1) First, let me say that I am struck by the profusion of styles that appear on the recordings that you sent. You seem to revel in exploring a number of musical practices and idioms. What attracts you to such a range of musical activities? Working in such a wide range of styles (very adeptly, I might add), how do you define and make explicit your compositional voice? While I am no fan of pigeon-holing, I am curious as to how you might try to sum up your intent within these various projects.
Curiosity may have
killed the cats, but wolves thrive on it... curiosity triggers off ongoing
research and it is indeed a very strong motivator. Have you ever visited
a pigeon-hole? It must be pretty dark and narrow inside, and certainly
not a place to dwell upon, so I cant imagine spending a lifetime
in such a prison! On a more serious note: ever since I heard music (my
mother was a classical singer, my father a classical amateur pianist,
my uncle a professional pianist and composer) and then started to tackle
the strings (first) and (secondly) the keys of our home piano at the age
of eleven (so, actually, quite late), I felt attracted to very different
poles of sounds, ranging from rock music (Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jimi Hendrix)
to the classical piano repertoire (especially Bach and Bartók),
later on the first jazz exposures (Chris McGregors Brotherhood of
Breath), and only many years later, studying musicology at the University,
I lost this innocence of perception and became more aware
of historical styles. In the words of Alfred Schnittke, I used a polystilistic
approach right from the very beginning. Take another example: John Zorn.
Would you put his radical Jewish music (like «Masada»)
into the same basket as his Morricone paraphrases, or as Naked City?
Or how can you put Fred Friths distorted table guitar sounds into
the same bag as his beautiful fake-folky melodies? Or, to
quote another of my heros, listen to the music played by Louis Sclavis,
his wonderful folklore imaginaire file under what? So
let this NOT be our worry.... Over the years, I have also come to experience
and enjoy the many advantages of this open approach, because (as a pianist)
having gone through the fire of free jazz has probably made my lyrical
side (some might even say romantic, because I willingly confess
to be a passionate melomane!) much more interesting, and the harmonic,
rhythmic and melodious refinements of, lets say, my disciplined
work in the chamber jazz group «Pago Libre» has helped a great
deal to give my freemprov playing in groups like «MOMENTUM»
or solo works a much wider range. My voice as a composer therefore is
probably more like a choir than a simple single vocal line.
2) On Through the Ear of a raindrop we see some of these various styles juxtaposed. How did that decision come about for this project?
First came E.A.POEs
poem The Valley of Unrest. It triggered off the idea for this
POEms PrOjEct, and subsequently the other poems moved in, mostly written
by contemporary Irish and British poets (of which Shakespeares sardonically
bitter love requiem is most up-to-date!), forming a suite of 8, interspersed
with and linked with 5 echoes. Then came the choice of the voice: Mozart
used to write a tune into the gargle of the singer, and I
happened to meet Julie Tippetts (née Driscoll, she was one of my
heroines in the late sixties!) at Ruvo di Puglia Festival in Italy, where
she was performing with her pianist husband Keith, and I with Pago Libre.
Then I got a grant from a Swiss Arts Foundation to live and work in Londons
East End for half a year. I had worked with bassoonist Lindsay Cooper
(remember «Henry Cow»?) before (cf. «Creative Works
Orchestra» live in Willisau), so I started to work on the
concept, discussing it with Lindsay. Then I met legendary players like
saxophonist Evan Parker (check out his incredibly hilarious tenor solo
on the fake reggae rhythm of Where art is a midwife!),
drummer Chris Cutler (also ex-«Henry Cow») and trombonist
Paul Rutherford (he and Evan being longtime member of the «Brotherhood
of Breath») , and they all were quite happy to work on this project.
Sadly, because of an illness, Lindsay had to be replaced by bassclarinetist
Peter Whyman The rehearsals and recording session in London were a sheer
delight, and the only drop of bitterness about this group is that it NEVER
got a single chance to perform the music live, although the album got
extremely enthusiastic reviews, many of them four stars, and some festival
organisers seemed to like it a lot, but never called...
3) How do you approach musically 'setting' a poem?
Studying German literature
at the University, I had the fortune to work with two diametrically opposed
professors, one going for a structuralistic approach (in other
words: counting the commas in Baudelaires late poems...), the other
for a hermeneutic methodology. Of course, both the pre-fixed
method (stick to your premises, whatever happens along the way)
and the contextual method (start somewhere and let whatever you
find lead you to the next step) have their ups and downs, and finding
your own way b e t w e e n t h e l i n e s became an existential necessity.
