Encounter between Reinhard Gagel and
Berlin, June 29, 2018
Reinhard Gagel Reinhard Gagel is a visual artist, pianist, improviser, researcher and pedagogue who is associated with the Exploratorium Berlin, a center in existence since 2004 dedicated to improvisation and its pedagogy, which organizes concerts, colloquia and workshops (he retired in March 2020). He works in Berlin, Cologne and Vienna. This interview took place (in English) in June 2018 at the Exploratorium Berlin. (www.exploratorium-berlin.de) in June 2018. It was recorded, transcribed and edited by Jean-Charles François.
1. Transcultural Encounters
I think that today many people work in different environments with professional, artistic, sentimental, philosophical, political (etc.) identities that are incompatible with each other. The language that should be used in one context is not at all appropriate for another context. Many artists occupy, without too many problems, functions in two or more antagonistic fields. Many teach and give concerts at the same time. The antagonisms are between art teaching circles and those of artistic production on stage, or between the circles of interpretation of written scores and those of improvisation, or between music conservatories and musicology departments in universities. The discourses on both sides are often ironic and unlikely to degenerate into major conflicts. Nevertheless, they correspond to deep convictions, such as the belief that practice is far superior to theory, or vice versa: many musicians think that any reflexive thinking is a waste of time taken from the time that should be devoted to the practice of the instrument.
There is also a tradition here in Germany of considering old-fashioned to work in both pedagogy and improvisation. At the Exploratorium (in Berlin), for years and years all the musicians in Berlin said that the Exploratorium was only a pedagogical institute. This is really changing: for example, our concerts include musicians who are also scholars. There was a problem between the academic world and the world of practicing musicians, and I think that these boundaries are being erased a little bit, in order to be able to develop exchanges. The type of symposium I am organizing – you attended the first one – is a first step in this direction. The musicians who are invited are also researchers, pedagogues, teachers. But in Germany, our discussions are mainly focused on the constant interaction between theory and musical practice. This is my modest contribution to trying to overcome the problem that exists in many of the colloquia in which we participate: that’s there’s only talk talk talk, endless speeches, successions of paper presentations and little that really relates to musical practice. Your action with PaaLabRes seems to go in the same direction: to bring together the different aspects of the artistic world.
To bridge the gaps. That is to say to have in the Editions of our digital space a mixture of academic and non-academic texts and to accompany them with artistic productions, with artistic forms that, thanks to digital technology, mix different genres.
In your Editions you use French and English?
Yes and no. We really try to concentrate on the French public who often still have difficulty reading English. Translating important texts written in English and still little known in France seems very important to me, this was the case with the texts of George Lewis, David Gutkin and Christopher Williams. Unfortunately, we do not have the possibility to translate texts written in German. We are in the process of developing a bilingual English-French version of the first edition.
I have the feeling that your publication is interesting, even though I didn’t have much time to read it in detail. I find the theme of the next edition “Break down the walls” really important. My next symposium at the Exploratorium in January (2019) is going to be on “Improvising with the strange (and with strangers), Transitions between cultures through (free) improvisation?” I invited Sandeep Bhagwati, a musician, composer, improvisator and researcher, who works at a university in Canada and lives in Berlin. He belongs to at least two cultures, and he has created an ensemble here in Berlin that tries to combine elements from lots of different cultures to produce a new mixture. It’s not like so-called “world music” or inter-cultural music or anything like that – I think they’re trying to find a really new sound. This should be built from all the musical sources of the musicians who make up the ensemble and who all come from different cultures. I invited him to give a concert and to present the keynote address of the symposium. The last symposium was about “multi-mindedness.” This term is said to come from Evan Parker, and it refers to the problem of how a large group of musicians organizes itself while playing together. Some musicians use methods of self-organization, others use conducting in various forms. For example, my Offhandopera brings a lot of people together to create an opera in real time, with moderate conducting. The symposium has led to a good exchange and the new edition of Improfil (2019) will be devoted to these issues.
A first reaction to what you have just said might be to ask how this idea of trans-culturalism is different from Debussy’s approach, which takes the Indonesian gamelan as a model for certain pieces. There are, for example, many composers who use other cultures from around the world as inspiration for their own creations. Sometimes they mix in their pieces, traditional musicians with classically trained musicians. The question that can be asked in the face of these sympathetic attempts is that of the return match: to put the musicians of European classical music in their turn in situations of discomfort by confronting themselves with the practices and conceptions of other traditional music. It is not just a question of treating the musical material of particular cultures in a certain way, but of confronting the realities of their respective practices. In Lyon within the framework of the Cefedem AuRA that I created and directed for seventeen years, and where from the year 2000 we developed a study program that brings together musicians from traditional music, amplified popular music, jazz and classical music. The main idea was to consider each cultural entity as having to be recognized within the entirety of its “walls” – we have often used the term “house” – and that their methods of evaluation had to correspond to their modes of operation. But at the same time, the walls of each musical genre had to be recognized by all as corresponding to values as such, to necessities indispensable to their existence.
