The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
echtzeitmusik berlin; self-defining a scene
Burkhard Beins, Christian Kesten, Gisela Nauck, Andrea Neumann, Editors
(Wolke; Hofheim)

Trio Sowari
27 Questions for a Start...


Phil Durrant, Burkhard Beins + Bertrand Denzler                                                   ©2012 Christian Ducasse

In spring 2007, the Trio Sowari consisting of London’s electronics specialist Phil Durrant, saxophonist Bertrand Denzler who lives in Paris, and the Berlin percussionist Burkhard Beins were touring France, Benelux, and northern Germany. Between concerts, as they drove in the car, they discussed the underdevelopment of theorization about the complex musical praxis of improvised music. If it is indeed the case that only a few essential theories have been developed for this complex of themes so far, would it not be reasonable to at least formulate the questions that would be relevant in this context?

On the A1 between Cologne and Münster, the group began to tackle the subject straight away. By the end of the tour, the list of questions had grown to more than one hundred, and the group decided to select and circulate the most concise ones. 27 Questions for a Start thus came to be printed as a folder in CD format that was displayed and disseminated at the group’s subsequent concert and festival appearances. The questions were also made public on diverse internet platforms and printed in the French music magazine, Revue et Corrigée.

In November 2007, 27 Questions for a Start became the starting point for the Labor Diskurs (a discussion series held sporadically at Berlin’s KuLe alongside the concert series, Labor Sonor), which eventually led to this book project.

Originating within the context of so-called “improvised music,” 27 Questions for a Start broaches certain issues that also bear relevance to contemporary music in a broader sense. Although the questions do not actually ask for direct answers and are mostly verbalised in a way more likely to evoke further questions we would like to juxtapose here three quite different approaches taken in response to the questions.

Despite the open-ended nature of the questions, Diego Chamy and Vered Nethe decided to take the questions literally and come up with a few answers. And while Sven-Åke Johansson was reviewing the questions with Andrea Neumann and spontaneously expressing various thoughts on them, Nina Polaschegg was asked to send her responses as well, thus adding a third perspective. Of her statements, she remarked in advance, “The additional exercises in my mathematics school books used to be called ‘For Further Reflection.’ And this is how I regard my cursory answers to the following questions.”

27 Questions For A Start

  • To what degree is this kind of music experimental?

  • Are there preconceptions?

  • Is the group constellation already a compositional element?

  • Is this music only for musicians and specialists?

  • Is there any “popular” potential in this kind of music?

  • Would it be a good thing if it became popular?

  • Is music a language or something beyond?

  • Does our musical scene simply reproduce capitalistic structures?

  • To what degree is this kind of music improvised?

  • Is it all about learning to make decisions without being able to fully analyse the current situation (due to a lack of time and/or capacity)?

  • Does it swing?

  • Can this music help to stop global warming?

  • Is our musical scene merely a resort for failed existences and dysfunctional people?

  • Is it easier to play than not to play?

  • Is failure one of our main sources for progress?

  • Are there different levels of listening?

  • Should everything be possible at any time?

  • Do we listen differently to an improvisation than to a composition?

  • Does a recording turn an open process into a completed piece of work?

  • Do we have to file it under a generic term?

  • How can stasis be avoided?

  • Is an improvisation a composition (in progress)?

  • Is it possible to have no expectations?

  • Does music anticipate changes in society?

  • Is this a gender-, race-, education- and region-specific form of art?

  • Is it possible to have a non-hierarchical group interaction?

  • Do we need a dedicated space?

. . . and Some Possible Answers to Begin With

Although we received answers to most of the questions, we present here only those where we had three answers that together made an informative and/or controversial collective contribution.

To what degree is this kind of music experimental?

Sven-Åke Johansson: I wouldn’t call it experimental at all; this is but an accomplished method. Something is experimental if you don’t know if it makes sense, but I’m not questioning something. I’m making a proposition. An experiment is usually considered something where you don’t know the outcome, but music is not this for me. Rather, it’s something that gets proposed. One doesn’t interrogate music in general. (Perhaps one doesn’t know the result, but that is something else again.) So I wouldn’t call this experimental.

Nina Polaschegg: What does “experiment” or “experimental” mean? Is the term (as it seems sometimes) used as a criterion of value, or is it purely descriptive? From its meaning in Latin, a musical experiment would mean an attempt, a rehearsal, an examination, or even a proof. This would thus make it necessary to think about what should be rehearsed or tested. Wouldn’t this mean something unfinished, not yet accepted? An experiment as a methodically applied setting for investigation would allow the audience to participate in this field of research. And this would further mean attention was directed more towards the process (or the attempt) than towards an aspired end result.

