Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker


Fred Van Hove, Antwerp 1980                                                                                       Gérard Rouy©2010

As mentioned at the end of the essay that ran in this space last issue, my interview with Fred Van Hove, taken in Baltimore on October 19, 1980, indelibly influenced my understanding of the evolution of improvised music in Europe. Rereading it thirty years later, I was immediately impressed that I failed to name the venue at which the pianist performed. Marshall Reese, who co-produced the concert with Kirby Malone, reminded me it was the Red Door Hall in Mt. Vernon. We both remembered the concert being a triple bill. I remembered The Tinklers being on the card, but not Z’ev.

The further I read into the transcript, the more I realized how similar the pianist’s early years were to those of his contemporaries: the early exposure to jazz through radio and rare American records brought to Europe via ships; the liberating impact of Coltrane and Ayler and the resulting impetus to stake out one’s own artistic identity; and the early networking between musicians throughout Europe and the cultivation of an audience of “alternative people.” But, I was really struck by Van Hove’s description of why he turned his focus away from the furious “outward music” Van Hove helped create in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, particularly in tandem with Han Bennink and Peter Brötzmann, and towards the “inward” path he had then recently embarked upon.

But, has he stayed on it?  A few randomly selected Van Hove CDs from the ‘90s suggests that, to answer the question, it has to be stipulated that “in” and “out” are relative terms, just as they are in discussions about  playing changes in jazz:.  Van Hove’s projection of energy and tone is always layered and mercurial. On solo piano albums like passing waves (1997; Nuscope) , Van Hove signifies introspection in ways not unlike Paul Bley and progeny; with arpeggios flecked with minor intervals on “The Great Falls,” and with an almost disarming twinkle on “Neat Knead.” Usually in short order, however, Van Hove dredges the depths with percussive clusters and thunderous bass tones with tumultuous results. Still, heard side by side with Flux (1998; Potlatch), the studio-recorded passing waves has a recital-like decorum.  Recorded at Les Instants Chavirés, the two CDs contain some of the most withering passages Van Hove had ever recorded. Van Hove’s distinctive approach to preparations and direct string manipulation techniques are also given free reign in a lengthy passage towards the end of the 52-minute “Dérive;” rivetingly suspenseful and surrealistically iridescent, they may suggest an interior world, but they grab the listener by the collar instead of offering cloistered calm.

Something of the same can be said of Van Hove’s church organ projects. On Pijp (1997; WIMprovier), Van Hove has to little surprising little to elicit the room-rattling power of the great instrument mightily pushing air into a cavernous space. Frequently in his respective duets with Conrad Bauer and Johannes Bauer, Van Hove is on the verge of swamping the trombonists, both of whom are renowned for their powerful sounds. Their real-time negotiations of their decibel-producing disparities are themselves engaging, just as the resulting music is rewarding. It’s not that Van Hove can’t approximate the pastoral tranquility that threads back through organ history to Handel; comprised of soft-edged tones, the middle ballad section of the solo “Suite van O” is a lovely mid-album respite.  In a way, Van Hove’s attraction to the church organ is similar to his occasional large ensemble projects in that both settings are capable of producing a huge sound.  By the time Suite for B … City (FMP) was recorded with a nonet in ’96, the only hold-over from the septet Van Hove references in the interview was trombonist Paul Rutherford; by then, a new generation of improvisers like saxophonist John Butcher and trumpeter Axel Dörner had emerged, whose sensibilities were, to a greater degree, shaped by sundry ideas compatible to those of an “inward” music.  Still, the passages that feature the most of, if not the entire ensemble have a real sonic punch (however, it is the workout between Van Hove and drummer Ivo Vander Broght on “Bollocks City” that is arguably the most pugilistic music of the set).  

On this sample of recordings alone, it is safe to say that Van Hove has not been an ideologue about inwards music. If he has been doctrinaire about anything in the past 30 years, it has been in regards to a statement he makes early in the interview: “after you have broken down everything you have to rebuild something else.”  Van Hove builds something else of lasting value from scratch every time he performs. Still, it remains difficult to pin him down as to style. It therefore makes sense that one of the best commentaries on Van Hove is based on an assessment of his technique. Georg Gräwe, who began listening to Van Hove as a teenager, enumerates Van Hove’s “maestro techniques” in his notes to passing waves, including “his very personal solution to the problem of ‘atonal harmony’”. Talk about being in and out at the same time. It’s true; the very ten-fingered Van Hove constitutionally avoids the cringing pitch combinations improvising without a tonal center can produce. Gräwe’s statement is especially intriguing if you consider harmonic choices – and, for that matter, preparations, which Gräwe also mentions – to be more of an aesthetic process than mechanics. The brilliance of their choices is one of the main threads connecting Van Hove and Gräwe. Perhaps Gräwe hearing this in technical terms at an impressionable age is a bit like the young George Russell first thinking that Charlie Parker played sharp fourths, arguably the most consequential Bloomesque misreading in jazz history. Regardless, it speaks to Van Hove’s influence, a subject that merits more discussion as he approaches his diamond jubilee in 2012.  