For their identity.
Yes, but we have also organized the curriculum so that all students in the four domains should also be required to work together on concrete projects. The idea was to avoid the situation where, as in many institutions, the musical genres are recognized as worthy of being present, but separated in disciplines that communicate only very rarely, and even less allow things to take place together. There are many examples where a teacher tells the students not to go and see those who make other types of music.
It is typical of what happens often in musical education.
In fact, this also happens a lot in higher education. The question also arises in a very problematic way with regard to the absence of minorities from popular neighborhoods in France in conservatories: the actions carried out to improve recruitment can often be considered as neo-colonialist in nature, or on the contrary are based on the preconception that only the practices already existing in these neighborhoods definitively define the people who live there. How to break down the walls?
This fits my ideas quite well:
- My first idea was to say that improvised music is typically European music – free improvisation – there are for example differences in practice between England and Germany. British musicians have a different way of playing. Nevertheless, there is a communality. Whether it is a common language, is a question that I ask myself, I don’t have a ready-made theory on the subject. On the one hand there are the characteristics linked to a country or a group of musicians, but on the other hand there are many possibilities to meet in open formats, as for example at the CEPI last year. If I play with someone sharing the same space, I don’t have the impression that he/she is an Italian musician. Nevertheless, she/he is Italian and there is a tradition of improvisation specific to Italy.
- But the next idea that came to my mind was that of Peter Kowald – do you know him? – the double bass player from Wuppertal who had the idea of the global village. His idea was to find out in practice whether there is a common musical language between the cultures. He coined the term « Global Village » for improvisation and he brought together musicians of different origins.(See the article in the present edition: Christoph Irmer, We are all strangers to ourselves .)
- And the third idea that motivates me concerns things that I see as very important in the actual political situation: the scientific research concerning the encounter between different cultures. In Franziska Schroeder’s book Soundweaving: Writings on Improvisation there is a report written by a Swedish musician, Henrik Frisk, on a research project about a musical group that tried to grow together with two Vietnamese and two Swedish musicians. He describes in his text the difficulties they had to overcome: for example, you cannot just say “OK, let’s play together” but you have also to try to understand the culture of the other, that is the strangeness that despite everything exists. So, they provide a good example. The Swedish musicians went to Vietnam and the Vietnamese musicians went to Sweden. And they tried to stand in the middle between the two cultures: what is the tradition of Vietnamese music, what could they do or not, and so on… They meet each other to work together and play. And that was the basis of my idea to organize the next symposium in January with musicians and researchers, and I found Sandeep who I think is very aware of these issues: for him it’s an essential aspect of his project. He told me that he is not talking about trans-culturalism, but about trans-traditionalism. Because, he says – it’s the same as what Frisk says – a culture always has a tradition and you have to know that tradition, your culture can’t be all that matters, but tradition is what’s most important. And I’m very curious to know what he is going to say and what we will learn from the debate that will follow.
And at the Exploratorium, how do you address the question of the public and the difficulties of bringing in specific social groups?
For the past year we have been developing a project called « Intercultural music pool ». And there are questions in Germany and in Europe today concerning refugees and borders, the question of bringing in only a few and not too many; and on top of that the question of terrorism and invasion and all that. In this situation, in Germany, we are moving in both directions: on the one hand, official political decisions and, on the other, local initiatives that try to integrate emigrants. So, we decided to develop an integration project so that people from other countries can play with musicians who have been living in Germany for a long time. And there are examples of choirs that exist in Berlin where people and refugees sing together. Matthias Schwabe and I accompanied this project from the theoretical point of view, with the papers and other necessary formalities. This project has been in place for a year but with no refugees participating. In this ensemble, there are two musicians who come from Spain, but this is not at all what we hoped for. Certain musicians came and said that it could be possible to do it with improvisation; improvisation is a link to bring people together. I don’t know how we’re going to continue, but for now it’s a fact: we tried to make this project public, but they didn’t come. Therefore, I think we need to ask ourselves questions given this failure on inter-culturalism and trans-culturalism. And for me the question is whether improvisation is really the link, the bridge that fits? For example, it is perhaps more important for me to learn a Syrian song than to improvise with someone from that country. I will ask the musician leading this « intercultural musical group » to make an assessment of these experiences. We have not yet carried out the evaluation of this action, but it seems important to do so before the symposium. Here are the questions we are facing: is improvisation really an activity that involves a common language? No, I think it may not be the case.
