Sixties, then I think you could argue that he was more "progressive" (or maybe I just should say that I liked him better!). His first String Quartet is way much better than "Der Reigen Seliger Geister". His work was incredibly innovative at the time and, as a student of Nono, he moved on quite a long way, didn't he?
But now you hear his music as "hopelessly old-fashioned"! What happened along the way? Did he somehow block off a piece of perceptual apparatus, I wonder?
That's a good question. I wonder too. Maybe he did and doesn't mind it, or maybe he's simply not aware of that aspect in his compositions. Perhaps nobody's told him yet (and I won't!). Do you know "Zwei Gefühle"? Not only the title but also the music is very regressive.
How do you define "progressive" and "regressive" then in this context?
It seems to be a sort of a rule or at least a well-known phenomenon that whenever somebody leaves a specific field of activity to do something new or different and enters a new field, he or she gradually gets used to the rules of this newly-occupied field. But what happens when stagnation - or at least the remote realization of it - takes place in the new field? Some people think they own the field and never want to leave it: maybe they'll even fight for it. (Stagnation: Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey and many others.) Some people get bored and do the worst thing they can do, which is go back to the initial field or even beyond. (Regression: Gavin Bryars, Ligeti, Barry Guy and many others.) Some people leave the old "new" field and go further, keeping the momentum of the initial searching and exploring. (Progression: Nono, Coltrane and not many others!).
Why does stagnation come about?
Probably always for the the same reason: inertia!
Although we might admit a preference for progressive as opposed to regressive music (Nono rather than Ligeti), can you, like me, still get a lot of pleasure out of the "regressives" and the "stagnants"?
Not really, apart from Monk, maybe. I always used to like him, even when he played "Round Midnight" for the 234000th time! However, back then I wasn't really concentrating on these aspects or phenomena - today it seems to be different for me, in that when I listen to my own colleagues still doing exactly the same thing they were doing thirty-odd years ago, it makes me wonder so much that I can't really enjoy listening to it.
Surely though the stagnants and regressives have some value? Obviously they get the gigs!
Maybe that's exactly their value. But I wonder, if [for Gavin Bryars, Tony Oxley and Derek Bailey] reforming Joseph Holbrooke [the ground-breaking improvising trio based in Sheffield in the early 60s which disbanded in *] is really the right way to make a lot of cash! Maybe these guys should think about money-making activities more carefully! It can't be any good. There's no way it can carry the expectations of the earlier days. Improvised music has become too easy: there is absolutely no punch left, no fire of the former renewal-times when it was fresh and necessary. You can easily see this with the third, fourth and fifth generations of improvisors who are almost all imitating the playing of the old lads, still thinking they're "free" and "inventive". They have no idea where it all came from. This desperate "homesickness" makes me wonder about almost everything. Is there a chance for mankind to learn from such catastrophies?
The nature of your recent work would seem to place you solidly in the "progressive" camp.
For me, the true avant-garde (not the fossil being carried around in more or less stinky bags) is the critical analysis or issue-taking with our cultural surroundings. We are surrounded by noises and sensory overstimulation, wherever we go, sit, shit, sleep... Out of sheer need, I'm interested in a world of thoughts, actions, music and so forth, which reflects the cultural situation and is reflective. What's needed today is not faster, higher, stronger, louder - I want to know all about "the lull in the storm".
Your album with Thomas Lehn and Phil Durrant, "Beinhaltung", has been quite influential, despite being a limited edition of only 400. Could you explain its title?
"Beinhaltung" is pronounced in German either "be-inhaltung", with a "be" like the French "bé" (and means "contents", "capacity") or bein-haltung, as in "com-bine" which means "position" or "posture" of the legs. The right bein-haltung can be quite useful for the right be-inhaltung!
The same trio has just released "Dach" on Erstwhile. Does it still explore the same kind of micro-soundworld as Beinhaltung?
Yes, yet it's quite different, I think. It was a very nice but also a strange concert: we played in a school hall with a huge plastic roof ("dach" in German, hence the title). There was a storm going on and the rain falling on the roof made such an incredible noise that nobody in the audience could hear a thing! Then the rain stopped, the sun came out and the roof started to crack in the heat - and made such a noise that nobody in the audience could hear a thing again! After a little while, the rain started again... I enjoyed the concert a lot!!
That kind of stripped-down and minimal (as opposed to minimalist) improvising seems to be in vogue these days in Germany. How do you feel about being considered as the "Godfather of the Berlin School of Improvisation"?*
I didn't realize that there was such a thing as the Berlin School, and if there is, what the hell do I have to do with it? Who is a member of this "school" and how do they play? I think this is extremely funny - how is it possible to start such a rumour and who's responsible? Strange!