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Bill Shoemaker Your rehearsal was comprised almost entirely of classically-derived exercises, which you were very much in command of. Was this a big part of your early orientation towards music.

Fred Van Hove: My father was a musician, playing at the time when jazz music and dance music were still the same. So I heard a Iot of music around the house – jazz music, mainly. When I was around ten he told me to play the piano, because he felt restricted by having had only private teachers and he didn’t start very early himself. So he thought his son would have to do better. He sent me to school and I didn’t like it at first at all, playing al I those exercises. After three or four years, I started to like playing the piano. 

I did the whole classical thing, but in the meantime I heard just jazz music being played in the house. This would be in the early fifties. Bebop came quite late to Europe, not until after the Second World War. So, when I was fifteen or sixteen, I first heard a Charlie Parker record at my home. I wasn’t listening to music yet, so it was a shock. It was a 78 – “Lover Man.”

So, I gradually got into playing a bit of jazz music but I didn’t find my way right away. I tried to play all these tunes and have some kind of band when I was eighteen. We rehearsed in the living room of my parents’ home, where the piano was. The drummer came from another part of town, with just a snare drum on the back of his bike. And it went on like that. We played bebop – not professionally at all – and we started playing in Antwerp, Belgium, my home town, twice a week in the same bar.

That was the bebop period, but I had already heard records by Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. I had a friend who worked on a ship and brought one of the first Ornette Coleman records to Antwerp, It lead just come out when he was in New York with the ship. That was my second shock. And Coltrane was a shock. So, I brought to this group a modal thing that t felt better in. 

Then some younger guys came along. They don’t play anymore; one of them, the drummer, died, and another one stopped playing and went to Australia. But they brought an even newer thing than Coltrane: this was the time that Albert Ayler was coming up. That was the first time I felt really liberated; I felt free. This was the music I liked the most, which said the most to me. I wanted to go into that, so that’s when I started playing this free music, in 1964, ‘65. We tried to play this music but, of course, nobody wanted us to play it. We even went to places that had a piano arid said: ‘”We are a band, can we play here for nothing?’’ They would say yes, but then they would throw us out. People were always saying: “What are you doing? You don’t know what you’re doing … ’

Then in 1965 or ‘66 we played in a big festival in southern Belgium - I saw Coltrane there, for example - that lasted five or six days in the summer. That’s where I first heard (saxophonist) Peter Brötzmann with one of the first trios he had. That started my working together with Brötzmann. We had a quartet with (percussionist) Sven Åke Johansson and (bassist) Peter Kowald, then Buschi Niebergall replaced Kowald. Then Han Bennink replaced Johansson. These changes came around the time of Machine Gun (FMP 0090), when we had both drummers, Bennink and Johansson. Then Brötzmann, Bennink and myself worked as a trio for about nine years. We recorded several albums for the FMP label and played at festivals, clubs and so on throughout Europe. But after those nine years, our music went in different directions. Brötzmann and Bennink were playing quite outward music and I wanted a change. I was going into inward music. I think in the first years of this free music you had to tear down walls. Everything that was there before you had to tear down to build something new. In the first years of free music, it was very nice to be there, because it was a nice style, you discovered things every second.

But after you have broken down everything you have to rebuild something else. I thought that was where I was going. Until that time, jazz music was mostly the outward thing like Albert Ayler and Coltrane, but in free improvisation there is no structure, so the only thing you can fall back on or depart from is your own tradition, which, for us Europeans, is not American, but European. I think there’s been quite a different development in free improvisation in Europe than in the States. Always, jazz music has come from the States arid been followed by some people in Europe. But that has changed; now there is quite a different music in Europe than there is in the States, which is okay; I ‘m not against or for it.

Shoemaker: What do you see as the major differences?

