"If You Start from Point-Zero, You have to Imagine Something": An interview with Alexander von Schlippenbach

"If You Start from Point-Zero, You have to Imagine Something"
An interview with Alexander von Schlippenbach

by Laurence Svirchev

copyright © 2006 Laurence Svirchev

Originally appeared in JazzPhoto

Laurence Svirchev: You've been playing this music a long time. How has your music changed? Perhaps you can start from the beginning of your career.

Alexander von Schlippenbach: I started to get in touch with jazz at the age of 11 or 12 at boarding school. I read this little book by Joachim-Ernst Berendt. There was a clear and simple explanation of the story of jazz with some drawings. I also started to listen to the Voice of America Jazz Hour. Willis Conover did the show. It was very well done with lots of information about historic and recent things. It was in the early '50s. Every night I set my alarm clock and then went to the shower room and listened. I listened for years. I got all my information about jazz from the VOA Jazz Hour.

I heard a guy who played the boogie-woogie very well and tried to imitate that. I went into the blues in the beginning. The bebop thing was really on at the time, and I was listening to Charlie Parker, totally amazed about that music. My first real concert was the JATP [Jazz at the Philharmonic] set-ups by Norman Granz. The first real jazz pianist I saw was Oscar Peterson and he knocked me out completely.

In school I had a little band. Later when I came to Cologne, they started to do those jazz departments in high school and music schools. So when I started to study composition, there was already a jazz department by the musicians of Kort Adelhagen, excellent musicians. Then I met Manfred Schoof and Gerd Dudek, friends that I am still working with. We had a quintet and tried to play some bebop and copy American musicians like Horace Silver.

In the beginning of the '60s there were the first new things coming up from Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. This was an important time to start something new because up to this point we were only incorporating American jazz from records. After listening especially to Ornette Coleman we started writing our own little tunes, something new to us. We found out about our own possibilities, while still being influenced and inspired by the masters of this time. We started with the Manfred Schoof Quintet and the Gunther Hampel Quintet.

In 1966 I got the possibility to try the music with a large ensemble, a commission for the Berlin Jazz Festival. I had had this idea for a while, but it was not easy to fulfill. At this time Peter Brötzmann had started his own trio and we also had contact with musicians from other countries, like Han Bennink and Willem Breuker from Holland, Evan Parker and Derek Bailey from England. The beginning of Globe Unity in 1966 was actually a combination of the Peter Brötzmann Trio and the Manfred Schoof Quintet. From '66-'70 it was just German musicians. Later we put these musicians together with some from other countries, people like Evan Parker and Han.

For the 1966 Berlin Jazz Festival I composed this piece called Globe Unity. There were very strong reactions from this performance. Many music critics were strongly against. The good critics were speaking about the combination of jazz and European classical music. But actually it wasn't that at all. It was improvised music. The sound was of course new. We did not use conventional tunes and conventional arrangements. I tried to work out something on a twelve-tone scale and use this in different contexts. But this was used only to give an impulse and a start to improvise for improvising musicians. It began the career of Globe Unity. In the first four years, Berendt did a lot of protection for the band, and featured us as brothers because he was well known already.

From 1970 on there was a little change in the program of the band because we started to cooperate with Brötzmann and Peter Kowald. This was a time when musicians began to produce their own records. This was never done before. We discovered this possibility. Brötzmann was the first, I think, to do it. I did The Living Music, the only record I produced myself, in 1967.

From '70 on, we started some concert series and got money from the cultural administrations to do that. At that time German economics were better than nowadays so there were still good possibilities to do things that musicians had never done before. We could make our own alternate scene. We also had good contacts with musicians from other countries, so we could play in those countries and they could come to Germany. That, of course, led to the development of the music.

LS: And from your 12-tone period?

AVS: There were different period in the development of the orchestra. Until 1970 it was only my own pieces. I used those 12-tone materials. First my intention was to avoid conventional sound and song forms, finding organization for the whole thing by other means, scales that give details of musical materials to go somewhere else. From 1970 on, there was a little change, because there were influences from musicians from Holland, for example, and songs came back. We used to play Hans Eisler tunes. There was also some funny stuff, like "Alexander's Marschbefel" written by Willem Breuker. I wrote a song called "Bavarian Calypso". I heard it was played on the Bavarian Hit Parade once, but it never happened again.

