CBN E-INTERVIEWD BY STEPHEN CHASE (2002)
This interview was done 2002-03 for a research project. See Stephen Chase's homepage
QUESTIONS FOR CARL BERGSTRØM-NIELSEN
MOTIVATION AND PREPARATION
1. Is the notion of rehearsal or practise relevant to your approach to improvising?
Yes. Good for development and for keeping fresh.
1a. Are there particular rehearsal routines with the groups that you work with?
In my present group we alternatingly play free improvisations and open pieces. In an earlier group we could do exercises as well.
2. How do you feel preparation or rehearsal functions in relation to improvised performance?
It can warm up both body and soul, increase strength, awareness and appetite for the performance.
3. Do you find a ‘conventional’ playing technique to be important for both yourself and for those you perform with?
Not particularly. It's more important to me to carefully cultivate something else. I benefit from conventional techniques I've learned, though, but to a large extent in a transformed way.
3a. What might the ‘something else’ include?
On my French horn: a kind of jumping, non-harmonic kind of melodies with changing dynamics and timbres (some tones muted etc.); changing the timbre by pressing valves half down and by other means; with voice and other instruments still other techniques.
4. Do you find that the environment you perform within affects your improvising to a significant extent?
Oh yes! Acoustics, people and everything.
5. Do you have a conscious awareness of ‘strategies’ that you might adopt for dealing with perceived ‘problems’ of improvising whilst improvising? (Unrelated to ‘compositional plans’ agreed upon by the group.)
Yes. Interesting issue, I think we hardly can avoid having those, and they are a force like compositional strategies are, but in another way. Someone should write a nice large article about that!
THE GROUP DYNAMIC
1. How much do you think the size of a group affects the way in which you and the group play?
A lot. Duo puts much emphasis on each of us, my favourite group size, roughly 3-5 people, allows for a nice "conversational" situation with both much exchange between us and space to be there, with larger groups there can be a risk of the music becoming thicker and slowing down, but also in good cases much creative energy.
2. When performing with musicians from differing musical backgrounds and experience do you ever feel it necessary to tailor your playing to meet theirs stylistically? Or is this a normal feature of improvising in any case?
Mmm, tailoring would maybe be too much to say for me, there is, however, an ongoing adjusting process, maybe the "normal feature" you mention. But who knows what could happen...
3. How do you approach setting up a conducive situation for participants when acting as a teacher or group leader/instigator? Is it possible to generalise?
Generalise ? Well, in my didactic system I have a basic palette of working with getting started, with group-dynamics, with awareness and with the music material. I've found these to be useful basic dimensions to consider. [Please see my Mini-Handbook - if you don't have it, I'll send it by mail]. Then I work to find out how to match the group in question and choose or invent relevant exercises. It can also be an exciting challenge to find out how to revise or sharpen strategies along the way and overcome problems that might make themselves felt.
4. How might you attempt to foster values that you consider important for improvising in less experienced performers?
One important thing, speaking concretely, is to train the individual making of pauses in group playing. It can sound very simple but is usually difficult in practise, because we also like to be active. I have some special exercises dealing with that, to be followed by listening to a recording of what we just did. In many cases it has a drastic effect on people to hear how much is possible just through the group's reaction to what's happening, even if everybody just plays just a little, and subsequent improvisations become much more alive. This is obviously about having confidence in the group as a creative force. So, if we invest a certain, special discipline in group improvisation, we can be immensely rewarded.
5. What do you find most productive about discussion with the other players in group projects and workshops?
Both agreements and disagreements and so many individual observations are so often interesting and stimulating.
THE ROLE OF COMPOSITION
1. What kinds of things do you aim to get from musicians in writing your compositions for improvisers?
Good fresh playing and creative collaboration - compared to traditional composition which is reproduced in details.
2. Do you - as a performer - ever find compositional ideas inhibit your playing? (In other words, can compositions restrict a sense of ‘organic freedom’?)
I know the feeling. But I've not been "subjected to" a lot of this playing imposed by others, I've explored the playing of open compositions with friends in the composer-performer group Group for Intuitive Music, both our own pieces and pieces by Stockhausen, Brown, Cage and many others. I wish more musicians took such initiatives instead of just complaining - there's so much great stuff to choose from and so many ideas waiting to be formulated.... To make a comparison, travelling certainly restricts our freedom, but doesn't it also open up for something?