2. Improvisation Practices across the Arts
Well, very often I also ask myself this question: why, if improvisation is free, why does the sound result most of the time fit into what is characterized as contemporary music from a classical and European point of view? And one way of thinking about this state of affairs in a theoretical way is to say that improvisation, historically, appeared as an alternative, at the time when structuralism dominated the music of the 1950s-60s. The alternative consisted of simply inverting the terms: since structuralist music was then presented as written on a score, and moreover was written in every detail, then one had to invert the terms and play without any notation at all. And since structuralist music had developed the idea that ideally every piece of music should have its own language, then it was absolutely necessary to develop the notion of non-idiomatic music, which obviously does not exist. And since all structuralist scores were written for well-defined instrumental sounds in treatises, then ideally all these sounds should be eliminated in favor of an instrumental production belonging only to the one who created it. You can continue to invert all the important aspects of the structuralist culture of the time. But to invert all the terms we risk depending only on the culture of reference, and to change nothing fundamentally. On the other hand, and this is a paradox, what free improvisation has not failed to preserve is particularly interesting: its artistic productions have remained « on stage » in front of an audience. Outside the stage, music does not exist. This is a legacy of the Romantic West that is difficult to get rid of. As a result, it can be said that free improvisation developed strategies to prolong the tradition of European learned culture while claiming that it did exactly the opposite!
I think it’s important to emphasize that it’s not just about looking at improvisation as such, but all the things that improvisation includes. I agree with you about romanticism, improvisation on stage and the idea of inspiration on the moment, the idea of momentum, of waiting for moments of genius. For me, everybody in the world of improvised music talks about the quality, good or bad, of improvisations and the inspiration of the moment, the momentum in jazz, these are important things that do not only concern the practice of improvisation. I discovered through you the works of Michel de Certeau and I am reading a lot about collectivism and its applications in collective performances and performance theory: this theory tries to reflect about the way to show something, and it’s not only to have music on stage. But it’s possible to think about things outside of just the music on stage: you can go and perform outside the concert hall and mix audience and the musicians together and find new forms of performance of dance and music. I kind of like this idea of saying that improvisation is not just about these genius things, but it’s really a common thing; it’s a way of making music; it’s elementary, you have to make music that way. So, I meet a person and we make sounds together, and if someone says, “Okay, I have a song,” then let’s sing it together, and if I don’t know that song, we’ll just play one strophe or a phrase or something like that. I also think that the concept of quality is also a Western idea, this perfection in performance…
Let’s stop saying that it’s necessary to organize concerts, but let’s rather say that it’s necessary to invest in places where it’s possible to play, that’s what interests me. The Exploratorium is going a little bit in this direction: we organize open stages where people can play together, and so people are invited to produce music by themselves. It’s not about doing something that someone tells them to do, but it’s “let’s do it together”. So, I think it’s necessary to think about improvisation not only in terms of what constitutes its central core, at the heart of the music, may be not only in the core constituted by the interactions together, but also in the core of concerts and situations. That seems interesting to me. For example, the game of “pétanque” organized in France by Barre Phillips: it was a bit like this idea of putting something in common, not for an audience, but for ourselves. And today, we meet before we play together in a concert and not only on the day of the concert.
Here’s what could happen: it was my idea to invite you to do a concert, but it would be very interesting to do a rehearsal before the concert. I’d like to do that in addition to playing at the concert and trying things out and being able to talk about them. For me this is as important as doing concerts. It goes hand in hand with the idea of coming and going, finding things, allowing yourself to get out of the cage, getting out a little bit of the cage of improvisation limited to musical things, dealing with issues of idioms, interactions, looking at other aspects…
With PaaLabRes, we have been developing for two years a project to bring together practices between dancers and musicians at the Ramdam near Lyon, notably with members of the Compagnie Maguy Marin. This project was also based on the idea of bringing together two different cultures (dance and music) and trying more or less to develop materials in common, the musicians having to do body movements (in addition to sounds), the dancers producing sounds (in addition to dance movements). Improvisation here was a way to bring us together on a basis of equality. Indeed, what improvisation allows is to put the participants in full responsibility towards the other members of the group and to guarantee a democratic functioning. This did not mean that there was an absence of situations in which a particular person assumed for a moment to be the exclusive leader of the group. At the Exploratorium what about the interactions between artistic domains, do you have any actions that go in this direction?
Yes, I am also a visual artist. Since last year I have had a new studio – in the countryside – which I use as my atelier: I can create in a continuity my music and my visual works together, and in October (2018), a musician, a poet and I will play a performance of my paintings. As far as other art forms are concerned, the question of improvisation is not the most important thing. In the visual arts, I think that there is no reflection on the questions of improvisation.