LS: Did you get a royalty check, at least?

AVS: Oh, yes. From 1980 on it moved more towards free improvised pieces. We didn't use tunes anymore. We found out we could do successful performances by only improvising, like what you heard yesterday [the Globe Unity concert at Jazz em Agosto 2005, Lisbon]. We didn't even speak about what we would do before we went on stage. We just went on stage and started.

The form for us, we found out, is simple. We have these tutti parts where everybody plays together and have the solo parts. Every player in the band is also a solo player. The music is arranged so everyone can solo. It's a simple form. And it developed into something that really works. The process of doing mainly improvisation since 1980 was quite important. The band today is a free jazz orchestra. I know this term is not very much loved, but that is what we are and I still don't know any better descriptor.

LS: Is there an order of soloists?

AVS: There is never a fixed sequence of solos. If someone feels like going, they go. And sometimes two go.

LS: I couldn't help but notice that [trumpeters] Manfred Schoof and Jean-Luc Cappozzo spent a lot of time laughing and digging the music. But when they stepped forward to solo together, it was if they had planned that fantastic event.

AVS: The thing is they never played together before. Jean-Luc Cappozzo is a new face, he has never played with the band before. It's amazing how things like this can work.

LS: The concert did not have that simple stereotyped start-slow/build-to-fast/end-slow progression. There was an incremental progression of intensity, there were different forms of tension as the improvisation moved forward, but the intensity never slacked off.

AVS: I'm glad you mentioned that because that is what we like to achieve. It is a very important thing to keep the tension. Even if you change the tempos, it doesn't mean that you have to play hard or loud. Sometimes the intensity goes down and then you have to pick it up again. That can be a weakness in this music. If there is a change in the music, the tension should be kept. The players must always be there, ready to participate and do something.

LS: The audience had good listening skills and paid extremely close attention to the music. But they gave no applause until, perhaps at 60 percent of the way through the set, Paul Rutherford came forward. His articulation was slow, without pyrotechnics, He took the high tension off and built a low tension. After his solo, the audience gave their first applause, and their applause was enthusiastic.

AVS: Contrast is also something important. You can't play prestissimo and fortissimo, or whatever all the time. The tension should not get lost even if you play soft and slow. This depends on the concentration of the players. They have to be constantly listening and paying attention to what is happening. They should playing together.

LS: There is no bass player in Globe Unity.

AVS: In free improvised jazz you don't need the bass, the bass doesn't have the function of playing bass notes in the sense of a harmonic sequence. Of course you can have a very good bass player. You can have a cello, or anything. For this band we found that having two drummers is a good idea because they can take over sometimes a bit more. The drums are a responsive instrument and the drummers provide a strong bottom end.

LS: The positioning of the drummers is unusual. Paul Lytton occupies a traditional position. But Paul Lovens is at stage-left.

AVS: Paul Lytton is quite close to the piano so I can have a continuous connection with him. Paul Lovens is more at the outside and can concentrate sometimes more on the soloists. The solo microphone is in the middle, so he can always work with the soloist more directly. Last night the sound was good, I had a monitor and could hear Lovens well.

It's not easy to get a good sound balance. Normally, we like to play with no amplification, but with an open-air festival and an audience that size, we sometimes need amplification to get a sound balance and meet the needs of the audience.

LS: Can you tell me about your association with Steve Lacy?

AVS: Steve was a great teacher for me, I learned a lot from him. I met him in Paris, I think in 1964. We used to play at the Blue Note with Gunther Hampel. He came to Paris at that time and a bit later was performing at le Chat qui Pche with Karl Berger and Aldo Romano. They played a lot of Monk. I was amazed at the way he played Monk. I was told that he was perhaps the greatest Monk specialist and he also he had a Monk book. I copied all the changes.

The time I really played with him was in the '70s with the Globe Unity Special. He also gave me some of his compositions. The chord structures he built on the piano were not the usual voicings; he made up clusters but they were delicately constructed. The intervals were very consciously done. I asked him, do you have a certain system? He said, "No, I just put them together the way they sound, found out how to do it."

