a column by
Georg Graewe ©2016 Laurence Svirchev
“I always imagined the music that I would want to play one day, that vision of something,” Georg Graewe said, sitting at an outdoor café, in the middle of last summer’s TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival. “Which of course is like a real vision: it has to be very blurry. And I’ve just been following that. What I’ve done over the last 40 years is nothing but following this idea.”
Graewe is in a reflective mode. The Vienna-based, German pianist is in this North American city for the first time in nearly a decade, a city where he’s stayed for extended stretches, and where he’s made many friends; the festival has been an abiding patron for years. He celebrated his 60th birthday here the night before. Sheepishly, he was willing to admit that, yes, the number has been a spur – a catalyst, a mildly irrational force, leading him to look back on his life’s work. But this is just one significant marker in 2016. The 40th anniversary of his first release, New Movements, is another.
“That’s the thing. I was 19 at the time of recording it. I was very proud of that. It was recorded for Free Music Production, which was for me the most important label in the world, as young as I was,” Graewe said, then began to laugh. “My perspective’s changed since then a bit, but it was just great to be on there.
“But what I was trying to do with my early quintet [on New Movements] was the first page of something. It’s about continuity. This is what guides me. There’s a certain thing I’m trying to get to, and sometimes when I play today I say, ‘Yeah, I got this. I thought about that 40 years ago, but now it’s here’ – some kind of flavor to the sound. It’s about flavors, really. The form. There’s a flavor of form chiming through other things. When you read literature or when you watch a movie, there’s something that’s underneath that’s the same as music. There’s a deep structure of things that come together, or that everything else is generated from. That’s what I believe.”
Our conversation, which covered enormous ground, drew a long, meandering arc – from his first memories of music as a child, to projects he’s pursuing today. Since he was a teenager, Graewe – pianist, improviser, composer, conductor, band leader – has been an estimable force across broad stretches of modern music. His long-standing trio, Graewe-Reijseger-Hemingway, is among the most beloved in improvised music. His early-‘80s orchestra, GrubenKlang, is still admired for its original use of sources (in this case, a German coalminers’ songbook). His solo performances remain, after more than three decades, instant composition of the highest order: dense, elusive, and, ultimately, riveting. And since the early aughts, he has been producing ambitious new music – among other things, chamber works, song cycles, and three operas.
Graewe’s affection for his debut is telling. It is, on the one hand, a naturally fond memory. It was not an insignificant accomplishment for anyone – let alone a 20-year-old in 1976 – to put out a record on an influential label.
But it is also, I think, Graewe acknowledging something deeper – his own background, and how truly unconventional his path has been.
Graewe’s story is bound to a specific time and place: a working-class kid growing up in Bochum, in the heart of soon-to-be post-industrial West Germany. He forged his sense of an artist’s life entirely on his own. His formative years didn’t include conservatories or an especially supportive, or musically rich, family life. Now, as he approached 60, he was being asked more and more about his past, about his early days.
“Then I started looking back,” he said, “and I always had this feeling somehow: I always wanted to do music. I can’t think of any time before that. So it must have started when I was four or five. I don’t come from a family with a piano in the drawing room. There was a radio, and I loved music – maybe even before I knew what an instrument was. Somehow, I just loved listening to music on the radio. In my case, it was the British Forces station. I got exposed to rock and roll.
“I was often left on my own because my parents had a gasthaus, a restaurant. They went downstairs to work, and I was upstairs. A lot of times I was just sitting in the room, and there was a radio, so I turned it on for some reason. Of course, I can’t remember when it was the first time I did that. But it was even before the Beatles. I know that because I remember when the Beatles came on. I was six then, in ‘62. The radio station was in Cologne because the British Forces were in Germany of course after the war. They took most of their programs from the BBC; you couldn’t get the BBC in Germany in those days. So I heard a lot of Cliff Richard. Elvis. But when the Beatles came on, that changed things – now I was really focused. Suddenly, the Beatles were the main thing. Everything else seemed pretty boring.”
Graewe now wanted to play an instrument. “I would not have gone for a cello,” he said. “Guitar and drums: that was the thing! But it took me a long time. I had to fight for it. Finally, I got a guitar when I was nine. I bugged my parents so intently, they eventually gave up. At first, they said, ‘No, you don’t get a guitar. What do you want with a guitar?’”