In our project with dance, at some point last year, Christian Lhopital, a visual artist joined us. If you go to look at the second edition on the PaaLabRes website, the map that gives access to the various contents is a reproduction of one of his paintings. He came to participate in a session of encounter between dance and music. At first, he hesitated, he said: “What am I going to do?” Then he said, “OK, I’ll come in the morning from 10:00 to 12:00 and I’ll observe”. The session started as usual with a warm-up that lasted almost two hours, it’s quite a fascinating experience, because the warm-up is completely directed at the beginning by a person from the dance who gradually organizes very rich interactions between all the participants and it ends in a situation very close to improvisation as such. We start with very precise stretching exercises, then directed actions in duet, trio or quartet, and little by little in continuity it becomes more and more free. Well, after a few minutes, Christian came to join the group, because in a warm-up no one is afraid of being ridiculous, because the goal is not to produce something original. And then after that he stayed with us all weekend and took part in the improvisations with his own means in his artistic domain.
This is something very important. For example, if you say or think: “when I make music, I have to be completely present, concentrated, and ready to play”, then the music doesn’t necessarily materialize in action. If you think, “Okay, I’ll try this or that” [he plays with objects on the table, glasses, pencils, etc.] and it produces sounds and there’s I think pretending that it’s music, that music only functions when it is recorded, or is just on stage, or if you listen to it in perfectly made recordings. This can become a completely different way of practicing music. In Western music, I think, historically in the 17/18th centuries musicians were composers and practicing musicians (also improvisers); it was a culture of sharing musical practice, of common playing: there was Karl-Philip Emmanuel Bach and the idea of the Fantasy and meeting to play at dawn, with the expression of feelings and with tears, and these were very important events for them. Later, I think, we developed the idea that we had to learn to play the instruments before we could really play them to produce music.
And to continue this story, Christian participated in the improvisation process by using the stage as if it were a canvas to draw on by using paper cut-outs and drawing things on them as the improvisations unfolded.
I would like to see this, where can I find this information?
At the moment this is not available, it might become possible in the future.
You said earlier that visual artists don’t talk much about improvisation.
This may be a prejudice on my part.
It’s quite true though, Christian Lhopital, the artist in Lyon had never done it before. We met the American trumpeter Rob Mazurek, who is an improviser but also a visual artist. He produces three-dimensional paintings that serve as musical scores. The relationship between musical practices and the production of visual art is not obvious.
Yes, it’s more a question of going into a trance through different media, and I think that with music and dance things are more obvious because it’s done in continuity over time and you can find combinations in the various ways to move the body and to produce sounds on the instruments. But let’s take for example literature, improvisation in literature. That would be something very interesting to do.
There is improvised poetry, like slam.
The slam, OK.
Slam is often improvised. And there are improvised traditional poetic forms. For example, Denis Laborde wrote a book on improvised poetry practices in the Basque Country in a competitive logic – as in sports – by improvising songs according to tradition and very precise rules: the audience decides who is the best singer. There are traditions where the literature is oral and is continuously renewed in a certain way.
There are also singers who invent their text during improvisation.
But my question was about what a center like the Exploratorium was doing in this area. Are there any experiments that have been carried out?
Yes, one of the workshops is dedicated to this aspect of things, but it is not the main focus of our program.
What is it about?
She is a visual artist who makes pictures – I didn’t attend this workshop, I can’t say exactly what she does – but she gives materials to the participants, she gives them colors and other things, and she lets them develop their own ways of drawing or painting. She conducted this workshop in public during our Spring festival.
But she does this with music?
No. She doesn’t. I really don’t know why. Maybe it’s because that’s kind of the way we do things here, which is to say, “everybody does it their own way”. Ah! once we’ve moved to our new home, we’ll be more open to collaborations.
And you also have dance here?
Yes, we have dance.
What are the relationships with music?
It’s more in the field of live encounters on stage. There are three or four dancers who come with musicians for public performances, and there are open stages with music and movement, and last Thursday we had the “Fête de la musique” here. The performances that are given here often bring together dancers and musicians.
But these are only informal meetings?
Yes. Informal. Anna Barth, who is a colleague of mine and is working at the library with me, is a Butoh dancer. She has performed a lot with Matthias Schwabe in this very slow and concentrated way of moving, and they’ve done performances together. But that’s not one of our major focuses. Our work is concerned with free improvisation in all arts, but 90% of it is music. There is a little bit of theater-improvisation, but only a little bit. The Exploratorium is centered mainly on musical improvisation.