Van Hove: I couldn’t say. I heard some people last night in New York and I was quite astonished that they played a quite European music. I really don’t know who it was … one guy, a clarinetist, was named (Michael) Lytle, and a guy named (George) Cartwright. That sounded quite European to me, whereas what I’ve heard before has been mostly from the black musicians who play in the big festivals in Europe. I can’t directly explain the difference … that’s quite difficult in this music, really … but what I’ve heard of this new black American music – and I don’t think it’s a bad word – has a bit of entertainment. They present music to the public as entertainment. Like, they play a fast, one, then a slow one. What I've heard of the American music is intended to please the people. For me, I ‘m not there to please the public. I ‘m there to play the best music I am capable of in the way I think the music should be played. My music is right off the streets like theirs. I think there are many ways to play music but I think the best way, the more honest way, to put it to an audience is to do it for myself at the beginning, and if people like it’ it’s fantastic. Improvised music only has meaning if there’s a response from the people. If they don’t like it, they can go out. I have nothing against that. 

Shoemaker:  In the United States, people like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and others, now record for very large companies and, because of that, have matriculated one, if small, step further into the general music public. At the same time, some of the musicians involved with the new musics have matriculated into situations where they receive government grants; some even function as advisors to the government endowments in the evaluation of who should receive such grants. Are there similar developments in Europe? 

Van Hove: No, I don’t think so. In Europe, what support there is comes from the states, not from large companies or foundations – that doesn’t exist in Europe.

In Europe it’s different in every country. Like Belgium and Holland: I‘m living fifty kilometers from the Dutch border and in Holland there is a Iot of state support for this type of music. There are a Iot of places to play. I wouldn’t say there is a big audience in Holland, but things are possible there which are not possible in Belgium, for example. In Holland, every form of creativity is being supported by the state. This is not happening at all in Belgium and not as much in Germany. And the audiences are different. I would say they are somewhat the same in Belgium, Holland, and Germany – small audiences, except in Berlin where FMP have really done the job for ten years and done it again and done it again. They have created an audience. You have to create an audience, and it’s very difficult.

For example, in Belgium it’s like a closed circle. Nobody writes about this music, the people who write about improvised music in the papers write about the other jazz music or fusion music. We have a state radio network and every day there’s a jazz program. One guy has been doing Duke Ellington for seven years. Another one has been playing New Orleans music for fifteen years. Free improvised music is not on the radio; nobody hears it on the radio, nobody sees it on television, nobody writes about it, so there’s no audience. The gap between the audience and the player in some countries in Europe is getting larger and larger. It’s one of the problems of this music, trying to get to the public, because they are coming to the point when we started and saying, ‘’Turn it off.’’ The music they get on all the media has made their ears so sick that they can’t hear anything else. When they hear something that’s not put to them by the authorities as sounding nice then they say, ‘’No, I don’t want any of this.” 

They are not able to listen anymore, because music is everywhere. They have invented tapes and records and jukeboxes and it’s everywhere – in the subway, in the streets, in the shopping centers, in the factories for more productivity – cows give more milk with music. I hear from a lot of students that when they study they have to have music in the background, which I don’t understand. Music has a lesser value than it had before. It’s become a background, like something you hang on a wall.
But this type of thing is not happening in Italy. In Italy, when a group plays it is still regarded by everybody and a lot of different people come. In, say, France, Belgium, Holland or Germany, most people who come to hear the music are the alternative people. In Italy, they still regard a group that is performing as a performance; it’s like before records and tapes and things like that. They are very open. This year I was in East Germany, and the same thing happens there. It’s very amazing. The people don’t have so much choice; it’s not like in New York where you can choose from everything every night. That’s not happening in East Germany, so everybody comes to listen – the workers, everybody – and they have no prejudices about it. For me, that’s kind of a proof – for example there’s no rock music in East Germany, which is very good – that people have to be educated to listen to music, and if you educate them wrong, they can’t listen.

Shoemaker:   Because of the obstructed information flow into Eastern Europe, do you feel that there is a difference between Western and Eastern European musicians in their orientation or their abilities?

Van Hove:   No, there are very good musicians in East Germany; it’s not different. Whenever something comes up, somebody is the first to bring it out. The idea exists other places as well. Somebody may be the first to bring it up, but the idea exists all over the world. It only needs a little push and then (claps hands) ‘’oh yeah’’ and it goes on. I think that has happens in East Germany, and now the musicians come over and play in Western Europe. There are two East German groups now that have records out on FMP. If there is a difference in their music, I would say that they are more into the outward free music like West Germans play.