He told me that sometimes you have to use your thumb to press two notes at the same time and this gave me some good ideas on building up 12-tone clusters. You know, he played so fantastically and beautifully on changes as well. It was important for us to work with him. He contributed some of his compositions to the orchestra, I think one of them is "Warms" on Compositions (ECM).

LS: He had great titles. I remember one called "Grandpapa's Midnight Hop", I remember that!

You dedicated last night's concert to Albert Mangelsdorf [Schlippenbach opened the concert by saying "One week ago we lost a very good friend and excellent musician who was playing with the band for many years. And so we dedicate tonight's concert to the great trombone player Albert Mangelsdorf].

AVS: He joined the band in the '80s, I think. At that time we still had some things from the earlier days to play. The amazing thing is that he was very strongly in favor of completely free improvised pieces. Even so, he was doing different things with his own group, which played jazz right after the war in Frankfurt. They played war tunes and tunes from the cool jazz era. But when he was with us he was strong for playing free improvised music.

LS: Can you tell me about the Monk's Casino project and CD?

AVS: From the very beginning I discovered Monk because I was quite interested in composition and I found those fantastic tunes. For me Monk is, in terms of composition, still the highest quality in jazz. At that time there were no books, so we had to copy from someone else or find out for ourselves. That was okay because we had to do a lot of work to get the stuff together. I did some arrangements for the orchestra, like "Ruby My Dear", Anthony Braxton was the soloist on that. In the beginning of the '90s, when the Wall was removed in Berlin, many good musicians moved there. Rudy Mahall was one of them. He is an enormously creative guy and a fantastic bass clarinet player. We got to know about each other and found a common interest in Monk. He told me that when he didn't know what to practice anymore, he played the whole Monk book! He can play the book by memory. He was working together with Alex Doerner, a fantastic trumpet player. Axel can also play the entire Monk book.

We played some Monk tunes on gigs and then the idea came up: "How would it be if we could make an arrangement of the complete works, the 70 tunes for one performance in one concert evening?" We wanted to have an arrangement to play them all in one concert, but in the beginning we didn't play everything in one evening. We tried the idea in small Berlin jazz clubs. Eventually we found more a kind of compact form, concentrating it more and more. We felt that on some tunes we didn't have to improvise because the compositions are the most important thing. With some tunes we did more experimental things like playing two tunes at the same time. That is a new way to listen. We didn't change anything, the tune was always there. But the way it was brought into the context of the other tunes was unconventional. We found we could play the whole work of Monk's in three and a half hours of pure music. And we found other ways to do it, like three sets, each set being 20 or 24 tunes.

The first performance of all the tunes in one evening was, I think in Hamburg, in 1994, at a radio station. The experience works very well for one big concert evening. I got an agreement with Intakt records. I told them it was time to do it, that if we did it now we might be the first. We recorded two nights at the A-Train in Berlin, a nice little club with a good acoustic piano. We had to do another session, because some of the tunes were not correct enough. But in the end I think it came out very well. There was a lot of work behind it. We worked on it for 10 years before we recorded. Intakt did a very good job.

LS: It takes a special kind of imagination to want to play free.

AVS: Imagination? This is a great subject. I remember Pierre Boulez used to say "Imagination is the Queen of Abilities." Maybe this is an important thing especially for musicians. Not every musician has this Queen of Abilities. There are some fantastic players but they don't necessarily have a vision. This is something a free player must especially have. Because you cannot rely on the tune. If there is a very good tune, you go through its changes and somehow things will work out. But if you start from point-zero you have to imagine something, you have to have a vision. I can somehow agree with Boulez, even though he was not a friend of improvisation. In fact, he was against improvisation, said rude things about improvisation. But on this point I could agree with him.

LS: In your own development what was the spark that started your interest in improvisation?