3. Pedagogy of Improvisation, Idioms, Timbre
Are there any other topics you would like to share with us?
Yes, there is a question I ask myself that has nothing to do with multiculturalism. I work in Vienna at the University of Music and Performing Arts with classical musicians on improvisation. They are students at the Institute for Chamber Music. I’ve only had two workshops with them. I only give them a minimum of instruction. For example: “Let’s play in a trio” and then I let them play, that’s how I start the workshop. And during this first improvisation, there are a lot of things they are able to play, and they do it, they don’t have problems like saying “OK! I don’t have any ideas and I don’t want to play”. They play and I invite them to do so. And they use everything they have learned to do well after fifteen years of study. My idea is that I don’t teach improvisation, but I try to let them express themselves through the music they know and are able to play, and this would mean that they have the resources to improvise, to make music not only by reproduction. They can be also inventors of music. And for them, it’s a surprise that it works so well. They’re present, they’re concentrated, and they have really good instrumental technique and what they’re doing sounds really interesting. The feeling expressed by all is that “it works!” So I’m thinking about a theory of improvisation which is not based on technique, but on something like memory, memory of all the things you have in your mind, in your brain, what you have embodied, and with all that you just have to give them the opportunity to express themselves by just allowing them to play what they want. And I think that if we lived in a culture where there would be more of this idea of playing and listening and where classical musicians would be allowed to improvise more often and to improve in improvised playing, we could develop a common culture of improvisation. I’ve been doing that for the past five or six years and I have many recordings with very amazing music. What I want to discuss with you is about these resources. What are the resources of improvisation? What does improvisation mean to you? I think it would be interesting to get a better idea of what a common idea of improvisation would be.
Yes. It’s a very complicated question. Historically, in my own background, I was very interested in the idea of the creative instrumentalist in the 1960s. The model at that time was Vinko Globokar and I was convinced that thirty years later there would no longer be composers as such, specialized, but rather kinds of musicians in the broadest sense of the term. But curiously at that time I didn’t believe that improvisation – especially free improvisation – was the way to go. In the group that performed at the American Center on Boulevard Raspail in Paris with Australian composer, pianist and conductor Keith Humble, we were thinking more in terms of making music that belonged to no one, “non-proprietary music”. We thought, for example, that Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke X – only clusters – was grandiose, except that clusters cannot belong only to Stockhausen. The concept of this piece, “play all possible clusters on a piano in a very large number of combinations” could very well be realized without referring to the detail of the score. So, we organized concerts based on collages of concepts contained in scores, but without specifically playing these scores.
I can understand this, because for me too, the term collage is a very important thing.
I left Paris for Australia in 1969, then San Diego, California in 1972. One of the reasons for this expatriation had been the experience in Paris of playing in many contemporary music ensembles with most of the time three or four rehearsals before each concert with musicians who were very skilled in sight-reading scores. One had the impression of always playing the same music from one ensemble to another. The musicians could produce the written notes very quickly, but at the cost of a standardized timbre. We had the impression of being in the presence of the same sounds, for me, the timbres were hopelessly gray. At the American Center, on the contrary, without the presence of any budget – it was not a “professional” situation – music was made with as many rehearsals as necessary to develop the sounds. It was a very interesting alternative situation. And that’s exactly what a research-oriented university in the United States could offer, where you had to spend at least half your time conducting research projects. There was a lot of time available to do things of your own choosing. And once again, some composers in this situation wanted to recreate the conditions of professional life in large European cities around a contemporary music ensemble: to play the notes very well as quickly as possible without worrying about the reality of the timbre. So, with trombonist John Silber we decided to start a project called KIVA, which we did not want to call “improvisation”, but rather “non-written music”. And so, as I described above, we simply inverted the terms of the contemporary ensemble model: in a negative way, our unique method was to forbid ourselves to play identifiable figures, melodies, rhythms, and in usual modes of communication. It was rather a question of playing together, but in parallel discourses superimposed without any desire to make them compatible. We would meet three times a week to play for an hour and a half and then listen without making comments to the recording of what had just happened. At first things were very chaotic, but after two years of this process we had developed a common language of timbres, a kind of living together in the same house in which small routines developed in the form of rituals.
And what were the sources of this language, where did it come from?
It was simply playing and listening to this playing three times a week and not having any communication or discussions that could positively influence our way of playing.
Ah! You didn’t talk?
Of course we were talking, but we felt that the discussion shouldn’t influence the way we played. But this process – and today it doesn’t seem possible anymore – was very slow, very chaotic, and at a certain moment a language emerged that no one else could really understand.
Yes. Composers in particular didn’t understand it because it was a disturbing alternative…
But it wasn’t traditional music, but the music you had developed… Was it the experience of contemporary music that gave you the initial vocabulary?