He borrowed his cousin’s instrument and began to practice all the time. Soon, he got his own cheap acoustic. He remembers when he was 10, perhaps, sitting in on rhythm guitar with a party band at the gasthaus, playing tunes like “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady. “Finally, my father said, ‘Well, if it’s going to be serious he needs a teacher.’”
So began a run of out of touch, superannuated teachers – first, on guitar, then, when he showed that he was sticking with it, piano. “My father just could not cope with the idea that it was a guitar, it was not serious in a way. I think his father had played the piano.” And so he insisted, Graewe recalled, “If you really want to do music, you have to play the piano.”
“So I got a very shitty piano, a very cheap one, completely old and not in good shape. I had it in my room. I had a small, little room of my own by then. And I had the piano in there, this old upright. So I started playing with it. I knew where the pitches were; I knew the layout of the keyboard. So I started just picking out chords and stuff. I thought, that’s not bad. I saw pictures of John Lennon playing the piano. Then I heard it’s good to play the piano when you want to write music. I was writing my own songs at eight or nine. I was trying to imitate people’s stuff. I said, ‘Okay. It comes in handy. I need to play a bit of piano.’”
Teacher No. 2 came to the house, sat down on the sofa, issued a command – “You, play this” – then went to sleep. “I heard him snore!” Graewe remembered. “I didn’t really know what to do. As a piano player I learned absolutely nothing from him. He brought all the literature and I had to play that. But I didn’t play it, actually. I improvised most of the stuff because it was much too hard! Suddenly, within a very short time, he was bringing Mozart sonatas. I could play a few things, then I’d improvise the rest.”
When he was 15, Graewe joined a band, ZERO ZOOM – on guitar at first, then electric piano. It was a group inspired by Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum and Frank Zappa (“King Kong” was in their book) – no singer, two saxophones, guitar, bass guitar, electric piano, and drums. It would form the core of his FMP quintet.
Graewe traces his route to jazz – or, more specifically, free jazz – back further. “I listened to all the pop music that was around then, Rolling Stones, Kinks, Small Faces, all that stuff. It was all going very fast if you look back at history. Then I got into Cream heavily.
Graewe mentioned Wheels of Fire and Goodbye Cream, albums that included live tracks. “That was pretty free. It was blues based, but it was still pretty free. I loved Cream. I was into Cream before I had any dealings with jazz whatsoever. Cream was the main thing. And then after Cream I was ready for free jazz right away. It was mainly about a music that would thrill me. And I was looking for a thrill. I was listening to stuff on the radio. When I was 13 I think I heard the first things, European free jazz. I didn’t know anything about Coltrane or anybody.”
That’s when he started reading Melody Maker. “Of course I bought Melody Maker because there was maybe Eric Clapton on the front, but then I ended up with Evan Parker, you know. I remember Richard Williams was doing a review of Nipples, [Peter] Brötzmann’s Nipples. So that must be ‘69. And I read that, and I got somehow interested in it – because Williams was writing about rock and jazz. That was the great thing about Melody Maker. Actually, I found Nipples in a record store in Bochum. So I bought it. I think that was my first jazz record ever, if you call that jazz. Then there were all these reviews in the Melody Maker and I tried to get the stuff, the early ICP stuff. Also, very early I got The Topography of the Lungs, the first Incus record. So this all added up somehow.”
German radio, WDR, at that time was also broadcasting Brötzmann’s music, along with Alexander von Schlippenbach’s groups. WDR, Graewe remembered, was also the main outlet for Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and Luigi Nono, among many others.
This, I suggested, must have transformed Graewe’s approach.
“The way I played?” he asked, and then paused. “No. No, no. I didn’t feel up to that. But my interests were there. I was happy to join a rock and roll band when I was 15, to get into playing. I soon injected a few things here and there, a Sonny Sharrock thing maybe.”
Within two years, however, the rock band had become Graewe’s group. “I kept the horns and I kept the drummer. I brought in another bass player. Suddenly, it was like a free jazz quintet à la Manfred Schoof.”
In 1974, he enrolled for the third consecutive year in a two-week summer jazz course in Remscheid. Alexander von Schlippenbach was the piano instructor. Schoof taught trumpet. Bassist Eberhard Weber and drummer Cees See were on staff as well. This time, Graewe arrived with his five-piece group intact. They’d been rehearsing original material. He asked if they could give a concert.
