What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
It’s interesting to me how, today, we tend to separate those two words in a dualistic way. I think that has to do with our relationship to language in the West. While speaking, we all improvise constantly and we do it very intuitively, yet when we write a text down, may it be a poem or any other form of a written text, we understand language as an abstraction and visualisation, which allows us to combine things and reframe things while spending more time on it.
It’s the same for classical music, at least traditionally, as all the older “classical styles” were also, in practice “spoken”, meaning “improvised”. It is a phenomenon of the 20th century classical music, that the script dictates everything. And the constructivist’s notion of making music more “spontaneous”, by including what we today call improvisation, is not only a postmodern phenomenon, but is also somewhat limited in its effect, as it can’t replace the language that evolves when music is practiced without a score or is connected to the human experience.
Having said that, on LiberA we had a lot of space for group “improvisations”, which we later cut down and combined with composed sections to arrive at the final tracks. Today, when you play in an ensemble, the words “free” and “improvisation” just trigger certain attitudes, styles, and ways of expressing the music, which is why those words work for us, and we find ourselves “improvising freely” a lot.
Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can’t hear another musician, you’re playing too loud, and (2) if the music you’re producing doesn’t regularly relate to what you’re hearing others create, why be in the group. What’s your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a group compare to a solo situation?
That will follow … But this perspective misses an audience.
I don’t just play music for me and my co-musicians, but I do it mainly for my audience. That’s important, because even if we improvise, a lot of the concepts and aspects of the music don’t just communicate our personal decisions at a particular moment in time. Music is a lot more complex and it reflects more narratives, voices, experiences etc.
An obvious example would be me playing two voices on the piano, which creates the narrative of two characters, that are not connected to me the pianist, the musician.
Playing solo is very different from playing in a group – playing with a rhythm section changes everything. But the piano is a very potent instrument, that can emulate a lot of sounds and aesthetics simultaneously …
I think that what changes the most for me while playing with my trio, with drums and bass, is that it’s very much about what the others try to express, rather than my personal vision.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind for your improvisations and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I have a lot of ideals, but being creative is not one of them. I try to be helpful, useful, caring – just a good neighbour, really … that’s also true when I prepare, compose or study music. I think the concept of the “ideal state of mind” comes along with the notion, that one can find truth in themselves, rather than engaging with the world. This idea is very popular these days (and btw. subliminally present in identity politics, the Western esoteric and the neoliberalism of our times …).
Rather than thinking of strategies on how to isolate the self and avoid distraction, I like thinking of virtues and good ways to engage with the world. As a composer I usually try to include some new concepts that I have been studying (that includes extramusical concepts), and write new music for new projects.
As a pianist I’m mainly preparing concerts. I spend a lot of time thinking and studying things thoroughly, which is important and fulfilling. If the intent of the projects is good, and I’m collaborating with people that I truly believe in and trust, it makes me happy – that would be an “ideal state”, so to speak.