Yes of course, it was our common base. The negative inversion of the parameters as I have noted above does not fundamentally change the conditions of elaboration of the material, so the reference was still the great sum of contemporary practices since the 1950s. But at the same time, as Michel de Certeau noted when he was present on the San Diego campus, there was a relationship between our practices and the processes used by the mystics of the 17th century. It was a question for the mystics to find in their practices a way to detach themselves from their tradition and their techniques. It’s exactly the opposite of what you described, it’s a process in which the body has stored an incredible number of clichés, and good instrumentalists never think about their gestures when they play because they’ve become automatic. That’s what we’ve been trying to do: to bring all this into oblivion. You mentioned the idea of memory.
It was exactly another idea, to try to forget everything we had learned so that we could relearn something else. Of course, that’s not exactly how it happened, it’s a mythology that we developed. But for me it remains a fundamental process. The fear of classical musicians is to lose their technique, and of course whatever happens they will never lose it. In this process, I have never lost my ability to play classically, but it has been greatly enriched. The importance of this process is that through a journey to unknown lands, one can come back home and have a different conception of one’s technique.
It’s a combination of new and old things?
Yes, so it is possible to work with classical musicians in situations where they have to leave their technique aside. And in the case of John Silber for example – he borrowed this idea from Globokar, and Ornette Coleman had the same kind of experience – because our playing periods lasted for a very long time without interruptions, he got tired when he only played the trombone. So, he had decided to play another instrument as well, and he chose the violin, which he had never studied. He had to completely reinvent by himself a very personal technique of playing this instrument and he was able to produce sounds that nobody had produced until then.
But the process through which these classical musicians I work with go through seems different to me: it’s a bit of another way of considering instrumental playing. If I tell them “play!” they don’t really try to play new things, but they recombine.
Yes, what they know.
They recombine what they know. But because they are in an ensemble situation, they can’t have control over it. There’s always someone who comes across what they’re doing. If they have expectations, there’s always someone who comes and disturbs them, and then you have to find a new way. And the interesting thing is that they are able to follow these crossings without getting irritated and saying “no, I can’t…” It’s a phenomenon where in many workshops, the participants first say “I can’t” and as soon as they start – a bit like the painter you mentioned – it works. And the question I ask myself is: is it a musical problem or is it a problem related to the situation? My main theory is that suddenly there’s a room and someone allows them to do something and they do it. And it’s interesting to note that they never do it on their own. They come to me and they play, and then they go outside, and they never do it again. There has to be a group and a space dedicated to this activity. There is a musician who came with his string quartet and they tried to improvise. Later he told me that they played an improvisation as an encore at a concert; but they didn’t announce that it was an improvisation but that it was written by a Chinese composer; and he said that the audience really liked that encore very much, and he was really surprised that it could happen like that. For me the problem seemed clear, because if they had announced that they were playing their own music, there would have been people who wouldn’t have wanted to listen to it. If you play Mozart, it’s because you’re playing something serious, there’s an effort to be made, and so on. So, the improvisation is more centered on the personality of the person doing it, and you enjoy yourself doing it, that’s a very interesting fact.
It is said – I don’t know if this is really the case – that Beethoven playing the piano in concert improvised half the time and that the audience much preferred his improvisations over his compositions.
It is really an interesting fact, yes.
Was it like that because improvisations were structurally simpler?
Now we are faced with two possible paths. The first leads us to an open field where we say to ourselves: “I don’t want to do what others have already done or are doing”. And the second one is to say: “I’m going to do an improvisation that won’t be a complete” – what do you call it? …
An erasure, an oblivion.
This is about “thinking about your ways in a new way” rather than looking for a new musical content; and so, it is not a very avant-garde posture. Yes, we produce music that is a bit polytonal, with polyrhythms, and harmonies that are a bit wrong, a bit like Shostakovich, etc. But for me the important thing is not to say: “we are going to create a completely new music”, but that the students can see the work session as improvisers. What they are able to do in this situation and the skills they can develop will help them to explore things for themselves: “it’s not something original that will define me, I’m only a little bit open to new things, but I love the music we produce together, I find it moves me completely.” This happens in a very direct way because they’re playing as persons and not as someones to whom I would say, “please play me now from bar 10 to bar 12, in a wahhhhhhh [whispering loudly], you know how to do it.” But if they decide to do it on their own, then it’s something completely different.