The conclusion of these loose ideas: it’s not really possible to answer this question in a general way. Are the improvisers specifically interested in sound research? (And would this kind of working, pure sound research already be art in itself or just a preliminary step towards the creation of art, one that should be taken in the rehearsal room?) Do they work with parameters of interaction? Is it about temporal processes, or is it more centred around a formal shaping? What would the term “to experiment” mean applied to these examples?

Diego Chamy/Vered Nethe: Something is experimental every time an artist takes a risk.

Is the group constellation already a compositional element?

SÅJ: Yes, I would claim this to be the case.

NP: If you want to understand the term “composition” in its original and literal sense, this might be true (componere = to assemble), but how far would we get with this? Then every type of music would be composed, and the term “composition” would be made redundant by this because it wouldn’t lead to any significant clarification anymore. Terms that don’t make any distinctions (which are not necessarily judgements!) in fact don’t help me in my considerations. No doubt, the group constellation is one of the first and momentous decisions to be made within the course of music making and thus within improvisation as well. It can demand or preclude stylistic directions for instance, it can more or less determine or restrict the sound and/or amplitude.

DC/VN: Everything is a compositional element: the audience, the color of the musician’s underwear, and so on.

Is this music only for musicians and specialists?

SÅJ: No, decidedly not!

DC/VN: Music has no addressee in itself, but, yes, this music has been mainly for artists and specialists until now. So the question we have to ask ourselves is how come this is happening.

NP: If there is a claim for music being art, then music can’t be only for musicians and specialists. If music is only for musicians, it only furthers self-awareness, private amusement, recreation, or things like that. The popular notion of there being a “special feeling” while playing can be on the ragged edge of pointing in this direction, assuming the playing doesn’t go any further than this type of subjective “feeling.” There’s nothing to say against that, but if one claims to create art and/or applies for public funding, such things can hardly be the main thing.

Is this music only for specialists? There are a number of questions behind this: (a) Who is a specialist? and (b) What would be the objection if this music were meant only for “specialists” and not immediately appreciated by everyone? It’s a known fact that specialisation doesn’t exist only within the area of contemporary music, but also in all other kinds of music. There are Early Music specialists, opera connoisseurs, jazz freaks, and pop and rock fans. Through the question and the way it’s asked, one can hear the accusation of elitism, or the overly demanding, by which the non-initiated become excluded, an accusation with which contemporary, composed music (and even the broad field of classical music) must also live. This in turn is due to the scales for measuring music being increasingly derived from purely functional music for entertainment and relaxation. (Here it’s even worse than in other branches of art, except maybe for literature, where even the “light novel” is regarded as “art,” but where it’s a given that some time needs to be invested, and the full enjoyment of art is allowed to be a little bit exhausting.)

I’m advocating to stand up for it and say, yes, this music is also meant for specialists, but and this is an important distinction no one can be stopped from becoming such a specialist. And this can be achieved through open listening and a willingness to question familiar musical approaches and concepts. And by daring to just ask the musicians. And by asking the musicians not to take up an elitist position themselves or to laugh about “stupid” questions, not to criticize listening newbies, nor to exclude the non-initiated by an all-too-closed peer group behaviour, which is in my opinion one of the biggest socio-communicative mistakes a musician who is concerned about an audience can make.

Is music a language or something beyond?

NP: Big standard question, if music is a language. Counter question: if music were a language, why would it exist? Isn’t our verbal language (at least for the moment) far more differentiated? At least this is not a question that is only relevant to improvised music. The comparison would have to be made on the basis of a linguistic definition of language. And it would be necessary to ask to what extent this might change historically, if there are differences between art musics and functional musics, between music with and without lyrics, etc. It’s a known fact that there are differences. At the very least, a reduction to the notion that music “Wants to say something” and hence bears a “meaning” that could be translated into verbal language would be inadequate. And even if one concluded that music has some elements similar to language, it would still have to be asked how these musical language-like set pieces are transformed into art. Finally, there is always a connective question resonating within this question (or the consideration of an answer to it): what is the difference between language and communication, as they are applied to music?

SÅJ: Well, it is by no means language! It is “something beyond” language, far beyond, or before, or whatever. Because music actually conveys totally different movements to the listeners than language does. It mediates in certain respects very different abstract phenomena than language ever could, if language is meant as everyday language here.

DC/VN: For us a language consists in the formalization of any specific expression. In this sense, music is sometimes a language and sometimes something else. But even when it is a language, it is always something else (a matter of expression or unformalized expressive matter). It is also possible to find music that is not a language, since its expressions are not formalized. Then it will be just unformalized expressive matter. Anyway, we believe that most improvised music is actually formalized, usually without the musicians noticing it. But we don’t believe this has to be taken as a bad thing.