AVS: I was as well interested in contemporary European music. I studied composition in Cologne. A little later I started to work with Bernd Alois Zimmermann. He was a man of universal knowledge. He had a great idea, a vision about the "global shape of time." He used to call them "pluralistic methods of composition" derived from this idea of the global shape of time. He was a master of using quotations from music from ancient times. He had a universal idea of music, he had an enormous knowledge of music. He was quite interested in what we were doing. At this time he was in Cologne and he heard the Schoof quintet. And then in all his later works there were some parts for improvised music and jazz. And it was always played by us, the Schoof quintet.

Two years ago in Lusanne was his last great piece, "Requiem for a Young Poet", there was a jazz part in it. It wasn't commercial jazz, he gave scales or graphic-semantic information. Just to talk with him was a great inspiration for me. I think he influenced my way of looking at music and my whole musical thinking.

But you were asking about the initial moments of inspiration. This was always happening when I saw a very good player. Like when I heard Oscar Peterson. It just brought up the desire to play like that. I had this enormous drive to know about these things. Later it was Horace Silver. And Monk began my real passion.

It wasn't actually one moment. I was lucky enough to grow up in the '50s and '60s, when there were all these changes happening to jazz, comparable to the changes that were happening the classical music in the beginning of the century. I like to make that comparison. It was not only up to us to invent, but at the same time it happened in Holland and England. Free jazz actually came from the United States by people like Dolphy, Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman.

It's funny, it was certain period in American music for somehow many of those musicians went back to playing the tradition, like Archie Shepp. Coleman and Taylor were the only ones who went on and stuck with this music.

It was more of a slow development that came from the material itself and the information we got. Of course we did this Globe Unity piece in 1966, it was a turning point in my career. Because of the very strong reactions, we found we should go on.

There is another thing I could compare with a moment of great inspiration. We played in Paris at the Blue Note with Gunther Hampel opposite Kenny Clarke. We had the job for two months. It was fantastic. We would finish at three in the morning and we would go over to le Chat qui Pche where Don Cherry was playing with his band. I was completely overwhelmed how he was leading the band with his horn. That was something completely fantastic. They didn't seem to have a program. They seemed to be playing some of his tunes, he would stand up and play one other thing and immediately the whole band would follow. The thing was moving in a way I had never heard before. That made a tremendous impression on me.

LS: How do you sustain the building of imagination over the course of years?

AVS: This is a slow and complicated process. I was quite interested in different things, orchestral work, play in small groups like my trio with Evan [Parker] and Paul [Lovens], and solo piano as well. There were different periods. Sometimes I develop backwards, go back to certain things, maybe have some doubts about what I am doing. But then I find that from that point on, I find a bridge to find out where I am really going. If I feel this is something I found out for myself, then it gives me enormous drive to go on in this direction.

LS: I've asked you a series of questions. Perhaps there are some other things you'd like to talk about?

AVS: At the moment I am again working on the possibilities of improvising on 12-tone scales. This is still an enormous field of possibilities. If you want to do it very strictly, you can start out slowly, but then some of those materials get familiar. It gets into my hands, and comes automatically. I have played some of those chords for over 20 years. I just recorded my solo record for Intakt. I recorded over three days and it will be a double CD called Twelve-Tone Tales.

I'm quite happy that Globe Unity is playing again. There was a period for about 10 years when we didn't play. In 2002 we did a concert in Aachen. A few days later Intakt called me and said they wanted to put it out on record. From that time on things came to us, like invitations to festivals. The amazing thing is that even after not playing for 10 years or so, when we played, it was like always. It was so easy to do it because we know how to make it work. It's because all the musical knowledge you have in yourself is somehow stored in your mind passes from your consciousness.

It makes good sense that if you find musicians you really can work with and you understand very well like Evan and Paul, I like to go on for long distance working together. It makes sense. There are some people with theories of improvisation, like Derek Bailey, they doubt this point. They say you should only play one time together. If you play together too much, it is no longer improvisation. I find this is more theory, it's not the point of view of a musician, because you want to find something that works. If I can have the possibility to go on for a longer time there also may be weaker periods or even crisis points. But if you can work it through and can go on, then the music gets a stable bottom. With the trio, there can be better nights, but I don't think we have ever given a bad concert.

I'm happy about being good friends with these musicians. We have the same intentions and have a long experience together. I'm 67 now. It took a long time, but I feel I have something in my hand.

C o m m e n t s

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