So, whenever I bring music and literature together, I try to introduce
the two worlds to each other, try to respect their respective realms,
do NOT try to marry them against their will, but rather search
for hidden correspondances, common sounds (of the vowels) and rhythms
(of the consonants), try to follow the topography of the speech, the roots
of the etymology, the geometry of the grammar, the secrets of the polyvalent,
equivocal semantic layers (there are always more than one, this might
be one explanation for the Irish love of puns...). But in spite of all
the mathematical methods, structural analysis and linguistic exegesis
I very much like to listen to my inner instincts, with keen shots, aiming
half-blinded at the target, because only then you can hit the bulls
eye just think of Zen and the art of archery. There
are many other ways to integrate lyrics and music than setting
it for voices. One particularly intriguing way is to try and look b e
h i n d the surface of the letters, and use the
4) Pago Libre's latest record seems to use film as an artistic entry point, whereas HeXtet's record seems to focus on the character and properties of language. I've noticed in your liner notes and interviews that you also have an interest in archeology. How does the extra-musical affect your compositional approach?
The subtitle of the
new Pago Libre album «cinémagique» is 15 soundtracks
for an imaginary cinema not for an imaginary film. The idea
was to create a soundtrack for the cinema everybody carries around in
his/her own head, at any given time... as a composer, I look at images
and letters pretty much the same way as at notes or rhythms: basically
what we have is a series of visual and/or auditive signs, elements, building
material, and by investigating, researching, analyzing, deconstructing
and re-assembling them we can create new audio-kinetic worlds, which at
the same time mirror ones own view and certain aspects of the time
and space continuum we are living in. Sometimes, a paradox becomes true:
the more contemporary (i.e. grasping the very moment[um] of time art is,
the more it can grow into a timeless testimony. But having said this,
its very important to state that it would be a disaster, if an artist
would start to create his work with a sidelong glance to timelessness
or, worse even, eternity only trash could come out of
such a pretentious, self-indulging attitude. Going back to archeology:
in 1990, in the liner notes to «Iritations», I have tried
to explain this concept, and I still cant find better words: Thinking
about the quite over-worked and strained term of avant-garde
(which, by the way, the front soldiers in Napoleons army were called),
I found the artist of today to be rather in the arrière-garde:
having no chance (nor any intention) to catch up with the crazy spinning
roundabout of our consumer society, and coming upon all sorts of scraps,
which are dispersed by its blind centrifugal forces even faster than they
were produced. Once having slipped into the role of an archeologist of
the present age, I dis-covered more and more submerged stories, hidden
treasures and warped sounds, still existing in a kind of parallel universe...
Iritations is a lyrical essay to recycle some of the semantic
substance of these symbols, of their significance.
5) Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of «cinémagique»?
Our internal working
title was breakfast (highly classified...:-). We all felt
an urge to create music we could listen to while having breakfast, and
as most of us tend to be like raw eggs in the early morning, this was
quite a challenge! We tried to leave out everything unnecessary, tried
to confine our egos, to make the solos fit the overall concept, to behave
like brave boys for a change... to put every single element into
the service of this higher task. As Pago Libre truly is a paneuropean
(ad)venture, we live in four vastly diverse locations: Italian bassist
Daniele Patumi lives in Bejing, China, Arkady Shilkloper in Moscow, Tscho
Theißing in Vienna, so we had to spread out the studio work over two
years, squeezing in a couple of hours between tour concerts in or near
Switzerland. Hard Studios, as they are aptly named, are located in Winterthur,
near Zurich. Just when we nearly finished the whole album, sound engineer
Moritz Wetter (who did a great job otherwise!) hit the wrong tiny button
on his ProTools-Macintosh keyboard, and the most complicated piece of
all, Theißings paraphrase on a crazy North Italian nursery rhyme, TIKKETTITAKKITAKK
went down the drain!... anyway, we were able to re-record it in an even
more convincing version. It took us just another day... But after overcoming
all these obstacles, we are very pleased with the outcome, and its
not only a worthy successor to the Live-Album «Wake Up Call - live
in Italy», but also a perfect contrast, maybe even an antidote.
The latter was recorded in a much shorter time, in a little more than
an hour, to be precise: the time needed for an open-air concert in the
medieval town centre of Lentini, Sicily.
6) Comprovisation - What is the process and balance of composition & improvisation in the Momentum and Shooting Stars & Traffic Lights projects? How does collaboration affect your work?
Paul Motian epitomizes
his famous jazz on the road, man..., whenever he runs into
a crisis (like arriving at the stage only to find there is no drum kit,
a broken piano and a missing mouthpiece...), and I believe that after
graduating from University and the Musikhochschule I really learnt a lot
on the road, from the musicians I was able to work with. One
very important collaboration was with Swiss saxophonist Urs Leimgruber
(four albums in seven years from 1982 to 1989, the last one, «M.A.P.»,
in trio with singer Norma Winstone), and I think he was a very good teacher.