3. The composer and improviser Simon Fell has written about ‘Invasive’ and ‘Non-invasive’ strategies in relation to composing for improvisers. http://www.bf-noise.demon.co.uk/texts/rubberneck28.html
(‘Invasive’ meaning pieces where players have to move back and forth between composed material and free improvisation. ‘Non-invasive’ meaning pieces that have more open and flexible directions). Is this a distinction that you recognise, and would you view it as being applicable to your own compositions?
I think the 'non-invasive' strategies as Simon Fell describes them are a crucially important endeavour. We should work seriously with developing them, and it will make a more advanced form of composition than the traditional one. It simply can't be right that the human mind, in all its splendour and on the background of a long culture of accumulated experience, cannot deal with anything else than a post-sync logic saying a equals a, b equals b etc. when it comes to making music heard. Academic composers like to do many advanced calculations etc, they should also proceed to push this out into the performance and blow away the stiffness coming from an old metrical system and the wasting of good creative energies. Let's have advanced composition formulas dealing with the real complexities of people and their reactions and decisions ... which could also be beautiful and crystal-clear and far-reaching and thus in a worthy way develop on the heritage from Perotin, Bach, Beethoven etc! [See the good classic statements by Earle Brown in his contribution in English to Form in New Music, Darmstädter Beiträge zur neuen Musik X, Mainz 1966, p.61.]
The problem of composers "exploiting" improvisers may exist, but it is certainly sometimes exaggerated. Maybe this is a discussion of the past having its roots in the time when using new notation and improvisation was fashionable among academic composers, during the sixties and beginning of the seventies and could employed automatically and superficially. It could be a bigger problem that most (academic) composers don't care at all now about musicians as creative collaborators. Stockhausen was criticised for taking control over some recordings of the Aus den Sieben Tagen-pieces - but this criticism sadly overshadows how pioneering and importantly those pieces contribute to the development of non-invasive composition. How many of those who criticise know the pieces and the possibilities they yield, the recording discussion being obviously irrelevant to other groups? Vinko Globokar devised wonderful strategies for non-invasive composition and abandoned it altogether after just ONE negative experience. It could seem from these examples that there's a strange pressure towards conformity, either to compose the old way or forget about it. While we are free, of course, to do as persons what we need and like, we should certainly not accept this as the only alternative. We should demand quality from non-invasive composition, learn from experience.
4. Do you notice any significant differences in the way that you or your fellow performers relate to the rest of the group in a composition for improvisers as opposed to a ‘free’ improvisation?
Certainly! The pattern of social behaviour changes.
5. Do you notice any significant differences in the way that you or your fellow performers relate to the rest of the group in a composition that uses mostly graphic scoring as opposed to text-based pieces?
Oh, very interesting question!! I don't know... one could speculate about short texts giving more liberty to be aware of each other...maybe in actual practise it also varies a lot how much people look down at the graphics (or at the text) when playing...of course depending on the nature of the piece, since "graphic" is certainly not just one thing.
6. Can the composer ever be just another member of the group - even when not physically participating - or is his or her composition always intervening in the group’s music making?
I need to understand first part of the question better ?? How to be "member of the group" when not physically participating ?? - One thing coming to my mind is that when the composer plays along, there will be a certain tendency to be aware of his/her reactions and behaviour, in some cases in some groups it becomes even akin to a conducting practise ... that's why at the examination at the end of my university courses here the composer should not play along. But in my performance groups we do it, and I perceive no special problem. During courses/rehearsals I might state to participants if relevant that I'm going to play along, but I'm not a conductor, just a participant.
6a. I’ll attempt to rephrase this slightly odd question! When a group performs an improvisatory piece by a composer (who is not present), have you ever felt that the fact that the group is performing a work by composer X (e.g. Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise) detracts from the collaborative process, in that for an audience at least, the perception is that this is a piece by composer X more than it is a group collaboration? I’m not sure if that question is any clearer or just more ridiculous!