I was thinking about people such as Burkhard Beins, Ignaz Schick, Andrea Neumann and Annette Krebs.
I've never heard of Burkhard Beins nor Ignaz Schick. I played with Andrea and Annette once or twice. The first time was very nice, the second was not so thrilling. Is that enough to form a school? (If so, I should think about school-forming activities more carefully myself!)
In 1993 you appeared on Werner Dafeldecker's first Polwechsel album (with Michael Moser and Burkhard Stangl), but you're not on the more recent Polwechsel 2. Did you "resign"?
No, as a matter of fact, I was fired because of a piece I brought to rehearsal. We tried to play it, but it didn't quite work, and after the concert Werner told me that if this was the direction I wanted to go in he no longer wanted to work with me. The others seemed to agree (old story).
Why didn't he (they) like your piece? Was it too precise in its notation, or the opposite?
Maybe not precise enough! As a matter of fact, it was the same piece as on the Timescraper album, a version for four musicians, called "Sprachlos" ("speechless", as well as "the lot / fate of speech / language"). By the way, "Polwechsel" is a technical term from electricity and means changing polarities. I like Werner a lot, and even if his music isn't really what I want to do, I think that he is doing interesting stuff. His scores are very interesting. You should ask him about them.
Moving on to your recent rediscovery of composition, could you give me your definitions of form, material and structure, which you referred to earlier? I think the distinction between form and structure is especially relevant.
I know that this is a tricky question and I'll try to start with an easy analogy (one I used once in a classroom trying to explain it to kids - which always is good for one's own understanding). Take a house: the form is the overall shape of the building - e.g. round, square, long, high and narrow etc. The material is clear - wood, bricks, concrete (nice word in this context) etc. The structure would be the shapes, patterns, design, layout of the different rooms and spaces and the their number, e.g. one big room, many small ones etc. It's only an analogy and analogies never really work, but it's a start. We could then accept the word "form" to refer to sonatas, symphonies, 12-bar blues, "long" pieces, "short" pieces etc. "Material" is a major scale, "in g-flat minor", or Lachenmann's "Materialzertrümmerung" (a kind of demolition, destruction of the old, well-known material), noises, scratching etc. "Structure" would then stand for the density, spaciness etc. I hope this sheds a little new light on the discussion.
So structure is a kind of function of event-density?
Very well expressed, thank you!
This would explain why certain "New Complexity" composers such as Spahlinger and Richard Barrett are both enthusiastic improvisers..
And quite lousy ones too! They only move along the old, well-trodden paths! I see the same idiomatics in improvised music: it must be "active", "energy-loaded" and God knows what to be interesting or "succsessful". This is why it doesn't really matter if one piece of music is improvised and another composed if they're both moving in the same direction, the one maybe willingly, the other under the pretext of doing something completely new, without realizing that the same modules are being used. For example, I know Evan Parker hates Ferneyhough on the grounds that he just can't see the point of writing music which is completely unplayable. But if you have a close look at Evan's own work, you realize that he is moving around in exactly the same category. His work also is "unplayable" - at least for others - and he seems to be as interested in virtuosity as good old Brian is. Neither of them can get rid of the old structures, the density, the mobilmachung and they both quite willingly follow the path of Beethoven, Boulez (Pierre j' vous laisse) and the rest. It seems to me that they are both tied up in the materialistic aspect of music - and they do it very well - but how about the structure? Nothing! We can listen to probably over 96% of the music which mercilessly surrounds us and it all has the same underlying structure: never-ending, on-and-on-going gabbiness. What exactly is the difference between MTV-music and most of the classical avant-garde? Of course they use different material, but in the final analysis they are both intensively talkative.
Do you try and shut yourself off from television?
I hate MTV (sometimes they have nice videos, but the music's not worth it), but I love films. I'm still a big fan of the Nouvelle Vague, Godard, Truffaut, Melville, Clouzot, Chabrol.. and the good old Hollywood film noir, in black and white!
Music like yours might lead people to imagine you as a rather ascetic, even hermetic figure!
My daughter once played "Ohrkiste" ["Ear-bag"] to someone, and after a long and painful silence, the person in question sighed and said to her: "Your dad must be a very depressing and depressive old chap..." She half-wet her pants with laughter! I don't know exactly where it comes from, but people tend to think that way. Then again, if you look at Karl Valentin, for example, he was an extremely funny comedian and a miserable old sod in private life! There's nothing we can do about it and that's fine by me.
What about music? Are you a record collector?
No, I gave away most my older records or lost them when moving to another country or town.
Regarding your own work, do you think you've released a) too many b) the right number or c) nowhere near enough albums?!!
Certainly a) too many!