So I definitely believe that collaborating affects my work, but it also
works the other way around: a new composition, an innovative concept can
affect a group very strongly. I started to use the term comprovisation
around 1990 for highly structural instant composing in the very split
second of its birth, a technique requiring alert awareness and a great
deal of sensitivity, ultrafast reaction and a keen sense for form. Ideally,
there should be no difference between a (painstakingly) notated and an
(equally precisely) performed piece of music. The difference is, of course,
that you cannot go back and erase single notes or whole parts... so this
discipline is more like a devils dance on a hot rod. In the past,
I have frequently compared this process to the three physical states of
matter. In this metaphor, free improvisation would correspond with the
gaseous and a composition with the solid state, and the liquid state would
oscillate somewhere in between... and as we all know, all it takes to
turn ice into water and water into
7) Will there be a Momentum 3?
Yes, actually, there
are already several candidates for this number. Of course,
any release also depends on the possibilities of the producer, Leo Feigin
(of Leo Records,
8) Jazz vs. Free Improvisation vs. Concert Music. How do you integrate the three?
To paraphrase Nothing
ever was, anyway, the title of a composition by Annette Peacock:
Anyway... was there ever a difference? (between jazz, free improvisation
and concert music). Of course, on a superficial, that is, phenomenological
level, you could state many apparent differences and indulge in the insurmountable
cracks between these categories, but I find it much more fascinating
and, on the long run, rewarding to hunt for the hidden common grounds.
So, in other words: how can you NOT try to integrate these three (and
many more) disciplines of music, of art? After all, they just happen to
be categories, and categories are man-made divisions, classes of things,
not natural laws. Therefore, we can soften them up at their borderlines,
and sometimes even downright break them up, and replace them by new lines.
Maybe this is a better and healthier way to conquer new territories than
the old frontier metaphor, which killed so many indigenous
people. And lets not forget: you dont have to be crazy, passionate
and obsessed to play this kind of music, but it certainly helps.
9) I have to tell you that I was quite taken with much of the material on Shooting Stars & Traffic Lights. That seemed like a recording session that really clicked. Your Tango and Toccata pieces were particularly strong, as was Alex Cline's contribution, Gathering at the Threshold. Could you tell me a bit more about this project? Is this an ensemble that has continued to work together?
I am very glad you
like this particular recording, because believe it or not
it is, like the HeXtet, a virtual group without live concerts:
we never got a chance to play this music live! It was originally planned
as the second PAGO LIBRE album (after the first was issued on the Italian
Splash Records label in 1990), with guest Alex Cline, whom I had been
working together in a large 13-piece ensemble called SinFONietta, in 1991.
But at that time, we just lost our Swedish trumpet player,
Lars Lindvall, and had not yet met with Scottish hornist Martin Mayes
(who can be heard on another inofficial Pago Libre album,
Moskau-Petuschki, on Leo Records) a year later, we
met Arkady Shilkloper in Porgy & Bess jazzclub in Vienna,
and ever since this is the line-up of Pago Libre. But getting back to
the Shooting Stars & Traffic Lights, this was an incredibly
inspired and inspiring recording session, with the spirit of Olivier Messiaen
hovering somewhere above our heads, and he is especially evident in Alex
Clines wedding song Gathering at the Threshold, one
of my alltime favourite pieces with a melody so beautiful that only a
percussionist could have written it... So, of course I would love to play
together again, but its soooo hard to raise the financial funding
to create such opportunities, and I freely admit that Im not the
best when it comes to do business plans.
10) Your approach to the organ on «pipelines» is radically different from your piano and prepared piano styles. How do you view your approach to the various instruments that you play?
First of all, its
a misleading and dangerous convention to file both the piano and the organ
under keyboard instruments. In fact, they are very diverse
instruments, and the technique of pressing the keys is radically different.
Johann Sebastian Bach even spoke of die Tasten s c h l a g e n
instead of spielen, rather of h i t t i n g the
keys than playing them. Again, I was fortunate to have a good
teacher, Mrs Monika Henking, and I was especially attracted by the French
organ tradition (Jehain Alain, Louis Vierne, Olivier Messiaen). It could
be argued, though, that my practice of various prepared piano
techniques has led to some astonishing effects hardly used by normal
organists (cf. An Answer to Charles, our echo to Ives
seminal piece The Unanswered Question). Strangely enough,
these urban treatments of the prepared organ go
very well with exotic ethnic instruments like the alphorn
or büchel played by Hans Kennel, or the tuba and serpent played by
11) The Satie arrangement worked out very nicely on that recording. How did you come to include that?