I don't have that problem - if I play another composers' piece in a group it's because we have decided to do so and like to do it. To me, it's an interesting extension of free improvisations and our own pieces and I believe this could also apply to the audience. If they like our playing of someone else's piece, I feel happy about that. It could be relevant to mention that I like to always make it as clear as possible to the audience how the work is notated etc or at least invite them to take a look afterwards, so to the extent they care about how the creation process came about and do not just wish to enjoy the result (which is a fairly normal attitude I think), they will know. No, I don't feel it's a "detraction", on the contrary it's fun to appear in different roles.
7. Are there works you have composed and performed over a long period of time towards which you have noticed your attitude changing (e.g. it seems like a different piece to the one you originally wrote)?
I don't think my attitude has changed? But it's certainly a thrill that pieces can seem like different ones when played by different people. That was part of the game from the beginning. Composers out there, you don't know what you're missing! - This apart from possible stimulations to revise pieces to make things clearer.
8. Is it possible to unravel where your ideas as a composer and those of the performers (including yourself as a performer) begin?
Well, in human imagination... and maybe the composer is like a cook who takes a lot of planning and time to prepare the meal while in improvisation things happen along the way...
1. How far might the notion of ‘making sense’ be applicable to the improvising situation? What might this sense making involve?
Oh, theory... I like the model of Roman Jakobson [please see final chapter of http://hjem.get2net.dk/intuitive/legno3/legno3uk.htm]. I like speculating about this and discussing it. I also like the thought that the great thing about music is that we don't know the meaning and discover it anew all the time! If you absolutely insist, I could say something general like music is non-verbal, opening up for etc. etc.
Well, but there are in fact two aspects of musical meaning which keep interesting me a lot in improvised music. The first is that so much exchange between members of a group can take place even within one second in sound. This got me completely hooked when I started to play free group improvisations back in 1971, and my fascination still persists! I was composing at the same time and I realised suddenly the limitations of that - like preparing a speech and then delivering it, whereas the improvised creative process was much faster. The "pointillistic" way of playing, building the music up from tiny points and fragments, is especially well suited for this intensive communication - common in English improvised music as well as so many other places. (It's a curious fact that this was also discovered by the European serialist of the fifties on a strictly composed basis. This serialist pointillistic music certainly deserves the attention of improvisers. It was a far cry closer to what came later in improvised music than was the music of its grand old precursor Anton Webern which inspired Tony Oxley and Derek Bailey...and Paul Rutherford and Trevor Watts were in Cologne for the Royal Air Force at the end of the fifties but their avantgarde experience strongly seemed solely to be of American jazz heard on the radio!)
The second aspect is the pluralism coming from the collage/pluralism/quotation aspect of musical material. Like in everyday language, we quote and produce ever different shades of meaning by the way we say and put things together which we in turn take over from others ... it's a patchwork, not a "pure" thing. That's an aspect which also really melts down barriers and can make music an important medium for human understanding. It also explains why I consider Steve Beresford one of the most important improvisers of all. As I put it in my note to an Alterations CD I released: "Such an approach opens up new semantic perspectives: musical travelling takes place not just within one universe of sound, but between several ones." [I did a lecture on this theme; there are some notes I could send in case]
2. Does the idea - found in jazz - of ‘groove’ have any affinities with your own music/sense making? That is to say, is there anything analogous to a ‘metronome sense’ or feeling for ‘swing’?
Yes ... there are certain ways of playing which make my body "swing", even if it is a-metrical and does not sound like traditional music, also the breathing when playing wind instruments can be a part of that.
3. What might a ‘mistake’ be in improvising?
A part of life, like in life !
4. Do you place any value upon mistakes?
5. If you feel that something is ‘not working’ in a group performance do you feel obliged to make it work?
You mean at a concert or rehearsal, for instance? "Obligation" is maybe too strong a word. A balance of maybe taking initiative, maybe taking it easy, maybe talking afterwards...When teaching or when rehearsing with new people it's different, I might interrupt the exercise or piece, explain and start anew.
6. Do you feel that your notion of ‘intuitive music’ has changed over the years?
Maybe not, maybe it just has deepened.
Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen's Favourite Litterature and own Writings (CBNs yndlingslæsning og egne skrifter, delvist også på DANSK.)
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