What depresses me a little is the sheer volume of stuff put out. It's true that improvisors need to shift their own CDs to scrape out a living, but I'm sometimes alarmed at how easy it is to record and release CDs. I find myself having to make value-judgements of a very unpleasant kind, like: Mats Gustaffson has just released SIX albums, so which one should I buy? As a journalist, it makes my life miserable when I have to provide answers to that kind of question.
Buy or borrow one, then you know about the rest.
How many albums of this - or any other - kind of music do you listen to regularly?
I hardly listen to any music at all anymore. Sometimes Satie, Cage, Feldman. But not too often. Personally, I'm more interested in the Satie/Cage branch, which most likely goes back to Lao Tzu or Diogenes. I seem to be much more interested in the "how" rather than the "why".
How would you compare your own string quartet "Das Profil des Schweigens" with one of the late Feldmans or Cages? I'm trying to get at a definition of the role of silence - if that exists: does it? - in the articulation of structure and form.
Now this is a very good question. I hope the answer won't be too long. Many of my critics seem to like shallow remarks like: "Well, we all know what silence is about, since [Cage's] "4'33"". Everybody knows what silence means! I do think though that there's quite a big difference between a piece which aspires to silence as an ultimate goal, so to speak, and a piece which includes silence as a component, an important contribution to the overall structure (or better, the overall "function of event-density!"). Feldman is still one of my favourite composers, along with Cage of course, but nowadays I find him quite talkative too (it's funny how perception seems to change due to your own work - self-conditioning works in mysterious ways, doesn't it?). "For Bunita Marcus" - beautiful piece - and more so "Triadic Memories", as well as the clarinet quintet are talkative pieces - there's no silence in them, just calmness, which of course is one of the beautiful aspects of Feldman's music, no doubt about it.
I compare your pieces with the aforementioned (and much overhyped) "4'33"", as well as La Monte Young's "Poem". I think we can suppose (or can we?) that for Cage "silence was the ultimate goal" in that silence doesn't exist and it's all the other sounds we hear that become the "ultimate goal", whereas Young's individual sounds are so distinct and memorable in themselves that they tend to stick in the listener's mind even after they've ceased physically to exist, which defines a kind of form articulated through memory. If the goal is to have the listener become aware of the acoustic environment (aka "silence") surrounding the "music", then I think your pieces work better than the other two cited above. But, how do you react to this comparison? Is it valid or not, and what was your "goal" in writing those pieces?
When I was writing those pieces I don't think that I had a "goal" (does "point d'arrivé" sound better to you? Means to the/an end? Intention? This is what I mean when I say my English isn't good enough!). I'd say rather that they reflect my overall thinking and/or doing. What I'm trying to say is: we should be aware that our brain functions in such a way that it selects information according to categories (amongst others) which could be described as important / unimportant and known / unknown. We have various combinations of "known-important", "unknown-unimportant" and, for our discussion, perhaps the most relevant combination: "unknown (new)-important". All sensual stimuli are first compared with the contents of our memory and the "judgement-components". If we experience in pre-attentive conciousness information classified as known and unimportant, it most likely will not penetrate our awareness. "Known-important" is usually experienced on a rather low level of conciousness: I'm sitting in my room at the table, aware of my chair, the walls, the sound of the computer and many other "little" things which mean every thing is OK, I'm breathing, I'm alive and well and I can concentrate without fear or anxiety on my work. So "known" and "unimportant" information is usually that which comforts our state of mind and overall being, such as the ticking of a clock, the pressure and temperature of our clothes - only now, as I write this, do I become aware of it - and many other things along these lines.
The strongest impact on conciousness and awareness is information classified as unknown and important. The sensitivity of our sensory systems is heightened by pleasant or especially unpleasant experiences we've had in the past. In this way we're able to distinguish even slight stimuli other people won't be aware of - a mother recognises the crying of her baby next door, a familiar voice out of ten others at a party (especially when we didn't expect the owner of that voice to be there), the wrong note of the fourth violinist spotted by the "attentive" conductor, and so forth. On the other hand our conciousness or awareness can be fully stimulated by information which is totally undramatic for other listeners, such as a lecture on quantum mechanics or a game of chess. If the content of the speech is old hat to me, I tend to fall asleep or think about other things. My mind wanders (as it does with the regressives and stagnants). "Unknown" and "important" information encompasses rather quick changes of the aforementioned phenomena, or genuinely unknown information which, generally speaking, engenders or provokes in us uneasiness, even fear. This could very well be at least one reason why most people don't like our music.