“This was unusual, because ordinarily they had you play things at the end of the course, where you got a window of, say, 15 minutes or so,” he remembered. “I said, ‘No, no I’ve got more than that. I’ve got this band and I want to present it. Can we do that?’ A lot of the teachers were against it. But Alex insisted. He said, ‘No, no. This is going to be interesting.’”
The quintet played a full concert, two 45-minute sets of their own music, largely Graewe’s but also by saxophonist Harald Dau. It was modeled on the Manfred Schoof Quintet’s recordings from the mid-1960s. “It was not jazz in a traditional sense,” Graewe explained. “It was basically free jazz, but very structured, with themes sometimes as well.
“Schoof and Schlippenbach were very, very impressed and so they made this contact at FMP. Suddenly, many months later I got a phone call; I was still staying at my mother’s actually. There was a phone call from Jost Gebers at FMP, ‘Can you come out here in April  for a festival?’ We were like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ We made it! This is amazing.”
So they went up to Berlin, as part of the series Jazz Now at the Quartier Latin. “All of the groups were playing three times, over three or four days. We were the kids,” Graewe recalled. “Of course, FMP recorded everything. He [Gebers] gave me some copies. And when I listened back to the tape, I thought, ‘Okay, this is our chance.’ So I called Jost Gebers and I said, ‘I’d like to do a record.’ To my big surprise, he said, ‘Yeah, okay.’”
New Movements by the Georg Gräwe Quintett came out that fall. Long out of print, it was recently made available again as a digital download.
Graewe finished school in 1975 and devoted himself to music full time. He left Bochum for good in the mid 1980s, first to Wuppertal, then to Cologne (and thereabouts) for more than 10 years – including, he noted, a “rather long residency” at an old castle 40 miles south of the city on the Rhine River. During an especially peripatetic period, there were six-month spells in the United States – in Chicago (1997) and Berkeley, California (2000) – before he settled in, first, Berlin, then Nickelsdorf, Austria, and finally Vienna. He’s been in the Austrian capital now for nearly a decade.
“Vienna had been a dream place of mine since my teens,” he explained, “because of the history of music and mainly because of the history of modernity at the beginning of the 20th century.” He mentioned Arnold Schoenberg (a model for Graewe in many ways), then talked about his discovery of the Wiener Gruppe, an avant-garde literary circle that existed for about a decade beginning in 1954. He calls Konrad Bayer’s Der sechste Sinn (The Sixth Sense) his favorite book.
Indeed, Graewe has a consuming, nearly heroic vision of what music can be. He is idealistic and unblinking in his belief in art and the artist’s life. But he is also preoccupied by craft. “For me,” he said, “it’s that amount of magic that you add to it, to craftsmanship, and then it transforms into something else.”
In Graewe’s mind, there remains the image of the “complete musician” – the artist who performs his own music and writes it for others as well. Historically, the complete musician was both a composer and an improviser.
“I have high ideals, very high ideals,” Graewe said. “So this is not a comparison in any way, but the musician is somebody like Bach. He’s of course the governor. There were more musicians like him at that time. So the Bach-thing is: he played an instrument – or, he played two or three – he composed, he improvised. When he was in Leipzig, he had a weekly gig at Café Zimmermann playing with his band. That was called Collegium Musicum. He played, I think, every Tuesday night. And he taught. That was a musician.”
(Later, in an email, Graewe explained that “the governor” reference is from Tony Palmer's documentary on Cream’s 1968 farewell concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. In it, Graewe remembered, Jack Bruce called Bach a major influence and said something like, “when it comes to bass lines, Bach is the governor.”)
In Vancouver, apart from his three performances over the course of the week – two trios and solo – Graewe also presented the artist keynote lecture at “Breathturns: Improvisation and Freedom,” a colloquium for the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation. There, he talked about the conception, through time, of the improviser in music. To begin, he went back to those early days in his parents’ gasthaus.
“I was very, very young then,” he said, remembering this little boy in front of the radio listening to Elvis Presley and the Beatles. “But for me, with no formal education at that time, it always seemed that what I heard was just one thing. I could not think of it as something being composed or something being improvised. I couldn’t tell the instruments apart at that time. What came over was a sound and there was something that was appealing to me. Only later, I learned about the instruments involved, and that there were different parts and they had very defined parts, I knew there were certain instruments but they were all mingled together in that song that I was hearing.”