Is it all about learning to make decisions without being able to fully analyse the current situation (due to a lack of time and/or capacity)?

DC/VN: When you play there are never options. If you need to make a decision you are already late. To make a decision, a subject is needed, and music is not made by subjects but by events and forces in relation to each other. The ability that is needed is to be able to be open to the event.

SÅJ: Yes, generally it is about making decisions; you making the decision to play this or that, loud or quiet, or if you are not going to play at all. It is impossible to have an overview of everything, at least not of the coming situation. But of course it also matters if you are playing on your own or together with others. It also depends on this. But in the end it is about the decision you are making.

NP: If it’s only about being capable of making decisions, then it would not be about art but about the skills needed to deal with your life it would be improv as self-awareness. 

Is failure one of our main sources for progress? 

SÅJ: No, I wouldn’t say that. While I’m playing, there are actually no things like mistakes. But preliminary decisions can be made in the wrong way, due to whatever kind of misapprehension, before the playing itself begins (for instance, during the set up of an orchestra). While it is possible that dilemmas can cause progress for example, if you challenged yourself to make something in the shortest period of time, or if you’re asked to play somewhere you can’t imagine playing this means you are doing something you wouldn’t do based on your own decision. But this can in turn lead to progress in your own playing or your musical work.

NP: Not only in improvisation, not only in making music, but in life in general. The old saying “You learn from your mistakes” was not made up out of thin air, as has been shown in diverse publications of neuroscientific research. The question should be, “What is ‘failure’ in improvised music?”!

DC/VN: It is not clear that there is such a thing as progress. But failure could be a good source for change.

Are there different levels of listening?

SÅJ: Yes, I would think there are quite a lot. For instance it’s possible to figure out an overall sound or to concentrate on one voice. Or it’s possible to hear a visualised picture by imagining scenery, and the music becomes the accompaniment for the scenery, something that can often be helpful since music that doesn’t evoke any picture at all sometimes doesn’t really work for people. So I also see this as a type of “level of listening.” To imagine scenery at the same time, to compare the music to scenery, while listening although it’s abstract.

NP: Yes, functional-emotional listening, analytic listening, focused listening . . .  Needless to say, I have translated “levels” as Arten [kinds] or Varianten [variations], which is something that is not hierarchical.

DC/VN: Some people have a greater power to be affected than others. It is more about degrees than about levels. Levels are hierarchical; degrees, not necessarily.

Is it possible to not have any expectations?

SÅJ: No, I don’t think so. There is always some kind of expectation, whatever it is in the music, if someone is coming. You’re making records, and you are thinking someone is going to buy them. Playing involves certain expectations, but that doesn’t mean you had a detailed concept beforehand about what it should become.

NP: In general, certain basic expectations are always there, and they are necessary to stay capable of acting and to classify a particular situation regardless of improvisation. It seems that expectations can sometimes also arise automatically (if you are thinking of certain fellow musicians or a special setting, etc.).

To approach it from the negative side, wouldn’t playing without expectations just be a pure reproduction of trained licks and already familiar story lines? Also, playing without expectations should not be mixed up with intuitive playing.

Because intuition, as is well known, is based on quite a lot of presumptions, on already known and learned things, therefore it’s not possible to think of improvisation without (implicit or explicit) expectations even if not all expectations have to be fulfilled, also not within one’s own playing.

DC/VN: It is possible not to have any expectations. From the point of view of the artist, we think it helps to have them. To have expectations about the effects of your work can help the work go somewhere. From the point of view of the audience, it helps not to expect something in particular, but to be open and accept what can happen.

Is it possible to have a non-hierarchical group interaction?

NP: Hierarchies can change, also within an improvisation. Hierarchies don’t automatically have to be seen as something negative if they are “balancing” each other. It’s also possible to think of them in a neutral way and to connect hierachy with musical ways of creation (keywords: form, process development, playing with foreground and background, etc.). One can even imagine interacting “non-hierarchically” in a string quartet!

SÅJ: Hierarchy doesn’t actually mean that one thing is better than the other, but that there are classifications, that everyone has a function in a group music. So hierarchy can make sense. If there is not any order and everyone can do anything, this is possible in interactions, but the question is what`s coming out of that.

DC/VN: It is possible, but having a non-hierarchical group interaction doesn’t avoid power relationships. Power relationships will be always there. The thing is how to make the power relationships helpful and not hierarchical.

Translated by Burkhard Beins

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