We played in East Germany last April with Phil Wachsmann, the English violinist, and Marc Charig, the English trumpeter, and we played there with Günter ‘’Baby’’ Sommer, who is a very nice drummer. Both the audience and Baby Sommer were quite amazed by the music we played, because we didn’t just rave off but went on with small sounds, which I like and the people I play with like: I choose them for that reason. We just played soft things. The first concert was hard going but by the end of three weeks it was fantastic. It was the first time audiences there had heard that kind of music; they are used to a more hard-driving music. I have even heard of a trio from Russia who have played in East Berlin who are supposed to be fantastic. Information is not enough, whatever system you are in: it’s the mind that matters.

Shoemaker:  You’ve made several references to the ‘’inward” music you’ve developed as being different from the ‘’outward’’ music of the West Germans. What role does composition play in this development?

Van Hove: I do two things: I work on a completely free basis and I compose. I like composing, it’s a nice job, because you can sit at a table and you are not interrupted by anything. You can erase it, which cannot happen in improvisation. When improvisation goes down, it goes down. It’s sometimes difficult to keep it from going down. That’s a nice thing for an audience, because they can go down with you and come up with you. But composition is really different. You can pick up things and the next day say, ‘’ah, no.’’ I like to do both things, but not together. I don’t like compositions with improvised parts. Both things have something different and when I play solo or in duo or in a group, I like to play improvised music f inst, but with a bigger group it’s sometimes necessary to play compositions, because it’s difficult to have group improvisations with a tentet.

The way I like to do compositions is to put something in that’s quite different, for example a melody that I like. I do this with the septet I have now – three strings, three brass, and piano [note: the septet is comprised of Van Hove, Wachsmann, Charig, trombonists Paul Rutherford and Radu Malfatti. bassist Maarten Attena, and Maurice Horslhuis on viola]. We will have a composition come between two improvisations – a tango or a waltz or something – that has nothing lo do with the improvisation. I think it’s a different discipline to play improvised music than to play composed music. When you play composed music you have to look at the sheet, and you have to execute something that someone has thought out for you. It’s quite different from improvisation.

A few years ago, after I left the trio, 1 went solo and discovered the piano again. With the trio there were some things I couldn’t do because of the volume. The first thing # did after the trio was accompany silent movies from the twenties. It was oriented towards reaching an audience, another audience from the one that came to concerts. I tried to follow some of the movies very closely. The audience and I were looking at the same picture, so we were already together and it made the music easier. Doing this took the music into places where it hadn’t been before – youth centers and places like that. I stopped because the eye works faster than the ear and I had to follow the image and change the music with the pictures. I studied the movies for twelve hours a day to be able to follow them. That’s where the last solo record – Verloren Maandag – came from. But then I was looking to play again with other people and I didn’t want to stick with one combination, but to have different people for each concert. At the beginning it was different people every time. But that was not the best idea either, so after a year or two, I found these six people, and made different combinations from them. I like to do duos; I think the duo formula is quite interesting in improvised music because you have to stand up against the other. With three, you can hide behind one. So, I do different duos. I do one next week, for example, with Paul Lytton, whom I have heard play and like very much. But I work mainly with these six people in different combinations.

Shoemaker:   What are the qualities in these players that attracted you to them?

Van Hove:  I think most of the people with whom I play in the septet care about the small changes in the music, not the big changes. What I like is a sound which is only owned by you and your instrument. For example, there are twin trombones in the group, but the sounds that come out of Paul Rutherford’s trombone are so different from Radu Malfatti’s that it’s like two other worlds. That’s the thing I like – people who are really making their own sound.

Shoemaker: Was arriving at your own sound laborious or did it come somewhat naturally?

Van Hove: I’m still finding it. I don’t know where it’s going or where it will end. With the piano it’s very difficult; when you can make the sound with your own breath you are very close to the sound. I have to go through the process of making the hammers strike, making the vibrations of the strings last, and al I that. But there are things to do with that. There are recognizable piano players like Monk, who only has to play one note and you know it’s Monk. So it’s possible, it’s very hard work and you can do something which I do now, with harmonics to change the sound. I like the piano as an instrument but I want to make a sound with it that doesn’t remind you of the piano at all. That’s quite difficult.

Shoemaker: Do any pianists still influence you?

Van Hove: My biggest influences are the bells of Antwerp, which ring every quarter hour. So, I hear them more than anything else. To name one name, I would say Erroll Garner, because I think he did something to the sound of the piano, like Monk did and Teddy Wilson did and Fats Waller and Cecil Taylor. But now I would say Erroll Garner.

FMP in Retrospect

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