Erik Satie was an
odd gentleman falling out of all categories: a bar pianist writing serious
music, a cranky avantgardist indulging in popular, even hummable tunes,
a real life actor handing out fake calling cards in beautiful handmade
calligraphy, a borderline pedestrian between arts and centuries, a self-styled
Anti-Wagnerian, a minimalist avant la lettre, half a century
before Reich, Riley, Glass & Co., sporting his ubiquitous umbrella
in René Clairs silent film Entracte (1924), and
definitely defeating any pigeon-hole desires. In my view, he is one of
the eminent figures of 20th Century music. The title of the piece is Le
Tango dE.S., and if you pronounce it in French, means Déesse
(Goddess). I took it from his bizarre cycle Sports et Divertissements
(from 1915). It has a haunting, nearly hypnotic quality, and reminded
me of another of his compositions, Véxations, to be
played 871 times... Some years ago, we performed it, and it took us four
players nearly 12 hours! So, it was an experience like a ZEN-Buddhist
exercise (cf. my duo album «TEN ZENTENCES» with bassist Daniele
Patumi), and this process refers, quite surprisingly, to another Zen master
of the 20th century: John Cage.
12) Several composers from the concert music tradition are referenced in the «Well-Prepared Clavier». I particularly enjoyed the treatment that you gave to material from Henry Cowell's Aeolian Harp. Could you talk a bit about the incorporation of these various composers and their influence into the «WPC»?
In 1992, I had the
privilege to work with John Cage in a series of performances of his works
in Wetzikon, a small town near Zurich. Pianist Werner Bärtschi gave
his piano concerto its first performance, and I learnt some
new tricks of the trade, after having performed his prepared piano pieces.
For years I had been searching for new ways to treat the inside of the
piano, which I regarded as a horizontal harp, in a much faster and more
direct way than having to use nails, screws and bolts and spending hours
to prepare and de-prepare: I wanted to change freely between the various
grades of preparedness d u r i n g playing! So, we exchanged
some ideas, and he struck me with his deep voice and his everlasting smile.
We performed three radically different versions of his winter Music,
and everytime his sole comment was: Nice!. So, of course,
Cages influence on my preparation techniques is evident, even if I found
many new ways. With Henry Cowell, it is a different story: actually, the
first time I heard his music was through Chris Cutler (drummer in HeXtet),
in 1997! So, when I heard his Aolian Harp sounds, it felt
like a confirmation of what I was doing ever since I was a little boy,
stroking the strings. With Györgi Kurtag, its another story
again: I studied with a Hungarian teacher, Eva Serman. When I was a teenager
and just h a t e d the "boring classical music, she opened
up the realm of piano music for me with Béla Bartók: finally,
I had found a composer using the rhythmical insistence and barbaric
harmonies of my beloved rock music, and still could continue studying
at the conservatory... >From Bartók to Kurtág (and Ligeti),
it was a logical and short step. Years later, at the Accents
Festival in Dublin 1991, I was honoured to play my second solo piano programme
Iritations (no spelling error!) at the same concert as Györgi
and Marta Kurtág they like to perform together in piano duet,
juxtaposing chorales by Johann Sebastian Bach and his own Játékok.
By the way: the four tributes to other composers follow a
series of Fibonacci numbers: No. 5 (Kurtág), 8 (Cowell), 13, and
21 (Cage). Of these, only 13 (my birthday) has no direct cross-reference,
but if you listen to the Rump-L-Rumba, it should not cause
great difficulties to guess the addressee of the dedication (its
Astor Piazzolla). So, once again, I have to apologize to all those brave
and zealous pigeon-hole hunters...
13) I understand that you did a project based on fractals in music. I am particularly interested in this, as my primary composition teacher was Charles Wuorinen (who worked with Mandelbrot and also with IBM on fractal theory). Is this recording still available? Could you tell me something about your approach to fractals?
In 1988, I lived
in New York City, at 58 West 9th Street, as the first track
of my first solo piano album «The Beauty of Fractals» is entitled
(cf. the quartet version on the first Pago Libre album «Extempora»,
and the duo version on «Polyphyllum» with Urs Leimgruber).
There, I got to know Mandelbrot and his theory of fractal geometry, of
self-similarity and strange attractors. The whole solo piano programme
was conceived, researched and developed in New York and therefore carries
its stamp. The 16 compositions form a very personal interpretation of
the geometrical and mathematical concept of "fractals" (fractured
dimensions), using it as a metaphor: music in focus between the poles
of beauty (aesthetics, poetry, transcendence the principle of hope)
and fractals (chaos, fragility, pain, vitality the principle of
14) What is the artistic climate
like in Switzerland?