It was a step-by-step awakening. He learned that some pieces were composed, others were improvised (“in my imagination, these four guys would just get together and play, just off-hand in a way”). Some musicians, he soon realized, never improvised (“which was completely incomprehensible to me – and still is, in a way”). Bach and Beethoven, he later discovered, were in fact the greatest improvisers of their time – that improvisation was the highest discipline of the composer. “Then in the 20th century, it was separated,” he said. “Suddenly, you have composers who could not improvise; suddenly, you had improvisers who could not write a score.” Schoenberg, in what would become an anomalous point of view, once called composition “slowed down improvisation.”
“What I find remarkable,” Graewe said, “is that he put improvisation first.”
These are Graewe’s reference points. When you look back, these internal conversations have always informed his musical decisions, either consciously or not. There’s been a tug from the start, between the improviser and the composer, between the musician who writes for his own group, and the musician who writes for others. It has taken a life in music for these strands to unfold.
Go back to early 1981. The quintet had grown into a 10-piece. Graewe wanted to learn how to write on a larger scale. He now had a vehicle. In those days, he saw Louis Sclavis’s French Folklore Imaginaire, in Lyon, and Mike Westbrook as like-minded peers – musicians looking to original, local sources for inspiration, not the blues or the American songbook. Out of that came the critically admired GrubenKlang Orchestra. His source was a collection of coalminers’ songs (Grubenklänge). The project, in Graewe’s words, became “an essay on the musical tradition in the Ruhr area, not without irony.”
Its value to Graewe was immense. But he never intended to take it any further. “You know it has always been overrated, the whole GrubenKlang thing,” he observed. “It was that one record [Bergmannsleben (CMP)]. That was about it. Later it was a group that went on and I did other things with it. I found a few things that were useable. I couldn’t have made two records from that. Impossible. But it became more and more international. All the critics, everybody was trying to hold me down to that ‘GrubenKlang thing.’ I could not – the music was changing, it was expanding. It was a development for me. People always said, ‘Why don’t you do that first record anymore? Why don’t you do that?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s 10 years ago. I’m not going to do that.’”
Graewe asked if I was familiar with the Willem Breuker Kollektief. “It was a great group in its day. The thing was, when you saw them over the years, they were doing the same thing for 15 years. Breuker had one solo where he started playing, and he deconstructed the instrument piece by piece – and that was the routine he was playing every time. I did not want to do that.”
So Graewe pivoted. Now he sought out a smaller space, for the piano and for pure improvisation.
“When I started the quintet, I wanted a quintet,” he said, going back to his teens. “I was not fumbling about, and playing here and there. I wanted this group. Because we were very close and very tight. And I think we were pretty good under these circumstances. So when I started the trio with [Ernst] Reijseger and [Gerry] Hemingway, I had a plan, actually.
“I was around 32 then and I thought, ‘Okay, I could do a piano trio now. Now I’d be up to it.’ I wouldn’t have done that at 20. No, no. I wasn’t ready for that. You can’t just do it. You know these people today – 20, 21 years old, coming out, doing a piano trio. It doesn’t work! Unless you think you’re a genius. The piano trio has a certain ... it’s like with a string quartet. You don’t just write any string quartet; there’s a certain standard. There’s Beethoven. There’s Brahms. You don’t just go for that. With piano trios, there have been trios, you know, in the history.”
Here, he later explained, he was referring mainly to Paul Bley and Bill Evans. But he was also mindful of Bud Powell’s and Oscar Peterson’s trios as well. Graewe-Reijseger-Hemingway wasn’t a conventional operation from the start.
“There were a few things,” he explained. “I wanted a piano trio. Then, I wanted people who were my age. To make a statement, a generation statement, actually. And I wanted people who were able to play extended techniques as well as jazz and had also some kind of rock and roll feel somewhere in the back. I was looking for these people. Also, I wanted some kind of virtuoso thing. Yeah, I wanted somebody who could really play. So, I looked around and then I found these two.”