Yes, but for me the essential question is the timbre, the qualities of the sound. Because there is an equation between structural music and others: the more emphasis is placed on the complexity of an established grammar, the less interesting the sound material is, and the more emphasis is placed on the complex quality of timbre, the less interest is placed on the complexity of syntactic structures. If we consider the European classical music of the 19th and 20th centuries, there is a long process in which instrumental playing becomes increasingly standardized, and the dominant instrumental model of this period is the piano. And so, the challenge is to create a lot of different kinds of music, but from the point of view of what is represented by the notation system, the notes and their durations, which can easily be realized on the equivalence of the keys of the keyboard. It is a matter of manipulating what is standardized in the notation system, the design of instruments and the techniques of sound production, in a non-standardized way and differentiated from one work to another. The structural approach in this case becomes very useful. And of course a lot of experimentation has been done in this context with the looting of traditional music by transforming it into notes: of course, in this process we lose 99% of the values on which this music works. The equation is complicated because from the moment concrete and electronic music appear, a different cultural branch is set up, a different conception of sounds. And with popular music such as rock, the combination of notes is of no interest, because it is too simplistic and tends to be based on few chords, which makes this music more accessible. But what matters is the sound of the band, which is eminently complex. The musicians of these types of music spend a considerable amount of time working out in groups a sound that will constitute their identity, reinventing their instrumental playing based on what they identify in past recordings in order to dissociate themselves from them. Following this model many situations can be envisaged in improvisation workshops that put musicians in processes where they have to imitate what is really impossible to imitate in others, difficult situations, especially for musicians who are so efficient in reading notes. What happens when a clarinetist plays a certain sound and now with your own instrument, a piano for example, you have to imitate the sound that is produced in the most exact way?
It is a question of timbre.
Yes. The world of electronics creates a universe of resonances. This is true even if we don’t use electronic means. But at the same time, you are completely right to think that the tradition of playing from the notes written on the score is still a very important factor in musical practices in our society.
In Western society.
A lot of good things can still be done in this context.
You have a memory, and a pool, and an archive. I think – and this surprises me a lot, but that’s exactly how I see it – that improvisation doesn’t work with notes, but it functions with timbres. I call it musicalizing the sound. With the classical musician, you have a note, and then you have to musicalize it, you have to decode it.
To put it in a context of reality.
Exactly! Put it in a context, and then you bring it to sound. And when you turn the sign into sound, as a classical musician you are in the presence of a lot of fusion from sign to sound, using everything you’ve learned and everything that makes up the technique. The technique allows you to realize variations of dynamics, articulations and many other elements. This is the way they really learned to play. And now I’m going to take the notes out and ask them to keep making music. And that’s how I often start my workshops by asking them to play only one pitch. The seven or eight people who were at my workshop in Vienna last week, they did an improvisation on one pitch with the task of doing interesting things with that pitch. And it’s interesting because they have so many nuances at their disposal, and it sounds really very, very, well. And for me it’s the door that opens to improvisation, not to rush to many pitches, but to always start with things that are based on the sound qualities. If you look at the history of music, I think that humans who lived forty thousand years ago they had no language, but they had sounds [he starts singing].
How do you know?
I have a recording [laughter]. And I’ve done the following experiment with my students: do a spoken dialogue without using words [he gives an example with his voice], it works. They can’t tell you something specific, but the emotional idea is there. I think you’ll agree that the timbre of the spoken voice is really a very important thing, as Roland Barthes noted in The Grain of the Voice. I agree with him. I try to get these classical musicians to improvise a little bit in their tradition, so they don’t create new things, to discover their instrument, but within their tradition.
From the point of view of their representations.
Yes exactly, and what came out of this workshop is very interesting.
This is a very pedagogical way of doing things, otherwise the participants are lost.
Yes, the former Head of the department of chamber music at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna loves improvisation. I think what he likes about improvisation is that the students learn to get in touch with each other and with the issue of timbre production. For chamber music these are very important things. I’m not a perfect instrumentalist myself because I don’t spend thousands of hours in rehearsals, but I think I can work with that in my mind, I can really find a lot of artists working in music on scores that are interesting, it’s really very rich.
In a string quartet, the four musicians have to work for hours on what is called the tuning of the instruments, which is actually a way of creating a group sound.
That’s what I do with improvisation, I function in a way that is very close to this tradition. The tasks are often oriented towards intonation between musicians, but it’s not only about going in the direction of the perfect bow stroke, but also in the direction of the music. Well, I was very happy with this interview, which will feed into my writing. I would like to write a book on improvisation with classical musicians, but I don’t have the time, you know how life is…
You have to be a retiree to have the time to do things! Thank you for taking the time to talk.