I think the reasons for people not liking new music are extremely diverse and probably differ from one piece to the next: most folk would find Xenakis a bloody racket, and Feldman (and I suppose your recent stuff) extremely boring. If there's too much information, too many notes, the humble concertgoer often says "Well, I'm sure it's all very clever, but I don't understand it.." (thereby conceding that the piece does have some qualities as such), whereas if there's very little going on in the music, they're more likely to say "It's a rip off, anybody can do that.. I could do that.."
Maybe that could be the difference between not liking anymore and not liking yet? Something you don't like anymore could be known and unimportant, while something you don't like yet could be unknown and important. Take two people who don't like Brötzmann, the first who says it's old hat ("I've heard it thousands of times, it's always the same old shit..") while the second one says "What the hell is this? This is terrible! I've never heard such rubbish before!" Like the man who, for the first time in his life gets a superb creamy potato soup and refuses to eat it on the grounds that "Real potato soup has lumps in it!" I heard that from Joachim Kühn when he told me in all seriousness why he didn't like Satie: "Zis is not good music, everybody can play zis!" Cage's answer to this was extremely nice, I think, when he said: "Yes of course, anybody can do it, but nobody does it!" I seriously believe that most people only want to dwell in the comforting state of the known and unimportant, and therefore often refuse new information (like the potato soup man). You could see "routine" in this light and come to the conclusion that we usually not only take information categorized as known and unimportant for granted, but love it so much that we don't question it anymore. As we all know, routine is quite important for us all: it helps us to survive without difficulty and we don't need a high involvement of conciousness. Information and activities we've experienced a thousend times and which have entered our subconcious allow us to do things blindfold. This is because our brain built neuronal "maps" and "groupings" while we were learning certain things (see Gerald Edelmann's "Bright Air, Brilliant Fire" 1992). But how about the arts? Thoughts? Jokes? We don't want to hear the same joke over and over again (especially a bad one), we don't want to see the same movies over and over again (even good ones!), and I suppose we don't want to hear the same music over and over again. There must come a point of saturation, don't you think? Conciousness has a lot to do with the new constructions of the "maps" and new "tracks" or "courses" of our brain, which is why we usually feel good when we understand something and when we have an "enlightening" experience. I think we could easily pack the routine and the regressiveness in art, music and thought in general into the "dull-bag" and send it to the bottom of a lake. Needless to say though, our brain works very well, and we need these categories in order to survive. But do you think that it could be possible to "trick" our brain? Is it possible (or even useful) to try - through hard work - to become interested in precisely that information which is considered unimportant or known?
By which you mean spending more time listening to the world of sounds around us than to so-called music? I can't decide if it's a blessing or a curse to be fantastically aware of very tiny details (acoustic or otherwise) of wherever you happen to be.
For me it's a blessing: the more we are aware of things the better. We can decide later if we "need" them or not, but look at all those people who are unaware of most of what's going on around them. Sure, it would be a curse if every little detail entered our brain and passed through the short-term memory gate and stayed in long-term-memory - then we really would have a lot to carry around with us! - but someone once said that we don't use more than 65% of our brain capacity, and I'm absolutely sure that most folk don't even use that. I assume that this is the underlying structure or meaning of the meditational aspect of certain human knowlege. What happens if we elevate the known into the realm of unknown, the unimportant into the realm of important? We sharpen the consciousness and I think we then are able to become aware of the acoustic environment surrounding the music - and: the music itself!!
Even so, for many people not used to the kind of listening you work demands, it can be quite a challenge. You walked offstage at Vandoeuvre when the audience heckling got too loud.
The audience certainly was the noisiest crowd I've ever experienced. They talked and laughed brazenly without any inhibition whatsoever until, after a while, somebody stood up and shouted: "Please, could those who are not interested give those who want to listen a chance!?" Only then did I stop playing and added: "Yes, maybe the people who are not ready to listen could leave the room and we'll start again in a few minutes". I left the stage in order to let them leave and we restarted the concert a couple of minutes later.
Surrounding noises of traffic, birds, fire brigades, helicopters, wind and so on are quite OK, but, it's true, a really noisy crowd is quite a different story and I don't find it very easy to perform in front of one. Somehow, I have the feeling that I'm forcing something upon the "listener" which s/he doesn't want to hear anyway, so I'd rather stop torturing them. Then again, not too long ago, I did a concert in Vienna with Franz Hautzinger and Steve Noble in a gallery which we knew in advance would be extremely noisy, with an audience only interested in chatting and boozing away, and I didn't mind that at all. We played for an hour and stopped and almost nobody realized that we'd been playing nor that we'd finished! Great!
See interviews of related interest
with John Butcher, Pierre
Boulez , Fred Frith and Sunny
Murray. Malfatti interview (February 2001) by Dan Warburton, copyright
2001, 2002 by Paris Transatlantic Magazine.