G-R-H has never disbanded. It’s had various pauses since the mid-1990s. But it’s an instance of how vital long-term musical relationships have been to Graewe, especially as an improviser. Many other groups have come along – including trios (most recently with Peter Hebert and Wolfgang Reisinger) and quartets (in Chicago, briefly, with Frank Gratkowski, Kent Kessler, and Hamid Drake; and now in Europe with Frisque Concordance, John Butcher, Wilbert de Joode, and Mark Sanders). The impromptu mix-and-match meetings – such as the fabled October Meeting in Amsterdam in 1991 (in duo with Anthony Braxton), or Vancouver’s Time Flies (twice in the late 1990s) – are now rare.
His Vancouver performances last summer included trios with Evan Parker and Vancouver-based, German bassist Torsten Müller; and with Vancouverites John Paton (tenor saxophone) and Dylan van der Schyff (drums). Apart from Paton, with whom he played for the first time, the others are longtime, if occasional, colleagues.
As an improviser, Graewe said, it’s always about taking yourself out of your comfort zone. “I never liked the idea of playing with everybody. I was always very selective about the people I played with. I think it’s a very, very serious business making this music, improvisation. Of course, there are different approaches. But I can only talk about my approach. I think it’s a very, very serious thing. I think I was educated by these groups I saw when I was a teenager. That was basically my education in the music.”
He mentioned the Schlippenbach trio, John Surman’s trio (“a model of what a trio can be”). In improvised music, Graewe explained “there’s a lot of people who have other approaches that I cannot cope with. That’s all. For me, it’s really about selection. When you have a situation that is so-called ‘freely improvised,’ one of the main aspects of it is the selection of the people you are playing with. ... They’re individuals. They’re singular; it’s a singular thing. You can’t replace anybody.”
For Graewe, near the turn of the century things began to shift. “For me, part of the picture is also that at a certain time I felt ready to write music for other people, not for my own bands. For a while I was really following that Ellington concept – to know the players you write for. But then I said, ‘No I want to turn it around and write something that I can give away.’”
Since 2000, Graewe has written, among other things, a Shakespeare song cycle, scores for film, theatre, and radio drama, and chamber music. He has also written three operas and he has plans to compose his first piano concerto.
Graewe suggested that it was not a conscious decision – that he just had to be ready. “I was going for the hardest thing!” he said, and began to laugh, referring to his venture into opera.
“I wanted to master improvisation to a certain extent. And I have maybe,” he said, again alluding to this notion of the complete musician. “I was so fascinated by the music that I heard in my formative years. I said, ‘What I really want to be really be able to do is go on stage, play for two hours and have something that makes sense and is good music.’ That’s very hard to do. And I wanted to be able to do that. I did not start playing solo before ‘85 or so – and that was only half a solo concert or something like that, say, 45 minutes or so.
The goal, he continued, “was to go on stage, and play a full concert, a full 90-minute, or two-hour concert, improvised, not playing tunes. Only when I thought that I had gotten to some acceptable stage of that, I thought, I can now write something and hand it out.”
Now, his lifelong fascination with literature and science and art could be brought into play as well. His first opera, produced by the Cologne Opera House in 2003, was based on Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, an imagining of the wartime meeting of nuclear physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr in the Danish capitol. Two chamber operas soon followed, Quicksilver (produced in Dresden in 2006) and Barbara Strozzi oder die Avantgarde der Liebe (produced in 2010 and 2011 in Lucerne and Bonn). He is now thinking of a fourth. In 2005, he composed a video cantata for the Jewish Museum Berlin based on Albert Einstein’s travel diaries.
In his recent work, he seems to be making every attempt to pull all of his preoccupations together.
“It’s not an attempt, you know. You need some kind of inspiration to do something,” he replied. “You have to transform things. There’s a very methodical way of getting into something. Actually, I cherish that. It’s like construction. You know you have your methods. It’s like craft; you have your methods.”
Graewe is the eternal innocent – deliberately, step by step, modeling his art on how he’s always envisioned things. In the never-ending desire to perfect his craft, his models still resonate out of a hazy, distant past. Yet, somehow, he seemed to already know this many years ago.
“It’s very blurry in the beginning. But it’s getting more and more clear,” he said.
I offer him Vladimir Nabokov’s litmus test, which can easily be applied to music: “It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle. ...”
“It’s true,” Graewe said.
He stopped now before continuing. “Hegel said that art is like the unfolding of a truth – a work of art is the unfolding of truth. I’m not a big Hegel fan, but it must have something to do with that.”
©2016 Greg Buium