1. Improfil is a German journal [connected with the Exploratorium Berlin] concerning the theory and practice of musical improvisation and functions as a platform for professional exchange among artists, teachers and therapists, for whom the subject of improvisation is a main topic in their work. See https://exploratorium-berlin.de/en/home-2/
2. The Cefedem AuRA [Centre de Formation des Enseignants de la Musique Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes] is a center in existence since 1990, devoted to the training of music school instrumental, vocal and music theory teachers. It is a center for professional ressources and artistic higher education in music. It carries out research in musical pedagogy and publishes a journal Enseigner la Musique. See https://www.cefedem-aura.org
3. CEPI, Centre Européen Pour l’Improvisation [European Improvisation Center] : “For me CEPI is a meeting point where improvising musicians, other practitioners of improvised performance-arts, scholars, thinkers, anyone who is active and/or curious about new forms and methods of doing can meet to exchange their ideas and experiences and also to participate together in the creative process, in short to improvise together.” Barre Phillips, 2020. See http://european.improvisation.center/home/about
4. Franziska Schroeder, Soundweaving : Writings on Improvisation, Cambridge, England : Cambridge Scholar Publishing. See the French translation of Henrik Frisk, “Improvisation and the Self: to listen to the other”, in the present edition of paalabres.org.: Henrik Frisk, L’improvisation et le moi.
5. Matthias Schwabe is the founder and director of Exploratorium Berlin.
6. During the CEPI meetings in Puget-Ville (in 2018 in particular), Barre Phillips proposed a game of “pétanque”, in which each team consisted of two ball throwers and one person who would improvise music at the same time.
7. The encounter took place a day [July 2018] before a concert of improvisation at the Exploratorium Berlin with Jean-Charles François, Reinhard Gagel, Simon Rose and Christopher Williams.
8. RAMDAM, UN CENTRE D’ART [à Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon] is a place for working, a rather flexible place, open to a multiplicity of uses, with adjustable and transformable spaces according to the needs and constraints of the selected projects. Ramdam is place of residence of the Dance Compagnie Maguy Marin. See https://ramdamcda.org/information/ramdam-un-centre-d-art
9. Christian Lhopital is a French contemporary visual artist, born in 1953 in Lyon. He essentially produces drawings and sculptures. His work was presented at the Lyon Biennale: “Une terrible beauté est née”, by Victoria Noorthoorn, an ensemble of 59 drawings from different epochs (from 2002 through 2011) were presented in the form of a drawing cabinet. In June 2014,the Éditions Analogues in Arles have edited the book Ces rires et ces bruits bizarres, with a text by Marie de Brugerolle, illustated by photos, mural graphit powder drawings, sculptures, miniatures, from the serie « Fixe face silence ». https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Lhopital
10. Rob Mazurek is a multidisciplinary artist/abstractivist, with a focus on electro-acoustic composition, improvisation, performance, painting, sculpture, video, film, and installation, who spent much of his creative life in Chicago, and then Brazil. He currently lives and works in Marfa, Texas with his wife Britt Mazurek. See the known place “Constellation Scores” in the second edition of this site (paalabres.org) http://www.paalabres.org/partitions-graphiques/constellation-scores-powerpeinture/ Access to Constellation Scores. See https://www.robmazurek.com/about
11. Denis Laborde, La Mémoire et l’Instant. Les improvisations chantées du bertsulari basque, Bayonne, Saint-Sébastien, Ed. Elkar, 2005.
12. Anna Barth is a freelance dancer, choreographer and artistic director of the DanceArt Laboratory Berlin. She studied Modern Dance, Improvisation and Composition at the Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis Dance Lab in New York City and Butoh Dance for several years with renowned co-founder and master of Butoh Dance, Kazuo Ohno and his son Yoshito Ohno in Japan. https://www.annabarth.de/en/bio.html
13. Keith Humble was an Australian composer (1927-1995), conductor and pianist who saw these three activities in continuity with a practice that resembled the function of the musician before the advent of the professional composer in the 19th and 20th centuries. During the 1950s and 1960s, he lived in France. He was the assistant to René Leibowitz and in 1959, at the American Centre for Students and Artists, he established the ‘Centre de Musique,’ a ‘performance workshop’ dedicated to the presentation and discussion of new music. It is in this context that Jean-Charles François met him. He continued to work with him until 1995. See http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/humble-leslie-keith-30063
14. KIVA, 2 CD, Pogus Produce, New York. Recordings 1985-1991, with Jean-Charles François, percussion, Keith Humble, piano, Eric Lyon, computer vocoder manipulations, Mary Oliver, violon and viola, John Silber, trombone.
16. See Jean-Charles François, Percussion et musique contemporaine, chapter 2, « Contrôle direct ou indirect de la qualité des sons », Paris : Editions Klincksieck, 1991.
17. Roland Barthes, « Le grain de la voix », Musique enjeu 9 (1972).